Dance Discourse Project #3: Dancers Debate the Body Politic

Dance Discourse Project #3: Dancers Debate the Body Politic

Hello folks,

In a few hours, we’ll host our third Dance Discourse Project at Project Artaud Theater in partnership with ODC Theater.  To get the conversation started, I’m posting comments from Rob Bailis, director of ODC Theater, who will not be with us this evening.

Please feel free to use this post as a jumping-off-point for a broader discussion about dance and politics.

I hope to get my comments up here as well, but for now, I’m off to the theater–


Notes from Rob Bailis for Dance Discourse #3:

“I feel like tonight is really about the artists and their perspectives, so I’ll limit what I have to say to a quick discussion of the reasoning behind my choice of this topic and the subsequent selection of artists.

Simply put, I chose the topic because I believe it is critical right now that we as a citizenry insist on governmental change.  Years of acknowledged, even illegal disconnect between the public will and the actions of the government have eroded any sense that the stewardship of our country is still public – and yet it is.  We have to come back from this disconnect and act in good faith again, see to it our voices are heard, our ballots are counted, and our will be made manifest.  I feel like everyone needs to do their part to make this happen; in this instance my part was to gather this collection of powerful voices and compelling arguments, and to offer them a conceptual frame and a platform.

Politics can be deadly in Theater, admittedly.  So to avoid too much soapboxing, I chose not to start with special interests, but instead with broad strokes.   I wanted topics that were built like nesting dolls – big on the outside, but layer upon layer of reveal, all the way down to the minutia.  I wasn’t looking for pieces on specific topics that carried a particular message, rather I was looking for artists who were messengers and for the pieces to be whatever they would design to carry their message.

So I started by selecting a definition of the word politics.  And I went for something very simple: the debate about and/or method for the distribution of power and resources.   That definition alone immediately offered four questions: What’s the debate?  What’s the method?  What’s considered power?  What’s considered a resource?

I took those four questions and I related them first to notions of Bay Area identity.  I asked, “what is the Bay Area’s method?”  Well, booms and busts are our history, Gold, Dot Com, Bio Tech, so our method is innovation – constant change.  “What is our debate?” Probably the most debated idea in the Bay Area right now is the radical shift in demographics – statistically, there is no cultural majority in our region, and yet we don’t want to acknowledge this paradigm shift so we argue fiercely about what’s right and where to go.  “What is our greatest resource?”  I believe it is the sheer physical beauty and potency of the land itself. “What is our greatest power?” My money’s on the progressive values and capacities of the people living here.

So I took those Bay Area distillations and used them to sketch a cultural landscape of our region, i.e. the things we think of as core values:  ethnic diversity, physical beauty of the land, thirst for innovation, and progressive social values.  Then I made a grid by crossing them with hot button topics being discussed during this election year: the environment, the seat of power in our government, immigration, and human rights such as a woman’s right to choose, and LBGT civil rights.

Each of the artists selected was someone I could locate on this grid, arriving at the intersection of one of our core cultural values and a political hot button.  For example Jo Kreiter, on my grid, exists at the intersection of progressive social values and the seat of power in our government, and Ledoh sits at the corner of immigration and thirst for innovation.

So that was my process and what guided me.  There were many people to choose from, and curation is, at the end of the day, all about really difficult choices.  Here’s what it came down to in the end:

I firmly believe that these particular artists are culture bearers and innovators – they carry forward our most deeply held beliefs though their creative practice, and they advance our capacity for growth as a society by explicitly voicing the unspoken or illuminating what we all can see, but often don’t want to look at.  Each offers a mixture of gritty realism and imagined worlds, incessant hopefulness and critical analysis.  And each of these artists has made a major innovation in their chosen field – so they know what it is like to have mastered something, and also to have improved it.  This means at some point, each of these artists had to be willing to locate themselves within an identity (be it aesthetic, cultural, or socio-political) which they then went on to radically reform, staking a claim to something built on history, but totally new in the world.   Regardless of their individual works in the festival and the triumphs I believe each has achieved, these are people we can learn from on a whole different level.  What they have done as individuals is what I hope we can do together for our country – examine the past, locate our beliefs, and innovate a new way forward.”

— Rob Bailis, May 7, 2008


  • Mary Armentrout

    so, as I sit here thinking about ddp3, what happened, my unanswered questions, the moments of transcendence, (I always have lots of questions,) the places the conversation went that I wasn’t expecting, and the places that I was, the generosity of the participants and the audience – I think I will start with some of those questions still ping-ponging in my head. I think questions are just like these little goads to look further, to keep thinking, good spurs forward – so help me answer them if you want, or at least contemplate them with me!

    I keep coming back to one of Jessica Robinson’s initial definitions of “political” dance as dance that is concerned with its audience’s reaction. I keep stumbling over this like it is something strange and bizarre, while at the same time it seems so simple, universal. Is this how I define the political in dance, or do I use a model more like Rob Bailis’ more content-driven selector? As a choreographer I think alot about my relationship to my audience, how I am manipulating it, what I expect of them, what they expect of me – do I think of the transformative effect I wish to have on them as a political act? If not, why not?

    Why do we feel like being artists isn’t enough – we should do more, like join the peace corps?

    Why does getting everyone – performers, audience – to the same state of presence seem like enough?

    Why does identifying as an “American” artist already seem like a political statement to me?

    I realize I am thinking again about Emily Dickinson and how I longed to be able to be like her, when I was a young dance artist just out of school – it seemed like it would be so easy to just write all those poems and stick them in a drawer, wait for the world to catch up to you, wait for your audience to catch up to you. That way you wouldn’t have to struggle with having to connect to this audience of living human beings who are on the planet with you now in your lifetime – the only audience that can see you, feel you, connect to you viscerally, be moved by your standing in front of them – the only audience the dance artist has – this great and terrible dilemma, and gift and yawning abyss that we all struggle to use and be used by. Perhaps this is what Jessica’s definition is trying to get at.

    I also keep thinking about the particularities of the bay area dance scene and its reputation for being so “political” – What role does the audience play in that? How does this support/not support the work we make? How does it influence the work we choose to make?

    ok, I guess I will stop there.

  • Jez Lee

    Just a note that the Dance Discourse Project was previewed in the SF Weekly!
    Talking Dance, by Bonner Odell in the SF Weekly

    Excerpt: “…may be the liveliest conversation about West Coast dance in years.”

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