Content, Concepts, and Conveyance: Rebecca Hadley's Thesis–a guest blog

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I was inspired to write my senior thesis for dance on choreographers Ralph Lemon and William Forsythe after reading an article by performance and media choreographer Johannes Birringer (Dance and Not Dance). He discusses his dissatisfaction with certain pieces performed at a 2004 dance festival in Nottingham, England; these pieces involved little dance movement, falling under the category of what iscalled “Konzepttanz” in Europe—work that questions the definition of dance and movement as a medium of expression. This is work that is, as Nicole said in her earlier post, the opposite of “tricks and beautiful lines”—it can be dull, and it may prompt one to think that it might as well be anyone on the stage. But the type of dancing thatis impressive and virtuosic often still lacks something, and I find myself bored while watching.

Birringer provided a model for me to attempt to articulate why certain performances are satisfying and what can be offered by dance works that don’t abandon dancing to convey concepts and also do not completely abandon concepts in favor of technically-difficult and entertaining dancing. This sort of contemporary dance work involves a creative, collaborative, and complex process and results in a performance that can hold the attention of the audience and hopefully communicate some of the ideas that went into its creation. It seemed to me that William Forsythe’s choreography fit the bill, particularly his work since the mid-to late-1990s, which is less balletic in appearance than his earlier works, but does not abandon technically-difficult movement.

Forsythe’s latest works include nearly as much non-movement material (such as screens and projections, and spoken word and song) as movement material; this can be disorienting to audiences who expect to see lush movement set to music. I wanted to look at how and when Forsythe and his dancers are able and unable to convey to the audience the many concepts implicated in the creation of their works. I also wanted to look at the ways in which they keep dance relevant as a way to explore and express some of the concepts.

In my thesis, I looked at three of his works—Eidos: Telos (1995), Decreation (2003), and I don’t believe in outer space (2008). It was these latter two that I used as examples of successful translations from the collaborative process to performances on the proscenium stage. I’m glad Nicole included a link to the New York Times review of I don’t believe in outer space from The Forsythe Company’s performance at BAM last October. I was actually a bit shocked when I read it. The review had more to do with a personal dislike for Forsythe’s choreography than with the piece itself. If paid critics won’t even give their attention to a work and really engage with it, how can we expect audiences to pay attention? The idea that a dance needs to be “understood” is silly to me. Instead, as Riley Watts suggested in his interview, audiences should give attention to the work, to the aural and visual elements that hopefully have some conceptual resonance, if that is the intention of the choreographer. This work is not over the heads of the theater-going public, but this work does demand a willingness to use one’s eyes, ears, and mind at performances.

Dance is not useful only to express that which cannot be expressed with words; it is a legitimate medium to explore concepts that we may already discuss in language. Each body is unique, but a body is something that we all have in common. As we physically explore the world each day, and take in aural and visual information, how can we also use our bodies to articulate some of the notions we have come to form? Some of the most challenging concepts are also the most universal. Furthermore, they are often physicalized. Chaos, order, disintegration, pleasure, and sadness can all be observed on a bodily level.

And as Forsythe’s I don’t believe in outer space demonstrates, we do not need to abandon language for dance. They can be used in tandem, movement giving shape to words and words giving meaning to movement. One scene in the piece included a monologue featuring the repetition of many phrases including “as if by chance.” The speaker questions our notions of the formation and disintegration of our universe. How can things be thrown up; how can they just fall down? Endlessly form, fall apart, and re-form? Forsythe seems to be asking: how can the stage and the human body function as representations of the galaxy? The dancers group and regroup, enter and exit the stage, fall down, jump up, and move in seemingly endless combinations of movement, on an individual/bodily level, and as a group. The performance includes the text, which is an aural illumination of what is happening visually. The function of the text is not explanatory, but through the repetitions of words and phrases and the disjointed nature of the monologue, the audience is equipped with an array of suggestions and associations.

Forsythe also did something interesting and suggestive with the set design. On the right side of the stage is a room, its walls crowded with decorations. Most of the room remains just out of sight and it is easily forgotten, until it emits light or dancers move into it. It is off stage, but still part of it. The use of the wings as part of the set (and the partial concealment of that space), allows a simultaneous presence and absence of performers. They are there, offstage, just beyond what we can see, in a realm that we do not understand. They remain because they linger in our minds, not because we see them; we remember their presence on the stage and anticipate seeing them again. This tension between presence and absence and the inclusion of the unknown in the performance are ways that Forsythe uses the stage to explore his ideas about mortality. This is an intelligent use of the space, and one that resonates with a reality that we all share. I will continue to enjoy Forsythe’s work, even if that means—according to Alastair Macaulay—that I’m congratulating myself on my own smartness.

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Showing 6 comments
  • Stephanie

    Rebecca, so proud to have you as a part of Dd. Interesting thesis.

  • candice

    “we do not need to abandon language for dance.” Thank you for this quote and congratulations! I have been a big fan of his last few shows seen at BAM’s Next Wave: i don’t believe in outerspace, Decreation, and Kammer Kammer (which I saw two nights in a row I enjoyed it so much the first time and I credit it for helping me along to a life changing decision!) and found so myself just nodding my head as I was reading this brilliant distillation. Presence and absence. Inclusion of the unknown. Words I have never said but now cannot get out of my brain. I was at your thesis presentation, but it is so great to read these words and I am glad you have shared them with our Dd community!

  • David

    This is excellent, Rebecca. I too think the notion that conceptual dance and virtuoso dance are somehow opposed is a false dichotomy. I often find that work identified as “conceptual” doesn’t actually pose questions about what dance is or is not but merely labors apart from convention. There is also, too often, not a discernible concept. Sometimes it’s just concept-free, “undance”.

  • candice

    This makes me question: is this false dichotomy unique to dance? In visual art and writing, I feel like any strong virtuosic technique is always encouraged and even somehow required to be backed up with a strong concept in order to be successful. Is it the physicality and the body that has made this marriage with concept more rare and/or difficult?

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  • […] The Columbia dance major wrote a guest blog for DIYdancer back in February on her senior thesis, Content, Concepts, and Conveyance; in which she uses William Forsythe’s work to examine “successful translations from the […]

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