Dancing the body eclectic a dance curator reflects on culture & the new dance (dena davida)

DANCING THE BODY ECLECTIC a dance curator reflects on culture & the new dance
By Dena Davida

As my attempts to find a permanent home for Tangente, a center for dance development in Montreal, kept falling apart in the hands of city permit bureaus and local dance critics, I began to urgently question “Why am I doing this?” I found some answers among the anthropologists. It was Joann Kealiinohomoku herself, and the inspiration I culled from many sources, who challenged me to consolidate all of my insider’s knowledge and experience as a dance maker, performer and curator of contemporary dance and apply it to identifying the nature and world view of this transcultural phenomenon in which we are participating. This long labor of heart and mind resulted in the following essay. (Tangente, by the way, has just signed a lease with the Agora de la Danse building with a 20-year option.) [DD.]

When dance anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku shook the authoritative foundations of ballet in 1970 by vividly revealing its ethnicity1, she set out to shift the course of occidental dance towards wider horizons. Under her continued scrutiny and that of like-minded colleagues, a world full of dances materialized before the minds of Euro-American theatrical dance historians. Kealiinohomoku’s voice paralleled the interests of a critical group of New York City experimentalists already questioning the physical boundaries set by dance academies. And so these choreographers and ethnographers turned towards the study of all moving bodies, of all the body’s movements and renewed the question “What is dance?”

Situating the “new dance”

It was after widening my focus to include this cross-cultural lens and philosophical questioning that I began to clarify the world view embedded in my daily practice of contact improvisation. According to ethnographer Cynthia Novack, in her book Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation

and American Culture, this particular approach to dancing can be seen as having founded an experimental community within the wider context of an American culture in which “modern dance took on the character of a continuing revolution, a re-creation of the American frontier standing counter to the European, aristocratic form of ballet.”

Twentieth century modern dance was infused by a pioneering spirit at its outset, eventually set up aesthetic boundaries of its own, and lately has spawned a seminal choreographic out look in which is it no longer sufficient to move about within previously known dance terrain. Each “dance explorer” is once again required to prospect in new and unclaimed artistic territory, and on it to build a unique aesthetic ecosystem. Copyright laws for dance, already established in the case of story ballets and numerous body-training techniques (and in the fields of literature and music), may soon effectively protect the private ownership of each choreographer’s “discovery” of certain movement configurations. What an interesting problem for an ephemeral art form whose instrument is the human body with its comlex possible ranges of motion, and whose recording systems (video, Laban and other notations, computer programs) are only partial reproductions of the original!

Variously classified by specialists as contemporary?, new, postmodern, danse d’auteut, or simply with the descriptive ‘experimental’ or ‘recent’, this type of dance first appeared in the Americas with the Judson Dance Theatre in New York City. Its founding principles mirrored those of the social upheavals of the sixties:

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Dancing the body eclectic a dance curator reflects on culture & the new dance (dena davida)