Conceptual Dance and Star Power

My dance vocabulary is limited, so please forgive me as I redefine terms for my own benefit. When I say conceptual dance, I am referring to an experimental dance piece that is more driven by its concept or an idea than merely its physical movement. Many times these works don’t require a high level of technical difficulty (to dancers, I mean). The ones that do, they obviously need the best dancers just to pull off the movements. But for the “easier” works it would do well to never forget that really good dancers do the simple things really well. Performers should never be viewed as secondary in a show, even if they are secondary to the meaning of the piece.

conceptual dance philadelphia

Anyway, we’ll go there after the what-have-you,

Some conceptual dance I’ve liked, some I haven’t, and then there were a lot that I couldn’t make up my mind about—because a new concept is hard to get across when your performers lack command of the stage. With experimental work, there is often a built in excuse of –”well, it’s not about the performance so much as the idea/concept.” But the problem with that logic, besides its inherent silliness, is that performers are a part of that concept whether you like it or not—they are not just interchangeable bodies on stage (even if that itself is your conceit) and if they are without the ability to help carry your idea to fruition, it’s impossible to know if your idea works. An idea that works is not enough to transcend a piece into art, but you need to get there at the least.

In the past 10 years or so the effective use of video projections in performing arts (as well as fine art installations) has become ubiquitous. Whereas in the 1980s when VHS was sexy hot and artists incorporated video in their work, the video itself was nearly always extremely amateurish—as if just the idea of putting a video was so far out we’d be blown away by it. And then we’d see it, and we’d be like, well, that’s lame. Now plenty of more “mainstream” dance and theatre companies use video, as well as experimental ones. Certainly technological advances help but it is more than that. Since attention is given to the artistry of the video itself, and the medium is imaginatively manipulated into the rest of the live experience, we are more apt to say, “Hey, that’s cool, I get it.”  In experimental/conceptual works of dance and theatre, the artistically superior video allows the audience to access the experimental nature of the work. There is not this wall of embarrassing footage that you need to pretend isn’t as bad as it is in order to consider whether the experiment is brilliant or vapid.

If your dancers suck the life out of the work just by their anti-charisma then everything they do will annoy an audience. It’s similar to someone with whom your relationship has soured to such an extent that anything attributable to that person becomes a negative in your mind. (“Can you believe it? That idiot said he likes food.”)

Of course, if it were so easy to get great dancers, everyone would have them. Getting a work that’s ready creatively to be ready as a production has many potentially debilitating hurdles to face: budgets, casting, rehearsing, scheduling, administrating, negotiating all effect the creative outcome of your work. Choosing what needs pushing for in production and what you can let go are the choices that often decide the artistic, not just the popular, success of a show.

There is another problem—a lot of talented dancers may not be attracted to conceptual/experimental stuff that is not physically challenging, and that does not necessary showcase a dancer’s talents—there are no star turns so to speak. And top level dancers look for company jobs to achieve some modicum of financial security in a brutally impoverished profession.  And when they moonlight, it is usually for a regional production of the Nutcracker which pays decent money (in dance dollars at least).

There is a lot of favor trading amongst Philadelphia choreographers—you dance in mine and I’ll dance in yours—but too many choreographers on the dance floor can be problematic as well. With notable exceptions, choreographers don’t always make the best live dancers, because they often have a stronger intellectual understanding of the work, while not fully committing themselves physically to performance.

There are no easy solutions, but a priority must be placed on recruiting good strong dancers for any dance performance (just as a priority is now placed on video that looks good). A communal effort—from choreographers, producers, and foundations and organizations that help fund dance—must be made to increase our dance talent pool, and the training opportunities for those dancers who are already here. For penniless dance companies (of all stripes) that means being vocal about supporting initiatives for dancers, as well as actively recruiting young dancers and students by offering free/super-cheap classes that explore the techniques you are interested in propagating—plant the seeds early and often. Some element of your mission needs to look at the long-term needs of your artistic community, and helping foster an environment that would be beneficial to your company several years from now. Time will pass either way.

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority

P.S. Failures in experimental work tend not to be failures for everyone; other artists may be watching and think, “Ah, what a fuck up, but I could probably steal something from this.” Yet this rarely benefits the creator(s)—it is a draining experience personally and creatively when your vision doesn’t work.

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.