Salon NOTEBOOK: Difficult Conversations: Do Labels Matter?
by Zachary Whittenburg
“I don’t think anyone says, ‘I want to be a body-based performance-artist when I grow up,’ ” opined Peter Carpenter, a dancemaker among other things.
Seated to Carpenter’s left, on one of four white benches arranged in a square, was Yolanda Cesta Cursach, among other things associate director of performance programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The two met on March 26 at DEFIBRILLATOR, a gallery for performance; both wore sneakers and faced a small number and wide variety of creatives. Everyone spoke at length at least once during the two-hour talk.
Two polarities emerged in that time. When it comes to language that precedes or follows their names, some creative performers prefer words that sharpen a viewer’s focus onto their work. Others make work that expands or rebuts those words’ conventional meanings. Call one “post-media” to help him or her avoid confinement. Call another what you will as long as that name doesn’t crop or filter your view of their work.
Call Carpenter’s work dance because he wants to add to the number of things that dance can be. It often includes text spoken live by its performers, as in theater. In his view, talking is a human action and thus “something that can be choreographed.” This brought to mind how, during the 2010 Chicago Humanities Festival, Norah Zuniga Shaw named one goal of the website Synchronous Objects: to “inspire choreographic thinking” about group dynamics, graphic design and other non-dance subjects.
Although I rarely chime in during Chicago Dancemakers Forum Salons — writing these recaps requires steady note-taking — I did mention that I’ve recently employed the word “dancerly” more often. It means to me a certain capriciousness driven by curiosity, investigation and/or play. Things I’ve called dancerly include Alexander Calder’s mobiles, the art of Marc Chagall, a card came played onstage during a play I saw, dining at Alinea and the use of language in Steven Soderbergh’s 1996 film Schizopolis.
Do labels matter? Said DEFIBRILLATOR founder Joseph Ravens, “Twofold: As an artist, which box do you check? It’s frustrating. As a curator and administrator, I’m curious about where the borders are.” Cursach said those same roles necessitate decisions about which productions “go on the dance page of our brochure” for the MCA Stage. Turning to Carpenter, she added, “But first, I would consult with you, the artist.”
Carpenter was pragmatic while self-identifying at the start of his career. “I found more work after college as a dancer-choreographer, so I went toward that.” Theater seemed a field wherein finding work depended most on being a good fit for an existing role. “In dance, I felt like I could make my own world,” he explained. “You can of course do that too in theater, but I didn’t know that at the time.”
Artists drift outside understood boundaries of “dance” and “theater,” he added, when they’re investigating ideas they can’t articulate in one domain or the other. For such projects to succeed, the artist must develop “a foundational craft” in each discipline. Doing so yields numerous benefits and rewards. “What is the tension between these crafts and their rules?” he recommended asking yourself. Honored equally, “the two together can guide you” through the creative process.
Carpenter was first inspired to incorporate text into his dances as a theater undergraduate at Northwestern University. He remembers his choreography professor there, Lynne Ann Blom, as someone “really excited about talking and dancing, and in blowing it all open.” (Blom died at age 50 in January 1993, less than a year after Carpenter graduated. She saw her works performed by Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre, the Lynda Martha Dance Company and Joel Hall Dancers, according to an obituary by Kenan Heise for the Chicago Tribune.)
As a graduate student at the Department of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles, Carpenter received guidance from Susan Leigh Foster, Victoria Marks and David Roussève. It was at UCLA that Carpenter learned to view labeled dance forms — ballet, Cunningham technique, Graham technique, various approaches to improvisation and so on — as discrete philosophies of the body. The more common paradigm today, he observed, are hybridized studies in dance.
In lieu of naming performance based on visual signifiers and reference points, Foster’s research encouraged Carpenter to locate a work’s point of view — if one existed. A performance can borrow from multiple sources with cleverness or wit without arguing a distinct perspective. He learned the difference between new ideas and new containers for old ones.
Labels matter if you apply them automatically without noticing. Said Carpenter: “The assumptions that we bring to an experience of cultural difference can be profound and difficult to track.” Recognizing those assumptions is made more difficult if the experience of difference doesn’t happen live, he continued, in three dimensions and in the flesh. “I don’t think you do the work of disregarding your assumptions, or challenging them, when you’re alone in your own space.” Carpenter chooses not to devote energy toward incorporating technology and digital media. “I’m interested in having a conversation about the body,” he stated. “I’m not rooting for laptops.”
For Maggie Bridger, who explores intersections between dance and physical disability, experiencing performance can be the Goo Gone that helps remove these sticky labels. “When a person in a wheelchair performs, there’s no question that you’re going to notice it,” she observed. “It’s about how you move beyond [seeing the wheelchair] to become absorbed by what that person is doing, who that person is. I’m interested in how much time it takes [a viewer] to move on.”
Carpenter smiled. “I think a lot of that interest is critiquing the culture that wants us to forget about the wheelchair.”
While knitting, self-described fledgling dancer-choreographer Lilith Ubbelohde said, “It’s not important to label my work but I still need to be able to talk about it.” Said Victoria Eleanor Bradford, working toward an MFA in performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, “I took it upon myself to found what you might call ‘a conceptual dance company.’ ” For Bradford, labels matter when they get in the way. “Too much time has been spent in my critiques on, ‘What genre is this?’ ”
“I never considered what I was doing ‘breaking out,’ ” said performer-creator Liz Joynt Sandberg, who seeks instead to draw a throughline. “I want a conversation with my audience about what makes it my work besides the fact that I’m in it.” During her career as a working dancer, CDF consortium member Ginger Farley’s label would change as she moved from studio to studio. “I was always the jazz dancer in the modern class,” she remembered. “Or I was the modern dancer in the jazz class, and I loved that.”
“Part of breaking out of labels is developing a thick skin,” Ravens advised, “when people do want to apply labels to you and your work.” He recalled a performance-art piece of his whose audience applied to it “the rules of a well-made play.” When he didn’t follow these rules, some viewers concluded his performance was a failure.
Ravens and others granted that patient, invested audience members are never guaranteed. A work’s creator can’t control how carefully, how long and how closely someone looks at it. This someone could be a distracted audience member; he or she might also belong to a funding institution’s selection committee.
As Cursach acknowledged earlier, her role as a performance presenter does require some label-application, mostly for the purposes of marketing and applying for grants. “Categories do matter,” she accepted. “Just deal with it. I have a stake [in them], even though it’s immaterial whether it’s ‘dance’ or ‘theater.’ I am sensitive that my core audience are dance and theater practitioners, and I’m sensitive to the fact that one is resource-deprived. I will underwrite and do whatever I can,” she concluded, to encourage those twin audiences “to see each other’s work, cross disciplines and be surprised.”
Farley recalled seeing Mary Zimmerman’s The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. “I felt disoriented at first. It took a while to get the words [for it] together. It wasn’t a piece of theater, but it was what it was. It identified itself really clearly.” I had a similar experience on February 11, when I attended an “artist talk” with Martin Creed at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The presentation, which Cursach said was “tightly scripted,” began with Creed appearing onstage, well-dressed but disheveled and looking a bit like Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. Creed’s first sentences, delivered with a thick English accent probably traceable to his hometown in Yorkshire, started and restarted and stopped early and changed course and contradicted each other. I couldn’t at first understand at all what Creed was trying to communicate; after about five minutes, I started to “see” some of the concepts his performance sketched. Later on, this “talk” incorporated dance, songs Creed played on guitar and video projections.
“That moment of disorientation is my favorite part of watching performance,” Carpenter said in response to Farley. “ ‘What is this that I’m seeing that I don’t understand yet but that I love?’ ” One answer came later from Debra Levasseur-Lottman, a former consultant in the Writing Center at Columbia College Chicago. Describing her enjoyment at seeing anyone dance for the first time, she said, “You’ll never know until you immerse yourself in who that person is.”
The Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s 2011–12 Salon Series continues at 6pm on April 16 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Difficult Conversations: Cultural Dividers, a joint presentation with the At Work Forums series, will address how the city’s geographies of culture, infrastructure and resource distribution affect Chicagoans’ access to art.