Coasts Converse on Contemporary Dance
Rachel Lincoln and Leslie Seiters
The ODC Walking Distance Dance Festival brings together contemporary dance companies from across the nation in three programs spread over two days at the ODC Dance Commons and the ODC Theater. New York-based choreographers Kate Weare and Brian Brooks and San Francisco's Rachael Lincoln meditate on the state of contemporary dance on their respective coasts.
How do you define contemporary dance?
Kate Weare: I think contemporary dance tends to emphasize a very individual vision. My work is trying to hook into the psychological undercurrents of our current moment. It's in relation to the human world, bearing witness to it, but, unlike pop culture, which operates as a sheer reflection of it, contemporary dance is also commenting on it, attempting to make an analysis of it. Pop culture attracts audiences with visceral, feeling, sense-oriented pleasure. This doesn't mean that one is more important than the other, it's just a different way of approaching the present, its concerns, and our relationship to it.
Rachael Lincoln: To me, one of the most dreaded questions is: What kind of dance do you do? (Modern? No. Post-modern? No. Post-post modern... Sure, but when does that switch to po-po-po-mo and how do I not feel pretentious saying yes?)
Contemporary? Kind of -- or I thought that's what I was doing. But honestly, I feel like somewhere in last six-to-10 years I looked the other way for a moment and the term "contemporary dance" changed completely. I previously thought it referred to the genre of dance that evolved alongside post-modern dance -- that it was not quite the reaction to modern dance that post-modern dance was (it still utilized a physicality and technique related to its balletic origins) -- but was in the lineage. I thought it encompassed an extremely broad stylistic palette of dance, that it was an umbrella term that included many subgenres (like dance-theater and body-based performances using technology) and choreographers ranging from Pina Bausch to Doug Varone to Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker to Joe Goode. It was maybe synonymous with post-post-modern dance, but somehow steered the mind away from performance art and toward a more technically trained dancer without saying explicitly what the requirements of the definition were. Now that I'm frequently around college-aged dancers, I'm getting the feeling "contemporary" has been completely codified and merged with lyrical/jazz/commercial/tv dance -- that there is something that 'is' or 'isn't' contemporary dance, and what we do is definitely not. (To affirm this theory, I teach at USF along with other Bay Area superstar teachers Katie Faulkner and Mo Miner and there was recently the feedback from the students that while they love our classes, they'd like to have contemporary dance class as well.) So -- along with many of my peers -- I find myself stumped about how to quickly name the kind of dance we make.
Leslie [Seiters] and I both came out of a lineage of dance in SF -- watching Contraband and Joe Goode and later dancing for and with many of the people involved (Goode, Sara Shelton Mann, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Kim Epifano, etc.) We met in 1997 working with Jo Kreiter Flyaway Productions [but our] process has been long-distance for the bulk of the time we've known each other. We work for a week every few months, often taking two-to-four years to make a new piece. I so value what Leslie brings -- her visual arts background, unique physicality, quick imagination. At our best as collaborators, there is a sense of saying "yes" to everything -- to any potentially bad idea that comes up in the long process of making a piece together -- because we never know where it will take us and we both know we'll willingly let it all go if it doesn't feel right in the end.
Brian Brooks: I think this solo [I'm Going to Explode] is a signature. It's a self-portrait, very much my point of view. The microreferences are to Cunningham, release, ballet, street, but the physical references start to fracture more. All the references are in support of the guts of the idea. The concept is first and foremost -- the physical concept. Often there is a metaphor involved as well. I strive to drive attention to a singular movement concept, here a compulsion or vibration. Then layering happens as I make a piece. The music, for instance, came partway through the process, so there was the juxtaposition between the rigor of the movement and the feel-good bass line of the dance track. The suit came later than that and came with its own associations.
Kate Weare and Company
How important do you think it is to be engaged with theory?
KW: I didn't come out of a conservatory -- I went to CalArts, which might have an overemphasis on theory -- an emphasis on your ability to justify your work through theory. I want to speak passionately, but it's still important to be able to step back and analyze your relationship to society. It's a reckoning of value. Where does your core value meet survival instincts and participate in the market? It informs how you live, how responsible you are to your artists. How do you play out your values?
RL: If "theory" means taking semiotics into consideration while making dance, then yes, I think it's extremely important. While I can enjoy the idea of just watching a body move on stage, I think it's actually impossible to divorce what we are seeing from the context it is in. Who is the body? Is it a white 25-year-old woman? Where is the body? What is happening in the world at the moment we are seeing this body?
BB: I am a big believer in experiential learning. It's interesting in a university setting, where I'm often teaching technique, to incorporate the experiential side. I think of it as opening questions of possibility through the movement. I think the role of dance in an educational setting is to practice physical knowing and not intellectual knowing. We've shared blood and cells and DNA for centuries; what does that mean for us as knowing bodies?
Do you think there's a difference between East and West Coast dance, especially contemporary dance?
KW: I think there are many differences between the coasts. My perspective comes as someone reared in a West Coast sensibility but launched artistically in the East -- I have been shaped by both communities and have enormous respect for both. The West Coast can be more issues-based, grassroots, focused on the social community. The East Coast we might say is more influenced by the European model, of art for its own sake, and for the pursuit of its own aesthetic aims. Art with community aims tends to be met with some suspicion on the East Coast. The dancers are mostly conservatory trained, and therefore have a more dogged pursuit of the art, whereas dancers on the west coast are less isolated from their place in a larger community.
RL: I don't think I'm entirely qualified to answer this question (since I live here, see so much more SF dance than East Coast dance, and don't have intimate knowledge of the workings of dance in the East) but I think we are influenced by the culture in which we make things, and I definitely see differences between West and East Coast culture. I think maybe the historical remnants of the modern dance icons in NY may lead to a particular appreciation of technical training that influences the work made there. But I think this also leads to a reaction against that training. When I go to NY, I'm struck by how young the dancers seem. In SF I definitely feel dancers well into their 30s and 40s are valued ... that people do not have careers that end at 28... but, again, I don't spend much time in NY. I do know we are a small and shared pool of dancers here in SF -- that many of the working dancers I know are in two or three companies at once (including making their own work) and that since so much of the dance we make is generated collaboratively that there can be a blurring of voices.
BB: There's a lot going on in the New York scene about changing the framework in which we view dance. Two or three years ago, there was a dance performance in the MOMA -- it's now a series. This has an effect on the creation of dances, not just how we perceive movement in a different context by moving a piece from proscenium to gallery, but how movement transforms or evolves in a way that might share characteristics with visual art. A few years ago the scene might have been defined by shared techniques, such as release, but this is also changing.
How do you feel about showing your work in San Francisco?
KW: There is nothing in New York that equals what Brenda Way has created at ODC Dance Commons. Maybe the Ailey studios or the Mark Morris Dance Center comes close, but the engagement with the community at ODC is unparalleled, and we're looking forward to being in it. We'll be presenting work from 2006. As a small touring company, we don't have many opportunities to restage work. By bringing early studies back into our rep, we get the chance to integrate new company members, as well as reinterpret past work.
RL: Fortunately and unfortunately, I love showing work in San Francisco because I am likely to know 85 percent of the audience by no more than three degrees of separation. We are an incestuous pool of dance viewers -- which can be both frustrating and freeing. Frustrating for ticket sales. Frustrating to feel that only a limited and mostly set group of people are watching all that is made in SF. But I do love the thought that many people who might see my work with Leslie on Friday may also have seen me dance with Joe Goode or Bandaloop, just as I love seeing Melecio Estrella's work with Andrew Ward knowing his work with Scott Wells, Bandaloop, and Joe Goode. We get the pleasure of watching each other stretch our range and grow through the years.
BB: I love the city. I think it's one of the most beautiful cities on earth, and I'm excited to be performing there for the first time.
Kate Weare and Company presents The Light Has Not Arms to Carry Us and Drop Down, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters premiere People Like You, and Brian Brooks Moving Company presents I'm Going to Explode at the Walking Distance Dance Festival May 31-June 1 at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St, S.F., and ODC Dance Commons, 351 Shotwell St., S.F. Tickets are $20 per program or $50 for a festival pass; call 415 863 9834.