PROCESS // Ideas on Trained Dancers in Experimental Dance

photo by Janelle Jones 2012

I’ve been seeing a lot of emphasis in using untrained dancers for quite some time, and although I’m still very interested in others’ work that pursues that, in my work I’m primarily interested in what is left for the trained[1] dancer and how to further challenge such a dancer.

 

Right now, I’m working with dancers in their early- to mid-twenties that have had a lot of training in classic modern techniques (mostly Cunningham, with some Graham), and some to a lot of ballet training (not sure which type). I met these dancers back in June or July, so they are still somewhat new to me (I had been working with three dancers in their mid- to late-twenties on and off for about five or six years, and I had gotten to know them as dancers and friends and we are still very close). With this new group, I feel I’ve barely gotten started in knowing the expanse (and the limits) of their skills, intelligence, and experience, let alone all the other qualities making them the individuals they are. Most of the tasks I give them in studio are an experiment or a way for me and for them to merely observe, so for now, because of a lack of words, I call what we do “experimental”. “Observational dance” sounds a little strange or redundant, but that might be a more accurate term.

 

Sometimes I develop phrases (sometimes on my own or with their collaboration) that the dancers have to perfect in terms of unity/unison within the group, meaning precision of timing, shape, quality, tone, etc. Usually these movements are pretty simple but contain acute detail in order to highlight the dancers’ unity and their skill at this. The idea is very conventional and familiar, so for me it’s very important that we perfect it so that the viewer can see the precision of the dancers and not just a reference to it. It seems that, because of their training and intelligence, they are able to be as precise as I need them to be.

 

Lately, I’ve been introducing simple improvisation scores for them to highlight their other skills in how they physically perceive the information surrounding them and how they react to that. This is much trickier. We have to continually work on these “tasks” of sorts since it’s new territory for me and for most of them. Sometimes they start to “dance” the task, which negates the purpose (and charm) of it for me. They feel insecure that what they’re doing is “not interesting enough” and so they default into either embellishing the task at times, or glossing over it until they find something else to do. I’m still trying to figure out how to break this down for them and myself. So far, it seems that a lot of it has to do with honing their attention. Sometimes I have them focus only on the feeling of touch in one particular area of the body. Other times, I tell them to verbally list all of the things they can see at that moment, from the architectural elements of the room to the hairs on a fellow dancer’s neck. After such exercises, it seems that they are more invested in the momentary decisions they make because they are starting to get a glimpse of how many possible choices there can be at any time. When it works, it’s amazing to me because I really feel like it displays their spectrum of skills and intelligence as dancers, and possibly of dance itself. But when it doesn’t work, it seems like an unwarranted indulgence.

photo by Janelle Jones 2012

Why I’m interested in trained dancers: I realized that there seem to be a lot of dancers that study at colleges or conservatories which really emphasize the importance of modern and ballet techniques, but for those dancers that come out of such institutions and want something other than contemporary ballet or a classic modern repertoire group, there aren’t a lot of choices in which to continue using and developing these skills. I think a lot of these intelligent and skilled dancers are not being used to the best of their ability as artists, either from not fitting into a certain experimental image (either they might look too “dancerly”[2] to be taken seriously), or by going into one of the many dance companies that want a “dancerly”-looking dancer but without asking for their specific intelligence besides the height of their arabesque and knowing how to count to eight. I’m interested in using dancers with impressive arabesques and the genuine curiosity of how to expand and deepen their understanding of their roles, and possibly that of dance.

 

I’m interested in letting the viewer scrutinize the performer, the movement, the time, and the space of the performance, but I realize that for most viewers I have to create a sort of window or entry for them to do that. That is where the precise details, repetition, and group unison come into place for me. Those elements are part of a “preparation” for the audience (and possibly the dancers) so that when the work begins to shift into more subtle experiential or sensory elements, there’s a tension or sensitivity that has been developed within the audience that will enable them to retain their heightened awareness.

 

I want viewers to broaden their awareness, not only of the dance they are watching but also after and outside of the dance. I feel that dance and performance can communicate distinct yet subtle details in a much different way than other art forms, and has the possibility of allowing the viewer the freedom to simply be more aware, a seemingly diminishing skill in a time of constant stimuli of information and communication. And for now, I’m interested in the many ways in which trained dancers can facilitate this awareness.

[1] With the understanding that “trained” could mean a number of things, for now I’m narrowing this to ballet or classic modern training since I feel that describes the dancers I’m working with at the moment, and therefore, what I’m interested in at the moment.

[2] Since dancers obviously come in all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, etc., I will clarify “dancerly” as the conventional, and limiting, assumption that most professional dancers have long limbs and a slender, somewhat athletic shape.

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