A world of difference

Eleanor Brickhill, MAP Symposium

Even at the initial stages of organising the MAP Symposium, there was a sense of apprehension, as if great care was needed if something unpleasant was not to seriously damage the fragile health of our national dance community. What was needed therefore was a good dose of comfort food, a sweetened porridge of common ground. And so, via the unifying elements of ‘space’ and ‘time’, it was thought, a safe, polite environment might be provided in which differences of practice and tradition could be rendered harmless.

In the spirit of fair play and equality, each panel had its even spread of philosophical approaches. But in panels of only a few people, such broad scope often seemed to leave gaping holes between speakers, gaps which the speakers themselves sometimes despaired of crossing.

‘Binary’ was a term I heard used often to describe the state of an argument, and in my ignorance, it seemed that it meant something bad, not wholesome, dead-end. There were histories, known and unknown; ballet and its ‘other’; the embodied and the out-of-body; subjective and objective bodies; public and private spaces; pop and elite culture; the ‘railway tracks’ trajectory of choreographic choice versus that ‘moment’ of losing touch with a known repertoire of choices. I took the ‘binary’ to describe a way of thinking which forced an impasse, precluded creative development, maintained the dependence of each ‘side’ on the other to reinforce their differences. If the ‘binary’ approach was loosened, perhaps the ‘sides’ might disappear and things would be less contentious and much more pleasant for everyone.

Sally Gardner brought to my attention a brief comment—I can’t remember from whom—which suggested that perhaps, speaking of ballet, one might “be more spontaneous” as if that, somehow, would change everything. And a private rejoinder suddenly opened, for me, a crack in the niceness which threatened to descend on all of us: this idea of ‘spontaneity’ lies at the heart of the matter. ‘Being more spontaneous’ is a glib description of what a different dance tradition might encompass. Because there are not just competing practices, but competing traditions and all that they imply: learning to think differently, to see differently, to feel differently, to occupy a different intellectual and psychic space, to develop work along different trajectories. One doesn’t just leap from one tradition to another.

It became obvious to me in several of the forums (for instance, “Ballet and its Other”; “Next Steps: In Search of the Body”; “Performance Space”; and in the comments from some of the artists in Matthew Bergan’s video interviews, Arrival and Departure) that a level of frustration was evident among proponents of philosophical stances other than the balletic tradition. One problem seemed to be that often speakers were trying to discuss not so much actual conscious practices, but the traces left in behaviour, the hard wiring of the nervous system. One is unable to easily slough off what is not simply a movement technique, but a way of thinking, a set of assumptions about the world and about human values. Libby Dempster was not only discussing conscious practices or beliefs, but a kind of unconscious stance, beliefs which are imagined as fact, values not normally available to scrutiny without profound changes in perspective.

Proponents of balletic tradition have rarely sought to investigate this. Many of the artists who work within that tradition were smart and articulate, being able to discuss their own ideas freely. But they seemed to demonstrate little understanding of the ideas of their fellow speakers. Frustration arose, for example, when William McClure and Sue-ellen Kohler proposed the possibility of a different sort of matrix by which choreographic decisions might be made.

Paula Baird-Colt spoke well about her understanding of ballet training and the capacity for choreographic and technical diversity within a company, suggesting that within a ballet company’s fairly stringent technical requirements, that one could see markedly individual differences in dancers and choreographers over time, that in fact it too could be concerned with diversity and individuality. But my experience of ballet is that its primary requirement is that the dancers are physically and technically similar, that differences outside a slim margin are not really tolerated; and it is only after being able to see work many times, close up and from an insider’s viewpoint, that the differences in dancers and choreographers are amplified, becoming inadvertent but lovable idiosyncrasy.

My point is that Paula (and many like her) does not need to understand what her fellow speakers are saying. There is, as yet, no compulsion for change within balletic practice in Australia. And if there is to be dialogue, it will be forced into the ballet arena by virtue of its inability to go outside its own understanding. One can afford to be magnanimous and tolerant of other practices when it is evident that those practices need never pose a threat.

Amanda Card mentioned some early pioneers of Australian modern dance traditions, and their lost history, as if this history might be reconstructed via its traces in the media. But while we can know the theatrical conventions of earlier periods, the ways those artists were represented to the public, we can never know about their actual practices. Our assumptions might be that their work was radical, revolutionary. But the fact is we don’t know what it was, because we did not see the bodies moving. It’s very easy to discuss different practices from an historical viewpoint as if we know what we’re talking about, because words are inexact descriptions of real experiences. And real understanding of the differences in practice only comes with actual experience of these practices, not just as a kind of cook’s tour variety of experience, but as serious study.

I started this article with a touch of cynicism because I thought it was only too evident that language by itself was inadequate to clarify real diversity in practice. Sue-ellen Kohler said about dance on film that there ought to be another word to describe what one saw there, because it was too different from a live body to be called the same thing. Similarly, one can continue to talk about ‘alternative performance venues’ or ‘different practices’ and continue to hear the words repeated as if they are understood, and the words themselves might gain political currency of their own, but without actual experience of the differences, the words are empty.

It is frustrating, in the event of this lack of full understanding, to be so contained by the need for ‘unity’ and common ground, that those very differences, the diversities in practice and values that we are trying so hard to elucidate are in danger of being swallowed in the effort to render them acceptable, tolerable and benign.

MAP Symposium, The Bagging Room, C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, July 25 – 26

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 9

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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