Ordinary Dance

The production team had a fruitful conversation the other day about the possibilities for the play’s final movement section. We explored terminology, as well as atmosphere, emotion, and the qualities this section wanted to emphasize. One of the most interesting threads had to do with the nature of the movement itself — there isn’t anything traditionally dancerly or polished about it. There’s an awkwardness, an ordinariness at its heart.

The conversation put me in mind of Yvonne Rainer’s seminal work from the beginnings of postmodern / avant-garde dance: Trio A. Choreographed in 1966, this piece still has the power to unsettle viewers as it argues for the value of everyday motions and gestures within a dance event. Regarding a different, later project, Rainer famously penned her No Manifesto, which I think sheds some light on her aesthetic generally:

No to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.
No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator.
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.
No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved.

In essence, Rainer treats dance as (in her words) a “neutral object” — a collection of (often rigorous) motions that does not by its nature inherently carry meaning or emotion. Rather, it becomes a container for the event, the audience, and the experience in that moment.

Though the movements in Trio A can seem random, they are specific, codified, and repeatable. The piece can be performed forwards or backwards. To music or to silence. The experience of the viewer is one in which our own frame of mind — our concerns and preoccupations, our expectations and assumptions — becomes the material from which we make meaning.

 

A more modern take on ordinariness in dance can be seen in Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Poetics: a Ballet Brut (they’re not from Oklahoma). Following in the footsteps of artists like Rainer, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and other members of the New York avant garde, NToO used chance operations to create a physical score for this work. Chance Operations requires that a series of gestural, textual, spacial, or audio vocabularies are designed, then are implemented in random order. So, for example, in Poetics: A Ballet Brut, NToO divided the playing space into a grid pattern, and assigned each square to one side of a die. Similarly, a collection of ordinary physical movements (walking, opening a shopping bag, moving a chair, etc) were assigned to another die. Rolls of the dice determined the order of gestures and locations on the stage, and thus a “script” of choreography was created, memorized, rehearsed, and performed. The fascinating thing about it in performance is that as audience members we search for patterns, narrative, and meaning. We make it up when none is embedded. Here’s a sample of Poetics: a Ballet Brut:

Neither Rainer nor the members of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma “look like” dancers, as we’ve come to understand that ideal. They look like average people. They move like average people. And yet, this is dance. It’s very ordinariness is the essence of its message.

In the case of We’re Gonna Die, the non-specialness of the movement section pulls on some of these same ideas, rooting us in the ordinary, heartbreaking, awkward, funny, sweet, strange, totality of it, and preparing us for the moment when we all sing together, cheerfully, about the inevitability of our own demise.

 

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