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Contemporary Creation: Contradictory Forces

Diquis tiquis photo by Jose Dias

November, 2002

Düsseldorf is a banking and commercial city on the Rhine. For five days in August it was the site of Global Dance 2002, a World Dance Alliance conference and festival. Having come from Berlin, still shifting between its unbelievable museums,holocaust memorials and the problematic economy of Germany, it was comforting to meet with dancers, choreographers, writers and presenters in a search for our own kind of solutions. As one delegate put it, she had been tempted at one point in her life to save the world by going to law school, but finally concluded that her art form could do much more.

Subtitled "Aesthetics of Diversity," the gathering was the final part of a trilogy of meetings over several years, covering the past, the present and now the future. One could hear Russian, Hebrew, Turkish, Lithuanian, French, Spanish, Chinese, German and other tongues in between the keynote talks, the networking groups and the dozens of dance performances.

Defining aesthetics was not really a problem since there was agreement that the attributes of beauty can be diverse. John Ashford of the Robin Howard Theatre in London proposed four different components of diversity: the increased ability, through globalization, to read diverse forms; the technical ability of the performers; sex and sexuality, which he feels is seeing less and less diversity; and cultural heritage. To him, the polarity of diversity is integration.

Repeatedly the issue of tradition versus contemporary process was raised and the importance of fluidity stressed. The problem of young choreographers operating in a country where there is a strong dance tradition is widespread. Another issue raised was whether the role of the artist in the community includes a moral duty to humanity.

The most provoking talk came from Aat Hougee of the Netherlands. The topic was dance education, but his observations applied to art and life. He noted that education uses the tools of the past to prepare artists to cope with the future. Knowing that any new technique can become an ideology, just as the experimenters of one era can become the traditionalists of the next, he asked, "What is contemporary dance?" He answered, "The necessity of the dance artist to show something in a way that is different from what the existing information allows."

Stating that the most important thing is what we do not know, he proposed that education be based on questions rather than answers. Can perfection be a collection of possibilities? Can the aesthetics of diversity be the co-existence, on one stage, in one body, in one mind, of multiple solutions?

Globalization means, in a practical sense, that world cultures now have easy and rapid access to each other. Thus an artist borrowing or adapting elements from somewhere else is faced with several challenges. By paying homage to the outside, sometimes dominant, political or economic culture, the results can belong to neither. Or, an awareness of the outside as well as the inside influences can emerge as a refreshing, new entity. Another alternative can be a rendition of what is perceived as the basic aesthetic of the "other."

Viewing the many performances at the WDA conference left the indefatigable attendees (and the general public) sometimes exhilarated, occasionally bored and, in a few instances, even annoyed. The works presented could be roughly divided into a few groups: those in which the creators altered tradition by what they perceived to be new elements in contemporary dance; those who successfully integrated diverse threads, such as eastern and western influences; those who appropriated certain conceits that often looked ridiculous against their own unique heritage; and those who went into themselves and produced art.

This process of new creation in the contemporary dance world must be repeated over and over before the results will be noteworthy and the process is just beginning. The task of how to create and maintain a national style that can be accepted globally (if that is the aim), without the element of "CocaCola — ization," is a daunting one. Here are some success stories.

Diquis Tiquis is a company from Costa Rica composed of Sandra Tejos and Alejandro Tossatti. These two theater artists have been working together for ten years. Their dance vocabulary, using face, hands, legs, shoulders, toes or props, is a deeply honed combination of mime, gestures, tableaux, acting and dance. Their material is the human state and they communicate it down to the loss of an eyelash. Their moods vary from pathos to humor, all a result of an exquisitely calibrated timing. "Shy Walls Shining" was about a male-female relationship, but it was really about humanity.

Battleworks Dance Company is the newest development in the career of Robert Battle, American dancer and choreographer. The program performed by five excellent dancers contained six pieces/excerpts including a evocative love duet from "Baseline," set to a commissioned jazz score by Victor Goines. Mr. Battle’s movements and structure are among the more interesting seen anywhere lately. He does not seem to be faced with the task of integrating styles, and his work projects a vibrant sense of being, but as he choreographs more, particularly for his own company, he should be careful to vary his movement and musical dynamics.

Ae-soon Ahn Dance Company from Korea and Compagnie Salia ni Seydou from Burkino Faso performed on the same program. The former, with six women and one man, was almost a ritual showing a break from tradition, exemplified by stamping rhythms and hand claps. These soon turned into flinging body gestures in free, loose jointed movements. But there was little structure to this too long piece. The three beautifully built young men in the second company, accompanied by two outstanding African musicians, used much movement derived from African dance in a well crafted work that still struggled with finding new movements. Both companies showed the process of growth in their development from traditional dance to contemporary theatrical dance.

Tedd Robinson, a Canadian dancer who calls himself Ten Gates Dancing, performed a solo, "Rigmarole," that was perfect theater. Dressed initially in a suit, then a red, layered costume reminiscent of a Japanese warrior, white faced and with a shaven head, he moved and was sometimes still in front of a large, many paneled oriental screen. His props included a small statue that moved. He might have been searching for the ideal with his minimal Buddha-like movements and mime that expressed the complete range of emotions. The program note said something about his fascination with Western Culture’s fascination with Eastern Culture. The result was satisfying.

Donlon Dance Company, based in Germany and directed by an Irish choreographer, Marguerite Donlon, was part of the dance fair that followed the conference. Well trained and meticulously rehearsed, their outstanding piece was a duet danced by Ilka von Hafen and Toby Kassell. "Different Directions" demonstrated a seamless synthesis of two media — video and dance. The program said "part reality + part fantasy = mind." The set consisted of two white walls on either side of the stage, placed on a diagonal from downstage towards upstage center. A very large square screen joined them, creating a sense of perspective. The video on the screen showed a long hall, also in increasingly narrow perspective. The two large openings on each side of the stage set matched those on the screen. Thus the audience was led deeper and deeper into this space. The two dancers on the screen were those on stage and each was carefully choreographed to be successive, reactive or simultaneous. At times they even seemed to be interactive, but it was the live dancers, the reality supported by the fantasy, that resulted in a wonderful collaboration. Oliver Most was the video artist.

Two Russian companies were seen on the same evening. "Waiting," choreographed by Olga Pona to traditional Russian music, was performed by the Chelyabinsk Theatre of Siberia. It opened with three pools of light. In each of them was a peasant woman seen from the rear and dressed in voluminous skirts and shawls. The excellent lighting suggested a painting that could have been a scene from Chekhov. Then the women turned and became three tall men in suits, who were soon joined by three women, their hair flowing behind them.

This work was about waiting — the contemporary Russian pastime — for a better life, the next bus, the next loaf of bread. The title was carried out in the stops and starts of movement, the men in a rubber limbed dance of inebriation, the women alone, the couples. There was a winter scene suggesting the wait for spring. The women were bare breasted at one point, not really necessary, but this did not detract from the non-classical movements that were neither copied nor pretentious, but were definitely Russian.

The Provincial Dance Theatre from central Russia presented "Maple Garden," choreographed by Tatiana Bagonova and originally danced in 1999 at the American Dance Festival in Raleigh Durham. Performed in front of a set of a leafless tree with several doll figures caught in it and a moon in the background, this was a surrealistic fantasy in which some of the dolls came to life. There was both humor and sadness in the mechanical nature of the dolls, but there was also real passion between the men and women. The acting was excellent and the audience knew it was watching a Russian tale.

Contemporary dance in Russia is fifteen years old. It has no government support and is still developing audiences. Neither of these companies is from a major city. They have been in existence for ten and twelve years respectively. Yet both were successful in the search for discovering new movement while not abandoning their roots.

We tend to think of Cuban dance as either classical ballet as personified by Alicia Alonso or the tremendous influence it has had on American music and social dance. But "Chorus Perpetus," a work by Marianela Boan, went somewhere else. Three young men and three young women, who could move and sing simultaneously, with both their dance and vocal offerings coming from deep within them, started off all connected by red wrist bands. Their movement together produced amazingly sinuous shapes. When one broke away from the group, the result could be unfettered joy, loneliness or injury. A simple metaphor for security as opposed to the unknown, this form of theater was linked to Cuban music rhythmically, although they vocalized Gershwin, Mozart and Pergolesi, among others. The movement was fresh and non-technical and the dancers powerhouses.

At one point the Canadian critic Max Wyman exhorted us to develop a tolerance for eccentricity, to realize that scandals mean that society is coming to terms with change and to be unafraid of disorder. He quoted Albert Einstein. "In moments of crisis, only imagination is more important than knowledge." It was a good conference.

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