April 26, 2011

Mau: Lemi Ponifasio responds to Peter Sellars

LEMI PONIFASIO in dialogue-ish with Peter Sellars

4.7.11 YBCA

(excerpts… imperfectly recalled by Keith Hennessy, Lisa Ruth Elliott, Hilary Bryan, Jenny Schaffer, compiled by KH.)

Peter Sellars: Merce & Pina are dead. People ask, Who will replace them? He’s standing right here next to me.

Describing the work of Ponifasio’s company MAU, Sellars says it’s dance-slash-theater-slash-what? The categories fade away; deeply rooted in tradition but also very contemporary. Lemi is a citizen of the world.

Then Sellars asks a really big question about the role of culture in globalization, and much more. Ponifasio does not answer the question and this is only the beginning of a relationship where two colleagues speak about the same project from two very different positions. Ponifasio’s refusal to answer questions, or to directly address Seller’s framing of the issues, becomes a kind of game among colleagues with mutual respect. It’s as if Sellars agrees to ‘play’ the white man so that Ponifasio can speak from a position of difference and resistance. He reminded me of several Native or indigenous teachers I have experienced, who resist the (white, liberal framing of the) interview process almost as a matter of principle.

Lemi Ponifasio: Why am I here? Obviously there are many good dancers in San Francisco. I don’t need to bring my song and dance here. I am here for the dialogue. The work is a place of “meeting.”

To dance, I must have a reason.

Don’t let anyone control your image.

Life is inevitable. Reality is a given.

Progress is the quality of our relationships.

We are not a company on tour. We are a delegation. We want to make a face in the world that prefers us not to have a face. If you don’t show your face in the community, you don’t belong.

Sellars: This work (Tempest: Without a body) is the best piece I’ve seen since 9/11. Can you talk about 9/11 and the clash of civilizations.

Ponifasio: To make art or theater is a way to live intensely.

I spend a lot of time in jails, prisons, courts, immigration. It’s a way to better understand where we live. Also, the people I work with are often caught up in these places.

I want to bring marginalized people to the stage – to show their face – because they belong to the community.

Sellars: Anti-terrorist legislation in New Zealand has been used against Muslims and Maori/indigenous activists.

Sellars tells the tale of an Algerian politician, a refugee in NZ, who was arrested and jailed for 4 years in NZ for no reason. His absence – from the community – became integral to the making of this work (without a body). He was eventually released. Then Tame Iti, a noted Maori activist and performer in the work, was arrested and jailed on similar anti-terrorism charges. Iti was released and was scheduled to perform in San Francisco but decided to boycott the tour to protest the US actions in Libya.

Can you talk about absence and presence in this work and with regards to a Pacific Island cultural context?

Ponifasio: There is no presence. There is no absence. The ancestors are always with us. Intertwined. In performance we weave our genealogy back to source.

Oratory is not speaking. It is creating an opening where you can go… and then speaking something aloud. Orators create culture. They are the best liars. Orators are very good at weaving genealogies – even people who don’t belong together. They stand in the space of history, culture, … they decide on the kind of space. They activate the space, what space we are going to be in. Artists are similar. (He says something more critical about orators also, as tricksters, as if they need to be watched closely because they can manipulate situations to their own ends…)

To be human there must be a bigger cause. To be an activist is to work beyond your self. What is human is the urgency for a better life, this is progress. Progress is not a technological idea, it is a human idea. I search for the ways we activate beauty. Being human is presenting your life, being present.

(Hilary Bryan recalled this section as:

Humans have this urge within us. Dance originates in the community. There is an [we feel an?] urgent need for something -- justice, a better life. Making theater is a way to improve the quality of life. A way to see the world more beautifully. A form of activism. This is their (artists’) expression of hope.)

To dance is to have a second chance. Like making a sculpture from metal found in the trash. It has a new life. It implies hope. To dance is to have new life -- to present life and to be present.

Sellars: Lemi is always challenging tourism, it’s aesthetics and ideology. This piece does not take place in a South Pacific paradise but in the dark, with loud metallic sound.

Ponifasio: My work is black and white because I’m colorblind. No other reason. It's not bleak, not hopeless. I don’t trust color.

Sellars: You heard what he said about artists, orators…

Ponifasio: Black and white is a more refined way to intensify focus in the theater.

I’m trying to fight your thoughts. To fight the images you have in your head. To fight the image of the world you have, to get to your pre-thoughts. Your thoughts are from ego. I’m trying to make you absent from your image of yourself. I want to appear in your pictures, not have you put your pictures on me, not have pictures dictate…

The drama is not onstage or in your head, but in the middle where we meet. Hope.

The second word in that name is the most important -- human being. Only when we are tiny little babies are we really human beings. After that we become human doings.

Sellars: …talks about the dark, about the night, about how indigenous people don’t turn on the light at night because it would prevent spirits from coming, that one must learn to see in the dark because if you turn a light on it means you are afraid of spirits that come in the darkness…

(He tried this morphing question several times):
Can you talk about morphing? What is at stake in how people move? And how they move into mythic space?

Ponifasio: The performers are not there to represent, but to present, themselves. It’s important. The performers are there to activate the space. When we are activating space, we are working with expanding and contracting the feeling.

Sellars: …talks about cast members from an island (Kiribati?) disappearing due to global warming and rising seas. They have no drinking water. Nothing will grow and they no longer have any work. So they wait for monthly food shipments. Otherwise they move to NZ and often work for the same aluminum factory that was formerly based on their home island.

Ponifasio: I’m not here to promote a particular culture. Whenever Kiribati’s dance and sing I think to myself, 'That is the last song they'll ever sing.' This is the reality of how what you do here (in the US) affects the reality over there. So I'm here to intervene in your actions.

Sellars: Can you speak to solitary confinement, Guantanamo, CIA, anti-terrorism…? The new torture leaves no marks on the body. It is designed to prevent the tortured from functioning as human beings in the future. Using sensory deprivation to destabilize the human. It’s the ‘refinement’ of torture.

Ponifasio: Guantanamo (and other post 9/11 actions) are a result of emotional impoverishment. In our society we have no empathy. We don’t know how to relate. So the work is about being human. When we understand how to be human, how to relate, we'll all rise up to the clouds.

Today power is at the expense of someone else’s power. That’s also true about safety, one person’s safety is at the expense of another’s. We lose the protection of reverence.

But our relationships are intertwined together.

The country with the biggest military is the most insecure.

We are not politicians in the theater, but we don't want to be outside of politics.

People sometimes tell me, "oh. Lemi, but your work is so political" [silence -- as if to say. of course. the world is political. all art is political. all being is political. showing up is political.]

[Somewhere in here was Lemi's description of Paul Klee's angel (referenced in the program, and quoted below) and how during the creation process the angel sort of morphed into a shag, a bird, an ugly seabird that wanders without a home. This bird is an important image in one of the cultures his collaborators bring.]

Sellars: Can you talk about the meaning of Mau? And the role of standing up and walking forward in your work?

Ponifasio: Who we are is in front of ourselves, not in the past. You shouldn’t hide behind your tattoos or history of pain and colonization. In the piece the dancers stand up to their full height, and walk forward. From here they present who they are, it is not a performance.

Mau is presence, identity, vision, what does it mean to be who I am? Mau means strong opinion, even revolution. What is my mau to the world? What is it to be Samoan, to show my face? Mau means to present your truth.

(When Ponifasio speaks of indigenous, he says it “in quotations”.)

I am suspicious of people who label themselves as indigenous. Indigenous is often an excuse to be lazy. What does it mean to be what you claim to be? Does it mean you have a special relationship to the land and sea? Or are you just claiming resources?

What does it mean to be Maori? I challenge the people I’m supposed to represent.

The Pacific Islands as a place of firsts: to be hit by "globalization", to experience the devastation of global warming.

MAU is constant looking at things that are forbidden, useless, or meant to be forgotten: language, ceremony, relationship…

Your friend Margaret Meade created this creature that is always making love on the beach. Or dancing. Samoans don’t dance except in ceremony. Or for tourists.


And here’s the Benjamin quote about the angel of progress (also quoted in Angels in America):

"A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress," - Walter Benjamin.

April 4, 2011

Alexandra Wallace - Flashpoint - Race in USA

Here are some of my favorite responses to Alexandra Wallace, the UCLA poli sci student who, during the stress of exam week, uploaded an anti-Asian rant. If you haven't seen her Youtube video, here's the re-posting which had received over 5 million hits in about 2 weeks.

In the following Youtube responses, consider how these youth are rehearsing for systemic resistance via media activism. I'm pretty sure we will consider this a turning point in Asian identity in the US, a rousing defense of place and belonging, and a profound rejection of everyday white supremacy.

Jesse Hewit pointed out the messy sexism and femme-ism that is part of the attack on Alexandra Wallace. Philip Huang says, "Racism + misogyny = the perfect storm, right?" Note how many of the respondents call her a bitch and a slut, over and over again.

Here is a video that Sam Aranke told me about, in which the actual families (or should I say "hoards!") participate, but the mix of 'real' parents and 'people playing family' is brilliant. Their language parody could be a direct quote of a La Pocha Nostra video from 10 or 15 years ago. The current youth/media generation gets political satire, camp, media analysis and video production the way I learned to do multiplication tables. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPWy4iuxjQ4&feature=related

The song guy. I can't fully explain it but I have cried, not once but twice, watching this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zulEMWj3sVA

Asian guy just goes off: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbvDMYdEx8s&feature=fvsr

Parody by Asian girl in 'white blond drag' with both a Mexican and a holocaust joke, righteous!

Philip Huang asks, where are all the Asian performance artists? Ummm they're in school at UCLA and across the US making post-Margaret Cho videos! Here is one of the future comic geniuses of America.

And here is another: somewhat funny, full of rage and sexist crap mixed up:

And I love this white guy's cheap drag.

Isn't it amazing how many people - despite being raised in the most reactionary and racist/nationalist contexts - actually get what racism is, how stupid and anachronistic it is, and are willing to demonstrate their resistance to it, and their solidarity with non-white people. I wish I could find the video of the white girl who imitates Alexandra in a very smart parody/deconstruction, but there are now hundreds of response vids and I can't locate it.

Too many respondents (and Philip Huang) comment on Alexandra's boobs. This video takes it the furthest. He would get an A- from me for this well-sampled detournement. He doesn't get the A because he doesn't comment on his own comment on the boobs.

And on and on and on....

February 12, 2011

Deadly Disappointing Eonnagatta


Conceived & performed by Sylvie Guillem, Robert Lepage, Russell Maliphont

Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances, UC Berkeley

Feb 10, 8pm

Two hours of folkloric performance – storytelling, shadow dancing, masks, dance, martial arts – appropriated in the service of hoity-toity art. Brook would have referred to this bourgeois exercise as deadly theater, meaning soulless or no longer relevant to today’s audiences and issues. But slapping this production with the label of deadly is a complicated move. The makers of this performance and the tactics they celebrate (with their considerable personal and financial investment) are heavily influenced by Brook’s generation of dance, theater, art, and social experimentation. What went wrong? I mean besides the gentrification of the world through a corporate takeover of government and society? It’s as if these students of the experimental dance and theater of the 60s and 70s forgot to attend the course on co-optation. Then they skipped the seminars with Chomsky (on how consent is manufactured), Lourde (the masters tools), Gramsci (revealing the workings of cultural hegemony), Debord (how spectacles participate in spectacular society), and any number of anarcha-feminist collective workshops that might have helped them to see how their project is much more invested in fame, status, neo-classical modernism and money than it is in art, communitas, experimentation or social change.

Discussing with artist friends and colleagues afterwards, it was easy to agree that there had been several lovely or curious moments. Guillem’s shadow dance, and especially her exit when lifting the curtain to reveal the light. Guillem’s dancing in the voluminous but feather-light and translucent white kimono. Guillem manipulated with long sticks and carried off. Guillem’s feet on almost every step, extension, slide, and kick. My favorite moment came within the first two minutes of the performance when Guillem messed up her rhyming text, stopped, apologized, attributed the mistake to jet lag, and then repeated her narrative from the beginning. L Cohen says: there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. After this illuminative slip we pretty much stayed in the dark.

$70 tickets for a performance at a public university is a kind of theft. Even if the average ticket price was $50 and the place wasn’t completely full at 2000 people, the door receipts for two nights was well over $100,000, probably $150,000. What was the fee for this trio of stars and their technical entourage? When we exited the theater, animated by our mutual critiques and frustrations, we saw a stretch limo waiting outside the artists’ door with Black driver a ‘waiting. This poetic image clarified the ruling class ambitions of the performers. For a brief moment I thought it could be kitsch. One person talked about his sibling’s central California friends getting a stretch Hummer limo as a peek experience. But no, sadly, these are the kind of artists for whom the limousine is an expectation, a right that they’ve earned and by the way, you haven’t.

Because this performance, or my experience of it, doesn’t deserve more attention, here is a list of my notes:

• poorly performed Asian theater and martial art appropriations

• a mostly synchronized dance on tables, like a cheap copy of something more risky and playful by Scott Wells. We got to say, look she’s 45 and still has her extension!

• an interesting telling of the indigenous ideas of the sun as father, the earth as mother, and the moon as middlesexed

• Guillem’s feet really are amazing

• this is some high art shit that if performed by lesser known artists would be laughed off the stage (and the grant panel.)

• Maliphont sings. One could imagine that this is his first time doing so on stage.

• after a stylized conversation between Guillem and Lepage, the performers repeat the scene without text, extending the gestures, lovely.

• the whole thing is so precious despite the bawdy jokes and techniques of poor and popular performance

• it’s a kind of mimicry or representation of the popular, so we barely laugh and we definitely don’t cry, and when it’s over the triumph is all theirs and not ours

• I’m not the only one here who started working at 8am and is now falling asleep. (This was verified when chatted afterwards.) Who else can stay awake through this drowsy sad music?

• Costumes by Alexander McQueen. Really excellent tights that they each wore as a kind of base layer for all the more extravagant costumes. Sexy, design-y, useful and revealing. The extra padding at Guillem’s crotch was a delightful detail. The couture doctor’s gowns during the autopsy scene seemed more like a fashion joke, like, “Oh look there’s still another $1500 in the costume budget. Can we have a couple of futuristic doctor’s gowns? Cool. Thanks.”

• Too bad the whole thing wasn’t campy – same performers, text, costumes – but a really different relationship to the audience and to the story. Then we could have laughed along with the limo. Instead we had nothing to say but a weak fuck you.


In an email response to this review, Monique Jenkinson wrote, “and the myth of sun, earth & intersex moon, while lovely, was so much better done in Hedwig,” referring to the Plato-inspired song and animation in the brilliant film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) by John Cameron Mitchell & Stephen Trask. I agree. Hedwig was better than Eonnagata in a hundred ways, but most importantly in seducing or convincing us to give a shit about gender, desire, difference, theater and the ways that citizenship, art, sexuality and gender construct each other.

January 26, 2011

Top 10 Youtubes, Jan 2011

Pop minstrels, corporate domination, and teenage puppets:

A quick look at the top 10 youtube hits of all time (as of Jan 1, 2011)

I just watched the top ten youtubes of all time so that you wouldn't have to. There's still DIY content available on youtube but the top ten is mostly a story of domination by pop cult machinery constructing and exploiting nearly every teenage click of global computer access.

Here's the link if you want to watch while you read:

1. Justin Bieber – Baby featuring Ludacris

Over 400 million hits for this pop puppet’s banal reproductions of heteronormative corn syrup (of course from GMO corn). Who teaches kids to repeat such ludicrous crap as, I thought you’d be forever mine? And isn’t it embarrassing each time a white pop star gets so famous that they can ask almost any (of course not Prince or Mary…) black artist to appear in their videos? And what about the pushing between baby J and his love interest, the lightly mixed race yet still exotic (of course!) rising teen star Jasmine V? The dance battle of the sexes is both banal and archetypal and though it’s a non-representative moment I really appreciated the one b-girl’s throw down. But the pushing is totally unnecessary, annoying really, in its implications that a little physical struggle is all cool in this new rainbow world where all the colors go bowling together and dance hip hop together. And where sexual difference is both erased (boys and girls are equal and not that different really) while structurally reinforced (girls are still really not equal and very very different from boys). A similar dynamic of hegemony/erasure (where we can’t recognize the power inequity because everyone seems so nice and friendly) explains the simultaneous racial unity and white supremacy encoded in almost each moment of the video. Why anyone puts up with Bieber’s bad dancing is kinda stupefying. Oh yeah it makes his cuteness seem even cuter cuz he’s like fragile and sensitive and white and shit. Bieber’s best friend status goes of course to a young black man, which is then reinforced by the big brother carnival of domination by Ludacris (who’s got whom in a headlock?). The closing images of hip street handshakes with Ludacris and exit-stage-left-arm-in-arm with the suddenly forgiving and giving Jasmine V complete the poor little straight white boy fantasia.

Question: Are Bieber’s minstrelsy and wannabe black(face) appropriations any worse than early Beatles? If not, is there any chance he’ll take acid, spend time in India, and come up with something like Revolution #9 or John’s Working Class Hero?

(Like Justin, I’m Canadian and we’re not supposed to crit our own people in front of Americans. It’s a Canadian thing, you wouldn’t…)

2. Lady Gaga – Bad Romance

Over 300 million views. This video is a lot harder to hate than the machinery disguised by the mask of Justin Bieber, although it’s no less formulaic. Gaga enjoys playing with her social construction and even occasionally enjoys fighting against it; either way she lets us know that she’s in on it. Lady G does everything Madonna took 10 years to do in about 2 minutes, shamelessly pilfering and referencing at a dizzying speed. During the 5-minute spectacle I was reminded of Julia Kristeva (woman as monster), Leigh Bowery (the shoes and some of the masked head pieces), Madonna, ball culture (bath haus of gaga), Marilyn Manson, Michael Jackson (Thriller’s zombies emerge from the tanning beds/graves), UK latex/rubber SM fashion, Damian Hirst (excess of diamonds), RuPaul (walk walk baby – repeat)

Points off for all the synchronized frontal dancing which really locates the dancing in a reactionary pop aesthetic, anachronistic when situated in context with her more contemporary visual and fashion arts. And further points off for the Nemiroff & other product placements, although the sheer cynicism of this promotional crap is a kind of radical hubris that might delight some pomo perspectives.

3. Shakira – Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)

Over 270 million hits for the official song of the 2010 World Cup – the most popular sports event in the world. Another embarrassing white-looking person dancing themselves into an Africanist context. Stuart Derdeyn from The Province referred to Waka Waka as “sonic vomit” (which could also describe Bieber’s upchucked purging of music capitalism’s relentless over-consumption.)

Born in Columbia, of Euro and Lebanese descent, Shakira performs the universal (white-ish) citizen in a peaceful harmonious world that somehow respects and reflects an Africa that the spectacles of world economics have long dismissed as a toilet for their toxic shit.

"People are raising their expectations. Today’s your day, I feel it. You paved the way, believe it. If you get down, get up."

Waka Waka, based on a Cameroonian song, includes elements of Columbian and Afro-Caribbean music, supported by a South African band in a big happy pablum of liberal humanist world music. The title means ‘do it’ and has all the empty meaning of a Nike slogan. This video/song/advertisement is banal, cheap, and repetitive, demonstrating less than half the effort of Paul Simon’s problematic projects in South Africa. It’s fitting that the last line is delivered with the volume fading to nothing: We’re all Africa. We’re all Africa…

4. Charlie bit my finger – again!

Watching this video gives me hope that some kind of revolutionary values and inspiration are possible with youtube and the mass marketing of free (alienated, exploited) consumer-provided content. Truly. Watch the underdog delight in biting the hand that feeds. Watch the lion tamer reveal that he doesn’t actually control the jaws of the lion in which he has placed his stupid head. Charlie bit his finger and he will do it again. Dumb by the standards of the ruling class, Charlie’s grunts and giggles articulately expose the monster behind his infantilized façade. A one-minute parable of the British Empire, still trying to hold on to decorum while the savages are sitting in their lap.

5. Eminem Love the Way You Lie featuring Rihanna

This is Bieber’s adolescent pushing match all grown up. The pushing enhanced to frustrated violence complete with the woman spitting into the man’s face, of course followed by lusty macking, and peace keeping offers of cute stuffed animals.

Now I know we said things / Did things / That we didn't mean
And we fall back / Into the same patterns / Same routine
But your temper's just as bad / As mine is / You're the same as me

Eminem has written this story before. I love you. I hate you. If you try to leave I’ll tie you to the bed and set the house on fire. I know I’m prone to violence and will always end up lying. But it seems like he’s on automatic pilot here, lacking the dangerous fragility he performed before he was so muscular in body and bank account.

It's worth praising that the characters in this video aren’t rich. They don’t live in an idealized world of rainbow children united. There is no reference to the ruling class fashion runway. And there’s no stupid dancing. Favorite performance moment is Eminem in the background of Rihanna as she sings the chorus, and Rihanna dancing alone behind Eminem as he raps.

I got a soft spot for this angry sensitive fucked up lower class boy-man. I do. I think it could work out between us. I’d calm his fist and still give him space to rage. And he knows it. That’s why he flirts with and defends faggotry/Elton/Bruno, just to show us that he can, that he’s man enough. There’s something dramatic, talented, and trashy about both Rihanna and Eminem and I think it’s hot that their PR people have them standing right next to each other without any effort to fake a relationship. That’s the most honest connection I’ve seen so far in these first 5 super-viewed videos.

6. Justin Bieber – One Time

Two little white boys playing video games interrupted when JB gets a call from Usher. What? Then some stupid sucky singing happens with images of a crowded tweener party and some silly-string. I jump ahead, a girl in shorty shorts kisses JB on the cheek. Usher shows up, surveys the scene like he’s a chaperone. The little rich boy looks at us, raises arms waist high to say yup, this shit is for real, that’s Usher and I’m on top of the world. This song and video might be syrupy treacle but it doesn’t offend like Baby.

7. Miley Cyrus – Party in the U.S.A.

Cowboy boots, American cars, a rainbow coalition of hot girls, a reference to a Jay-Z song. Yup it’s a party in the U.S.A. This is country pop music, once-removed, under the influence of Britney and formula pop. The massive stars and stripes unfurl to remind the red state homeboys that all’s OK despite the contagions of multiracial socializing and acrobatic b-boys. Miley Ray Cyrus was born Destiny Hope Cyrus in 1992. Somehow that says a lot.

8. Eminem – Not Afraid

170 million views for the newly remade face of Eminem. What the fuck? The same chin sculpture that MJ tragically tried to wear. I really miss his boyishly round face. He looks in mirrors and touches his face, and wonders what the hell is going on. Right. Then he crashes through the mirror but there is no Tommy liberation/transformation despite the CGI flying sequence that follows. Eminem is all alone here, no woman to blame or to be shamed by, no poverty or lack of power to flail against.

Sounding more like Bieber or Cyrus than Eminem the chorus spews nicely: “I’m not afraid to take a stand. Come take my hand. You’re not alone.” This bullshit pop insults the poem that once was a rage worth acknowledging.

9. The Evolution of Dance by Judson Laipply

And while I’m being nostalgic, I miss the days when the top viewed youtubes were almost all single-take vids of dancers. Laipply is an original youtube star and I’m glad to see him still in the top 10 with 160 million views. I’d bet that more people have seen The Evolution of Dance than have seen the previous vids, watched repeatedly by conformist tween consumers aware that every time they hit repeat they’re boosting the numbers.

Laipply’s dancing is a delight. We’re surprised by a balding white dude, just chunky enough to make us think that he won’t have loose hips, let alone a fab sense of humor and shameless style. He’s a white everyman approaching pop culture with an irony that is too lacking in the rest of the videos in this list. it’s important that he refuses to dance the Macarena but he lets the music play long enough to remind us that we were not immune to its contagion. In his playful embodiment, imitation is less minstrel and appropriation, and more of a lite critical citation. I mean it’s not incredible comedy or dancing, it’s just not bullshit and somehow that makes it great, contextually speaking.

10. Pitbull – I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)

Biggest boobs in the top 10. And probably the vid least viewed by white suburban US American girls. Calle Ocho is a bilingual and repetitive dance hit (chorus: I know you want me, you know I wancha) with gansta rap sylings (boobs, luxury bed, boobs, cool daddy). Mixing a few successful formulae and samples from various sources, the hook of this song is bouncy and fun. I’d dance to it at a party and I bet most of you would, also. Other than boobs and cool daddy, this video doesn’t have much happening. Occasionally a graphic of a Cuban flag passes across the screen.

Calle Ocho is a landmark street in Little Havana, Miami. Pitbull is an American rapper of Cuban parents who allegedly exposed the little 'bull (Armando) to the revolutionary poetry of José Martí. Pit’s non-middle class cred includes time in foster care and teen drug dealing. He says that a pit bull is too stupid to lose, and is outlawed in Dade County, just like he is.

I didn’t know this artist before going through this list. I had heard of Bieber, Cyrus and Shakira but had never heard/seen them. A little wiki goes a long way. It took me 3 hours to watch these videos and write these nearly 2000 words.

January 19, 2011

Dance.Eats.Money. - Ishmael Houston-Jones on The A.W.A.R.D. Show

Originally written for Issue 2 of the Salt Lake City journal LEARNING TO loveDANCEmore: MANIFESTO.

Dance. Eats. Money.
by Ishmael Houston-Jones

“Imagine So You Think You Can Dance without the flashing lights, screaming fans and millions of TV viewers, and voilà: The A.W.A.R.D. (Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance) Show,” wrote Apollinaire Scherr in the Financial Times. From the first time I heard about the A.W.A.R.D. Show I have been uneasy with the idea. A young choreographer whom I had mentored called me one afternoon and asked if I were free that evening. He had purchased tickets to something called the Award Show being held at the Joyce SoHo in New York and one person for whom he’d bought a ticket couldn’t attend. Not knowing what it was, I said I’d go. When I got there it was clear that I had been invited expressly to vote for his piece. This illustrates just one of the flaws I see in the concept of the A.W.A.R.D. Show and its Salt Lake City spin-off, Sugar Show.

First, anything that gets money into the pockets of dance makers so that they can create their art cannot be dismissed as a bad thing at the outset, right? Then, why does the notion of these shows leave me with such mixed feelings? Obviously the concept chafes against my latent socialistic principles of equitable distribution of the goods. But other means of funding artists such as grants and fellowships are not 100% impartial and unbiased. However I’ve sat on many choreographers’ panels for both foundations and government agencies, and I’ve always observed an almost neurotic need for them to be fair at every step of the processes. And although the audience of voters at the Sugar / A.W.A.R.D. Shows is given P.O.E.M., (Potential, Originality, Execution, Merit), as criteria, it’s hard to believe that most people will come to the show and not vote for either their friends or for those choreographers whose work is most aligned with their own aesthetics. Over the years I’ve been solicited to come and “vote for my piece” by more than one fretful choreographer.

But assuming that people are able to put their familial and artistic allegiances aside, there is another issue – does one’s immediate visceral response to work always point to work that is good? From my own experience I would have to say probably not. Often the better work is the work I didn’t get instantaneously; work that I had to go home and actually think about; debate with my friends; let it hit me days/weeks/months after. Work that entertains me right away can be superficially funny or poignant, but it can be just that – superficial. I admit that I can be incredibly shallow and sucked in by cheap sentiment. In another art form, Latter Days, a 2003 tearjerker movie about a relationship between a closeted Mormon missionary and his openly gay neighbor made me well up and reach for the tissues. Clearly it could win my vote in some indie film Award-type Show. But is this great, or even good, filmmaking? I don’t think so.

Last fall I attended the A.W.A.R.D. Show in NYC with Lindsey Drury who had competed with the SLC originated improv group GoGoVertigoat; they had been eliminated on a previous evening. We had our little pencils and were to help choose a $10,000 winner from among 3 very similar, well-executed pieces. It seemed so arbitrary that one piece got the big prize, the other two got one thousand dollars apiece, and the nine “losers” from the preliminary nights got zilch. The work that won, a piece by Helen Simoneau, was a finely crafted solo for the choreographer; I’ve seen other work by Helen so I know she has choreographic chops. But was this quiet unassuming solo really worth 10 times more cash than the other two pieces? I can’t honestly find the justification. It would have been just as fair, and more honest, to draw her name from a fish bowl and admit that the Show was the Lottery that it is. Paradoxically, in my opinion, one advantage the SLC Sugar Show has over the other A.W.A.R.D. Shows is that it bestows a lot less money to the “winning work.” But it also gives technical support toward mounting a performance of the piece. So the disparity between “winner” and “losers” isn’t so great and the “winner” definitely gets a show out of the deal.

Another complaint I have with the Artists With Audiences Responding to Dance Show concept is the basic disingenuousness that feedback is the rationale for its existence. All the advertisements and the preshow lecture stressed the value of the audience feedback ad nauseum. We were told how much our thoughts and opinions meant to the choreographers in the development of their work. Now, I curate a works-in-progress series in NYC, (DraftWork at Danspace Project), and there is a talkback session after work is shown there, so it is my turn to be a little hypocritical and admit that I think that this form of feedback is of little value to most choreographers. As a choreographer myself I’ve found this to be true. (I think of DraftWork as an audience education activity.) This was borne out by the panel of experts the night I attended the A.W.A.R.D. Show. As much as the moderator tried to get them to say the opposite, the four panelists were pretty much in agreement that there first needs to be trust built between a critic and an artist before the artist can accept feedback. The artist needs to know the critic’s prejudices and preferences. Getting indiscriminate comments, (positive, negative, or neutral), from random strangers immediately after performing must be taken with a gargantuan grain of salt. This was most strongly voiced by panelist Kate Weare, A.W.A.R.D. Show winner, 2007. The value of performing work-in-progress before a public is simply “performing work-in-progress before a public;” a good artist can take the temperature of the room and feel if the piece is effective or not. This is the usefulness of series like Mudson/Judson; there is no public feedback, just the act of dancing in front of an interested audience. But I can’t see how when performing knowing that you are being judged, and there is a large amount of cash at the end of that judgment, cannot muddy both one’s artistic intent and the point of view of those judging.

In a mini-manifesto Lindsey Drury warns against:

The problem with teaching artists to please.
The problem with teaching audiences to be pleased.
The problem with the tyranny of liking.

A final flaw, but a significant one, is the potential for these kinds of competitions to have a negative impact on the fragile ecology of a dance community. In a field where there are far too few resources compared to the need, do we really want to institutionalize a Darwinist environment in which choreographers are pitted against choreographers in a gladiatorial fight to the finish? An environment where the audience is subtly encouraged to respond more like the fans at a Utah Jazz game than supporters of an art form? In our post post-show emails Lindsey wrote to me, “If (the audience gets) what they want – and the A.W.A.R.D. Show seeks to do just that – dance will end up resembling a floral arrangement; it will be unobtrusive and frictionless.”

The late choreographer Arnie Zane once said, “Dance eats money.” So what to do with the thousands of dollars that organizers in several cities across the country have raised to support the work of (winning) choreographers? Surely I don’t think that that money should not go to deserving artists. Of course not. But in my world-view, I favor a more equitable sharing of funds. If, for example, in the NYC show could the allocation of the $12K have been 6 to the “winner” and 3 each to the other finalists? But this would still leave the “losers” with nothing which Claudia Lo Roco in the NY Times reminds us is the “ugly downside to this contest, especially given that dancers and choreographers are rarely adequately compensated for their labor…” Perhaps the Sugar Show model could be used and improved upon so that more than one “winning” piece could get full production and administrative support. Maybe we need to think of more and better paradigms. Dance provocateur Keith Hennessy posits:

“Do we make our own celebrity judge events that mimic - however poorly - the televised spectacle with its star making machinery or do we queer the forms to privilege creation, community, collaboration, and long term sustainability of the dance ecologies?”

One existing new model is SQUART – short for Spontaneous Queer Art. It takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area and was originally conceived by Laura Arrignton out of the desire “to foster community and to create work without preciousness.” SQUART’s format is simple— people who have RSVPed show up at 6 pm and split into four teams; they are given a list of criteria or themes and two hours to make a piece. The four teams create new works from 6 – 8 pm; their process of creation is transparent to the audience, meaning the public is invited to come early and watch them compose their pieces. At 8 pm whatever has been produced is performed. There aren't directors / choreographers / performers in delineated roles; the performers don’t even know who they'll be working with until they get to the theater that night. A panel of judges then comments on the work. There’s a $200 prize for the winning team. According to the event website “It’s usually incredible, creative, inspiring, fun, and always bizarre.” Admission at the door is typically $5 – $20, sliding scale. The idea of a competition is still present, but it’s the act of creation that is forefront. It happens several times a year so the wealth gets spread. But Laura admits that, “big problems are ones of resources. The Award Shows are built around heaping resources on a singular spot, and not just $, but (the idea of) ‘bests’ … work gets boring when everything is structured towards being the best... I'd imagine if SQUART had $10,000 attached to it, it would quickly turn into something that resembles the A.W.A.R.D. Show.”

What other examples can we imagine? I just feel in my gut, that emulating So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Crew, Dance Your Ass Off, etc. is not the healthiest path for our community to take.

Ishmael Houston-Jones is a dancer, teacher, and writer whose intensely physical improvisations have been a staple of New York's contemporary dance scene for over three decades.