So We Think We Can Dance (or thoughts from Dance Discourse Project #8)

So We Think We Can Dance (or thoughts from Dance Discourse Project #8)

On March 11, 2010 Bay Area arts community members met at CounterPULSE for the Dance Discourse Project 8: Dance in Pop Culture. Co-presented by Dancers’ Group.  The event attempted to sort through the effects of YouTube and So You Think You Can Dance on dance today. To learn more visit

At the event participants were broken up into small groups where they discussed a variety of pertinent issues concerning how mass media strategies are changing how dance is made today. Below is one person’s account of the discussions.  As you might expect, with memories being imperfect and all, a lot will be missing.  But, fragmented and incomplete as it may be, a lot is here.

[Cue imaginary music from “La Bayadere”]

[five dancers enter from the wings, moving forward in arabesque to reach center stage.  They stumble/bourreé to five seats placed evenly upstage]

Jessica Robinson from CounterPULSE begins with: Thank you very much for coming.  Tonight we are going to talk about “Dance in Popular Culture.”

[they begin talking, passing microphones back and forth]

He wants to “close the gap between who is doing and who is watching.”

Eric Kupers begins with a description of his new/ongoing project with filmmaker Austin Forbord to manifest an “Experimental Dance Reality Show.”  He speaks to inspiration: to a desire to create work that can mirror an audience’s experience, life, hopes.  He seems to push against cultural forces like “So You Think You Can Dance” and the norms they promote.  He is not interested in the homogeneity of physique seen in SYTYCD.  He seeks a more accurate reflection of “reality”, where bodies, personalities and ideas are imperfect, complicated, various and inclusive.

[Eric passes the microphone to Monique]

Over 70,000 people have viewed “Lipstique” on youtube.  Lipstique is a music video by Monique Jenkinson and Silencefiction.  She is at times a dancer, at times an actor, a performance artist and a drag queen.  For her, youtube can be at once a viral marketing tool for getting audiences to her live performances and a venue for work that is made for standing on its own in this medium.

[Monique passes the microphone to Philip]

Philip Huang estimates that he has a few hundred loyal fans.  I would believe it.  That video he showed us (an illustrated story of a boy whose mom gets crabs) was funnier than many of the videos I meander across on youtube.  And in the past year-ish that he has been working in short-format, youtube-uploaded artwork, he has created 55 new works.  That’s certainly more than I have, and probably more than everyone else in the room combined.  And as he observed of himself, the knowledge that there are people out there who regularly covet his videos, the idea that those people expect something of him (soon), has completely changed the way he interacts with the world and his own work.  He is alert and observant for the next inspiration.  And as noted by a man in Eric Kuper’s video, the need to create work quickly trumps the sense of needing to deeply ponder the minutia of possibility and development that so plagues many artists.

[they stop talking, and everyone splits up into three groups in order to discuss three questions posed by the DDP team]

1. Pop Culture, Professionalism, and Legitimacy
When looking at the terms “pop culture” and “High Art” how would dance be defined through these lenses?  What is interesting about the collision of pop culture’s perspective on dance with high art’s perspective on dance?  How does “pedigree” and “professionalism” come into play when looking at artists working in and outside of pop culture?  How are artists legitimized (or not) through the lens of pop culture and high art?

OK, well, I wasn’t at this table.  So, I have no idea what was said, and by whom.  (but, I bet it was great!)  But, if I may quickly: I’m not sure what the standard is that we are using for deeming what is legitimate and what isn’t.  Especially in contemporary dance/performance, have we ever had a legitimizing standard?  Is it a feeling we get that a dancer is “smart”, well-trained, accompanied by the right kind of music, or the right kind of audience in a particular sort of venue?  Now, I have nothing against standards of legitimacy, as they create order, readability and structure (can’t break away from something that doesn’t exist, right?).  But, I have to wonder, when getting into conversations about whether Mia Michaels’ choreography on SYTYCD is more or less legitimate that the work I see at CounterPULSE, how do we know we are, or ever were legitimate (see title).  And, especially now as the internet opens up entirely new forms and ways of thinking about our work, what is this standard?  Or…if we can write our own, what would we want this standard to be?

2. Dance in Mass Media
What are some of the impacts (positive and negative) of So You Think You Can Dance? on contemporary dancemaking/makers?  How does the element of competition influence how we understand what we see?  How do these shows define dance, and how do they created a template for what the broader community perceives is “legitimate” dance?

I was at this table, facilitated by Eric Kupers.  To open the conversation, one person said that he has always thought that reality TV is great, and so clearly reflects ideas of dance performance.  Unlike traditional television programming, reality TV centers around being non-linear and non-narrative, emphasizing surprises and focusing on revealing process.  This perspective was great to me, an instinctive nah-sayer.

Another woman focused on the positive aspects of SYTYCD, and was unabashedly pleased with the talent and passion on display at every broadcast.  And, it’s true, these kids can kick and spin better than I could ever dream of (and I do dream of completing flawless triple pirouettes, don’t you?).  Eric Kupers, however, brought a more sober tone, noting that the techniques and body shapes on display are becoming the point of comparison for many of his young students.   This, he feels, is a detriment to the field, as we attempt to raise generations of artists who aren’t afraid of being unique and boundary-bending.

In all this conversation, I began wondering why we feel compelled to discuss shows like SYTYCD so frequently in the first place.  And we really do.  We love it.  The DDP people aren’t the only ones.  We love talking about how much we hate that they call it “contemporary” instead of lyrical jazz, love the popping and locking, can’t stand the musical selections, and think that all those pirouettes don’t mean anything.  Where is the artistry? (or at least, this reflects many of my own personal conversation over the past few years)  But, my question is, why do we care so much?  Are these shows really bringing anyone to a live modern dance performance in San Francisco for the first time?  Are they actually impacting the field in a serious way?  I don’t know the answer, but I think they are important questions regardless.

The idea I proposed to the table was that we care because, as a lesser-known form, what the general public sees the most is what begins to be the point of comparison for all dance they encounter.  Much like the frequent “is it like Ballet?” question I answered ineffectively for so many years.  But while the “is it like Ballet?” question was admittedly annoying, I understood that many people were more familiar with it, and it didn’t reflect at all on the Ballet itself.  I never thought that Ballet’s existence was good or bad for the status of modern/contemporary dance.  So, why then, does this new point of comparison bring such passion?  Is it a fundamentally different form?  Am I missing something?

3. Viewing Dance Online

The growth of dance video clips available on sites such as youtube is staggering.  How is this impacting the field and how work is being seen?  How are artists working with these new possibilities?  How does it affect the immediacy of an artists’ work, or the control an artist has over how they are represented and the context of their work?  How does youtube help artists find new audiences…and how can it turn people off from work?  It used to be that we had to wait for a company to come to us to experience it, now we can watch a clip online – is this reducing “provincialism”?

4. Presenting Work Online

How does youtube allow of DIY careers that do not rely on traditional means for artists to establish themselves and present their work?  How has youtube impacted the relevance of presenting institutions and the audience’s engagement with presenting institutions?  How does youtube (in particular when related to flash mobs) encourage/discourage participation in dance?

After my thought-provoking conversation at the #2 table I wound my way to Philip’s table (a combination of questions 3 & 4.  But we quickly got sidetracked from conversation to make an impromptu performance, inspired by Philip’s DIY attitude that work can be made anywhere, anytime, and quickly.  I often criticize myself for being too precious with my work, for getting bogged down in it, and afraid to let it out in the public for fear that it isn’t yet ….perfect?  So, we as a group leapt at the make something – anything – and have fun doing it mentality.  So, 20 minutes later we presented our masterpiece of performance art in the side hall of CounterPULSE, much to the entertainment of ourselves.

[the crowd goes wild]

[everyone returns to the room, and wraps up the conversation]

One woman mentions that viewing dance is all about context, and we should be flexible with allowing ourselves to enjoy and engage with different kinds of work in different contexts.  I completely agree, even if that is more complicated than it seems.  And, it is always more complicated than it seems.

I mention this article I read recently by conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith entitled “If it Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist.”  His not entirely serious argument is essentially laid out in the title.  If you google yourself and you aren’t on the first page, well, sorry…but you don’t exist.  So, if you really want to be subversive, take everything off-line.  This is a bit of an exaggeration, no doubt, but somehow I keep thinking about it.  I love searching for video, dance and performance on youtube.  I can promise you that if I see a show, I searched for it on youtube before I went.  I know some people don’t do this, but I think a lot (and a growing number) of people do.  And this is not a bad thing, but rather an opportunity to both market our live performance, and create stand-alone work that defies the traditional modes of creating dance and performance.

Because, in the end, we all just want to get our ideas and our bodies out there to impact and share with our audience.  And if there is an additional option for how to do this, I think we can all agree that it warrants some looking into.  And I personally find all of this very exciting.

[the group disperses to drink wine, nibble on wasabi peas, and continue talking]

-by Michelle K. Lynch, 3/7/2010


  • Jessica

    Michelle, you so articulately and aptly captured the thoughts and feelings at this discussion…. I think we’ve just opened the conversation, and I hope others will respond!

  • Keriann

    Wish I could have gone to this…
    Thanks for putting up a description of the evening!

  • So We Think We Can Dance? « dancepants

    […] March 21, 2010 by Michelle K. Lynch Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending discussion #8 of the Dance Discourse Project.  I joined the team as “blogger” for the evening.  Not surprisingly, I document.  Below is the text, but here is the link. […]

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