The insistence to call dance work

photo credit: Mervin Espina

The insistence to call dance work necessarily begs the unavoidable interrogation of the aesthetic appeal of dance. A move that is far from innovative but only near ambitiously progressive and constructive. Proposing a recreational nitpicking of the modes of production and distribution of sensible intensities of the body on stage and in the everyday. A move immediately petty but still overlooked. A move that invites a retrospective disclosure of the informal networks operating within the performing arts. A move, somewhat annoying in so far as what need is there to say that doing is work. A move that is boring to a point of hysterical. A move that strips dance of its affective quality and romantic autonomy, which should dangerously lead us to destabilize the awkward distance of art from entertainment. A move that is satisfactory in so far as public interventions are becoming vague career moves. A move that is fresh but sometimes too trendy. A move that dares to abandon the particular and say that dance is “no more than an empty emblem.” Which is to say that it is no different from the pleasure products and services we consume to pass off time or to give us a gratifying moment of relief from habit. Such that it is subject to the same system of exchange and transactions that we reserve for all things material except art.

The insistence to call dance work is necessary in so far as any activity that offers amusement is ‘the prolongation of work.’ Those pleasurable relaxing weekend breaks, illicit love affairs, nomadic backpacking adventures, summer getaways, momentary breaks from the dullness of routine, improvisatory excursion in public commuter sites are meant to provide the vital rests in order to work again.

The insistence to call dance work is a baggage that has to be neatly unpacked by those who have chosen to practice it beyond their adolescence and making careers out of it. Beyond the cute, little pink tutus that crowd the proscenium stage every passing of summer recitals. Beyond the decorative artificiality of arabesques and pirouettes, so earnestly learnt and mastered. Beyond the virtuosity of malleable and flexible bodies dancing around physical barriers in site-specific performances. Beyond the display of love for dance, which breeds the exploitative rationale for being paid less. Beyond the spur-of-the-moment reactionary tendencies to burst open the seams of theater, as if the formal space of the theater were not porous enough to produce interesting anomalies worthy of exploration.  Unfortunately, not far from our corporate yuppy counterparts working their asses off everyday riding the train, we have to concede to the same routinely discipline of work. Because dance is not exempt from ideology, nor governed neither outside of social phenomena, nor devoid of geopolitical presuppositions, and no dance is not completely free.

And hence it demands that clarity and some form of even tentative organizational frameworks be laid down. That is if an environment for art practice that matters is to be achieved beyond the occasional and fleeting traces left by performances, no matter how kick-ass they are. It is about time that the consequences of individual choreographic incursions into the real world be made accountable for their propositions of engagement. Otherwise, a retreat into the safe confines of the theater should immediately be drawn up. And yes, this is an unfair expectation. Expectations are made precisely because they have to be surpassed. If change is truly to be achieved, stakes have to be raised, sometimes at the cost of losing face.

The community of contemporary dance practitioners indeed raised the stakes by going out to the streets with the much talked about Moving Dance LRT Dance Express. Dancers and choreographers alike came out of the comforts of their studio, minus the comfortable experimental frame of the theater, sans costume, sans make-up, sans their dance personas to spread the word of dance among ordinary riding public on the fitting occasion of International Dance Day celebration worldwide. Donning ‘ordinary’ clothes seemingly conspicuous at first, they filled the otherwise bane cold environment of the train station with their impassioned and sweating bodies. No it was not an ambush, far from an ambush, despite the seemingly ambush-like quality of a haphazardly organized improvisation jam. In fact the event was closely coordinated with the LRT Administration who expressed enthusiasm for the Contemporary Dance Network’s proposal to infect the train. And why not! Anything to go against the grain is welcome, summer was a time to break free and Philippines election time is no stranger to strange occurrences.

Here was free reign. No entrance or exits, no rehearsals, no methods of work, no set steps, no set choreography, no procedure, no proscenium stage, no clear audience area, no constraints, no costume change, no faltering technical cues, no lights to find yourself into, no tedious frustrating marketing of tickets, no illusion, no appearances, no director, no lighting designer, no stage manager, no front of house reception, no definite roles, no regulating mechanisms, no schema, no expectations, no bureaucratic theater operations, no checks and balances, and no accountability.

The LRT Dance Express defies any way of evaluation or appreciation precisely because it did not set one. And here lies its cleverness, surely to the frustration of a reading spectator. It was foremost not for the consumption of a discerning spectator. Interestingly despite its attempt to bring dance closer to the public the public is lost because there is no space for them; the public is merely an accidental element in the whole thing. Why? Why, because the dancers willed themselves to dance in an almost ritualistic action reminiscent of summer solstice where the public truly became spectators watching in awe, in fascination, in disbelief, with barely any time to consume and process what was happening. The potential to create more meaningful connections that is paradoxically allowed in conventional theater and dance performances was lost, lost to the throngs of bodies eager to move, eager to impress and sweat out whatever was interior to them.

If laborers are entitled to a labor day, to give cognizance of their efforts to keeping us all afloat, what the local celebrations of International Dance Day proposes is a working-day out for dancers. Why not? Everybody needs a break!

[This essay was first published online on Philippine Online Chronicles under the title Barely An Ambush, 20 May 2010, http://www.thepoc.net/thepoc-features/metakritiko/metakritiko-features/6874.html]

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