Monday, April 20, 2020

Spring Book Corner - Selection #2

Spring Book Corner:

Selection #2
Futures of Dance Studies
edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross and Rebecca Schneider
available now from The University of Wisconsin Press

I wonder if this is true for others, but when I encounter a large dance text - the kind with a multitude of articles by different writers - I admit that I rarely read the whole thing. Rather, I focus on the introduction, and then randomly select a few articles to get a general sense of opinions, arguments and observations that the book posits.

I employed this same approach with Futures of Dance Studies, a new volume edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross and Rebecca Schneider and published by The University of Wisconsin Press - a book whose subject matter interests me greatly. While I applaud the scholarly work coming out of graduate dance programs and faculty research projects, much of the academic material I encounter borders on unapproachable. Articles with heavy, impenetrable titles. Book after book that could have a wider appeal, but instead, feel stylistically bound to dense, overly lengthy prose. I can’t help but feel that this fosters an unnecessary distance between the academy environment and the performative community.

Having said that, I was heartened by the three articles that I chose from Futures of Dance Studies. Each one was an interesting, provocative, academic study, no question. But the trio was very readable at the same time. And balanced. Qualitative research, especially that which only references one or two case studies, can so often be plagued by issues of selection bias and a lack of contrast space, issues which these articles were able to avoid. Speaking of selection bias, my own that is, I did steer clear of articles with stiffly intellectualized titles, of which there were several. You know the kind I mean. The ones where the (hopefully profound) thesis is so buried in fancy wording that it gets mostly, or sometimes entirely, lost.

Without a doubt, today’s global health crisis was on my mind when deciding upon Laura Karreman’s Breathing Matters: Breath as Dance Knowledge. Contemplating how breath relates not only to dance performance but also to the field of dance studies, the article is clear and compelling. Karreman begins by providing theoretical background/framework - citing a diverse group of artists, creators, philosophers and technicians. Next, she takes on a host of ideas relating to the breath. She explores the mind-body connection of breath and cognition, breath’s inherent egalitarianism, the link between breath and control and how the experience of breathing can be shared in the performance arena. Karreman goes on to discuss how many mid-twentieth century modern dance techniques were uniquely rooted in the breath, offers a case study of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s My Breathing Is My Dancing (2015) and spends ample time discussing new technology being used in performance and dance practice to measure breath.

I chose Daniel Callahan’s Accent, Choreomusicality, and Identity in Rodeo and ‘Rode,o for a number of reasons. First, the source material was definitely of interest: Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo (1942) and Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (2015). Second, while very distinct ballets (created in different centuries), both are set to the same Aaron Copland score, making them ideal candidates for a comparative study. And last, both works are part of San Francisco Ballet’s repertory library, so I’ve been fortunate to see each onstage.

Callahan’s is a wonderful article, rich with analysis. Observations about gender norms and sexuality pepper the riveting discussion, as do thoughts about narrative themes and choreographic abstraction. I particularly enjoyed his commentary of how works that are dubbed ‘abstract’ are still imbued with ample tone, mood, atmosphere and influence. But the most intriguing was when Callahan took a deep dive into how de Mille and Peck approached Copland’s evocative score, specifically their treatment of the Corral Nocturne’s 5/4 time signature. What kind of tension emerges when there are five beats in every measure? Or perhaps that final fifth beat allows for space, breath and vulnerability? For readers who are dance and music fans, Accent, Choreomusicality, and Identity in Rodeo and ‘Rode,o is a fascinating read.

With respect to the final Futures of Dance Studies article I’ll discuss, think about a dance performance you recently saw. Then, consider the individuals who brought that artistic idea to fruition: the choreographer, collaborating dancers, designers, composer, r├ępetiteur, dramaturg. Though really, that is only a partial list. In her article, Who Makes a Dance? Studying Infrastructure through a Dance Lens, Sarah Wilbur reminds the reader of the realities of artistic creation. That all work is truly birthed by a complex and varied ecosystem that is a dance company, a dance entity or a dance organization. Certainly by those in the studio, but equally by a myriad of others. By the grant specialist, the programming directors, the operations manager, the rehearsal accompanists, the box office staff, those who coordinate summer programs and many more. While some of these individuals may seem far away from the performance arena, Wilbur shows, through her important and penetrating study, that they are keenly involved in the process of dancemaking.

Who Makes a Dance? Studying Infrastructure through a Dance Lens pairs theory with an in-depth case study of Washington DC’s Dance Place, a dance non-profit founded more than forty years ago by Carla Perlo and Steve Bloom. Wilbur chronicles Dance Place’s financial journey, including its relationship with various funders, grants and foundations; Dance Place’s search for adequate, affordable physical space; its engagement with the community; the stories of continuity that have marked its past four decades as well as a nod to the next chapter. And in Who Makes a Dance? Studying Infrastructure through a Dance Lens, Wilbur does not shy away from the more challenging aspects of her exploration. She asked tough questions throughout, acknowledged that much more research should be directed towards the topic of dance infrastructure and invited her colleagues to join this needed conversation.

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