Re: Cycles

Karen Pearlman: new expressionism in the New York dance scene

Here in New York, dance trends tend to have a ten-year cycle. Movement idioms change like shoe fashions. We get ten years of Reeboks and Nikes and now we’re back in platforms.

“After Trisha Brown” has been the flavour of the last decade. Fluid, overlapping actions flowing effortlessly from dancers who swing, glide, toss, swoop, flick and curl but never punch, strike, squeeze, hold or grab. Ironically, this movement style emanated from a cerebral woman working on formal concerns who may have agreed with Yvonne Rainer when she declared, “say no to sensuality.” But in the past decade the movement (not the formal concerns) became the sexy way to dance.

The popularity of the style has peaked now and will soon be on the decline. It is as much a cliché to the eye at this point as cross-dressing was a few years ago. The movement language was originally evolved as a tool to address formal concerns that have not been passed along to choreographers with the vocabulary. So the movement language, which was so laden with meaning and intention in the hands of its author has become gibberish in the works of a fifth generation of followers who seem like children imitating the words of their elders without knowing what they mean.

The release techniques in which Trisha Brown and company train remain very popular with dancers. (They can add years to a dancer’s career and many options to their movement vocabulary.) But even Trisha Brown is becoming less like Trisha Brown. Reviews of her latest work describe moments of stillness, strongly articulated, almost semaphoric gestures, a new (for her) bound quality, which wouldn’t have been seen earlier. One wonders how masters of dance feel about their followers. Perhaps Trisha Brown is evolving in part in response to the morass of clichés others have made of her deeply felt innovations.

If movement languages tell us something about contemporary social concerns, Trisha Brown and her first generation of followers (Stephen Petronio et al) articulated a glorious, impersonal complexity, fluidity and overlapping of actions as smooth and as dangerous as the computer technology spinning out of control on Wall Street.

What is replacing this? “New Expressionism” is the phrase today. It means dance has an emotional edge again, a merciful antidote after ten years of soft, seamless movement. And New Expressionism is coinciding with an increase in the presence or visibility of companies led by African-American, Asian, Hispanic and other ‘non-dominant’ cultures, men and women. They are looking at a mix of social issues, gender issues, personal stories and cultural contexts in work that freely mixes dance, story, song and any other elements that might be effective.

The leading company in this ‘genre’ is the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Company. Actually Bill T Jones has been defining new actions in dance for 20 years (just as Trisha Brown worked for 20 or so years before she was “discovered” by hordes of young wannabes). Bill T Jones has broken through as a leader not by being the first to try new mixes of movement stories and social themes, but because of the quality of the work.

Unlike Trisha Brown, Bill T’s contribution is not a movement style. For movement he takes what he needs. One minute he requires soft and released—surrender in emotional terms—and the next he demands furious attack. In dancers he wants the embodiment of all possible dualities—screams and whispers, amazons and sylphs, people who can be both mud wrestlers and ballerinas in action.

In these politically correct, multicultural times one could dismiss Bill T Jones’ current popularity by saying it’s just that he’s HIV Positive, black and angry. But I propose it is more than that—he is an original artist. And as such he is leading a movement, which will spawn followers and eventually clichés. What an artist of this stature does is to grasp and express the bigger picture. Bill T Jones doesn’t choreograph a dance about AIDS. He goes back to the Bible, to the Book of Job, and asks how we can have faith when we are visited by plagues. In The Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he crashed together the experiences of slaves with that of Jesus; somehow he made a meaningful ‘semioclasm’ of martyrdoms, so that we could look at our current predicament in the context of endless human suffering and momentary panaceas. He says his new work Still/Here is not going to be about how he lives with HIV, but how we all live with death. It will be about survival, and it will no doubt be an uplifting encounter with pain, ecstasy and lunacy.

Choreographers/movement theatre artists ‘arriving’ in the wake of Bill T Jones include people like David Rousseve (African-American and gay), Jowale Willa Jo Zolla (an African-American woman leading an all-female company); Patricia Hoffbauer (Brazilian); Amy Pivar (Jewish-American and gay), and many more. Their companies have names like REALITY or Urban Bush Women.

These artists are distinguishable from the ‘pants-off’ political work of the 80s by the evolution of their craft and the vulnerability found in their characters. Their take on sexuality/homosexuality, AIDS, cultural difference and social injustice is not as strident as it might have been a few years ago. Sweet stories, wit and self-mocking, and sensuality are evident too. Having a Democrat in the presidency means there is a less clear-cut enemy in power, and Bill Clinton is trying to address a lot of the same social issues as these choreographers. So perhaps artists feel they don’t have to scream to be heard. In fact, the very popularity of this kind of work at the moment means that they are being heard more than most people, and this creates a bit of a paradox when they talk about under-representation.

What is interesting about this movement is that the words used in the mix of dance and text cannot become meaningless in the same way that movement languages can become gibberish. The words are spoken, usually in simple declarative sentences in English. But what is scary is this: no matter how articulate, right and even moving the works of these artists are, their themes can become trivialised as they’re handed down. Sorrow won’t go away, but it will go out of style. And then how will we talk about pain?

RealTime issue #2 Aug-Sept 1994 pg. 7

© Karen Pearlman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1994