By Michaela Dwyer
Last Friday, in the heart of downtown Durham, I watched a small French man receive a lifetime achievement award in dance. Following three different laudatory introductions, he, short and nimble, crept out from behind the red stage curtain as if part of a magician’s reveal. He accepted the award humbly, speaking in heavily accented English of the dancers and choreographers who had previously won the award—among them Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch, Bill T. Jones—as his “heroes.” He then disappeared offstage and the performance began: two straight hours of rigorous choreography executed by four dancers—two women, two men—set to a John Cage vocal score recorded live in Milan in 1977.
Parched of particulars, this description might be alienating. The choreographers I listed above may be foreign names; Angelin Preljocaj, this year’s Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award winner, may cap off the unfamiliarity. Sitting in one place for two hours anywhere—whether mandatory or not—is likely an undesirable activity. If mandatory, then even more so. But sometimes I feel as though the messaging around art implies that it’s a voluntary contract. On one level, we can always opt to leave a museum or performance. On another, we can divert funding elsewhere, categorize the arts as superfluous, relegate them to the nebulous realm of the “emotional” and “beautiful,” remove them from public education, bypass the nominating procedures for a state’s poet laureate.
The Cage score to which Ballet Preljocaj’s three-part Empty Moves is set features Cage reading parts of Henry David Thoreau’s journals. Though “read” gives the impression that what Cage performs sounds straightforward and tame, i.e., “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” punctuated by tasteful pauses. Not exactly. Cage pedals on for two hours, speaking in phonemes—the “smallest contrastive unit in the sound system of a language.” Mostly the recording sounds like a drone. And then it sounds like this: the crowd in Milan thinks Cage is done, begins applauding, gets angry when Cage drones on. The remainder of the recording could pass for a political riot in its barrage of hostile sounds: jeers, chants, screams, sirens, and objects hitting something—or someone—with force. But all throughout, calm and steady, are Cage’s phonemes. And, all throughout, the four dancers dance—unflagging, seemingly incognizant of the audiences. I use the plural because, really, there are two: the audience bristling in Milan in 1977, and the audience that paid to see them sweat in Durham, which includes me.
I didn’t originally intend to write a piece about dance. I fear the alienation effect in my writing in the same way that I fear bringing someone largely unfamiliar with capital-“D” Dance to a show like the one I describe above. I fear the lack of connection afterward, the fumbling for words; I fear becoming self-satisfied and closed-off in my knowledge of the field. But I also fear alienating myself from engaging in material that does something to me. I thank my dance training for linking my appreciation and engagement with art with the physical. I know art does something when my body moves in response; when I sprout goosebumps; when I pitch forward in my seat; when I squeeze the hand of the person sitting next to me.
The day after Preljocaj’s show, I had a Twitter conversation about it with someone I’ve never met. I told him I liked thinking about the way Cage’s score manipulated both audiences; he wondered why the Durham audience didn’t respond in the way Cage’s did. In other words, why no riot?
I’d wondered the same thing, having seen only a few walk out during the performance. I treasure these little disruptions. I look around eagerly to see if other people notice them. The leaving feels to me like another physical response to art: a more overtly social one, one that breaks my solitary understanding of a performance (read: me, watching dancers onstage) and forces it into a wider network (the heavy-breathing woman behind me; the man who walks out briskly). This feels like a stepping-stone to community, to a Hey, look at that person who’s had enough! In fact, look at us existing in this space together! We’ve been here for an hour-and-a-half and these dancers show no signs of stopping! What if we never leave?
But what would I have done had I been at Kara Walker’s exhibit when Nicholas Powers started yelling? Would I have felt similarly compelled to yell? Would I have felt safe? Would I use the word “treasure” in an essay later to categorize Powers’s disruption?
We respond to challenging things—art is only one among them—on the spectrum of politeness. Maybe there’s Point A: bristling at two hours of dance (or John Cage) but glazing over the discomfort, and then Point B: yelling, and then writing a piece about it, and keeping the conversation going. Which response to alienation is more productive? And for whom?
I think it circles back to us. We who do the making—and the defending—whether we’re artists, politicians, students, activists, pre-orientation program leaders. In the material we produce and share, we can huddle around the didactic or the to-be-determined. Point A and Point B. We help hold the space, and the bristling, in between—the space where maybe, hopefully, we’re bristling together.