This is in response to Velocity’s Next Fest NW 2017, which included performances, a speakeasy conversation, and Next Dance Cinema screenings. I am primarily responding to the conversations I’ve had with people surrounding these events. The theme of “Disruption” has tapped in to the formative time our dance community is in, as well as the current political climate. I felt the conversation and questions that arose, (that artists and audiences alike were responding to), was much more rich than responding directly to the work that was presented in the festival itself. For every statement or opinion I’ve included here, there are many other people I’ve had conversations with who share the sentiment. As you read this, my only request is to be curious about your state of mind.
1. A SHORT LIST
This is a list of certain beliefs I hold about dance that I offer for your consideration: both for the purposes of this essay, and to create a supportive, thriving, and globally engaged dance community.
- Performance is a dialogue between the performers and the audience. In order to establish relationship and radical empathy, both parties need to be open, available, and willing to do their part.
- Everybody is allowed to have an emotional or thoughtful response to the work they see. Dance training is not a prerequisite.
- Having access to forums to give and receive feedback on works-in-progress is critical. Giving and receiving feedback is an acquired skill that requires empathy, clarity, a willingness to be curious about your state of mind, and mutual consent.
- The personal is political. The personal is political. The personal is political.
- Dance is inherently always political, because its medium is the body/embodiment. How much more personal can you get?
- Dance is anti-materialistic and anti-capitalist, because of its ephemerality and unwillingness to be objectified.
There are dancemakers who seem to think that accepting these values as fact, and not directly integrating them into their art, is enough. Dance may be anti-capitalist, but there are certainly capitalist choreographers and companies. Dance may be inherently political, but is that enough?
I don’t think it’s enough. Not ever, but especially not now.
2. CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM? A GREAT LOVE?
I have a great love for this city, and I have no great love for this city.
Our problems, as I see them, are multiple and coexisting and tangled. Here in the metropolitan center of the Upper Left, the majority of us share similar values. We go to the rallies and yell within a massive crowd that, very generally speaking, agrees with us. The people who disagree tend to be underground and elusive. But this has created an environment where passionate, sweeping, value statements aren’t backed by action.
“But I do what I can,” you may be thinking. “My schedule is so busy. I call my representatives. I compost. I went to the Womxn’s March. I think about taking short showers. I donate money to Planned Parenthood.” If you aren’t thinking it, you’re at least familiar with this line of thinking, yes? Yes. I do empathize with this, actually. I really do. I see it in myself; I hate it in myself. Vicious guilty cycle that does more harm than good, all the while we’re in need of radical change.
But yes, dance as a line of work isn’t super sustainable. Especially in a small and insular community like this one. We all end up working five jobs. It’s easy to feel like we don’t have time. And we certainly don’t have the financially stability to be putting our money toward every cause we believe in.
Our dance community is somewhat adolescent. (This is not an insult.) We are growing up, and it is THRILLING, but we haven’t yet grown into the shoes we walk in. It’s easy to think that in order to get recognized, we should fit into an aesthetic (read: identity). We all want to belong to something. But what are you accomplishing if your goal is to make work that looks like someone else’s? If they are your vision of success, or what you aspire to, ask yourself why! They’re probably successful because they’re doing the only thing one can do fully: themselves. Maybe they’re successful because they’re tuning into what they can bring to the conversation. (Or because they’re capitalizing on the corporate giants that are pushing marginalized communities out of this city. Hard not to do when that seems like the only way to get your work produced here, sure. But may be a good opportunity to examine your priorities.)
Point being: why are there so many pieces about beauty, if art is about connection and empathy and community, as so many proclaim it is? Or if you value progressing the dance form forward? If your goal is to add something to the conversation? Why are there so many pieces that people walk out of feeling unsatisfied, or bored, or like there was something they missed- something they didn’t “get”? (Making beautiful work for the sake of making something beautiful in the face of adversity, I get. But I’m going to question that reasoning if you’re a white cis person. I mainly hear that line as an afterthought, anyways.) On the other side of the same coin, there’s a lot of political statement pieces that barely skim the surface of an issue, and seem to be a kind of ally theater. Standing ovation to the male choreographer telling us sexism exists! Pat that dude on the back! I find these trends equally problematic, and often leave people feeling more alienated than engaged.
A personal statement: if there’s anything I’ve learned over this year, it’s that even the people I have perceived as being integral to the Seattle dance community don’t feel like they belong. Wow. And I know having a strong dance family is important to so many of us. Maybe even the main drive in what we do. So how do we move forward? How do we make sure our efforts are effective and widespread?
3. DISRUPTION / RADICAL EMPATHY / WHAT NOW
How do we engage as a community? How do we activate ourselves? How do we support each other? How do we grow and maintain our values, and back them with action? I will by no means provide all the answers. I don’t know the answers. The purpose of this writing is largely to reflect back what I hear people talking about on a daily basis. I’m interested in instigating a wider conversation. I think this is the beginning of “what now?” We’ll only be able to shape the community we want if we discuss what kind of community it is that we want to shape, and ask ourselves how we can support each other in doing their part. Disrupt this: conversations in passing, patting each other on the back for empty value statements, not saying how you really feel when someone asks how you are. These are profound moments filled with potential. You know how to tune in. You know how to improvise. See the millions of outcomes? Take the time to explore.
Artists: If performance is a dialogue, connect to your audience. Listen to them, witness them. Give them the same amount of attention they are giving you. Are you holding space for them? Or are you just presenting work for the satisfaction of being seen? (Remember that if you make a work and no one is around to see it, it will still make a sound.)
Can we, as audience members, address the fear or reluctance about including the choreographer or performers in the conversations when we ask the real questions? Can we, as artists, be sure to ask our audience questions about what they saw or how they felt, and value their response?
If the personal is political, get personal. Dive in deep.
Shed a new light on the issue. Reveal what the stakes are. What alternative do you envision? What work hasn’t been made yet? Where are we lacking? Our community excels at actualizing our intentions. If you are the one seeing the need… then you might be the one uniquely qualified to create it.
WHAT CAN YOU BRING TO THE CONVERSATION?
WHO HASN’T BEEN INCLUDED IN THE CONVERSATION?
WHAT HASN’T BEEN SAID?
Say it. Make it. Do it.
Jordan Macintosh-Hougham is Velocity’s Next Fest NW 2017 Writer-in-Residence.