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What is Contemporary Choreography?

What is Contemporary Choreography?
The Contemporary Performance Think Tank is housed in the John Wells Directing Program MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School Of Drama under the direction of Caden Manson. Each year the Think Tank focuses on a set of topics concerning the fields of Theater and Contemporary Performance and conducts research and interviews to produce a paper as a resource for practitioners. This year’s topic is contemporary performing artists and companies redefining relationships with audience and pushing the formal relationships of architecture, artist, and audience. For this paper the Think Tank chose five areas on the forefront of this research to explore; Contemporary Choreography;  Mixed Reality Performance;  Performance Cabaret;  Immersive Theatre;  and Social Engaged Art. Each section of this paper includes an introduction to the specific practice, a conversation with an artist, and a list of artists working in and around the specific practice. Contemporary Choreography is part of a series of posts. Check back daily to see the next posts.

Contemporary Choreography
by Philip Gates

“Choreography is just a frame, a structure, a language where much more than dance is inscribed.”
Jerome Bel
 1

“Choreography” is used here as a term for a particular performance discipline, as distinct from “choreography” as used more generally to refer to specific steps or movement sequences within a performance. There is a proliferation of terms referring to this type of work: performances by the artists discussed below have also been variously labeled as “experimental dance,” “conceptual dance,” “choreographic performance,” “downtown dance” (in NYC), even “post-dance.” I use the term “choreography” following such scholars as Bojana Cvejić and Jenn Joy, who have written extensively on the field of contemporary choreography and its context within the broader fields of dance and contemporary performance.

As a rule, choreographic artists work within the legacy of dance practices and forms, but are engaged in asking questions that worry the idea of what dance is or can be. They push form forward in a way that situates their work under the umbrella of contemporary performance. These artists organize their work around philosophical and/or theoretical investigations, as discussed in detail in many journals and books including Joy’s The Choreographic (2014) and Cvejić’s Choreographing Problems (2015), as well as Jo Butterworth and Liesbeth Wildschut’s anthology Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader (2009).

Cvejić writes of the distinction between choreography and dance: “The denomination ‘choreography’ suggests an insistence on the authorial position of the choreographer whereby the choreographer distinguishes her work from a traditional notion of craftsmanship in composing bodily movement.” 2 More specifically, she frames the work as engaged in the act of “choreographing problems,” a process in which the artist creates “ruptures between movement, the body, and time in performance such that they engender a shock upon sensibility, one that renders aspects of these choreographic performances hard to identify, recognize, or accommodate within the horizons of expectations of contemporary dance.” 3

At the same time, it is important not to lose sight of the work’s legacy and continuity within the field of dance, or the training and background of most practitioners. Miguel Gutierrez, for example, has expressed his frustration with being labeled a “performance artist”: “I am deeply attached to my upbringing in dance but I am not attached about what this might mean about what my work ‘should’ look like.” 4 Faye Driscoll describes the performers in her work as “awkward virtuosic bodies,” 5 a phrase which suggests both technique and its subversion and/or deployment towards unexpected ends.

Choreography, then, beyond its technical definition as “the making of dance,” 6 is a field that proposes modes of being rather than methodologies. Its object is the embodiment of thought, or most simply, putting ideas into motion.

Some choreographers create in close collaboration with artists working in other disciplines. DD Dorvillier’s Extra Shapes (2015) features three autonomous scores: lights by Thomas Dunn, sound by Sébastien Roux, and movement for three dancers by Dorvillier. The space is divided into three equal strips designed to evoke a slice of Neapolitan ice cream,7 each occupied by one of the three elements. The three scores are of equal duration (17 minutes) and are performed simultaneously. This 17-minute sequence is repeated three times, with the audience moving to a new side of the space with each iteration. According to Dorvillier’s website, her new work Only One of Many (another collaboration with Roux) returns to the idea of independent elements in conversation. Two music sequences and two dance sequences “are performed in all possible paired combinations” 8 while exploring the question of what constitutes a single sound or a single movement.

Dorvillier’s recent work is marked by an ongoing investigation of structure and form. In Danza Permanente (2012), four dancers embody the score of Beethoven’s String Quartet #15, transforming the notated musical structure into movement.9 She writes that “the non-linguistic perception of abstract forms can be a catalyst for new knowledge and ways of relating to the world.” 10 Meanwhile, A catalogue of steps is an evolving research and performance project that pulls fragments of choreography from her early work (1990-2004) and re-contextualizes them in durational, site-responsive “visits.” 11

Much as Dorvillier’s project explores the personal history of her own work, Trajal Harrell engages explicitly with the history of specific forms and artists, provoking our understanding of the past. His most recent work, Caen Amour (2016), uses the hoochie-koochie shows of the early twentieth century to “complexify [the viewer’s] own criticality to an imagined past and how each of us fills in the blanks from various political and social awarenesses.” 12 He has also made several pieces exploring Japanese butoh and its founder Tatsumi Hijikata.

Harrell’s largest-scale work to date is the series Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church, which includes seven distinct but related works (sized from XS to L and a Made-to-Measure, plus an academic paper posted on his website with the label XL). He articulates the question behind the series as, “What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” 13 In (S) (2009), a solo for Harrell himself, he models the titular twenty looks and embodies the seemingly opposing impulses of postmodernism and ball culture. 14 Antigone Sr. (L) (2012), for five male dancers, is a re-imagination of classical Greek drama through the lens of voguing.15 Across projects, Harrell describes his methodology as “posing a question that presents a historical impossibility and then I try to get the audience and performers to wrap their heads around the question together. It’s the togetherness that I am after.” 16

Faye Driscoll expresses a similar interest in this togetherness, what she terms the “third event” that takes place between dancers and audience: “We wouldn’t be here if you weren’t here, and you wouldn’t be here if we weren’t here. That’s really primary to me: the feeling of that feedback loop being amplified inside the work.” 17 Identifying as a choreographer and director, Driscoll probes the boundaries of self and other, performer and spectator, investigating communal space and shared reality. 18 She has worked with paradigms of social relationships on very different scales. There is so much mad in me (2010) puts nine performers through a series of emotional extremes in an exploration of mob consciousness. 19 Meanwhile, You’re Me (2012) is a duet for Driscoll and a male dancer, an intimate but violent consideration of relationship and selfhood through the frame of duality. 20 

In her most recent work, the Thank You For Coming series, Driscoll asks her audience to be present, active participants in co-creating the work, and through the work, a larger social reality. Attendance (2014) begins with a focus on the entangled and distorted bodies of the performers, before gradually dissolving the space between performers and audience and closing with a communal ritual. 21 Play (2016) continues the series’ investigations into collective social authorship, focusing on “the consumption and fabrication of stories to make our lives cohere.” 22 

The series form offers artists the opportunity to conduct choreographic inquiries that span multiple individual works, developing ideas beyond the constraint of a single evening. Ligia Lewis, whose work centers on questions of embodiment, has at the time of writing premiered two parts of her triptych BLUE RED WHITE. Among other themes, the trilogy investigates how bodies of different races are read, represented, and performed. The first piece, Sorrow Swag (2015), is a solo for one white male dancer, incorporating text by Anouilh and Beckett, live music by the musician Twin Shadow, and a visual landscape of saturated blue light. The second, minor matter (2016), is composed for three black performers (including Lewis herself) and foregrounds the color red, moving from the sadness of the previous work to images of love and rage. 23 The third piece in the triptych (forthcoming) is entitledMelancholy: A White Mellow Drama.

Writing about minor matter, Lewis asks, “Can the black box be host to a black experience that goes beyond identity politics?” 24, and of Sorrow Swag she asserts that “the theater itself is throbbing with blackness.” 25 This insistence on the centrality of the black body within the very structure of performance extends beyond the duration of the work: Lewis takes a bow at the end of her performances even when she is not herself one of the performersa political gesture that serves as a declaration of authorship. She notes in an interview that “since the tradition of white, male directors and dance-makers is so strong, she has had to consistently assert that she herself, a Dominican-American woman, is the creator of the work.” 26

The corporeality, agency and subjectivity of the body, particularly bodies that are often othered, is a concern shared by Miguel Gutierrez, who works across disciplines to create performances that search for meaning in our bodies and our relationships to those around us. 27 The home page of his website announces, in all caps: “PROBABLY THE BIGGEST QUESTION I MAKE ART ABOUT IS: WHY ARE WE ALIVE.” 28

Gutierrez’s trilogy Age & Beauty (2014-15) “places a queer lens on mortality, the representation of the dancer, the intersection of administration with art-making, and an ambivalence toward futurity.” 29 Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/ is a duet for Gutierrez and dancer Mickey Mahar, twenty years his junior. The performance employs extensive unison phrases and emphasizes the physical contrasts between the two performers. 30 In Part 2: Asian Beauty @ the Werq Meeting or The Choreographer & Her Muse or &:@&, Gutierrez investigates his own artistic relationships and the business of art, placing several long-term collaborators (including performer Michelle Boulé, presenter/manager Ben Pryor, and lighting designer Lenore Doxsee) onstage in dialogue with Sean Donovan as Gutierrez himself. 31 Part 3: DANCER or You can make whatever the fuck you want but you’ll only tour solos or The Powerful People or We are strong/We are powerful/We are beautiful/We are divine or &:’/// assembles Gutierrez and a group of intergenerational performers who challenge received notions of what a “dancer” looks like, 32 placing the focus on potentiality and the queer body.

The concept of queer futurity, as discussed most prominently by José Esteban Muñoz in his book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009), is evoked directly in work by Gutierrez and others, but it is to some degree inherent in the very strategies and processes of most contemporary choreography. Muñoz writes that queerness “is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” 33 Choreography as a field, with its cross-disciplinary collaborations, speaking bodies, and charged artist-audience relationship, seems particularly invested in (and suited to) this queer insistence on the imagination of alternate futures. As the English choreographer Jonathan Burrows noted at the 2015 Postdance Conference in Stockholm, “we’re always almost somewhere and the best pieces never quite arrive / leaving us thinking ahead to what might happen next.” 34

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Notes

1.  Jerome Bel, quoted in Jenn Joy, The Choreographic (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014), 15.

2.  Bojana Cvejić, Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in Contemporary Dance and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 7.

3. Ibid., 2.

4.  Kyoung H. Park, “Talking to Miguel Gutierrez: A Cultural Democracy in the Performing Arts Interview,” The Brooklyn Commune, July 12, 2013, http://www.brooklyncommune.org/2013/07/12/talking-to-miguel-gutierrez-a-cultural-democracy-in-the-performing-arts-interview.

5.  “About,” Faye Driscoll, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.fayedriscoll.com/about.

6.   Jo Butterworth and Liesbeth Wildschut, Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1.

7.  “Extra Shapes,” human future dance corps, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.humanfuturedancecorps.org/extra-shapes.

8.  “Only One of Many,” human future dance corps, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.humanfuturedancecorps.org/onlyyoneofmany.

9.  “Danza Permanente,” human future dance corps, accessed March 26, 2017, www.humanfuturedancecorps.org/danza-permanente.

10.  “Only One of Many,” human future dance corps.

11.  “A catalogue of steps,” human future dance corps, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.humanfuturedancecorps.org/a-catalogue-of-steps.

12.  “Caen Amour,” Trajal Harrell, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.betatrajal.org/artwork/4063982-Caen-Amour.html.

13.  “Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church,” Trajal Harrell, accessed March 26, 2017,  http://www.betatrajal.org/artwork/567890-Twenty-Looks-or-Paris-is-Burning-at-The-Judson-Church-S.html.

14.  Ibid.

15.  “Antigone Sr.,” Trajal Harrell, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.betatrajal.org/artwork/2677704-Antigone-Sr-L.html.

16.  “Trajal Harrell,” Foundation for Contemporary Arts, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.foundationforcontemporaryarts.org/recipients/trajal-harrell.

17.  Siobhan Burke, “Faye Driscoll’s Tingling Force Field With the Dance Audience,” New York Times, November 15, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/arts/dance/exploring-the-space-between-performer-and-audience.html.

18.  “About,” Faye Driscoll.

19.  “There is so much mad in me,” Faye Driscoll, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.fayedriscoll.com/projects/mad-in-me.

20.  “You’re Me,” Faye Driscoll, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.fayedriscoll.com/projects/youre-me.

21.  “Thank You For Coming: Attendance,” Faye Driscoll, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.fayedriscoll.com/projects/thank-you-for-coming-attendance.

22.  “Thank You For Coming: Play,” Faye Driscoll, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.fayedriscoll.com/projects/tyfc-play.

23.   “Ligia Lewis,” American Realness, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.americanrealness.com/portfolio-type/ligia-lewis-3.

24.  Ibid.

25.  Jaime Shearn Coan, “Out of the Blue: Ligia Lewis’s Sorrow Swag Disrupts Identity Politics-as-Usual,” Brooklyn Rail, February 3, 2016, http://www.brooklynrail.org/2016/02/dance/out-of-the-blue-ligia-lewis.

26.  Ibid.

27.  “About,” Miguel Gutierrez, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.miguelgutierrez.org/project/about.

28.  “Home,” Miguel Gutierrez, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.miguelgutierrez.org.

29.  Ibid.

30.  Rennie McDougal, “Miguel Gutierrez in Conversation,” Culturebot, September 11, 2015,  http://www.culturebot.org/2015/09/24482/miguel-gutierrez-in-conversation-with-rennie-mcdougall-on-age-and-beauty-at-new-york-live-arts.

31.  “Age & Beauty Part 2,” Miguel Gutierrez, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.miguelgutierrez.org/pieces/age–beauty-part-2.

32.  “Age & Beauty Part 3,” Miguel Gutierrez, accessed March 26, 2017, http://www.miguelgutierrez.org/pieces/age–beauty-part-3

33.  José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.

34.  Jonathan Burrows, “Jonathan Burrows’ keynote address for the Postdance Conference in Stockholm” (keynote address, Postdance Conference, Stockholm, October 14, 2015), http://www.jonathanburrows.info/#/text/?id=183&t=content.

Photo: © MARIA BARANOVA

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Theater artist based in NYC and Pittsburgh. MFA candidate in Directing, Carnegie Mellon University.

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