Critique for SODA application

Below is a reworked critique of a dance piece I saw in 2009. This was part of my application for the SODA program here in Berlin. Here is the “original

Accords by Thomas Hauert/Zoo, which I saw last summer during Tanz im August, consisted of sections delineated by performers entering or exiting the stage through the spaces between the back panels. The movements within these sections were governed by either the simultaneous initiating and halting of movement, flocking, or awkward partnering. Flocking is when people move in a clump changing spacing/facing with no discernible leader. Awkward partnering is skilled bodies coming in contact in an improvised manner consciously eschewing the Contact Improvisation movement paradigm.
As someone who performs and teaches the tool of improvisation, I appreciated the clarity in this improvised performance. It is very satisfying to see an improvised piece by people who have been working together for more than just a handful of rehearsals. All to often, improvised performances have three rehearsals. During the first one, half of the group doesn’t show and the half who are there just talk. For the second rehearsal 80% of the cast is there and some dancing actually happens. The third rehearsal is on stage in front of the audience, i.e., the performance. In Accords, the hours sweating together in the studio came through during the performance. I saw no moments of searching or moments of awkwardness when performers are in between inspirations.
Dance improvisation is a nascent art form. Because of this, there are many assumptions about improvisation and its uses. The three main assumptions about improvisation are that it is not supposed to be rehearsed, be well produced, or have a point. Also due to the newness of it, improvisation based work is in a vicious cycle. The work is underfunded, therefore the work cannot be well rehearsed and produced. The work is not rehearsed, so the quality is not consistent. The quality is not consistent so producers and curators do not want to show the work. The work is not shown, so artists making improvised work can’t get funding. They can’t get funding so they can’t rehearse. The cycle continues.
Thomas Hauert, it seems, has been able to break this cycle and to get beyond two of the three main assumptions about improvisation. His piece Accords is well rehearsed and has a high level of production value. The lighting was not left over from the previous performance. The costuming, consisting of black mesh body suits over primary colored pants and shirts, was not thrown together right before the performance. The set, more than just a black box, was simple — black, one meter wide panels, each the height of the stage. The panels, which covered the back wall, were wide enough apart for the performers to slip between them. At times acting as either a visual backdrop or an obstacle course for the movement, the set was well integrated into the performance.
Where Hauert failed was topic. His piece had all the production value of a choreographed piece, but not the point of a choreographed piece. An improvised piece can have just as much of a point as a choreographed one. What was Hauert trying to reveal to the audience besides the tool of improvisation? Is it the means or the end? If improvisation is what he was trying to show the audience, he succeeded. We saw people improvising. But listening skills and group awareness in and of themselves do not make a good piece. If all it takes to make a good piece using improvisation is good listening skills then any sequence of memorized movement is good choreography. This, we know, is not the case. Even if improvisation itself were the topic of the piece, nothing was developed strongly enough to become the point of the piece. The dancers did not work flocking, group timing or any of the tools I recognized for such an extended period of time to take it to a new level.
Maybe Hauert intended to provide the audience with an enjoyable visual and auditory experience for 90 minutes. As an artist using similar tools, I want to see the tools create something besides themselves.

Blue Accords

Live from Berlin, it’s Monday night. Though when you read this it won’t be Monday night. Though chances are 1 in 7 that it will be a Monday, but not the same Monday night that I am writing this. I was lucky enough to see two shows in this year’s Tanz im August festival. I say lucky, not in relation to what I saw, but that I was able to get tickets. Seems like dance performances sell out here in advance. The tickets I got were for the Thomas Hauert/Zoo performance of Accords at the Akademie der Kunste performance and for the Juan Dominguez performance of Blue at Hau 2. I had never heard of these companies before. Availability determined my fate.

To be flippantly glib or glibly flippant (can one be flippantly flip?), I would say that Zoo’s performance of Accords was Flocking 201 mixed with simulstart and a peppering of bad contact and that Blue was bad acting with few props. Should I describe the performances in more detail? Should a Danish professor include the cartoons in her book about the cartoons and how they incited the Muslim world?

The set for Accords was an empty stage with black panels hung in the back. Each the height of the stage and about 3 feet wide, they were spaced widely enough apart for dancers to slide on/off stage between them. The lighting varied from general washes to sharp diagonal bands to lighting behind the backstage panels (one of my favorite parts) to murky gobos. The costumes were tight primary color pants and shirts covered in black mesh body suits. Sound was a smorgasborg. Wish I hadn’t recycled the program so I could tell you what the exactly range was. I remember classical music and the chirping of birds. Oh and Eric Satie. Thank gawd for Eric, because I was able to tell how far along we were in the performance. That is the only good thing about using a bunch of songs in performance, letting the audience figure out how much longer they have left, well that and to tell the audience how cool your iPod play list is.

The performance consisted of sections delineated by performers entering or exiting the stage through the spaces between the curtain. The sections were either simulstart/stop, flocking, or awkward partnering. Simulstart or simultaneous start is when the performers try to move at the same time. When engaged in this score, dancers tend to clump near each other and did Hauert and his dancers. Flocking is when people move in a clump changing spacing/facing with no discernible leader. Awkward partnering is skilled bodies coming in contact in an improvised manner consciously eschewing the CI movement paradigm. The tension in the hands and reluctance to full engage the hands on the bodies of other dancers lead me to believe that the dancers did not have much CI training. But I cannot be sure as the program did not have any information on the dancers themselves.

Three memorable sections:
1. The panels were lit from behind and the dancers ran them cross stage. It was like watching stills from a movie(French guy?Lumiere?), runners caught mid-stride.
2. Two dancers lying on the ground down stage left, light from above. Simple movements of limbs extending across and above each other.
3. All 7 dancers onstage dimly lit with a marsh(?) soundscape. Dancers would move with similar timing and flavor to the bird calls in the soundscape.

Why were these more memorable sections? I’d say the first one was the change of relationship to the set and the visual pop dancers appearing in bright light. The second because it was something besides simulstart/stop, flocking, or awkward partnering. And the movement wasn’t as frantic allowing some respite from locorhea (movement diarhhea?) as can happen in improvisation and well choreography too for that matter. The third, though it was kinda cheesy and strawberry ice cream, 5, 5, 5, 5, I get it 5, but it was nice to see a more direct relationship between the movements and sounds. “The bird is chirping and I am dancing in the same rhythm, whee!!”

What was Hauert trying to reveal to the audience? Listening skills? The performers had rehearsed a lot and it was enjoyable to watch the skilled bodies move simultaneously. But their energy was too inward, too much into the group. Can a group be tuned and aware with out everyone having to look into the center? One woman who came out and did a solo (that was too short) was lithe and rubber limbed and able to go in an direction with ease, drawing support from all facets of her body. Too short in that she was joined by another dancer for a close range let’s look at each other and smile simulstart duet, “show the audience what you are feeling, that you are having a good time” It was also enjoyable to see the melding of flocking and simulstart, different dancers taking the initiative to change to facing or the vocabulary. And as nice as it is to see an improvisation stay within a world or a frame, I felt that this one went on too long. But maybe Hauert was using the boredom created to make those three sections pop. I think a little less boredom would have made them pop just fine.

Blue by Juan Dominguez as I stated before was bad acting with a few props. Or maybe it was avant garde dancing with a few props, or maybe it was advanced guard singing with a few props, or maybe it was fortgeschrittene Wache welding with a few props. In these post-disciplinary days (a term I learned about recently from a friend who learned about it from the Art Institute of Chicago), I can’t say for sure what it was – dance, singing or welding. But as Blue was part of Tanz im August, Blue with be viewed as dance for the purposes of this diatribe…I mean review.

The recap – 4 people standing on stage, 2 women hugging center stage, a man stage right near 2 cases of water bottles, another woman stage left. A black curtain arcing from upstage right to center stage. Full white lighting exposing the walls, pipes etc. And they kept standing, and standing. Yep, I must be in Europe, the piece is starting with standing. Add in self conscious smiling. Another man enters. The five dancers (welders? weavers? clowns?) clump together, hold hands occasionally kiss each other on the check, shift position. A piece of cheesecake enter the scene and two women eat it with exaggerated enjoyment. “Show the audience what you are feeling and tasting” I imagined the choreographer (director? conductor? therapist?) saying. Pants are removed, shirts exchanged, a wig appears on the bald guy. Someone leaves stage, the performers start laughing uproariously as one of them enters with a piece of black cloth. Fingers become horns and a bull fight ensues. An iron board, a TV and a large piece of iron that is used as a couterbalance enter the stage. More laughter. Someone pulls up the white marley and crawls under pretending to go to sleep. More laughter. Sexual innuendos appear – A man sucking a plastic bag, rubbing his ass crack on the corner of the wall, a woman rubbing her nipples on a rope. Another woman humping the crack between two marley sheets. “We’re doing the sex thing. Wink Wink.” A woman thrusts her left breast repeatedly into a boot. Rubbing each others noses, a duet goes between recognizable and silly sexual acts. The five dancers clump together each touching or groping at least 1 other person. As soon as the nudity appeared about 15 people started to leave. Not sure if it was because of the nudity or that they finally had had enough. Enough of what exactly? Watching five people “experience” things in an exaggerated manner? After the mock orgy, a ping pong ball appeared and the dancers(?) formed a circle. Throwing the ball back and forth the performers screamed. One by one they left the stage. Oh, I think I forgot to mention the part when the water bottles were rolled across stage. This, too, was seen as hilarious.

The audience half heartedly clapped. I booed. The performers did not reappear. The audience clapped louder trying to get the welders(?) back on stage. They did not appear.

My main objection to this piece was that there were no boundaries. Anything could have happened and it would have fit in the piece. Maybe that was Dominguez’s point. Anything goes. In the program he wrote – Reversing the temporality of events, putting them out of context…- Yep, I guess that is what I mean by boundaries, the events had no context. He also wrote – …prolonging the pleasure…exaggerated manner…- Was that the faux sex and exaggerated enjoyment of the cheesecake? -…tracing the amorphous… – sounds impossible – …imagining reality… – why bother? it’s already here- – …transforming curiousity…astonishing more –


(hmm…sounds like the last piece)