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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Notes of a dialogue
Animated, Autumn 1999. "The body is the meeting point for what is wild and what is civilized... dance bites at the heel of what is unknowable."(1). What is the potential for today's movement based practitioner to enter the realm of the unknowable? Does the contemporary context muzzle dance before it gets a sniff at experimentation? A recent Chisenhale commission encourages artists to take the role of curators. The curatorial decisions of these artists can give insight into what shapes their current questions, desires, hopes and frustrations. States of Play is the result of one such commission. It brings New York artists, Jennifer Monson and Yvonne Meier, to share their work which takes releasing, authentic movement and improvisation into new territory. Their practice, based in energetic state and experience of the body, has been developed over a 15 year period. Creating space for process based exploration, it provides a focal point for an ongoing dialogue between Doran George and Christy Adair about diversification and limitation in contemporary performance

Reflecting on this dialogue memories come back of an initial contact. A sharing of weight in a workshop, which dissolved into giggles as we acknowledged that we had met before. Our interest and passion in our work is echoed in Jennifer Monson's quote and it is that which we both want to see developed in dance and live art in this country.

CA: Writing and teaching about dance, I am particularly interested in cutting edge work. Experimentation is essential for the artform to thrive. Without investigation and commitment to process, how can innovations emerge? Contemporary Dance in Britain currently appears to be product rather than process led, despite the desires of many contemporary artists. Critical context is vital for investigative work; to record it through discussions, reviews, articles; as a space to reflect on the work so that it does not disappear. New Dance magazine in the 70s played a key role in discussing and exploring issues about work which was being ignored in the mainstream. It gave artists a voice for their experimentation. It is that voice which artists want today.

DG: As a practising artist committed to the development of live work which is not complacent about the contemporary human condition, I have found that this 'critical' tendency has forced me to repeatedly question my own practice, its content, and the contexts which I place it in. Radical work is not easily assimilated into current structures of training, production and promotion. It is the consequent marginalization that made me feel the need to nurture links with artists working similarly. My curation of States of Play is one such attempt.

CA: Historical factors influence current practice, they can consequently offer some insights into today's dance context. For many practitioners and writers, myself included, this history is a lived experience which I would like to see reinvestigated rather than recycled. Contemporary dance practice in this country only evolved in the late 60s via American Modern Dance; with earlier influences from the European theatre tradition. In the mid 70s, X6 was established by artists who wished to produce work which was not restricted by the structures and aesthetics of the 'dance establishment' (2). They had radical agendas and sought to foreground issues of relevance to their own life experiences. This had to be located in independent dance as there was no room for such explorations within the established companies. Their work was marginalized particularly by critics who had no language with which to discuss the innovations and investigations.

In the 90s independent dance is less about innovatory practices and more about individualistic approaches to survival. As independent dance has become institutionalised an ethos of competition amongst dancers has developed. This makes it difficult to obtain the support necessary for a working environment which encourages rather than stifles investigation. The success of the product dominates rather than the potential of risk taking ideas.

DG: The institutionalisation of independent dance demands a re-examination of what artistic innovation currently means. In contast to the experiences of the British new dance pioneers there is now an infrastructure of agencies and funding which acknowledges the necessity of support for artists who are working independently. Competition for these limited resources creates a context where attracting support can feel dependant on packaging the work as innovative, as something which is more exciting than the other 120 applications that arrived on your funding officer's desk that morning. This has developed alongside a cult of commodity ethics which demands a constant source of new exciting products to sell. Innovation in this context can become just another commodity.

This is deeply problematic for contemporary artists who take risks, or work with process. I am particularly concerned with those of us whose work emerges directly out of life experiences, of marginalization. Artists who experience the dominant trends in contemporary culture as misrepresenting us, turning the fabric of our lives into crimes or spectacle.

Who I am defies easy sexual categorisation. I consequently regularly encounter abuse and harassment in public, and feel at risk of violence. This experience is at the core of my investigations into cultural events which subvert the way that the performer becomes an object of interrogation of the audience. Any 'risk' that messing with performance conventions entails, is directly related to risks I experience when I walk outside my front door. It is about asking whether a performance context can be created where standard terms of reference are thrown into confusion, so that conventions such as gender categorisation lose the detrimental impact they have on my body. If this way of working just becomes something new and exciting in a process of its commodification, then the life of the work is appropriated and killed.

It has consequently felt important for me to remain connected to the history of independent dance artists who chose to work outside of the mainstream with their radical agendas. In her book Choreographing Difference, Ann Cooper Albright argues that the women dancing in companies like La La La Human Steps, and Streb/Ringside can be seen as a sleekly reconstructed version of the "traditionally gendered image of a lithe feminine dancer."(2)

This reconstructed image sounds suspiciously like the repackaging of women for the commodity ethics of the post-feminist 90s. By contrast Albright applauds Monson's work: "Because she can't be easily identified with these commodified images of women dancers, Monson provides us with a refreshing example of an alternative physicality."(3)

CA: I view feminism as a process, an approach to living not a fixed commodity. Emily Burns curated Making It at Chisenhale (May 1999) to celebrate women choreographers. Reading the transcript of the discussion which ended this series of events, I was struck by how many of the issues were the same as those raised in the discussions at X6 and New Dance magazine such as few women choreographers with a high profile; imbalance of women choreographers programmed in festivals; women having insufficient power in dance institutions. The intention to celebrate achievements, and look at the gaps and/or absences are very similar to the those which motivated the writing of Women and Dance: Sylphs and Sirens (4) in 1992.Written as a framework for considering women's roles and relationships to and within theatre dance, it draws on methodological approaches which emerged from 70s and 80s feminism. These frameworks have been displaced by the institutionalization of feminism within the academy and somewhat superseded by shifts in the discussion of marginalization around cultural difference. Interestingly, however they still offer important insights into current developments and viewpoints. The struggle for individual success which has displaced the collective endeavours of earlier independent dance artists seems to have resulted in a context of 'reinventing the wheel' for today's artists facing marginalization.

Talking about her work, Monson says: "I feel the forms and performances I practice are marginal for many reasons, sometimes to do with social and political issues such as being a feminist, a lesbian, and improviser. My work can both be in reaction to, and in spite of, the status quo. It has always been important to me to relish in my bigness and muscularity as a woman on stage, to re-imagine what bodies can do, and what they are supposed to look like. Dance confronts the ideas of identity and body image so directly, and we all struggle with it." (5)

DG: Monson recently commented that she wonders whether there is any political relevance to her most current investigations into energetic state as a source for dance improvisation. It is this work I was keen for her to bring to Britain, along with Meier who teaches body based practices which are not explicitly political. My interest in the work stems from my involvement in the new frameworks that have been emerging throughout the 90s, which work with the experience of marginalization. Most recently the kind of work that has really inspired me has been that which finds new ways of bringing the body into view. When I think about the work of Franko B, who in his live work has used blood letting as one way to present the body, I feel put in touch with the irredeemable human body, that fragile fleshy structure upon which life depends. Physical presence holds so much potential for me. I feel released from questions of what my sex is and from the two dimensional ideals of human perfection which are produced and distributed by the contemporary media. Ideals which I feel the effect of every time someone grunts the words 'are you a man or a woman' out of a disgusted face.

Monson and Meiers work holds the potential to proliferate the ways in which the body is brought into view. Their practices are built out of techniques like authentic movement, release technique and investigative improvisation. Authentic movement offers a structure whereby the artist can let go of compositional and aesthetic concerns. Psychophysical impulses can be listened to and the body can find its own direction. Releasing work uses anatomical and other imagery to promote dancing which is not focused on external shape but provides a complex structure for developing expansive territories for movement language. Monson reports experiencing release as a way to unleash enormous amounts of power which come from a different place than sheer endurance. Investigative improvisation is not tied to predetermined notions of 'good' dancing, or 'good' art. It can provide space for a real investment in process. Meier sees her work with these practices as a way to learn to see through the body, to invoke deep multilayered personal states which enable a submitting to and attacking of the dance.

Doran George, independent practising artist and programmer and Christy Adair, freelance author and lecturer at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and University College Scarborough. Doran George would like to acknowledge discussions held with Lois Kiedan, promoter and consultant for contemporary performance and Gill Clarke, independent dance artist, which have informed this article.

Contact Doran George at dorangeorge@hotmail.com and Christy Adair at ChristyA@ucscarb.ac.uk

For further information about States of Play contact Chisenhale Dance Space on +44 (0)20 8981 6617.

References
1 Monson, Jennifer, talking about her recent improvised solo, The Glint, 1999.
2 Clarke, Gill and Gibson, Rachel, Independent Dance Review, The Arts Council of England, London, 1998.
3 Albright, Cooper, Ann, Choreographing Difference, USA, 1997.
4 Adair, Christy, Women and Dance: Sylphs and Sirens, London, 1992.
5 Manson, Jennifer, The Performance Space, Issue 13, USA, 1997.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001