In Search of a Common Ground

Danjel Andersson

Post-Dance or Postmodern Dance? Conceptual Dance Or just Dance?

In this article, I will try to think with the non-concept Post-Dance1. I will pass by terms used here in our Danish context such as Modern Dance and of course Contemporary Dance. And will briefly weather my allergy towards popular ideas such as Dance Dance or perhaps more accurately Dancy Dance.

But my real aim with this crisscrossing between concepts is to try to find a common ground. To try to make possible some sort of an understanding of the contemporary art scene here referred to as Dance and Choreography.

I know one popular way of approaching these topics is to simply discard a discussion like this one as “semantics”. Only words. Blowing air. No meaning. Yes. But words do matter. They change things. They build expectations. They form prejudices.

We have an art-form called “Dance”. But dance is more than an art form. It’s something we do. Something that in many forms of expression do not demand skill. It is, I would argue, a way of communicating that comes before language. A way of expressing emotion. And a way of releasing emotions. And none of this is art. It is before art. It is also a part of all art. It is “the mother of all art” as the legendary dance artist Anna Halprin would formulate it2. So already in the art-forms name, there is a dichotomy. Since dance is before art, hence not art, at the same time as it is an art form.

With this kind of problem inherent in its essence, there will be confusion. For at least a hundred and thirty years – since early modernism – this has been an issue. Struggling to find ways to break from its connotations to classical ballet or to the idea of it being a form of entertainment, a legal way to watch well-trained bodies do erotic moves. There are even great feminist theories seeing the ballerina as a projection of the erected phallus. Being stiff, turning, repeatedly being lifted 3. I don’t know, I feel it’s a bit exaggerated, but well argumented and could perhaps explain the male dominance of choreographers within the ballet?

This was the modernist struggle (and still is.) It is no coincidence that, perhaps the most radical choreographer who still was using ballet as a language, became the main opposite to the radically new. I’m referring to Merce Cunningham, (following the earlier generations associated with Modern Dance such as Isadora Duncan, and especially Martha Graham for whom he danced, and others who had moved away from ballet). He would be the main trigger – or the opposite to the postmodern movement in the 60s. Many of the young (in fact very young) dancers starting to deconstruct the way we have been referring to dance, known to us as the Judson Dance Theater Movement, started as dancers with Cunningham and started to create their own work as a reaction against the hierarchies known also from the ballet. (Inspired by artists such as John Cage and Robert Dunn.)

So basically, you have Cunningham turning 180 degrees from the ballet. And the Judson kids spinning 180 degrees from Cunningham. But not ending up where he started. Rather moving further away.

So where did they end up? They defined walking and running as dancing. Everyday movements as art. Working with the voice as a choreographic practice. They defined gravity and friction itself as choreography or they would define thinking as a movement practice. Improvisation as art. Chance as desirable (this they kept from Cunningham/Cage). Saying loud and clear NO to entertainment. They were a historical parallel to postmodern architecture. And what they presented is today referred to as postmodern dance. I’m not sure how correct that is. But yes, it was a deliberate reaction against modernism in dance. And even more a move away from the conventions inherited from ballet. And a move towards the modern (!) art sphere. It is not for nothing that this is all tightly connected to the concept of Performance Art, (another concept misused and misunderstood here in Denmark.)

So, all this happened. And by the 70s this was established and by the 80s it was trending and by the 90s it was revisited and reimagined. In 2005 Mette Ingvartsen wrote the YES Manifesto4 as a response to Yvonne Rainer’s NO Manifesto5. Jérôme Bel became the new definition of entertainment. By now dance artists everywhere started to elaborate on the two concepts Dance and Choreography. Historically these two concepts have been a pair – depending on each other, but what happens if they are separated? What is choreography without dance? What could choreographic thinking be? Can you choreograph a book? And so on. Many works in this era were given the name Conceptual Dance or even Conceptual Choreography meaning the concept was the main agent. The idea should carry the piece. (Not to be confused with the term Conceptual Art where the idea IS the piece.)

This movement was led by such names as aforementioned Ingvartsen and Bel, but also by Xavier Le Roy, Mårten Spångberg and Bojana Cvejić, and many, many others. It took over the mainstream just like the Judson gang did in the 70s-80s.

Ok. Back to Modern Dance. It is still shocking to me that here in Denmark the term is used as a synonym to Contemporary Dance. Since, as you see from above, we have moved quite far from there by now. I wonder if the reason can be that the ballet (Bournonville) tradition stands so tall here? That the old modernist struggle of Graham still is not rooted? About 100 years ago Modern Dance was the opposite to Ballet. (the 20s-40s). Today Graham Technique is taught in dance classes everywhere. That’s why you can take modern or classical in ballet schools. They are techniques. But we are not talking about art.

So, we are at a point in history where there are ideas, works and audiences following a scene, an art-form, and we have critics and dance conservatives opposing the direction the art-form is taking. And a common way of responding to what is going on is to say: “it is not dance”. Which is in one sense historically correct. And in one sense totally freakin’ upsettingly wrong. We are now back to the inherent confusion in the term “Dance”. Some interpretations of the art-form “dance” are confusing it with the action “to dance”. (Missing dance in a dance piece.) Instead of trying to understand what the choreographer is proposing. Often with ballet connotations, (pre-modernism), they try to argue that: dance without dance is not dance. But that, as we know now, is upsettingly wrong. And all too often the dance they are missing is conventional dancing. And this problem comes as a two headed monster. First, we have the conservatives refusing to accept that the art-form is developing. Secondly, marketing departments often do not know how to communicate this development to an audience. Enter the marketing term “Dance Dance”. To say in a flirty, but also von oben, way: A dance performance with actual (ai conventional) dancing in it.

This is the backdrop to the non-concept Post-Dance that I introduced to the scene in 2015.

I refer to it as a container concept. I mean a concept empty of content – to be filled. But this is only semi-true. It comes as a reaction to my allergy towards Dance Dance fanatics. It points out that these historical turns have happened, and it uses the dichotomy, and indeed confusion in the term “Dance”. Post-Dance means, in one interpretation, that dance without dance is possible in dance. Which we of course already know. But we tend to refer to it as Postmodern Dance. Which also is too narrow of a concept. Post-Dance is simply saying that what happened, happened. And is still happening. Therefore, it was introduced as an empty container. By not filling it we can keep it urgent. And open.

Now for one last point. Many reactions against Post-Dance were in fact pro-dance. Some critics think that “not-dancing” in a dance piece is a statement against dance. And that Post-Dance is against dancing. This could not be more wrong. Choosing not to dance, or doing it unconventionally, or finding other efficient ways to communicate an urgency to an audience is almost always in respect of the core of the art-form. To dance just to dance is simply not art. It’s great. Keep it up. But don’t confuse the two.