A Love Clear and Simple

A couple weekends ago, I bought a bar of soap. Not just any soap. The best smelling, most decadent, exfoliatingly brilliant bar of soap I’ve ever purchased (from the Olive Mill, in Saugatuk, in case you were wondering). When telling my husband about my love for this bar of soap, he said, “wow, and it is made at that little store in Saugatuk?” “Well, no. It is made in Provence, but I can get it at that little store in Saugatuk.” I continued, “ But it smells of sage and has wheat bran for exfoliation and….who knew a simple bar of soap could make me so happy.” He said, “Yeah, coming from Provence and full of all that stuff…it sounds simple.” Smirk. And with that, he got me thinking.

If I would like to consider my personal aesthetic for fashion, beauty, and so on as simple, how would I describe my dance aesthetic? The word I have come up with is functional.

That same weekend, I had the opportunity to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform at the Power Center in Ann Arbor with my dear friend and fellow DITA fan, Sherrie Barr. (This AND soap…It was a big weekend for me!) While Paul Taylor is not always my favorite choreographer, I still consider PT’s work to be a “sure thing” for me. I will walk away having enjoyed at least one piece very much, perhaps another somewhat, but overall I feel satisfied, nourished, and have learned something new.

On the Friday night program, the company performed Orbs (1966) and Also Playing (2009). Truth be told, I had difficulty following the narrative of Orbs, but I didn’t care. I was able to watch the construction of the movement, the innovation within the movement vocabulary, and ponder such things as the change in dancers’ bodies from the time the piece was created to now. Currently, dancers are so focused on cross-training that I often find myself bored from the lack of nuance that I usually find so endearing in first and second generation dancers- regardless of company or genre. Technical prowess is a beautiful skill to have, but I would much rather watch someone with style and an identity onstage that compliments the choreographer’s perspective. This allows me to get to know the dancer without ever having shaken their hand. (Speaking of shaking hands…I also met dance legend Dan Wagoner at the PTDC concert and shook HIS hand…really, REALLY big weekend for me!!)

One of the qualities I find so appealing in Paul Taylor’s work is his clarity, particularly in his earlier works. He has a set repertoire of movement, clear organization of space and time as well as movement, and incredible–even absurd–wit. He has a distinct voice and while I would consider his work to be virtuosic and athletic, these attributes have never been used for the self-indulgence we so often see in “contemporary” dance these days. Very simply, his movement supports his point. And it is this point, or conceptual clarity, that for me separates concert dance from commercial, often the good from the bad, and perhaps the dance from the dancing.

This reminds me of a quote by famous NY Times dance critic, John Martin, in which Martin defined modern dance not as “a system but a point of view.” For me, this really is what separates dancing from dance. As I have mentioned in a past post, I could extend this to my feelings toward jazz (as we’ve come to accept it) versus modern. But this also taps into my prejudice against so much of the dance readily digested by audiences today. What is its function? And whom does it serve?

When watching shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” I often feel cheated. I love that mass America is consuming dance on a regular basis. Yet it is the skewed focus of the choreography, the feedback, and the presentation of dancers (as well as dance training) that concerns me. Frankly, I find little of the choreography to have any focus at all beyond fanning egos and promoting much of what I think is “wrong” with the dance world, namely “tricks”. Such an emphasis on complex and non-communicative movement parlays into problems on multiple levels. These levels include dance education: in which talented students may be belittled for not being able to execute such movement and ultimately turn away from dance; dance appreciation, in which dance is dismissed as athletic feat; and dance administration, where choreographers with a point and a clear voice may not be funded due to their lack of public “accessibility.” I wonder, if starting today, would Paul Taylor make the cut?

So, how do we restore the art to our favorite art form? I think it begins with simple honesty. Why am I dancing? Why am I creating dance? Why do I expect people to value this? Why am I compelled to create this particular piece? Am I considering this concept from multiple angles and perspectives? Am I enriching the lives and creative journeys of myself AND my dancers? My audience? What does this motion infer? Does it support my concept? Could it be misinterpreted? Essentially, we follow the same process we do for professional writing, with the repeating question, “So what?” With this line of interrogation, I am not trying to create a generation of self-doubters. But, I would like the current generation of artists to doubt their first responses and demonstrate some higher-level thinking. When we do that, we not only restore the art in dance, we also restore the culture. Clean and simply. Smirk.

Happy cleansing.

Originally published by Dance in the Annex.  http://www.danceintheannex.com

Author: Heather Vaughan-Southard

HEATHER VAUGHAN-SOUTHARD is a connector. She uses somatic engagement and creativity to inspire change in people, perspectives, and practices within classrooms, therapy rooms, and boardrooms. She is a presenter in the fields of education, social-emotional learning, somatic practice, and the arts. www.hvsmovementstudies.com

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