Thursday, February 12, 2015

Thinking dance, doing dance

val smith writes about Man Made, a choreographic work by Oliver Connew

How is art a tool of social change?
How do body-based explorations impact cultural discourse?
How do artistic experiences transform our imagination of what’s possible in our world?
How do race, gender, economics give or withhold voice in our society?

Across the Pacific Ocean, Julie Phelps, the Artistic Director of Counterpulse in San Francisco, relays the above questions in regards to Miguel Gutierrez’s new work Age & Beauty Part 1: Mid-Career Artist/Suicide Note or &:-/, noting how such questions are currently in dialogue in that part of the world.  Here in New Zealand, Oliver Connew returns from his European base in the artistic mecca of Berlin, to present a choreographic work Man Made, which deals with the privileges of being male and white in contemporary society.  

Employing some clearly defined and intriguingly indistinct structural methods of practice, Connew and collaborator Gareth Okan present a series of choreographic episodes that intelligently question how their apparently able-bodied, middle-class, thin, and cisgendered male physicalities reflect various cultural positioning and advantages. Through a participatory game structure, a non-linear investigation of space, an endurance test involving bunches of green bananas, and a boxing style gym routine cum dance-dance, the two performers innovatively touch on the power dynamics of colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism.  The self-aware performance piece navigates performance issues of coercion, force, bullying, competition and ownership, in ways that implicate, absorb and amuse the audienceMan Made not only employs choreographic innovation as a rule of thumb, it also represents a solid transdisciplinary approach to collaboration, bringing together the inspired lighting ideas by Amber Molloy and Marshall Bull, the rousing beat making and mixing of Andrew Cesan, and the choreographic contributions of the two dance artists.

Whilst I am well interested in how this work deals with the issues at hand, the more significant impact for me of Man Made, is in how the choreographic structuring and styling challenge unspoken rules embedded in the fields of dance and choreography. These rules, or dance making conventions, assert that a well-polished choreography worthy of praise should display: tidy compositional structures; relentless and virtuosic acts of physicality; quick and seamless transitions; and should conform to tight and comfortable time frames.  Man Made offers alternative choreographic values that resist these rules in a number of ways:

-         - In an extended episode of fuzzy actions and roamings, Man Made emphasizes the workings of its transitions without a concern for tight compositional control,
-         - The work resists the idea that choreography should never linger in a territory where ‘nothing much is happening’, or dwell for ‘tooo long’ in any movement terrain at all (a rule of thumb monitored mostly by audiences),
-         -  It also disregards the convention that any prop or lighting change should be rendered invisible, and not acknowledged as part of the choreography itself,
-         - Unapologetically playing in the space between sections or action, Man Made asserts waiting and resting as choreographically worthwhile and meaningful performative acts. 

I am perplexed and inspired by these choreographic counter-values, becoming particularly engrossed in how the work utilizes physical actions and performative gestures in material I can best describe as knowing and unknowing.

The opening episode of Man Made, a participatory ‘game’, invites us into a competitive environment that tests our physical balance with a partner.  The hosts of the game, Oliver and Gareth, set a tone of tongue-in-cheek irony into the competition, a tone that lingers to the end of the work emphasized by the performers’ sports shoes and lycra costuming.  We are instructed to choose another audience member and attempt to make them fall off the spot, the winner being the one whose feet stay planted.  As someone who finds the call for adrenalized alertness and roughness in competitive sports alienating and ridiculous, I instantly feel awkward and resistant to the game.  I’m not sure whether to politely comply with the given instructions, or to rebel and risk looking like a snobby wanker.  I partner with fellow improviser Kristian Larsen and we end up playing with the intricacies of pressure between our hands, and with the possibilities of articulation, in a manner that does not buy into a desire to win or finish our round quickly.  Do we represent part of a percentage of renegade resistors in the audience who, when faced with parameters that ask for particular kinds of involvement and interaction in the performance, looks for ways to participate differently?  Employing the known structure of a ‘game’ brings into conversation the psychological forces innate to methods of participation as well as the competition at hand.  When faced with the rules, guidelines and parameters of Man Made, in this section and others, the audience is visibly compliant, but I wonder how power dynamics are playing out in the subjective experience of each audience member.  This work seems to be carefully and consciously highlighting a complexity of power relations operating within a performance context. 

The game has created a sense of connectedness amongst the audience, and between us and the two performers. This feeling of friendliness and openness shifts us easily into the expanded episode to follow.  This second episode combines indistinct movements, meanings and intentions in a way that is hard to describe, hard to describe because I’m not quite sure what it is that I am witnessing.  This challenge to implicit notions of what constitutes good dancing and successful choreography, opens up new ideas for dance making. What if we deliberately do what the rules of dance tell us not to do?  Will this reveal new understandings about our construction and conception of time and space in choreography?  The outcome of this episode is a curious assertion of uncertainty as a compositional value; I am clearly watching a piece of ‘thinking dance’. 

The third episode (or is it an extension of the previous episode?) explores a process of making and unmaking space.  The two performers work together to imply and define spatial parameters using gestures, statements, props and lights, creating a politics of ownership, colonialism and the domination of space by white men.  A long string of lights is used to create non-linear spaces; the performers are playfully investigating ways to fill and occupy the temporary spaces with their bodies.  The spaces created morph again quickly; no space is clearly defined for very long. If you buy into the idea that what you believe in becomes your reality, then this episode speaks to how we force our ontological beliefs onto others.  A performer states “this is my space”, reinforcing his claim through an encompassing gesture with his arms.  In another statement, “the space between my arms is a void, and no one can sit there” along with an assertive arm gesture is enough to clear the audiences bodies out of the zone conventionally designated for us.  Unsettling our comfortable grouping into one big togetherness, this action that divides the audience into two halves sets up an awareness of our separateness. Is this strategy testing how we might respond to force and coercion?

Following on is a test of stamina and endurance.  The two performers now face off against each other grasping a bunch of green bananas in each hand out in front of their bodies.  Who can hold the 2nd position squat the longest whilst maintaining an eye lock with the other?  The static stance quickly becomes physically demanding: perspiration forms, their breathing gets deeper and quicker, we can see the effort and determination on their faces and in their bodies.  I adore the simplicity and implied politics of this section, with its piss take on codes of masculinity.  Gareth increases the stakes part way through this test/competition by significantly deepening his squat, signaling the absurdity of how far some men will go to prove their masculinity.  His body starts to shake, and I find myself wanting to cheer him on, like an enthusiastic sports mum or a bloodthirsty sideliner at a dog fight (weird feelings, but strangely empowering).  Again, Man Made is revealing complex layers of power, this time in relation to dynamics that operate between viewers and the object of their gaze: the episode is clever and thrilling.  

This section ends when Gareth, exhausted, collapses in a heap on the floor.  Oliver follows suit and they rest on folded legs for a period that moves beyond a body time that we know to be ‘ok’ in the context of theatre.  Continuing with their rest and recovery beyond that comfortable timeframe triggers laughter through the room.  I’m not sure if this is uncomfortable laughter, or a laughter that recognizes the performers are doing something ‘cheeky’ or ‘smug’?  This intentional rest moves our intimate relationship with the performers beyond an admiration of their athletic aptitude to empathize with their fragility, sensitivity and humanness.  Is the choreographer presenting a scene of sitting inside vulnerability and being ok with not doing much on stage, to suggest a shift in contemporary dance values beyond the desiring for a display of physical virtuosity?

The final episode uses movement material derived from cheaply styled Les Mills boxing drills (I think?) with well-known methods of choreographic structuring.  The performers move in time with the music, emphasizing the down beat with movement accents.  It’s entrancing.  This has me thinking about the dominance of physical routine in contemporary dance training, the repetition and the discipline that dancers are encultured into.  As I watch the two dancers performing the same movements in unison and canon, I am also thinking about the privileges of a body that ‘knows’.  Whilst we can see that both Oliver and Gareth have highly trained dance bodies, they don’t look the same.  They have distinct bodily features and shapes, and in this section Gareth’s body appears to know the boxing drills well, as if they have been trained into him over time.  Through his body, the execution of the movements looks easy and coordinated, whereas Oliver’s physicality doesn’t seem as confident with where to place weight, how to angle the torso or shoulders to allow full movement, how to gain maximum force behind the punch or strike.  I find this point of difference fascinating, and again I’m thinking here about the complexity and layering of power dynamics in the field of dance.  Keeping in mind the Western tradition of contemporary dance training, were the perfection of line, form, shape and body is relentlessly insisted upon, how are we evaluating the difference between these two male dancers’ physicalities?  

Man Made contributes to a conversation about whiteness, maculinity and individualist middle class values through its’ exploration of control, misuse of power and manipulation in performance.  How can we continue the conversation opened up by Connew locally and consider questions currently being explored in the work of internationally active performance artists?  Is it possible to create anti-racist practices in the field of contemporary dance here in New Zealand Aotearoa when its values are embedded in histories of colonialism and white ideals?

Further information on Oliver Connew:

Reference: “Interview with an Artist: Miguel Gutierrez responds to Julie Phelps”, retrieved from