Don’t Worry, Just Look Around

Photo Credits: Left, Merce Cunningham's eyeSpace, photo by Anna Finke, Right, casebolt and smith’s Having Words, photo by Shelby Duncan

Photo Credits: Left, Merce Cunningham's eyeSpace, photo by Anna Finke. Right, casebolt and smith’s Having Words, photo by Shelby Duncan

This post is in response to Michael Kaiser’s

“Why I Worry About Modern Dance” Huffington Post 8/17/2009

by Alexis Weisbrod

In a recent Huffington Post article Michael Kaiser, president of the JFK Center for Performing Arts, expressed his concerns for the future of modern dance.  Among many questions he asked, “Where are the young companies that are gathering strength and are prepared to accept the mantle from the Twylas, Pauls, Merces and Marthas?” (He had already situated these four choreographers as “the great modern dancers and choreographers [that] pay tribute to American creativity.”)  I’d like to take a brief look back into modern before returning to the present to consider what is out there.

First, I’d like to remind everyone that modern dance is now a full century old.  Since Duncan first began developing her dance form the world has seen two World Wars, the Korean & Vietnam Wars, two Gulf Wars, the War on Drugs, the War on terror, the assassination an American president, the impeachment of another, the invention of television, computers, MTV, reality shows… the list goes on.  Though Graham and Ailey lived well past Duncan, cell phones, iPods, and even the internet were beyond the scope of their lives.  As a dancer born in the ‘80s (yes I just did the unspeakable and dated myself…) Cunningham is the only one that I think begins to represent me, and only because of his use of the iPod Shuffle in his 2006 piece eyeSpace.  As an intelligent and well-read dancer I appreciate these four choreographers for their historical purpose in the field in which I am pursuing my career.  I recognize all the innovations they established and the work they did to create such a rich field of dance.  I would never consider teaching a dance history, modern technique, or even jazz for that matter, without discussing these choreographers.  But in terms of constructing new dance work, these choreographers are out of date.

A mentor of mine, Ananya Chatterjea, in a dance history class, after a discussion of post-modern dance no longer being the current wave of work, suggested that it was my generation’s responsibility to name the current era of modern dance.  I often think this was a driving force in my desire to pursue a PhD in Dance.  However, I’ll admit, I have yet to name this era, but I do know why current work will never look like the old stuff.

The four “greats” all established their companies well before the NEA 4.  That fact alone illuminates the difficulties for choreographers to take the reigns and shape dance in the US. The dance, at least what I think is the good––read: innovative––dance, that is being made these days shifts the high art stage that the “greats” worked on.  The American dance audience, now receiving a notable education through vehicles such as music videos, commercials and reality dance shows, are also different.  Maybe, Mr. Kaiser, you’re worried because you’re still looking for “modern” dance.  Choreographers trying to execute that work will always fall short because in their attempt to replicate they are neglectful of the changes in the world around them.

I had the pleasure of seeing the Paul Taylor Company perform not too long ago.  I was impressed and appreciated the pleasure of viewing such historically significant repertoire.  However, I was much more moved by Melissa Hudson Bell’s Cake In My Face: New Dances with Betty Crocker and Misbehavior, which used traditional “modern dance” movement, text and humor to look at Betty Crocker in the American woman’s kitchen over the years.  Then, of course, there is the witty and political work of casebolt & smith, whose virtuosic movement never overshadows the content of the work, whether it is autobiographical tales or social commentaries or something else entirely, their insightful choreographic structures and methods always have me both entertained and thoughtfully engaged.

These are just a few of the choreographers who have recently engaged me as an audience member and left me feeling excited about dance, eager to dance and, most importantly, thinking about dance and topics beyond.  These are artists whose innovative work should be the next face of concert dance in America as they all successfully bridge from post/modern dance into something more complex and more relevant.  These artists are out there and ready to take the reigns.  But these artists are not “large role model organizations” and, even if they wished to be, may never achieve such status in a post NEA 4 America.  Choreographers such as these take risks that could be read in a highly political manner.  This is not what gets funded because its not safe or established.

In order for the next “golden age” to take place we have to broaden what we are willing to see (and fund).  It will be different from the Pioneers, something more representative of our current environment (from politics, to popular culture, to a globalized world).  And, most importantly, we must be ready to accept that change.  After all, isn’t innovation what the “Twylas, Pauls, Merces and Marthas” were all about, isn’t change what modern dance was founded on?

1 Response to “Don’t Worry, Just Look Around”

  1. 1 Jeremy January 17, 2011 at 5:29 am

    I suppose I’m a little late, but… good response!

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