One of the wonderful things I find about having been in so many aspects of the performing arts and sciences my entire life, is seeing the variety of approaches to technique and creation that are based on philosophies that are surprisingly more varied than one might think. The amazing part of having been involved in all of this is that it has always stimulated me to watch and analyze dance (my principal domain) with a much wider view than I think I otherwise would have had, had I only been involved in dance. I am extremely grateful for the versatility, and I love having my finger in so many pies. But it also sometimes means that I get little rest from my own head— I observe nearly everything, I analyze nearly everything, I form hypotheses about everything, and I test a lot of these in real life situations. I confirm or refute my hypothesis, and I do it all over again. All the time.
As I mentioned, dance is the main domain at the center of my existence, and at therefore at center of much of my thought. So please indulge me to continue to talk about dance— and about where it’s going.
My first on-the-table analysis has a bit of an unfortunate overtone. Now if I were to summarize my observations of dance over the past few years, the first thing I notice is a sort of stagnancy with respect to new performance. “New” performance seems to come from fusions of styles or of disciplines, but none of that ever really seem to yield anything shockingly new. One of the problems, I feel, is the conscious effort to “fuse”— which often ends up being exactly that: a bit of one style followed by a bit of another. Few fusions are interesting enough to hold their own.
The street dance styles tend to evolve much faster than the trained stage dances— partially because originality has always been at the heart of the street dance philosophy, partially because the street dance styles are very much a function of individual morphologies and therefore very personal movement, and partially because in the trained stage dances there has always been a notion of “purity” of style, which leads to conscious efforts tonothave these styles evolve. There is also a strong notion of improvisation (freestyle) in street dance culture that is not overtly present in the trained stage dances.
But each new street dance style within itself also has its limitations. Once created, it then proceeds to slow down in its own evolution until someone else comes along and creates yet another new dance style. I believe that this is because these styles are typically learned in an informal setting – the exact opposite of the traditional stage dances. And street styles are typically based on freestyling (improvisation), as opposed to a conscious effort to construct long repeatable sequences (choreography). This is a very different approach than with stage dance styles like ballet.
The stage dance styles have a process that is almost a diametric opposite: creation is based on producing repeatable sequences that can be performed identically over and over again. Improvisation usually does not have a significant place in the training if at all.
So the street dances take their roots from personal creation of new movement but no real “recording” of it in repeatable sequences, while the stage dances do not put much emphasis on improvisation, the study of which is a strong base for the creation of new movement. In other words, the weaknesses of the street dance community stem from the lack of exposure to the trained stage dance philosophy, and the weaknesses of the trained stage dances is from a lack of exposure to the street dance philosophy. With the advent of multidisciplinary stage entertainment comes the need for both of these philosophies to come together. The need for this has arrived, but dance education has not yet caught up.
And since I believe the future of innovation in the world of dance is not the fusion of styles but the fusion of mind sets, real innovation in dance has not happened in a while. Some choreographers are now integrating technology into what they do, but only on a superficial level. Dances integrating things like projection mapping so far have not been much more than a show of the technology itself. Little effort in dance/projection mapping projects is invested in the actual dancing; the novelty of the technology is expected to carry the show. As a result, there are a number of dance/projection mapping numbers, some of which are cute, but none of which are ultimately memorable. The problem comes down to the absence of quality emotional artistic content.
The importance of this latter aspect is something that historically has not ever changed and will not change in the foreseeable future. The longevity of any show or number or performance is still best guaranteed by emotional content. It can be emotional content delivered through extreme human performance or even impressive technology, but it is still the emotional content that will be remembered. Performance without emotional content is forgotten quickly and will not stand the test of time. This is the danger of putting something like technology in itself at the center of a creation: the novelty wears off incredibly quickly, so the emotional content is the only possible way of keeping a technological show alive for an extended period of time.
So if we were to talk generally about new remarkable emerging dance trends, nothing really comes to my mind. But I don’t think this is necessarily the future of dance either. I do think that there is great value in exploring the old in order to come up with the new. And the new is about generating new emotions, or finding new ways to bring out the old ones. Most of the great creators of history have done this— the making of the “new” from the “old”. “New” from “new” does not have significant impact and therefore does not last very long. Once again, emotional content dominates— and this is as old as the hills.
As choreographers, dancers, dance teachers, company directors, we tend to look at all of this from the inside out: we try to convince ourselves that we have, or are producing, unique creative material. That we are, with each new piece created, breaking new ground, premiering "newness," as it were. And yet, when we observe across the board— across continents, across oceans, across genres— we see the same formats, approaches, even the same music, come up over and over again. Just how many pieces do we know that have used compositions by Arvo Part, A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera's "Say Something," or "Heart Cry" by Drehz? And if we're not even trying to be unique in the choice of music, what makes us think that we are being so in the dances we create?
So I have taken many words here to express what is essentially a simple point— this point being, that though it soothes us to say that as choreographers we are creative, I truly believe that we are not trying hard enough. That we're not delving deep enough. And that sometimes we delve too deep, beyond what can be comprehended through the abstract corporal language that dance is. It's a fine line. The old proverbial line in the sand that someone dares us to cross.
I think it is high time to take that dare, and accept the risk that in doing so we just might fall flat on our faces. And it has been high time for a very long while.
Rick Tjia photo: © Michael Slobodian
Dancer photo: ID 2895091 © Branislav Ostojic | Dreamstime.com