BWW Review: SOCIETY OF DANCE HISTORY SCHOLARS' Special Topics Conference
The Society of Dance History Scholars' Special Topics Conference, Contemporary Ballet: Exchanges, Connections, and Directions, gathered an international cohort of scholars, artists, and educators in New York City on May 20-21, 2016. Curators Jill Nunes Jensen of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel of the Royal Academy of Dance in London initially collaborated on the 2015 issue of Conversations across the Field of Dance Studies: Network of Pointes. From that endeavor, they worked with artistic advisor Lynn Garafola to stage the conference. With over fifty presenters, conference attendees engaged in a vibrant discourse on ballet structure, technique(s), and form; race; gender; and, sustainability at New York University's Center for Ballet and the Arts and Barnard College, Columbia University. As inquiries on defining contemporary ballet launched, scholars referenced Thomas F. DeFrantz, on the "assumption that dance is a unified thing." How can the field define its work from within, when the process is an ever-producing labyrinth of possibilities and experiences?
In their joint papers probing liminality in ballet, Julia Gleich and Molly Faulkner quoted Selma Jeanne Cohen's 1982 reflections on Swan Lake: "The ballet has not survived in its pristine state, but it has survived; some continuing strain of recognizable identity has been preserved." In considering ballet as a philosophy, history, and practice, Gleich and Faulkner determined that through an "overdose of technique...dancers are overly proficient, and fill in all the gaps," thereby limiting the choreographic process. In addition to a panel on pedagogical resources and practices, other presenters recognized emerging trends and influences as seen in Elisa Davis' paper on gaga technique and ballet, Rachel Strauss' analysis of Pam Tanowitz, and Laura Cappelle's look into new(er) works at the Bolshoi.
In a plenary session, Contemporary Ballet, Women, and Institutions, guest speakers Emily Coates, Jodie Gates, and Jill Johnson, shared observations into established and developing academic efforts. Dance Director at Harvard University, Johnson spoke to negotiating patriarchy in dance and academia, distinguishing between "dreamweavers and gatekeepers", and defining contemporary ballet as an evolution rather than transition as "transition has ageist connotations." All three speakers agreed that "dance is a loaded term," with Johnson suggesting it is so because "the experience of failure and risk aversion" negatively influences policy decisions. For academia, Johnson said, "dance is an analog practice."
Gates acknowledged the need for innovation to "build curricula for jobs that don't yet exist" through her work as inaugural Director and Vice Dean of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. Gates seeks to embed the "choreographic way of thinking" in other mediums, such as animation and design. Former New York City Ballet (NYCB) dancer and current director of dance studies at Yale University, Coates described the integration of arts into academia as a "mobility paradigm, where parallel information isn't heard, such as what the field of dance, artists, and kinesthetics offers academia." Considering choreographic momentum in the dance field, Coates named Justin Peck as "capturing the zeitgeist."
Anjali Austin's "Perspectives of An American Artist" provided direct insights into her experience training and performing as a black ballerina. Austin added to the chronicles of dance history, because much of her work and the work of other dancers of color "is not acknowledged in the history books." Austin described a personal and professional sense of responsibility to write history, suggesting "how it would change with the perspectives of dancers of color" as the current historiographies are the inaccurate "consequences of privilege". Detailing an experience abroad with Irish audiences from her Dance Theatre of Harlem tour journals, Austin relayed "experiencing ballet on a disturbing, visceral level at times." Further, the 1990 DTH layoff not only "impacted black dancers but sent society backwards." To close, Austin said, "Ballet is an art. Is it also a representation of where we are as a society?"
Ariel Osterweis' interview with Christina Johnson on the work of Complexions Contemporary Ballet also recognized hybrid histories of race in ballet. Johnson bears an elite pedigree; her roster as a dancer included Boston Ballet, DTH, Complexions, Royal Ballet of London, LINES Ballet, Ballet du Grande Théâtre de Genève ,and Ballett Basel. As a rehearsal directer, Johnson worked with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Karole Armitage, and Trey McIntyre. Johnson identified the issue of "legible" styles, that (white) audiences find Dwight Rhoden and his company a "trope of virtuosity, and they overlook the vernacular references." In defining contemporary ballet, Osterweis declared that contemporary work "requires blackness, an africanist aesthetic."
In DeFrantz's presentation "The Race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanist Aesthetics" on Saturday, he stated that the process is empirically flawed with the "hailing of blacks" in performance as that emphasis focuses on their "blackness, rather than recognizing dancers as artists and individuals." Additionally, DeFrantz stated that black attitudinal elements such as "relax" and "swagger" are misinterpreted from a culture's understanding of injustice to affected behaviors. Alternatively, DeFrantz suggested that ballet performance commands a central role in presenting the diversities of black femininity. Particular choreographers in DeFrantz's interpellations included William Forsythe, Jorma Elo, Mats Ek, Twyla Tharp, and Alonzo King.
Kyle Bukhari sought to "expand the frame for understanding contemporary ballet" with his inquiry on representations of space, "real and fictional". Musicologist Daniel Callahan's work on Aaron Copland, Agnes de Mille, and Justin Peck's renditions of Copland's work also expanded the frame of perspective in the lens of music composition. Attendees showed great excitement for NYCB dancer Russell Janzen's of-the-moment research on gender presentation in physical performance based on his interviews with American Ballet Theatre dancer James Whiteside, NYCB dancers Faye Arthurs and Taylor Stanley, choreographer and director of Ballez, Katy Pyle, and designer Reid Bartelme.
Of the sessions I attended, the scope of topics addressed in these two days confirmed (or, reaffirmed) that ballet and the body are powerful agents with socio-political, economical ramifications. Today's dancers are phenomenal athletes, increasing the responsibility of choreographers in how the body is presented and for scholars, how the work is preserved.
The range of presenters created and sustained robust dialogue. A palpable energy generated throughout the two days as peers ably and eagerly engaged with the direct source(s) rather than the product(s) of research projects. Whatever contemporary ballet is or isn't, it commands a global presence.