Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Arts 2017 Grants Booklet
I'm writing shortly after the 2016 presidential election. I don't feel up to the present moment, and have no wise words with which to address these unsettling times. But nor do I feel I can continue with this essay in quite the same direction as before November 9. So, a collection of thoughts.
Artist talks are programmed each semester for the undergraduate students of the college where I teach. Wonderful artists have come through this series, many FCA grantees among them. More often than not the artists speak primarily about what they do, and how they do it. I'm always fascinated. But students can remain perplexed. They hear the “what" and the “how," but still can't fathom why on earth anyone would want to do these things. You employ algorithms to give up control of your decision-making (for example)? Why? You're interested in moving away from theatrical realism and toward artificiality? Why?
I put a “why" question to the director Richard Maxwell (2000 grantee) at the conclusion of his recent artist talk. He didn't shy away from answering: “I think it's a great question… But I feel its root is in sharing. Why share? Basically that's what you're saying, 'Why share?'" The searing simplicity of this response gave me pause.
So I've been thinking about “why."
I've also been thinking about the issue of context, stimulated in part through participation in Danspace Project's recent “Lost and Found" Platform, which considered the impact of AIDS on dance artists past and present.2 I looked back at my Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994) and other works I made during those years before the arrival of the antiretroviral cocktails that have saved so many lives, including mine. I saw again ways in which my works from that era are caught in history and histories: my personal histories as a dancer, as a dance maker in a particular moment of my artistic development, and as a brother and son in a particular family; the public history of what it means to be gay in America; the history of a deadly, if disinterested, virus. It is pretty easy to see how Not-About-AIDS-Dance is a product of such intersections, as signaled by the title alone. But it's increasingly clear to me that all my works are rooted in the conditions of their production, even those for which explicit acknowledgment of personal and/or cultural context is not among the performance materials.
I danced in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (1964-2011 grantee) from 1979-1986 and was steeped in the ethos of “a jump means nothing more than a jump." Yet Merce was also quoted as saying he didn't see how human beings could be abstract. 3 Here I'll run with the latter thought, which for me suggests that context is always implicated, always present, inseparable from the dancing.
Two years before Merce died I interviewed him as part of a research project I was undertaking for my MFA studies (my college schooling came in my 40s). Though I'm now uncomfortable with the tone of academic scholarship I was attempting—I framed the project as a “queer reading" of Merce's work—the propositions continue to resonate for me. I see his dances as reflecting multiple responses to homophobia and sexism—not just circumventions and defensive maneuvers, as one might expect from a gay artist making work during the McCarthy era, but also interventions.
Since I had danced in Merce's company I guess I somehow felt justified in questioning him about matters I expected he would be reluctant to discuss. Indeed, he did not acknowledge experiencing any societal stigma as a man in the field of dance, let alone as a gay man, and said he never had to conceal the nature of his relationship with John Cage. My leading questions into these topics were met with only denials, in keeping with the anti-interpretive spirit running through most statements Merce had made about his work. When I asked if he felt such personal information is relevant to an understanding of an artist's work, he replied with a definitive, “Not to me. I don't care whether they're gay or not gay. If the work is interesting that's the first thing I see." But he also agreed that his efforts to go beyond his own preferences through the use of chance mechanisms could be seen to have political ramifications, creating the conditions for a broader range of possibilities than those allowed by culturally constructed tastes: “If people were a little more aware of that… that just because you do it doesn't mean that somebody else has to do it." He wasn't speaking about movement practices alone.
My main argument at that time, and still: with some of the same aesthetic practices by which some see Merce as having constructed a closet, I see him as having taken large steps out of the closet: by his use of chance procedures, in which I find an interrogation of “the natural," and by the demand his non-narrative approach makes of dancers to present themselves as they are, without the cloak of dramatic artifices, opening a space for LGBTQ dancers to perform without hiding their sexuality.
The latter thought I base on personal experience. When I first came to the Cunningham studio in 1978 it was a breath of fresh air for me, a palpable relief, to be asked to dance, simply dance, without playing a role or evoking an emotion other than that I might actually be experiencing. In the dance-theater works of other choreographers I had been asked to enact characters or express emotional states, often portraying some version of “the young heterosexual lover," a part that didn't fit this young gay man. Hence, my relief in being asked to go onstage as myself: I didn't have to lie anymore to dance. That was, I think, a large part of the “why" behind my attraction to Merce's work.
So back to why, and Richard Maxwell's elaboration, “why share?" He continued: “I feel like I'm putting shows up that I want to see… I get excited when I sit down and watch a play that isn't trying to tell me what to think, or trying to get everybody to feel the same thing at the same time." This also resonates with me, both in the specific interest of encouraging different experiences for the same art object, and in the more general thought that artists simply follow their interests and share these with others.
Is it too big a stretch to think Merce would have concurred here as well? Or to claim further that artists, simply by virtue of sharing their current interests, put out into the world little interventions, little seeds for potential change, whether consciously or explicitly constructed as such or not? Interests as interventions, and both, inescapably, culturally situated.
The final performance weekend of the Lost and Found Platform at Danspace brought to the stage DANCENOISE, the performance duo of Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton. It didn't take long before they touched on the presidential election, concluded just the week before. They spoke briefly about the show they had been working to create, then interjected, “But then Tuesday happened," immediately followed by a stillness and quiet that went on and on, perfectly and devastatingly so. Rarely have I experienced a performance action that answered so completely the call of the moment. I had the feeling of “oh, I needed this."
DANCENOISE are often explicitly political in their work and don't shy from utilizing concrete spoken and written language toward that end. But needs are answered for me also by work that doesn't employ overt political language or images, or for which such language or imagery may be antithetical to the artist's goals.
I remember having a deep “I need this" feeling when I first saw The Wooster Group (1988 – 2013 grantee), somehow needing the dissonances, multiplicity of meaning-worlds, and tumultuous disorientation I experienced in their Route 1 & 9. I felt in cahoots with the work. I felt recognized and enlivened. I remember experiencing a version of that when I first saw a Cunningham dance too—invigorated to be witness to a world that doesn't tell me what to think, or even where to look.
So much of the work supported by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts has met such calls, awakening a feeling of life in some part of my being otherwise anesthetized. The profound satisfaction of real sharing, so deep it's a kind of intervention.
Neil Greenberg is a choreographer based in New York. He teaches at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School. Greenberg received a Grants to Artists award in 1997.
1. A title shared with one of my first choreographies in 1981, and which I used again for another dance in 2001.
2. Curated by Ishmael Houston–Jones (2013 grantee) and Will Rawls (2015 grantee).
3. These citations are taken from Carolyn Brown's invaluable Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham (New York: Knopf, 2007), 53.