Does Bay Area dance today have a zeitgeist, or is its hallmark fracture and disorganization? Is there a contemporary expression of post modernism, or have we lost sight of our history? What is the role of schools and venues in shaping the local dance community? These were some of the many provocative questions that electrified the first Dance Discourse Project held at CounterPULSE in early November. Opinions were in no short supply among the panelists and attendees that evening, and even when the formal program finished and the crowd had moved on to the wine and refreshments, the conversation continued unabated.
Co-sponsored by Dancers’ Group and CounterPULSE, this cozy gathering (complete with living room couch and end tables), was the first conversation in a series curated by Mary Armentrout, Artistic Director of Mary Armentrout Dance Theater and long-time community member. Armentrout conceived of the Dance Discourse Project after organizing two performances designed as windows on Bay Area dance for the Movement Research community in Manhattan. Armentrout and several participating Bay Area artists came away from those events inspired by Movement Research’s model of peer critique and motivated to explore the Bay Area’s specific contributions to the dance field. “There’s been an explosion in critical dialogue about dance all over the world,” she said during her introduction to the recent evening’s proceedings.
“I wanted to apply that to what’s right here in our backyard and see how we can articulate what we are doing here in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
To that end, Armentrout challenged each of the Dance Discourse Project panelists including Keith Hennessy, Jez Kuono`ono Lee, Laura Elaine Ellis and paige starling sorvillo to pick just one artist or ensemble who embodies what is exciting or interesting about Bay Area dance and show a video of the work. As Armentrout put it, “This won’t be comprehensive, but it might just open Pandora’s box.”
The attendees, most of whom were local performers and students, settled in to watch the clips that, taken together, presented a diverse picture of local dance. Lee kicked it off with several short examples from Group A stressing that it was the group’s collaborative approach, unconventional venue choices and its very outsider quality that made it a Bay Area insider. Sorvillo reinterpreted the rules and presented two picks. Sara Shelton Mann was her choice for having a lasting influence on the community and PLAZA was her other. PLAZA’s integration of media, Asian influence and site specificity made it a candidate for sorvillo. Ellis chose Robert Moses for both his ability to tell very human stories and to make culturally specific work that is universal, inclusive and accessible. Hennessey wrapped it up with a provocative clip of Madison Young, a bondage and porn model whose process and sensation-based bondage performances possess the feminist and queer themes so visible in Bay Area arts.
Armentrout then took a crowbar to Pandora’s box by asking the panelists a few simple, but thought provoking questions: how did the pieces fit into the Bay Area zeitgeist and what did they tell us about the community’s genetics and relationship to its past?
As to the question of zeitgeist, some of the panelists pointed out a few defining contemporary trends such as collaboration, diversity and politics, while others asserted that the Bay Area dance community is fractured and disorganized. “There is no zeitgeist,” said Hennessey. “The Bay Area is in an awkward place right now. It’s struggling to find voice.” Ellis, however, felt that there was more connection than ever in the African American dance community. “Artists were isolated before,” she said. “And they weren’t staying. But now we have support, dialogue and opportunities for shared work.”
All agreed that the Bay Area dance scene has some very specific hard wiring that has distinguished it from other cities including its relationship with the Pacific, the commitment to queer, feminist and identity performance, the prominent role women have played in choreography and its history as a center of pioneering and groundbreaking movement practices such as contact improvisation.
But the disappearance of the post-modern legacy in the Bay Area seemed puzzling and troubling to many. One attendee commented, “It’s a paradox. We tested a lot of things here in the 70s and now you see such academic work.” Education was seen as something of a culprit in this regard as well as a potential solution. One young student stated, “No one knows what people like Anna Halprin are doing any more. Our generation is confused about what that even was.” Hennessy also pointed out the growing economic challenges to producing this kind of process based work in 21st Century San Francisco. “Around here, you’re not going to get $50,000 to drag a body across the floor for a half hour,” he said.
Sorvillo admitted to feeling that some of this disconnect from the past and lack of cohesion had to do with the area’s instability physically and metaphorically. “I know this is kind of cheesy,” she said. “But there is a liquidity and transitory nature to this place. It constantly shifts us and asks us to rebuild our connections. That can be positive too. People go away and come back with all sorts of global influences.”
One participant who had, in fact, done exactly that and had spent many years in Europe wondered, “What would it take for the community to be more cohesive?” Armentrout grinned widely and responded, “Well, I think we’ve started in that direction tonight.”
The next Dance Discourse Project takes place Thursday, February 21 at 7pm at CounterPULSE. For this second evening of lively conversation, co-curators Mary Armentrout and Sherwood Chen moderate a panel on the multi-faceted and unique work being done in the Bay Area that utilizes culturally specific dance forms. This program is free to the public.