Monday, April 09, 2007

Technical Idiot

When I consider my work in dance I am conscious of how the ongoing practice that underpins it constantly shifts and alters. Practice and technique are inextricably bound in a complex relationship and the dance class is the more common format for those fields of information to correlate. The outcome of technique class was never something I questioned in the past. Instead I summarily rejected class as a format for practice. This was because I almost invariably ended up questioning my ability as a dancer as opposed to questioning the material I was being taught. Class isn't a forum for debate and a good dancer just shuts up and does the exercises.

The primary emphasis in my early dance training was on the rapid assimilation and mastery of form. Typically in a traditional dance class situation, the singular most important task for the dancer is emulation. The dancer trains to render shapes, lines, dynamics, pathways and transitions as graphically as possible. It is through this process that the dancer gauges their capabilities. On the surface this is a straight forward template for understanding and progress. In a contemporary dance technique class other concepts give the template greater complexity. The outcomes in a class do not necessarily centre entirely on the emulation of a prescribed form. For example enquiries dealing with somatic concerns, choreographic deconstructions, open ended investigative processes, understanding principles of say applied physics, anatomy, engineering, architecture, and psychology among others mean that the template becomes multidimensional. There is no one 'right way' under those conditions.

Apparently. When the class is taught by a choreographer their own personal aesthetic comes into play. The template slips from its multidimensionality back to more generic simplistic values again regardless of how progressive the conceptual pathway the choreographer is taking in their thinking. There will be actually be a 'right way' to enact the movement under these conditions. When I last traveled to Europe I ended up going back to classes and found movement practitioners who were working on specific ideas and areas of information in a matter of fact way. There seems to be a refreshing absence of both authoritarianism and rebellion in the culture of dance there. Technical and artistic practices were mutually and congruently formatted. One thing was of the other and vice versa. Yes there are practitioners working in this way in New Zealand, just not nearly as many of them. On return I had greater clarity about the substance that made up my artistic approach but my technical practice was sketchy. So I begun to construct a dance class and simultaneously retired the two surrogate practices I had been using to stay in shape (yoga and capoeira). My line of inquiry centered on the idea of integrating multiple movement practices by way of understanding principles that united those practices (although this was initially an unconscious and intuitive process, I just began by putting together stuff that I liked) That meant that I was less interested in the external look of a thing, I trusted that clear understanding of principles would give technical shape to the movement. So far this seems to work very well.

This is by no means a particularly innovative approach, in fact its fairly common area of practice in contemporary dance. What excites me about working with this ethos is I am now preoccupied with how the movement is understood and how the movement manifests as a result of that understanding. Under these conditions there's is no one right way to do the movement. Right implies that there is a wrong and organizing information against that value system is an over simplistic research method.

If a technical practice is driven by self concerned insistence on being 'right' then energy is being squandered rather than getting to the work at hand. Arguments of 'generic versus investigative', 'form versus content', 'ballet versus contemporary', 'my technical aesthetic versus your somatic practice' are a red herring. We live in times that are insisting that we choose 'either/or' in our political, religious, sexual, educational, philosophical and deeply personal aspects of our lives. This binary model of thinking is fundamentally flawed in that it doesn't represent the complexity of real life. If you move from one belief system to another then all you have done is trade beliefs. You are not necessarily closer to any kind of truth. It was in Min Tanaka's 'Body Weather' practice that I recognised the simplicity of integrating all of my movement history in order to facilitate greater choice and possibility in my artistic practice. No particular technique has to be rejected or unlearned. No singular movement has greater or lesser value than another. All movement can be used in whatever way I choose according to what it is I want to do, say, and be in whatever context or situation is occurring. At the time this realization was both liberating and immediately problematic. Despite my new clarity at that stage I was still a long way from understanding it's implications. I had yet to develop a forum where this understanding could be expressed. Endless possibility. And no specificity. In other physical disciplines I can locate clear models for outcomes, reasons why the practice exists and what it aims to do. In Iyengar Yoga which has very strict methods and forms, has historical context, and the outcomes for learning the system are very clear. Ballet also has the same systematic organization and historical context although it struggles to find relevance today. Martial arts also have this clarity of form, function, and history. The beauty of a martial art is that regardless of style its movements are understood as singular events that have function and purpose. It is known what the movement is for and what it does. In a martial art there is also a generic outcome. Martial arts are about the study and mastery of physical power. It is through the physical practice that potential for deeper understandings of the self can emerge and the practice can be extrapolated out to becoming a lived model for everyday interaction with life. The physical practice supports the outcome and is deeply tied to that very thing. So what are the outcomes of contemporary dance and how do the myriad of techniques support those outcomes? Is the primary manifestation of a dance practice always and only aethetiscisation of a performance vision? Can a dance practice have application in everyday life & in relationships? Is there other context for this besides the generation of choreography? Beyond therapy? If the practice and technique of contemporary dance is located primarily in the mastery of form and does not look outside of that spectrum of learning then it is constantly in a state cycling through endless loops of relevant/irrelevant - fashionable/unfashionable. Which leaves it by turns potent/impotent. I once heard a martial artist refer to punches and kicks as 'self expression.' That statement recontextualised those movements as powerful communications with emotional content and meaning. It is possible to build a movement practice that is primarily concerned with dance as a compositional language with a healthy degree of power and meaning. A language that takes into account and understands dance as an event in daily life, not merely an idealized representation on a stage. A knowable field of information that can communicate potently with the society of which it is a part. A practice that provides potential for transformation at a very human level, mastery as a communicator, as well as physical virtuosity, open ended research, and a place to stand as an artist in society. Or I could go to class and just keep trying to get the exercises right.


Anonymous said...

You aren't a technical idiot and what about somatic aspects of feeling - which can be sensed rather than articulated but which through being taught become an available inscription (layer / imprint) available for expressivity /subtlety/ vocabulary, shape etc...


throwdisposablechoreography said...

In response to FM I am not referring to myself as a technical idiot although the appearance of my photo near the entry title might seem to infer that.
I was thinking about the idiocy of the 'either or' arguments in dance 'traditional versus progressive' for example.
Apologies for a lack of eloquence with regards to the topic of somatics.
But the sentiment of the article includes and appreciates that as a crucial part of the spectrum of lived experience in dance.

Anonymous said...

Mr Larsen

Your post provoked very clear memories of a particular teacher I experienced whilst an undergrad ... he seemed to be able to tread that line between making accessible the demands (and rigour) of 'form', with information that facilitated a critical awareness of how one might inhabit (inherit?) and then perturb the materials.

In hindsight, my efforts to teach technique classes were both hindered and led by this experience. I definitely wanted to emulate this 'ride' between feeling and shaping, but at the same time, I felt a little overawed by the complexity of this relationship (from a pedagogical perspective).

This was exacerbated by what felt like a distinction between 'my' moving as a choreographer, and 'my' moving as a teacher. To this day I struggle with finding a means of processing my practice as a maker into a classroom (or technique) context ... it doesn't seem to fit, and so I end up making up 'exercises' that have little to do with my thinking/practicing, and much more to do with rather turgid default modes of moving 'like a contemporary dancer'.

Interestingly, an artist like Ros Crisp ( -- an Australian, but based in Paris) simply doesn't try and emulate the regular dynamic and attributes of a technique class. Instead, class becomes an invitation to share the nuts and bolts of her (improvising) practice. Dancers of all levels are able to enter into the corporeal dialogue ... yes, questions of one's technique are made, but they are solidly in the background, simply becoming part of the collective (and individual) ether.

And lastly, those skills I did acquire - picking up movement, adjusting my 'shape' to emulate etc - still do come in handy. Most recently, I've had an injury in my hip (IT band stuff) from running, and that capacity to sense, adjust and then reorganise my moving self has been pivotal in getting over the injury.

Yada yada.

And greetings from a very spring-like UK.

Mr Ellis.

throwdisposablechoreography said...

Hello Mr Ellis

Thanks for your comment,its a damn fine read.
I agree with you on the value of those generic skills gained from full time training. The skills themselves enable me to do the things I do in dance.
I guess this piece of writing came out of being confronted by a divisive psychology/ attitude towards the work that I am doing.(Long story, requires beer)
Anyway it's interesting to see what necessitates a practice for various people and it's fascinating to see what manifests as a result of that.
David Zambrano's work came out of a physically debilitating condition for example.
The work I do in my class is a lot to do with the fact that my joints are wearing out, especially my knees so I am utilising different surfaces in different ways in order to spread the workload through my body. Keep it agile and available for longer.
And yeah I have 'exercises' to organize that information too.
I am just interested in deconstructing the hierarchy of priorities around various techniques and aesthetics as opposed to disassembling common sense mechanisms that transmit information efficiently (such as a dance class).
Keep up the good work in England, lets have that beer sometime.
And tight IT bands are bullshit aren't' they!

alys said...

hey kristian,
just wanted to say thanks for the writing, it is really nice to read someone thinking critically about dance class structure. I personally have stopped going to any technique classes for the reasons you mention- i feel like i am getting in the way of the progress of the class (towards virtuosity) as i don't have a traditional 'dancers' body - not having trained to emulate, but having trained as an actor to be technically creative, to generate my own material. i do mean to return to taking classes though because i think clear technical ability is valuable- mayb yours or sean's i guess would be where i could feel comfortable.

see you around,

Raewyn said...

Great to have a productive forum that can bring like minds from around the world to this place.

Dance class for me was always a "both...and" situation -- both process and product, both practice and theory, both somatic and technical and intellectual and emotional.

My philosophy for teaching dance class (which I did for few years along the way) matches my philosophy for teaching of all kinds -- my role being that of a facilitator.

The "teacher" and the "student" in a dance class are different body/mind entities which temporarily share some space, and have very little else in common. So it is by far better that there be a productive inquiry as the focus of their shared learning... and a lot of shared principles to guide them.

Cat said...

At a time where Western society has become largely focused upon the subjectivity of the body's senses and its desires, and where the culture of consumerism can thrive in a politically significant dialogue with those desires, the realm of dance, with its intrinsic connection to the body, has become a multi-faceted, a multi-perspectival, abused, cared for, subjective and contentious site. The denouncing of hierarchical knowledge, which is prioritized in postmodernism, makes way for the validity of the individual's thoughts, experiences, feelings, pedagogies, styles, ways of doing things etc, resulting in a craving for dance that is in turn, individual. The very foundations of traditional western dance technique and choreography are built on completely the opposite values; those of hierarchy, machining and objectivity! So it is no wonder that contemporary dance practises such as your own give the dancer a feeling of liberation; finally we are cut from our shackles and freed to experience our own value systems of movement; our own subjective understandings of what it is like to occupy our skins and express through them a more honest communication. No longer does the teacher hold all the knowledge, and no longer do we have to strive to be empty no-bodies for that knowledge to be emparted to.
We must be aware however that methods of training and performance such as yours are by no means completely void of hierarchy...It still caters for the same hierarchical community (white middle class), and it still creates and is part of a dominant culture that greatly influences how the concept of dance is perceived. But I would like to say Arohanui, Kia Kaha, and Kia ora for your inspiring and inquiring investigations.

Cat Gwynne

throwdisposablechoreography said...

Admittedly there is an entirely selfish component to my teaching practice. I teach in order to test, learn, re-understand, clarify and reorganize my research and material.
With that in mind the us versus situation ie:'me (teacher role) and 'them' (student role) gets unified to a degree by a shared focus.
I have agendas as a teacher. Among those are: sharing up my practice, making real an approach that enables as opposed to (disables) the dancer, and filling in perceived gaps in the generic contemporary dance training in NZ.
But also as far as class goes there is the right to assemble, which is actually quite difficult to do in dance. Space to do class and rehearse is a shrinking resource. Class in my mind is a place to renew and affirm social and artistic connections as well as work up a sweat.
And under those conditions there isn't a 'me' and a 'them', with "little else in common", but a community with an awful lot to lose if it doesn't take full advantage of its right to gather.
Peace and Love to you.


throwdisposablechoreography said...

And this response to Cat:

Thank you for further elaborations and deeper/broader clarification of context on the subject I am writing about.
When you spoke about dominant culture I winced, almost apologised out loud for being white and "dominant" (and male). What an interesting can of worms...
Anyway yes my work is a product of a dominant globalised culture. But contemporary dance is not a particularly predominant force within that culture.
It's still a marginalised, publicly ostracized and at times estranged art form with comparatively little cultural significance.
As far as hierarchy goes I am of the point of view that its unavoidable in any manifestation of community. Although having said that there are models of organization that are far more interested in sharing of power and authority than the current political models. But there always has to be someone with the lead, even if its only for an hour and a half at a time which is the average duration of a dance class.
Thanks again.


vaaaal said...

contemporary dance is apparently not so 'culturally insignificant'. when i look over my shoulders at a black grace performance and find myself surrounded by an extremely white middle class audience. it appears going to the theatre to see such contemporary dance shows is somewhat the thing to do darling. what a joke this imagining that your status rises having associated yourself with a company name or witnessed a certain event. ?!?
hmmm so i think that contemporary dance, in the fully fledged established and recognised vein, is very squarely planted in the dominant continually colonising culture.
is contemporary dance, or most art, is in itself dominating? well that all depends really doesn't it.

throwdisposablechoreography said...

Hi Val,
I'm not sure if you are wanting to have a go at Black Grace, or at a perceived bourgeoisie mentality, or at the dominant 'white' middle class. But I think your last question sums it up.
Personally I don't think that contemporary dance is dominating. It's in a stage of infiltration and simultaneous identity crisis as it struggles to be accepted by mainstream audiences, finds itself in the mainstream education system, and redefines it's own outcomes.
Black Grace is not definitively representative of NZ contemporary dance artistically or culturally. I regard its relative success as the manifestation of clearly realized marketing and business strategies.
The day I can talk to absolutely anyone about contemporary dance without having to explain what it is, the day I realize that I can make a living purely from my art and that my peers are commonly doing that also, the day I see the arts represented in the media to the same degree as sports, then and only then will I consider contemporary dance 'mainstream.'In the mean time I would regard an organization like Black Grace as mainstream, rather than generalizing about my particular art form or the arts in general.

Thanks for the comment


Cat said...

I have to say that I agree entirely with the points that Val is making.

Are the majority of contemporary dance works staged in the theatre? Yes.

Is the theatre the culturally dominant platform for performance? Yes

Does the theatre cater for a predominantly colonising audience? Yes

Does recognised contemporary dance training take place in government-funded institutions? Yes

Sounds pretty mainstream to me.

Contemporary dance is ostasized, yes, and it is an estranged artform, yes. It struggles to be accepted by a mainstream audience, yes. But its audience is still CULTURALLY mainstream. Although its audience is small, it is still dominant. And although contemporary dance is a marginalized artform within its own culture, it still belongs to the culture that has all the power.

To assume that our practise isn't mainstream because we don't get paid for it and because we can't talk to everyone about it is, in my opinion, a rather minimizing and culturally selfish way of looking at it. If something is mainstream, it doesn't mean that it makes money and has media coverage, it means that its values are embedded in a dominant colonising culture.

Think of all the cultures we have in this country, and then think of all their dance and art forms, and then realize how lucky we are that we even get a recognized voice. Do you think that dancers from these minority cultures could ever dream of making money off what they do, besides from when they become tourist attractions? Do you think they could ever dream of their dance form escaping the colonizing labels of CULTURAL or ETHNIC or TRADITIONAL?

Considering the wider contextual issues instills humility...

Cat Gwynne x

throwdisposablechoreography said...

An admirably constructed response. I'm enjoying your logic.
But the preachy tone thats creeping in leaves me perplexed.
I don't need reminding how 'lucky' I am. Nor do I need reminding that there are other cultures that are more marginalised. And as for bestowing your wisdom about considering wider contextual issues instilling humility...? Being culturally selfish?! Give me a break Cat.
At this point the debate loses interest for me. I was thinking last night, 'If Cat or I are right or wrong on this issue it makes no difference to my reality and my reasons for doing what I am doing.'
The dominant colonising culture of which I am a part and of which I was born into impacts, affects, and fucks with my life every day. As well as every single human being participating in globalised culture.
Being an out put of the dominant colonising culture doesn't mean that I am not disabled by it whilst simultaneously having access to opportunities that others do not.
I choose dance everyday as a daily act of liberation, self expression, dignity and community and that FEELS GOOD. If contemporary dance is mainstream or not doesn't shift my daily experience that under the current conditions that we all live in, its the body that is at stake. I believe in dance in all of its forms as a potential means of personal strength and because I believe in its intrinsic dignity and strength at a community level. And thats what I am interested in. Not in being 'right.'
Thanks for your comments.

Cat said...

Dear Kristian,

Oooh gosh! I'm terribly sorry for coming across as preachy...that is not at all what I was hoping for, but rather a direct and honest response to your comments to Val and I. I apologize for this perfusely.

All I was aiming for was to address this issue from a perspective that was different to the one you had offered in order to encourage healthy debate. As a quick note, when I made the comment that 'having a wider contextual understanding instills humility' I was not at all applying this directly to you, it was meant as a statement, but I can see how this could have been unclear. And how rude it must have seemed!

Cultural interstices is a huge point of interest for me, so I thank you for your discussion and apologize for making you feel that you had to defend your right to be a dancer and your reasons for doing so.

I am not at all interested in being 'right' either, I don't really think 'right' exists, but I AM interested in honest and passionate discussion.

throwdisposablechoreography said...

Thanks for the clarification. This technology does leave a lot to be desired when it comes to debate. So yes, I appreciate your arguments and in the event we meet then a lively and clear debate can ensue.


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