Zero Point

I should just stop going to see dance. That’s, at least, what I concluded the other night after attending Zeropoint, yet another underwhelming (though aptly titled) dance performance.

While I don’t want to place the entire burden for my feelings on this most recent performance—it was, after all, just one in a series of disappointments—it certainly put a nail in the proverbial coffin for me. And it reaffirmed the growing disillusionment I’ve been experiencing lately with regards to dance, particularly contemporary or postmodern performances, which is the kind I tend to see most often.

So, what’s the problem? Why is it that while I enjoy most of the live music I attend these days, which is remarkable, given how many times a week I attend such performances, I’m routinely bored out of my mind when watching dance, which happens only a few times a month?

If dance were simply not up my alley, that would be one thing. But I actually love dance and have loved it for as long as I can remember. Back in the day when I lived with a TV, I would watch any piece of crap that had dance in it. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I watched the movie You Got Served not once, but twice, just because of its incredible dance scenes. That’s how much I love dance.

What’s the point?

The point is . . . well, the point is that it’s beginning to seem like there just is no point. I’m not “getting it” anymore. I don’t know why these dance works I’ve been seeing are being created, what, if anything the choreographer wants to communicate through the work, and what I’m supposed to take away from it.

Or, if the point is clear, then I can’t seem to figure out what the point in making that particular point is, why anybody is supposed to find it interesting, or, at least, interesting enough to pay money and sit for over an hour just to be hit over the head with it.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that a lot of the work I see tends toward the avant-garde, or has obvious pretensions in that direction. I choose to see these kinds of works because I’m looking to be challenged in some way. I’m looking for a more active engagement with the piece. I want to be stimulated, provoked, surprised. I’m not interested, for example, in watching some anorexic ballet dancer perform a series of technically perfect movements that a thousand other dancers have performed a thousand other times in precisely the same way. Yawn.

The danger with avant-garde works, though, is that they can go too far in the opposite direction, eschewing so many of the traditional conventions of their respective art form that they become abstruse and inaccessible.

As Tyrus Miller, in his essay “Avant-Garde and Theory: A Misunderstood Relation” says, many people simply don’t understand avant-garde art:

In their perplexity before a painting with a goat’s head sticking out of it, or a recording that seems to consist mostly of shrieks and vaguely erotic grunts, or a poem that seems to have been written either by a moron or some sort of highly intelligent space alien, they may feel outrage, contempt, or just indifference. A slightly more servile response—from the person who knows it is supposed to be art, but still doesn’t get it—may be to fall back on a kind of low-level theory of the avant-garde: it’s avant-garde, it’s not supposed to mean anything. A more tutored response, perhaps shored up by literature or art history courses at the university, might be: the artist must be demonstrating a theory. None of these responses, I want to underscore, is foolish, but the last of our hypothetical art-consumers—the one who thinks a theory must be behind it all—is certainly more in tune with the tone of many of the current claims made by artists and by their publicists, apologists, and detractors alike.

The artist is demonstrating a theory. I can buy that, but here’s my problem with it. The artist may not be entirely clear on what precise theory she is trying to demonstrate. Or, she might know what her theory is but not know how to communicate it to an audience. Or, the theory might just be boring, obvious, and not very well thought out. And, good God, I came to see a dance performance! Is this really the medium in which to be demonstrating your theories? Write a goddamn book, or something.

It’s possible, of course, that the artist is not trying to demonstrate a theory at all, but rather is trying to provoke a reaction. Maybe I’m supposed to feel bored, confused, or alienated because the artist is making some commentary on how boring, confusing, or alienating life is. Or I’m supposed to reflect on my own boredom, confusion, and alienation, discover its source within, and somehow find that interesting enough to pay to see the show?

It could also be that the artist just doesn’t give a shit what the audience thinks or feels, if they “get it” or not. It certainly seems that way sometimes.

According to the description of this last performance I attended, the “part dance, part video, part radical social experiment” piece was supposed to tackle “questions of nuclear meltdown, multidimensional perception, and transformational world healing.”

What I got out of it was that both the choreographer and video artist have progressive politics and think that mainstream “news reporting” in the US is a joke. Great! Me too!! I think it’s safe to say that 99.9% of the artsy-fartsy audience in this hip Mission District theater also have progressive politics and hold similar views on the news media. Isn’t it so wonderful that we can all come together and share like this?

I would have found it a little more interesting had there been some new insight offered, something to challenge or subvert my own assumptions. If there was, then I didn’t get it.

As for the dancing itself, while there were enjoyable moments, as there usually are at these performances, I rarely see anything I haven’t seen before. With performances that utilize improvisational techniques a lot, the problem is that they can start to look like a Contact Improvisation jam with lights and costumes. I love to watch my friends play and dance together, but in a contact jam I’m able to join in or leave, manners intact, whenever I feel like it. And it costs a lot less money.

So, I find myself frustrated and disillusioned. I don’t want to subject myself to any more of this pointlessness. I want to be amused, thrilled even. I want to leave the performance with unforgettable images stamped in my mind. I want to find myself returning again and again to these images and to the thoughts and associations they have ignited in me. I want it to resonate in my body. I want it to inspire me.

Maybe the next one will be better.

2 thoughts on “Zero Point

  1. I often share this feeling!! I do enjoy certain bigger companies like ‘Akram Khan’ and ‘ Les ballets C de la B’ etc.

    • Two that blew me away recently were Ralph Lemon’s multidisciplinary piece “How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?” and Marie Chouinard’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and “The Rite of Spring” (though that was 2009…).

      As for local companies, I’ve enjoyed some of Joe Goode’s work (I especially liked the site-specific piece he did at the SF Mint) and Scott Wells is usually good for a laugh and some spectacular athleticism. I’ve also liked a lot of Jess Curtis/Gravity’s work—it is often very conceptually driven, but I do not think it suffers for that. It doesn’t hit you over the head with a message nor does it leave you at a complete loss as to what questions it is trying to explore.

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