By Katharine Hawthorne
Dance making is an inherently collective and collaborative art practice. Our professional structures focus on supporting dance companies; our training is group oriented, placing students into classes based on age and ability. Despite the implicit collectivism in the performing arts, our landscape promotes individual artistic voices and is dominated by hierarchies: director – dancer; teacher – student; emerging, mid-career, established. I am curious about our collective ecosystem and how we choose to engage with, or disregard, the rich social, political, and art historical traditions surrounding collective art practice.
Prior to the 17th and 18th century, art making was not considered a separate activity from craft or skill. Artists were organized into guilds, which controlled the practice of a craft and the sale of associated objects or services. Our modern conception of art as an aesthetic pursuit related to self-expression resulted from social transformations in the 18th century (or so argues Larry Shiner in The Invention of Art). “Art” as we know it is deeply connected to the autonomy of individual artists. Think of the cult of personality around dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky versus the collective identity of a Russian folk dance troupe.
Contemporary ideas about collective art practice can be traced back to avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dada, and the Situationists. The cooperative aspects of these movements can be seen as reactions to “the cult of the individual” as well as attempts to counter the competitive nature of capitalist culture. Collective art practice promises democratic decision making and equal opportunity for participants. Many of the performance scores of the Fluxus Movement reflect collective political and social aims.
Some might argue that dance is still in the guild state of economic and artistic development, and I would agree that many of our training systems focus on building a technical skill set. However dance training today at many Bay Area institutions such as the SF Conservatory of Dance and the Alternative Conservatory at Kunst-Stoff Arts address much more than the physical craft of dancing, focusing on the development of the artist as an individual. I am one of a handful of dancers spearheading PEER Practices, a summer project of Alternative Conservatory that attempts to rethink how adult dancers train together, resourcing collective energy to reach individual goals.
Collective and collaborative art practice is in the ethos of the Bay Area, and while it springs from the politically and socially charged roots charted above, I often feel that making and producing work together is done out of convenience as opposed to an understanding of how or why collective practice suits a particular project or artistic aim.
I have a stake in these issues as both a mover and a maker. As a dancer I have questions about how I show up for the artists for whom I work – how do I train for them, what do I offer them collaboratively in rehearsal, and in what ways am I working collectively with other dancers? As a choreographer, I want to create a space that allows performers to offer themselves fully and collaboratively as movers and people, at the same time I want to advance my individual artistic objectives. I have experienced collective production processes (such as the ODC Pilot), as well as collaborative art making. Despite the enormous amount I have learned from working with others, I ultimately value most highly my self-production experiences, where I have assumed full solitary responsibility for my work and its presentation.
We work in a collective but hierarchical system, which is at the same time deeply cooperative and driven by the ambition and artistic vision of singular individuals. In this sense the performing arts combine multiple art historical threads, offering dance artists the opportunity to work collectively, collaboratively, or to go it alone.
Katharine Hawthorne is a San Francisco based dancer and choreographer who likes to watch thinking bodies in motion. www.khawthorne.net
By Maggie Stack and Emmaly Wiederholt
A year ago Stance On Dance revolutionized what it means to wear a dance belt. Gone are the days of boring skin-colored belts; wearing a dance belt has become a mode of expression. Feel like donning fur or going for the hipster look? These sorts of questions male dancers ask themselves every day.
But it’s not just fashion forward male dancers getting in on the dance belt craze. Fashionistas and trend setters everywhere have jumped on the dance belt bandwagon. With the infamous Big Big Big Sur Fashion Show coming up at the end of this month, we’ve put forward a few haute couture designs of our own.
By Emmaly Wiederholt
Nike has made a fortune off of the slogan “Just Do It.”
Some things make so much sense to “just do.” Just do your taxes. Just go to work. Just pay your bills. Does this totalism extend to dance? What does it mean to just dance?
I sometimes feel like the only thing left to do in the world is to just dance. Other times dance feels like a coat that’s too hot to wear and that I don’t fit in well. And then there are all the shades in between “I can’t help but dance” and “this feels horrible.”
In the beginning, my dancing was wholly mine. My pursuit of dance grew out of the simple joy I experienced just twirling around the living room floor. It was my vessel moving through space the way I wanted to. I just did it. But of course it’s different now. If and when I work with a company or choreographer, my dancing becomes less mine, and I think it becomes necessary at some point to relinquish a part of the ownership. It’s how the game is played. I don’t blame any dancer for joining any company or working with any choreographer.
This is where “Just Do It” comes in.
Where is that line between dancing because one cannot help it and dancing because one must? For my part, I’d rather keep dance in that treasure trove of things I do simply for the sake of doing. I’d rather not force dance the way I’d rather not force a poem, or force drifting to sleep, or force having a good day. But sometimes you have to go through with your day regardless of whether or not it’s going well.
Whether a dancer is dancing because they feel compelled by the heart or feel compelled by expectation is a subtle difference, but I think it’s an important distinction. Dancers should know exactly what they feel, fickle though feelings may be. It’s an expressive art. And if I don’t feel like dancing right now, hey that’s something worth noting. I’m not advocating laziness or indulgence, although maybe from time to time I am. I’m advocating rigorous self-evaluation. What am I feeling right now? Is this a worthwhile way to fill up my time and space?
Sometimes, when I’m bursting with inspiration, the reason is as simple as: because it’s the only thing in the world left to do.
But I also understand that sometimes dance can quickly become an obligation and an expectation. The choreographer and other dancers have expectations. It’s not a bad thing; it’s important for getting anything done. But if dance falls into the “obligations and expectations” category too often, I begin to wonder why all these dancers are dancing around in the first place. It begins to look like they just do it like they just do their taxes.
My dad always says moderation in all things. Perhaps those who dance perfunctorily should resort to laziness until they’re beside themselves clamoring to move. And perhaps the much rarer dancer who follows their heart in all matters dance should go do their “taxes.”
But by that same token, taxes only happen once a year. If every day feels like tax day, that’s an indicator something’s wrong.
Most of the time, I just dance. And not because Nike told me to “Just Do It,” but because it’s the only thing in the world left to do.
Poem by Madelyn Biven; Painting by Julia Cost
Cross lines of a highway makes romance bleed,
our feet become moonlight crimson echo
of the eros between sand and heat (something
fine like crushed sun as if the sun could become
gold dust). I became a dove and dove into
your feather rage of walking mountain edge
and diving took all the time it takes for
the surf to break at the shallow place, the
place gravity evaporates. A child
bites into a pear and the world twirls like
paper planes. Last night it rained a million
screaming fishes, glitter melodies plunge
I drew you on my wall with a silver
crayon. Except it wasn’t silver, it
was thunder. And it wasn’t my wrist moving,
it was my flesh. I stand in rain and pour
outside in the way embers coat smoke with
heavy grace the way my hair coils around
my neck the way pinot noir spills and
I’m hungry for mahogany, burgundy,
and oak. Ten staircases fold into themselves
and we begin to fly origami
cranes. I take a fist and dig wet heart from
earth’s black pit. We eat the flesh we are born
from you feel like leather deep in my pockets
dreaming of your summer texture. I attach
myself to you in nouns and open you
with vowels. Down sounds drown down we are spades
in the rose garden waiting to be touched
and puncture fingerprint to cheekbone. Our
minds are glass, cherry pits, baby skin. The
ocean moves into me like clouds push azul
like la la la over nectar seals gashes
on my knees. My mouth is a shell opening
over and over, you are the pearl.
I throw white triangles into your puzzle
maze, drink your stamen fresh water and toss
you like clouds turn into day. There are so
many paths of understanding. My thoughts
are daisies. My knees are cliffs. My body
is a soft pulse. The answers rise and fall
through my eyes as waves. Desire doesn’t
ripple like a petal in the lake. It falls
like eyelashes. Like rain.
By Emmaly Wiederholt
Although I’ve experienced intense competition many times in my pursuit of dance, I have never formally competed in dance. So what’s competition dance all about? I sat down with Chris Jacobsen, a teacher, choreographer and judge at Adrenaline Dance, a national convention that includes workshops and competitions, to find out.
Emmaly Wiederholt: What is your background?
Chris Jacobsen: I’m from San Francisco. I started dancing at a local neighborhood dance studio once a week. I took tap, jazz, and ballet, and it was great. It got me interested in dance, and was a really nurturing outlet. After that I decided to get more serious so I went to the San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) and did the whole ballet/modern thing and took from Elvia Marta; she was my main influence in high school. She taught me a lot, pushed me in the most positive way and brought out my passion. Dance really saved me. I had never really found a connection with school, I lost my father at a young age, and just finding a safe place in dance, being the gay kid among a lot of girls I related to, it was just the most amazing environment. After high school I didn’t go to college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with dance, so I stayed around and kept training. I went to high school with a couple dancers who also did competitive dance at another school, and that was my introduction to competitive dance. They would bring back their videos and I was inspired by what I saw and I wanted to know more about it: what is this whole dance world about? So what I decided to do was go to their school after SOTA, which was called Schumacher’s School of Dance, and which is no longer around. I went there and started doing competitions. At some point a group of us saw another really talented group of dancers at a competition, and decided to do what they were doing, so we started our own thing. Basically we rented out space, choreographed our own numbers, and competed at conventions. Sooner or later I got really serious about it. I also discovered that I love to create and teach. And so I developed this youth competitive dance company out of that where I auditioned dancers ages 11-18 from the Bay Area and formed a group of serious young dancers who would go to conventions. I would teach them throughout the week, and welcome them to train everywhere else as well, as I didn’t own a dance school myself. And this was a great opportunity for me as a choreographer to have the same group of dancers who really trusted me to work with week after week. As students they got to take from not only me but through the conventions from a plethora of teachers from all over the country. I did that for many years and through that I got exposure as a choreographer and started getting asked to other dance schools who would fly me out to come set work or teach class. I also got sought out by a man who was starting his own convention called Adrenaline Dance, and I’m still doing that today.
EW: What exactly is a convention?
CJ: Basically it’s a weekend event. The convention rents out a hotel and we hold classes for all ages, from 5 to adult. It’s usually Fri-Sun, and we are currently doing about 16 in different cities throughout the year. And then as part of the event we also host a dance competition on one or two nights depending on how large the convention is. We offer scholarships to our summer workshops and intensives. The classes are varied from ballet, contemporary, jazz, tap, and hip hop.
EW: Where do dancers from a competition/convention background typically end up professionally?
CJ: It’s so varied because of the versatile training. Some excel at hip-hop, and a lot of those dancers want to go to LA and do commercial work. A majority do. So many dancers who have come through Adrenaline Dance Convention are now working in music videos, commercials, award shows on television, etc. That’s one avenue. However, now more than ever, because the concert world has come into the competitive world and has merged to some degree, a lot of the dancers go to college and major in dance. A lot of them. And then a third route I see are dancers going to New York and pursuing Broadway gigs. But what I see a lot now is people continuing their education in college, which is kind of neat to see because I don’t know if it was always like that. The level of knowledge these dancers have is a lot different than it was 10-15 years ago in terms of their bodies, their skill level, and the way they look at dance. The skill level is pretty impressive nowadays, and the amount of quote-unquote artistic work they are able to comprehend and execute has grown too.
EW: What do you mean by artistic work? Choreography?
EW: What do you feel are the pros and cons of training at a competition dance school and regularly attending competitions and conventions?
CJ: I think the benefits are the versatile training more than anything. Often young people aren’t sure what their focus in terms of dance wants to be, and when you go to a competitive dance school you don’t have to know yet because you’re getting exposure to so much. So it gives you time to figure out what you really love in dance and what you’re drawn to.
I think the drawback is the opposite, where if you don’t find a focus you’re not getting enough of one thing. If you go to a competitive school there’s often not enough ballet classes a week. So you really have to find the right dance school for you. Some don’t have enough ballet, but some of them do. It really depends. But I think the drawback would be not spending enough time on one kind of dance because it is so widespread.
EW: You were talking about “concert” dance coming into the competitive world more, and so I wonder if and how you think the concert world and the competitive world could inform one another more?
CJ: I think they are already informing one another more and more. For example, certain teachers from the concert world now teach at conventions. Like Desmond Richardson. So it’s interesting to see that sort of crossover happen. But yeah, I think the concert world sometimes doesn’t take the competitive world seriously and looks down upon it. There can be a judgment. Not always, but there can be that. But really I think they’d be surprised if they really looked. Of course these dancers don’t know everything but they’re really great. They’re disciplined. In terms of attitude, skill level, and discipline, it’s not that different from concert-focused dancers. You’re going to find kind dancers or mean dancers or disciplined dancers or lazy dancers in both worlds. I really mean that.
I hate labels, I really do. And it’s something I don’t like about the dance shows on television, although they’ve helped the popularity of dance, because they specify genres and labels. And that’s another drawback of competitive dance. It’s an art, so it’s hard to judge it, or to say who the best is. It’s so subjective. That’s one of the things I don’t really like.
EW: Do you judge at competitions?
CJ: I do sometimes at the conventions. Like I said there’s competitions during the conventions. I’ve been judging for over a decade.
EW: I’m curious what criteria you judge by. How do you compare one dancer to another?
CJ: Stage presence, how proficient their technique is, and their execution. If I just look at what I like, it’s vague and subjective, so I try to look at how well they’re executing what they’re doing. There are so many criteria, but it can be so vague and so subjective.
EW: As an educator, what do you most hope to impart to your students?
CJ: I try to be nurturing. I really believe in positive reinforcement. I want my students to trust their instincts, and embrace their individuality. I try to disparage comparing, because it ultimately leads to despairing. I tell them, there’s only one of you, and your voice is valid.
Because of all the exposure of dance on TV, many aspiring dancers want to be on a TV show for dance and become quote-unquote known, or famous, when really, what I’m noticing is a lot of the dancers go on the show and have expectations and then they’re not always met, but because they have a name and they were on a show, they end up teaching everywhere. And so what happens is there are less nurturing teachers, and a lot of these teachers are really young, and I think their teaching suffers. And I was a young inexperienced teacher at one point, so I get it, but it’s this weird expectation that’s come out of television that it is an ultimate goal for some dancers. And to some degree I think it can be toxic at times, all this competitive dance on television. But then on the flip side it’s all more exposure for dance. And some of the people who have been on these television shows have gone on to do wonderful things.
Chris Jacobsen also cofounded The Dance Sessions. Click to learn more.
First photo courtesy of Chris Jacobsen. Second photo courtesy the Adrenaline Dance website.
Created and directed by Stephanie Salts
A silly film about the adventures of a particular pair of shoes…
By Zach Intemann
I recently travelled to Las Vegas for a cousin’s wedding. A few days before departing for Vegas, I received a text message from another cousin asking if I would be interested in seeing a show with him and other family members. I replied, “Definitely, which show?” My cousin quickly responded, “Zumanity.” Unfamiliar with Zumanity, I immediately looked it up on Google only to learn that it is an erotic themed Cirque du Soleil. I asked my cousin if he was serious. He was. So I mentally prepared myself to see the “sensual side of Cirque du Soleil” with my two cousins in their forties, their mother (my older aunt), our uncle in his fifties, and his girlfriend. I’m 26. Not awkward at all.
If the six of us weren’t already excited enough (obviously), we filled up on steak, wine and martinis before the show. The best line I could come up with for flirting with the female ticket collector, pre-show photographer, and male usher was, “Guess what! I am so excited!” My excitement is pretty obvious in the picture.
The show opened with topless girls, music, and more topless girls. The host was a gay French guy wearing a man thong and a sports coat. Despite being French, I thought he was very funny. I sat between my aunt and my cousin toward the center of the row so I didn’t have a great view when the performers walked down the aisle, but that didn’t matter because the real entertainment was on stage. The opening scene was most impressive, with two female performers (wearing only blue thongs of course) doing handstands and crazy dives into a large clear bowl the size of a hot tub. This was one of a few acrobatic highlights of the show for me.
The other impressive scene was later in the show when aerialist midget Alan J Silva flew through the air, demonstrating great strength and athleticism. I thought the scene was choreographed exceptionally well. I ran into him the following day in the promenade at the casino. I told him I was really impressed with his performance, but he wasn’t really interested in talking to me, either because he meets too many fans or he could tell I was hammered at five in the afternoon.
Compared to other Cirque du Soleil shows, the acrobatics and flying was limited in Zumanity. But boy did they make up for it with other entertainment. In one scene, a woman taught the crowd how to stuff her boobies with zip lock bags filled with gin. She simply showed and explained to the crowd (flat ladies in particular) how to stuff a bra using a plastic bag half filled with booze (instead of tissue). In another scene, two audience members were asked to go on stage and mimic seductive dance moves. At one point, a dancer walking down the aisle brushed my uncle’s shoulder and face with her feather prop. It was all very sexy and funny.
There were plenty of topless girls, but the producers made a point to include fit male performers as well to make sure the men weren’t the only ones hot and bothered by the end of the show. I heard that the theatre had special couches for couples. Although the place was filled with couples of all ages, and my family, I didn’t see any couples’ couches, but couples’ couches may be better for the imagination. My family and I sat in a normal row just like normal people do at normal Cirque du Soleil productions.
After the show, my cousin said he thought Zumanity lacked acrobats and aerialists compared to other shows, but was the most entertaining he’d seen. I highly recommend this Vegas show for anyone who wants to see titties, muscles, midgets, or just wants to be very entertained; I was very entertained. I laughed for almost the entire show. I only stopped laughing when I asked the girl in the Zumanity gift shop after the show if anyone had ever had a heart attack during Zumanity. She said yes. Luckily no one in the theatre had a heart attack when I went to see Zumanity for this family outing.
Photo by Alan Silva Photography