Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Critical Masse

“How does New Zealand dance compare to dance in Europe?” It is a question that is impossible to respond to with any degree of accuracy because European dance is far too diverse to oversimplify with generalizations like “European dance” for example. In Brussels and Amsterdam contemporary dance appeared to be a significant blip on the cultural radar. The art form is both relatively visible in the media and prolific in output. The Netherlands has a population of over sixteen million people on a landmass one eighth the size of New Zealand. There is audience enough for anyone’s work and attendance was either high or healthy at the performances I saw. As for the work shown it was as good and as bad as anything I have seen here. However I was more intrigued by what I perceived as differences between dance audiences in Europe and dance audiences in NZ. There was generally a greater degree of sophisticated critical engagement. Responses were mostly ‘positive’ as exemplified by full houses, standing ovations, and a proliferation of performances. Negative critical reactions did not seem to taint the art. Dance in general was not perceived as a failure because of adverse reaction to a singular work for example. Nor for that matter were the choreographers or dancers perceived as failures. There was a certain kind of maturity of approach on the audience’s part that gave me the impression that they weren’t simply being passive consumers of entertainment. On return home what struck me immediately was a sense of the coming of age of New Zealand culture. There currently seems to be a buoyant mood of national pride, a celebration of identity as such. Some modalities of the arts are thriving as vehicles for that mood, notably film and music. It’s interesting to note that these are also powerful industries with a high degree of influence on popular culture. New Zealand culture is young. Its history and development is short and alarmingly accelerated. The arts, particularly the more Eurocentric arts (as distinct from Maori and Polynesian) are especially young. There is a shift towards the arts playing a more significant role in cultural identity however a great deal of that identity is arguably still tied to, amongst other things, sporting achievement. Given the youth of the arts it follows that the arts audience is even younger. By younger I am referring to a state of maturity as well as measurement in years. In my perception the overall audiences for the arts in New Zealand have significantly less critical facility than our European counterparts. There is intolerance and impatience for that which is not understood and does not entertain. Commonly when a dance show provokes a negative response there tends to be an associative generalization that all contemporary dance must be ‘this bad’. And then there is the frustrating infatuation that audiences here have with overseas performing artists that sees attendance rates soaring above numbers for local content of equal merit. In saying this I am not blaming the near invisibility of dance in this country on the amorphous entity I am calling ‘the arts audience’. The subculture of dance is very young and is still has a fair way to go in establishing its place in this country. Subversion is inherent in contemporary dance. Any noteworthy practitioners who have significantly developed and influenced this art have done so, at least in part, as a response against mainstream culture and to perceived conventions of the form. Currently that dynamic of subversion is being muted by a growing need to be recognized by mainstream culture. We want a piece of the pie. Contemporary dance doesn’t seem to intersect with popular culture here. The practitioners are confronted with isolation from each other and other arts. We struggle to define and illuminate our work. We haven’t yet found a way to communicate the terms by which an impatient and consumption orientated public can understand what it is we are communicating. Currently marketing and business skills are being held up as keys for greater visibility and viability. What isn’t considered is that the processes in marketing and business are antithetical to the spirit and values that drive contemporary dance. Art and culture are not actually valued beyond a fiscal motive. Everything that goes into the marketing shopping trolley becomes commodity. The game is to sell product and this is symptomatic of the broader drive for economic ‘growth’ that is propelling New Zealand’s fervent need to achieve significance in world affairs. We have a healthy number of capable choreographers and dancers. But without access to affordable spaces for class, rehearsal and performance, without interacting with other arts practitioners, and without a rethink of the project funding model then business and marketing plans are premature. We can’t ‘market’ when we have precious little to offer Creative New Zealand currently puts more funding into the dance sector than it does into the entire Pacifica arts sector. And there is growing organizational support; working to create infrastructure, lobbying to gain official recognition from government departments, and providing educational opportunities for dance practitioners in management, production, and marketing. But despite good intentions these are top down solutions. Transformation for contemporary dance isn’t being achieved partly because the greater picture isn’t being understood by the dance ‘sector’ and thus we are not organizing ourselves and our resources appropriately to meet current conditions. All we want to do is dance. But if we continue to work in isolation from each other and from practitioners in other forms, if we continue to pursue personal ambitions without recognizing the value of contributing to the whole and sharing resources, if we do not proactively rethink the framework that favors the success of individual, and most importantly if we do not understand what it is contemporary dance has to offer the wider community then we will not reach critical mass. K

Monday, January 02, 2006

Johns response

Thank you Kristian - I hope you feel better now. My first response is that the assumptions you make about me and my approach to my work are so personally pitched and so offensively judgemental that I feel no desire to buy into a dialogue. Not at that level anyway. Secondly, you may wish to know that I have set up a blog through NBR so that people can respond to this year's reviews and some sort of meaningful dialogue can happen. For the record, the only preconception I have about any performing arts event is that it should engage its audience. And because 'entertainment' is made up of'enter -to go in' and 'tain - to hold', I think that anything that draws its audience in and holds their attention is, by definition,'entertainment'. I tend to feel especially positive about a work when its component parts add up to more than their sum; when it transcends itself through 'chemical change' rather than remaining a mixture. I freely admit I do not have a professional background in dance,although my drama school training (NIDA) did include a lot of class work with Margaret Barr (Martha Graham-trained) and Keith Bain (jazz ballet). This gives me some small understanding of what it takes for dancers to 'tune their instrument' and dance. But I know I don't talk the same dance language as contemporary practitioners. At best I know enough to know what I don't know. My partner teaches school teachers to teach dance and is instrumental in implementing the dance component of the primary and secondary arts curriculum but (although she is a member of Jan Bolwell's Crows Feet group)she does not claim to be a contemporary dance practitioner. I always ensure she comes with me to any dance shows I review so we can discuss it,although she doesn't always concur with what I write and is in no way is responsible for it. We also see quite a bit of dance I don't review and often discuss it at length with dance fan friends. I only began to include dance in my performing arts reviews because producers asked me to. I've usually told them its not my specialty and I can only approach it as theatre performance from the point of view of the more'general' audience. If I didn't say that specifically to you, I apologise. Nevertheless I still feel awkward about bursting into print about it - and you've probably convinced me not to do so again.Regarding my Certainty review, I chose to put it in the context of improvised performance for paying audiences because provoking thought and discussion on that level seemed more relevant than exploring the detail of a performance that would never ever happen again. They points I raise may or may not have provoked such thought and discussion - and/or may now do so on the DANZ website. It is what it is and if anything it displays my ignorance. Critics always expose themselves in this way. It's a risk we take in the process of contributing to the wider discourse. The bits in quotes are clearly your words and don't purport to be anything else. It's a principle of mine to represent the rationale of practitioners wherever possible so their intentions are understood. Of course I read your entire performance manual but when it came to the performance I cleared my mind and opened myself to what was happening moment by moment - as you and your colleagues were doubtless doing. For the moment I'll keep and eye on the DANZ website and await the response of others. I may or may not respond there myself. Best wishes for whatever you're up to this year.

Kristian Larsen reviews John Smythe

One typically overcast humid Auckland Christmas Eve I was in conversation with a dancer friend.. Among the numerous sub topics’ lazily being poked at was the subject of ‘dialogue between artists’. I said that in terms of what I was doing in improvisation this idea of dialogue was fundamentally important. It had been the main thrust of recent research and practice for me. As the conversation progressed I expressed a sentiment, a kind of frustration at not having as clear a sense of communication with the audience as I was with the people I was collaborating with. This was underscored by a suspicion that this relationship was a more important station in the process of making art than I had previously considered. At this point my friend interjected with a questioning statement about this audience / art interface; “Isn’t that what it’s ALL about?” Communication with audience is something I have given more priority to in the publicity and marketing stage of a work than during the performance itself. This is from a tunnel vision mindset of “get the audience in the door first then hope they like it.” So in that vein I go about publicity and marketing in consultation with specialists in order to create media that will both draw an audience and represent the show and the art form in general. It’s from the same mindset that I have invited reviewers to attend. It has never occurred to me not to. They are part of the publicity machine. Admittedly my motivations have included vanity, I want them to love my work, think I’m fabulous for making it happen and tell the whole world in writing. I am inevitably disappointed, sometimes hurt if the review is negative or even seems like a personal attack. However if I get a positive review I generally feel dissatisfied. Something important has usually been missed. Somehow there is a lack of equality in the dance producer / reviewer relationship. A review seems to be both beginning and end of a dialogue with a singular audience member. This particular audience member has the power to influence ticket sales, and to provoke distress and other strong emotional responses in the artists they are reviewing. They are not answerable to the artist in any way. And the artist has little if any recourse to the public statements made by a reviewer. The hardest thing to swallow is the knowledge that these few paragraphs will be read by a greater population of public than the entire group of people who attended the total season. It is increasingly rare to find a reviewer who is as intent on contributing value to art as the artist they are reviewing. A review is seldom an act of bravery on the writer’s part. I question the value of the review in the current media environment. What is the benefit to someone who at tremendous personal cost has put on a show only to have it attacked, belittled, misunderstood or even ignored? I am curious as to what the public make of such writings. And very specifically I am wondering if I will ever bother to invite John Smythe to write about my work again. There is writing on dance that has some degree of quality, research, thought etc. There are infamous scathing attacks and petty snipes. There is even the odd encouraging note every now and again. Then there is writing that is simply bewildering. This review was written by John Smythe & appeared in a high profile publication called the National Business Review. The work he reviewed (‘Certainty’, created by yours truly) was night four of a season of fifteen new works over a fifteen night season. The cast originally consisted of four dancers / choreographers, one lighting designer/operator, one musician / composer, and one video mixing artist whose projections were beamed at the floor into the dance space that audience members sat either side of. A fifth dancer / choreographer joined us when one of our group sustained a back injury. The task we had set was clear and simple: unilaterally collaborate to create a brand new live performance every night. We all improvised, dance, light, moving image and sound. This reviewer attended and wrote about one of those works. He did not attend any of the other fourteen. At first I didn’t feel compelled to respond to this review at length. However I feel that this is one of many instances where a reviewer has done nothing to add any value to, shed any light on, or invigorate any quality discussion about contemporary dance. I find this low resolution communication hard to tolerate A letter of response could’ve been submitted to the NBR however it’s far too late for it to get published. It’s very likely that I would’ve come off second best anyway i.e., looking like a bad sport, on the defensive etc. And although I have a personal stake in responding to this particular example of mediocrity (because it’s about my work), I also feel it points to a greater issue. Critic Walter Benjamin puts it better than I ever could” We are turning into a nation of instant but uninformed critics and we are developing a keen impatience for what art demands of us.” This review indicates that Smythe has made no effort to understand the work on its own terms, to engage with it at all it seems. When a poorly informed opinion dressed up as benevolently authoritative critique is passed off as a piece of quality writing then a disservice is done to two things: Art, and Thinking. There is a vulgarizing of culture when art is confused with entertainment and it seems that to John Smythe the two are approximately the same. In Smythe’s review I see an example of an uninformed critic. This is hinted at in the second paragraph of the review. Paragraph two wasn’t in fact written by Smythe. It was written by me. An entire section has been lifted out of ‘Certainty’s’ performance manual and transposed as filler. And further into the review it appears it seems that the last two paragraphs of my personal statement in the manual appear to be solely what that the reviewer has read. There are those who argue against the necessity of programme notes saying the public shouldn’t need them to access the work. I disagree. I use them because of the abstraction prevalent in my work. I state explicitly what’s going on, & how the dance is being made. This I believe is particularly necessary in a country where the public’s knowledge of contemporary dance is as negligible as the profile of contemporary dance itself. ‘Certainty’ was problematic from a marketing point of view because few people have any idea what contemporary dance performance improvisation is. Often seasoned and schooled dance professionals do not know how it works. This is because it’s largely unpracticed. The key reason I was concerned with marketing was because we were doing a three week season in a little known sub genre of a marginalized art form and I wanted to have an audience every night. . So the thrust of the marketing was to ‘inform’ and one of the things we came up with was the performance manual. It outlined clearly some of the principles we were rehearsing with and developing onstage. I explained how our improvisation worked. There is coincidentally a great deal of space given to explanation in this review. There is a break down and justification of improvisation as a devising tool, and how actors use it. In theatre sports to be exact. Smythe seems at a loss to explain how it worked in this dance production: “But the Certainty audience, unlike those who flock to theatresports and its improv spin-offs, is not told what game is being played”. Everyone who came to the show got a performance manual for free. It also went out as part of the press kit. So not only is this statement peculiar, it reveals the reviewer has simply neglected to do any reading. Which in my mind equates to neglecting to do his job. Smythe got hung up on what the improvised dance wasn’t i.e.: theatre sports. Mystifyingly, jazz too is linked to theatre sports (see paragraph 4 of the review) which lead me to imagine Smythe getting impatient at a jazz concert when the musicians fail to make him laugh with their unscripted comedy routines. All that aside the rules and outcomes of those two genres are different as are their attributes and processes. Sculpting is not photography, opera is not painting and theatre sports or jazz is not improvised contemporary dance. Admittedly this writer’s biases were interesting in that they may reveal what the layman might want from contemporary dance. For example”humour”, “narrative” and “a sense of play, of human emotion, of relatedness and possibility.” Smythe craved the obvious when there was a woman and two men onstage: The “eternal triangle.” The thing about the eternal triangle is that it has been done and is bound to be done ad infinitum. If you want romantic cliché’ Mr. Smythe there are other forms of dance you should be going to see. Shouldn’t any contemporary dance reviewer know that narrative and its variant structures is seldom a key feature in developing contemporary dance choreography? Granted these things can and are used. But this is an art with a history of experimentation, investigation, and questioning of established practices. It’s an art form that is built on rigorous intellectual pursuit and abstraction as a means of expressing those ideas. This reviewer has only recently begun watching and writing about contemporary dance. Why he has made this choice is lost on me. From the writings I have read he appears to lack any real affinity for and knowledge of the art. His apparent lack of research and understanding is frustrating because it is a public criticism made by someone who has hardly put a fraction of the thought into their statements on art as I have put into my work. Same goes for any other artist he has reviewed for that matter. This taking for granted of not having to write a worthy response to a considerable amount of effort by groups of talented and intelligent people is shall we say…common place. And shows a lack of generosity. . Another example of lack of generosity in this review is a curious turn of phrase that Smythe has used in other reviews. Here it turns up again: “For my money…” We gave him a free ticket to the show, it was our money not his. And this example self satisfied ‘critique’ is the kind of thing we as dance makers pay for again and again. In his last paragraph Smythe talks about having to see a number of performances in order to get a clear indication of the works success. This is something that other reviewers, to their credit actually did. I have read a number of Smythe’s reviews. I tend to think their consistently earnest tone to be a cover for not knowing nearly enough about the topic he is attempting to write about. This article is yet another garden variety opinion piece. It fails to add anything to the broader dialogue about art. So Mr. Smythe, for my money I think contemporary dance can do without absurd commentary in a national publication from a man who has in the past criticized Saturday Night Fever for being little more than a celebration of disco.* *See John Smythe’s review of Saturday Night Fever on the National Business Review website

John Smythe reviews Kristian Larsen

“Dance: Uncertainty is when the game might be up John Smythe http://www.nbr.co.nz/home/column_article.asp?id=10733&cid=6&cname=Arts Certainty By Throw Disposable Choreography Initiated by Kristian Larsen At Bats, Wellington To November 27 At first glance Certainty may seem a strange name for an improvised dance show. "This is the way I want to move," writes the initiator of Throw Disposable Choreography, Kristian Larsen, in his programme note for this contribution to the 2004 Bats Stab season. "Making my own decisions in my own time with people who know how to listen and respond back with authenticity, wits and skill. Despite the seemingly tremendous risks and vulnerability in performing this way, I feel a perverse kind of safety onstage. That safety is linked to the feeling I am not interested in dancing anyone else's steps. Of this much I am certain." Improvisation can be a useful development tool in the performing arts rehearsal room. Trial, error, rejection, acceptance, reworking and refinement are key components of all creativity. Usually an audience turns up trusting that such a process has already created a distilled product deemed worthy of being recreated in exchange for their time and money. And the challenge for performers is to make their recreated performance seem spontaneous every time. The first requirement for public improvisation, like jazz, theatresports and other forms of improvised drama, is that the audience is in on the deal. Audiences know the rules and what challenges must be met for the game to be won, and they respond in the knowledge that what they witness is spontaneous, ephemeral and singular. Only they will witness it. (It's worth noting that such creations are never transcribed and regurgitated for further performance because audience expectations for predetermined work is entirely different.) All forms of group improvisation require participants to let go of their egos and respond generously and constructively to the offers made by others. The fundamentals of theatre- sports, for example, are don't block and don't wimp out. That is, accept an offer with alacrity, build on it, don't anticipate the counter-response but accept that too for whatever it is, respond with alacrity ... etc. Thus every part of the spontaneous creation remains germane to the whole and whatever evolves contributed to a coherent and cohesive whole. Improvised theatre, in its various forms, has become a popular spectator sport, with humour high on a short list of predictable outcomes. By contrast, Throw Disposable Choreography's Certainty show, comprising four dancers (Kristian Larsen, Guy Ryan, Stu Armstrong, and Solomon Holly-Massey), a lighting designer/operator (Jen Lal), a live sound exponent (Jeremy Mandrake) and an AV operator (Rob Appierdo), takes itself very seriously indeed. As with improvised theatre, what gets practiced in the weeks before a performance is committed starting points, sensing when to finish something and the skill of being creatively inter-reactive in the space between intuitively timed entrances and exits. But the Certainty audience, unlike those who flock to theatresports and its improv spin-offs, is not told what game is being played. The night we went (the fourth of a 15-night season), the first half involved the four male dancers in various combinations (quartet, trio, duo, solo), exploring space through movement with a fairly studied seriousness that was reasonably interesting and impressive in and of itself. But because I was not privy to the principles that guided their games, the outcomes rarely transcended the simple statement "we are dancers, see us move." In the second half Holly-Massey was replaced by a guest-appearing Sarah Sproull and the dynamic changed significantly. At last there was a sense of play, of human emotion, of relatedness and possibility. There was even a moment when humour happened, accidentally but nicely developed by Larsen and Ryan, whose work together was especially responsive and cumulatively creative (mostly, I think, because Ryan was willing to build on Larsen's moves). But the potential for the development of some sort of, dare I say it, narrative, involving the classic eternal triangle, came to nothing, not least because dancers have to keep watching each other to know what's happening, whereas jazz or speech-based performance is not so limited. For dancers in the audience, Certainty may well offer levels of intrigue and empathy beyond objective interest. For my money, however, the evening lacked the cumulative surge of creative energy I have often experienced with good jazz and the various forms of improvised theatre. If the statement "I am not interested in dancing anyone else's steps" means even one dancer in the ensemble is resistant to accepting wholeheartedly what others initiate, it is inevitable that the work will not transcend its component parts. But one would have to see a number of performances to conclude that will be a certain outcome of every Certainty show.”