What still resonates with me from NEXTfestNW: Theft+Devotion?

Fifty people gathered around a twenty-foot long table having an intimate conversation for the Opening Night Roundtable hosted by John Boylan.

We gathered on the Founder’s Theater stage, warm lighting reflecting off the oak floors, drinks in hand. Guest speaker and The Project Room founder Jess Van Nostrand observed that each art form has its own rules and laws around theft and appropriation. Literature, for example, has a long history of quotation and citation. Recently, David Shields wrote an entire novel from appropriated content. A few years back he wrote an essay in Harper’s composed entirely of stolen content. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is full of appropriated content.

This got me thinking about music: Bob Dylan stole titles for his songs and albums (and recently, controversially, images for his paintings from others’ photographs). His entire personae, Bob Dylan (aka Zimmerman) was a mash-up. In music, the cover song is a form of tribute. The music sample, a form of theft. Musicians make a business of talking about their beloved influences. The Beatles’ Sargent Pepper’s album cover is a gallery of Beatles’ cool: Lenny Bruce, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein. Influence is celebrated in music. Who does the latest band sound like? We enjoy recognizing stolen riffs and opening bars.

But in dance, when Richard Move makes a work that borrows every line and step from Martha Graham, or Jerome Bel creates a performance with excerpts from the major ballet canon (Veronique Doisneau), it is a radical move. I personally love these dance artists who no longer feel obliged to be “original”, and are more interested in investigating what dance as an art form is, has been, and can be.

In my own performance work, I’ve recently taken to adding “Works Cited” to my program notes. The citations acknowledge the material I’ve borrowed from life or other people’s work—from Girl Guide’s of America and Parisian Graffitti, to Beyonce and Bel. Citations give credit where credit is due. But citations also reveal that the performance is based on research. And citations expose the depth and scope of that research. Citations also remind us that a work exists within a context; of history and/or the present. They situate the performance and the creative process in the world –no small thing for the often over-rarified world of dance. They expose how dances are layered, full of intertextuality.

Modern Dance has suffered from the false myth that it is singularly motivated by “self-expression” and “originality”. When I was a student, we were told an “honest” or “authentic” dance must emerge organically (if somewhat melodramatically) from the “source” of the individual artist. I agree that Martha Graham was onto something when she wrote that each of us is “singular” and unique, but I’m suspicious of anyone who protests that their dances are born without influence, emerging from “their gut” or “instinct” as if they, and their work, could be ruptured from the world.

To acknowledge influence is to join a conversation. Dancing arises from sensation and experience, but be assured it arises from thinking too. Dance artists think through their mediums just like literary critics, poets and songwriters do. Citations reveal the dialogue of thoughts, ideas, feelings, images and possibilities informing the creative process: a creative process that in dance is rarely that of a singular artist–more often a collaboration.

I selected Theft + Devotion as NEXTfestNW’s theme because I wanted to hear others’ thoughts. I don’t have solid opinions about copyright legality, or whether Beyonce’s recent theft from Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker is dead wrong. But I also selected this theme because I want to resist forces in dance (and commerce) who are holdouts for the concept of absolute originality, singular authorship and ownership. I want to resist those who immediately carry contempt for dance artists who borrow or appropriate from other sources.

Which leads me to another memory from the festival: During her NEXTfestNW performance-lecture, Velocity Artist-in-Residence Amy O’Neil responded to a question about black cultural appropriation in her own work by saying that Hip Hop dance and music have always been a part of her experience as an urban American. “Hip Hop is an indigenous urban American form” said O’Neil, a white woman. She does not feel she is appropriating when she uses Hip Hop in her work because she grew up listening to, watching, and dancing Hip Hop. Her comment made me wonder if the audience would have asked Arthur Mitchel, one of this countries first African American ballet dancers and founder of The Dance Theater of Harlem, a similar question about appropriation in his work, because he creates within the idiom of western classical ballet? Would they ask Donald Byrd that questions?

It appears appropriation gets most problematic when it’s about those deemed to have more power, appropriating from those deemed to have less.

 

As the roundtable came to a close, a collective idea emerged:

We appropriate, ingest and transform what we love, over time. We steal what we desire – fast and furiously. Out of a chaotic matrix of past, present and future new things are made.

 

A final memory: At the end of the roundtable another Guest Speaker, the economist Koshik Gosh, declared, “We need temples dedicated to radicalism. To dance is a radical act. I would say Velocity is a temple to radicalism.”

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