Dance Goes Insane

by Neil Nisbet

Following Article19 ‘s recent experience in Vienna covering the Impulstanz festival here in the Lab we feel it’s time for a wake up call. Contemporary dance, for the most part, is just plain dull and Article19 has a radical solution, we don ‘t think a lot of dance makers are going to like it!

First of all we should probably explain just what happened at Impulstanz. If you don ‘t know, Impulstanz is a four week festival in Vienna, Austria. It’s a little different from most festivals in that they offer dozens of workshops and classes for dancers, a scholarship and mentoring programme called DanceWeb, a mini-festival for new choreographers and a large main festival for established dance companies. In short, it’s a good way to get a broad overview of what’s going on in contemporary dance.

Article19 ‘s coverage (Impulstanz Coverage ) was intended to bring you as much of the festival as we could film or photograph along with some video diaries to give our readers a bit of perspective on the workshop side of the festival. During our time in Vienna it quickly became obvious that a lot of what we were watching, in terms of the performance side of things, was less than stimulating and appeared to have all the creative energy of a can of motor oil. Article19 also had issues with some of the teaching at the workshops where again the creative energy was lacking in both variety and progression. In the end we had to admit defeat and pull the plug on our coverage.

Article19 should state that this editorial is not a criticism of Impulstanz, at least not directly, since they are not responsible for the work that is created or for the teaching methods of the workshop instructors. What we came to realise at the festival is that contemporary dance is stuck in a rut of consistent tedium where the primary goal is to see how long the audience or participants in workshops will stomach the experience before they become suitably pissed off, walk out and never come back.

In one particular performance, during the [8] Tension Series, the creator imagined that the almost sell out crowd would be more than willing to sit and watch for 10 minutes while she sat in a chair and did nothing, nothing at all. Following this period of doing nothing we were then encouraged to watch a video projection of the same woman also sitting and doing nothing, nothing at all.

As the 45 minute piece struggled on there was little or no movement to speak of and nothing that anyone would call dance, even the strongest proponent of the post-modern era would have been head butting the walls in frustration. Several audience members voted with their feet and left. Article19 however was stuck like a rat in a trap and couldn ‘t leave along with the majority of the audience.

Progressive Thinking

Progressive thinking was even less in evidence during some of the workshops. One teacher spent five days teaching the participants how to get down onto the floor and then get back up again. Most first year dance students will pick up that little gem in about 20 minutes but this character kept this particular exercise running for 10 hours over 5 days. Some people would say that this shows dedication and commitment to the craft, an overwhelming belief in a particular technique and the desire to pass that on to others.

Here in the Lab we say it shows nothing more than laziness on the part of the teacher and fundamental lack of desire to progress beyond the basics of ones’ own thinking while being arrogant enough to imagine that a room full of adults cannot get your basic premise even after doing the same exercise for 10 hours.

Attitudes in teaching matter because this type of thinking permeates the whole profession. Too many companies, choreographers and teachers are one trick ponies; In the UK; Random Dance do their weird twitchy thing in micro shorts, Akram Khan is the Khatak choreographer, Siobhan Davies does the pure movement, DV8 do the social commentary, etc, etc, ad-tedium.

Far from providing participants and audiences with a unique and varied experience they just re-use the same ideas with a new set or new costumes. Dance has become like Microsoft Windows. New versions get released every couple of years but the only changes are cosmetic because underneath the surface it’s still the same hapless piece of bug ridden code that was there before.

Some strong points were in evidence during both [8] Tension and the main festival at Impulstanz but less so during the workshops. Ballet C de La B ‘s ‘Tempus Fugit ‘ showed some flashes of inspiration in music, movement and set design but they blew it by keeping the performance running for an hour and forty five minutes. You made your point, get off the stage already!

For too long finding new thinking, clever ideas, imagination and a desire to entertain the audience in contemporary dance has become akin to looking for Iraq ‘s elusive WMD. Article19 and many in the dance profession (meaning the dancers themselves) have become weary of watching the self indulgent posturing and half baked philosophy being offered by many of today ‘s dance makers. There is nothing wrong with having big ideas for your work but where most dance performances fall flat on their collectives faces is in communicating these ideas to an audience and holding their attention all the way through the show.

It is simply not enough to have superbly talented dancers on stage when they are being asked to execute movement wrapped up in a choreographer’s banal thinking. In the same way that good actors can ‘t fix a bad script no matter how good their performance, good dancers can ‘t be expected to salvage the disjointed mutterings of dance makers.

Fundamental Problems

Contemporary dance ‘s fundamental problem has always been its ‘ complete lack of appeal to a wide ranging general audience. It has become almost impossible for Article19 to defend dance from its ‘ detractors because we know only too well that if we direct joe-public towards any randomly selected contemporary show there is a 99% chance they will come out laughing at us and hating us in equal measure for subjecting them to seventy minutes of witless “pure movement” performed to a soundtrack of Nepalese Throat Warbling and a badly written monologue where the choreographer compares himself to Buddha when in reality he ‘s just some bloke getting money from the Arts Council.

Not only is dance not appreciated by a wide audience most dance makers in the profession seem to care less that this situation persists and has persisted for decades. Otherwise what other reason would there be for the year on year precession of creative work that screams to those that could care less “we don ‘t care either!” Contemporary dance is playing to itself, it’s playing to the critics and (in this country at least) it’s playing to the Arts Council.

Article19 ‘s solution to this never ending banality is perfectly simple. Akram, Wayne, Siobhan, The Ballet Boyz, et al and the rest of the keystone cops making dance in this country it’s time to step aside (choreographers in other countries can fall on their swords at the urging of their own people). You had your chance and you blew it so thanks very much but if you wouldn ‘t mind moving along now so we can let some new people take the helm and see if they can make a better job of it.

We will excuse any company not based in London from this cull because at least two of them are making work that is, at the very least, accessible and a little bit successful, relatively speaking. The rest of the companies outside of London get to survive by default, consider yourselves lucky. Here in the Lab we feel sure that the soon to be out of work choreographers can find gainful employment in some other field, like typewriter maintenance or folding cereal boxes into animal shapes.

Telling the current; well established (or should that be entrenched) choreographic dream team that their creative services are no longer required would send a nice clear message to whomever is listening that it’s time for a change and we ‘re doing something about it. It would also send a message to those about to graduate and those dancers contemplating dipping their toe in the creative side of things that there is funding to be had in copious amounts so let your imagination run wild. Of course audiences will have to be built again which is no mean feat in this country but since the current dance audiences are so small that won ‘t take long (shouldn ‘t take more than a few days, Ed!)

The alternative is to carry on regardless but you can build all the new buildings you like, renovate all the theatres you like, run as many education programmes as you like, get DanceUK to publish another thousand reports of absolutely no consequence if you like but it won ‘t make one single person appreciate contemporary dance any more or less than they do right now.

It’s a reasonably well known fact that repeating the same actions expecting a different result is the simple definition of insanity. Put into those terms contemporary dance should have been committed to an asylum a long time ago.