Curating Dance: Parallels from a Dutch perspective. By Bora Sirin.
May 14, 2012
My name is Bora Sirin. I am currently finishing my Masters in Theatre Studies in Utrecht, The Netherlands. I have a background in dance and choreography and my academic focus is on writing about dance and contemporary performance. As part of the Masters I did an internship at Danspace Project during the Parallels Platform. I have felt privileged to be part of the organization for a short period, and have been impressed by both the competence of Danspace Project as well as the enthusiasm of the Platform’s audiences. I am one of the few who had the opportunity to be present at every Parallels event. Therefore I felt a reflection on my experiences of the entire Platform, especially from a Dutch perspective, might make an interesting contribution.
The last essay I wrote before coming to New York City for Parallels was about the Dutch dance festival Dancing On The Edge. This twelve-day festival, happening in the five largest cities in The Netherlands, programmed, as they stated, “Inspiring Arts & Culture from the Middle East,” focusing specifically on contemporary dance and theatre performance. In my essay I expressed skepticism about a festival in which the political and financial motives for the program seem to overshadow the artistic ones. More importantly, I attempted to point out how the festival relies too heavily on a Western fascination with the exotic, Otherness, difference, or whatever you would want to call it. To me the representation of an entire (and indefinable) region like that was problematic.
It is not surprising that representation has been a main point of contention in the curating or programming of any art. As an agent, curators or programmers have power to completely change the meaning and/or intended effect of a work of art by placing it within a context. It makes some artists wary of being curated, afraid that their work might be reduced or domesticated. Before Parallels took off these thoughts turned into questions for me. What is the role of the curator? How to curate without affecting the work of art too much? And in the case ofParallels: how to curate a “minority” group?
Dixon Gottschild asked (…) “what images come to the mind’s eye when the term ‘black dance’ is said?” this has been my conundrum while curating this platform. How would I have answered her question? For me does “Black Dance” even exist? And assuming it does, what defines it? Is the term “mainstream Black Dance” an oxymoron? What would it mean to push beyond its mainstream if it does exist?
(Excerpt from Ishmael Houston-Jones’s curatorial statement in the Parallels catalogue)
After experiencing the entire Parallels platform and witnessing each and every single event of it, I feel safe to say that the autonomous works of art presented there were neither reduced nor domesticated. They were not forced into anything. The curatorial statement, as cited above or in a version of that statement, announced by Ishmael Houston-Jones before every event, offered the audience just another tool with which look at each performance. It didn’t violate or breach the autonomous work of art in any way, but merely let the work speak for itself and on top of that allowed the performance to make a contribution to the understanding of black dance in each audience member’s mind, or not.
But the strength of Parallels was that it offered more than merely a series of autonomous performances. On the one hand, answers to the Parallels questions could be individually formed by spectators coming to any of the performances. The performances were all carefully selected for their intentional or unintentional relation to the topic of black dance and in such a way offers the spectator something to think about. On another level, the Platform offers more food for thought by the way the performances resonate with each other and with any of the talks surrounding the platform or the writings in the Parallels catalogue. What was essential was that the curatorial statement had such a strong presence throughout the Platform. The statement was repeated at each event and there were talks, movie screenings, lectures, that contributed to framing the topic, which by doing so was kept alive and on everybody’s mind. Of great importance was the fact that it was a framework that didn’t attempt to answer any of the Parallels questions or define a right or wrong, but that it opened up and broadened the thinking about “Black Dance.” As such, the discourse that the Platform generates could be perceived as almost scientific and should be considered a valuable contribution to dance academics.
A great example of the discourse produced was the evening Houston-Jones lent out to Dean Moss to curate. Moss invited the three artists, Young Jean Lee, Pedro Jiménez and Ann Liv Young, to present their work in one evening. None of the performers had an African heritage, but as Moss states in the program: “None of them are African-American, but all of them are black.” I found this approach to the question of black dance interesting and refreshing. It pushed the boundaries of the Parallels questions by exploring the validity of it. Is it still necessary to investigate this subject? How can we look beyond skin color and still discuss the same topic? Moss in a way abstracts or conceptualizes “black” by introducing the performances as pertaining to “black” identity through their otherness and their association with the outsider, as he defines the performers as outsiders. At the same time this evening relates to something that Thomas DeFrantz in his essay “Performing Black” in the Parallelscatalogue, and even more in his stage performance of Performing Black, emphasizes: there are features of African-derived performance that can be employed by anyone, regardless of the artist’s skin color. In his lecture-performance he explains, elaborates and shows some of these features: percussive attack, complex rhythm, call and response, nonuniformity, back phrasing, the break, the attitude, and the flights of the spirit, to name just a few. He also importantly notes that “black artists aren’t always interested in these aesthetic strategies, and don’t always make black dance or black live art.”
Both DeFrantz and Moss speak of “blackness” instead of “black” and take the focus off of race. Moss curates white performers to think about black dance and Defrantz’s exposition of African-derived features makes clear that although there is a set of characteristics to “black”, they are not bound to it. And exactly by taking the focus off of race and “black”, they point to new ways of discussing it. Brenda Dixon Gottschild in her book The Black Dancing Body detects an inadequacy of language to discuss the grey area between white and black:
Our traditions and cultures are so thoroughly mixed (and have been for ages, beginning with the intimacy and depth of contact between blacks and whites during the centuries of American slavery) that our language reflects old assumptions and categorical errors.
She refers to Kwame Anthony Appiah who calls for the abandonment of the concept of race altogether. According to him there are no ‘pure’ races. We are all mixed, so using the concept has become useless. Gottschild continues:
Race is not a biological imperative but a social construct for purposes of classification and differentiation. The variations that gene theory is finding in humankind do not fall within the old racial divisions; clearly, we need to apply genetic theory from a different perspective, to utilize it from a non-racialized starting point.
Basically we could say Moss and DeFrantz instigate thinking about essentialism vs. constructionism. Race needs to be defined to be able to recognize racism. So since there is still racism, there needs to be a stable subject to defend. Gottschild quotes Sherry Tucker on this: “racists need race to justify their racism, but non-racists also need race to be able to analyze racism”.
However, the way in which a stable subject is brought forward has to be done with caution. In a different context, but surely applicable, Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble on behalf of feminist politics:
The task is not to conform to the requirements and stay critical towards the categories of identity that contemporary juridical structures engender.
Here Butler criticizes the fact that essentialism generalizes group characteristics, neglecting the diversity that probably exists among these groups. This goes back to Appiah saying there are no “pure” races. Two people from one ethnic group could not look anything like each other, while two people from different ethnic groups might. There is enough diversity within ethnic groups to oppose any generalization. On this point the ParallelsPlatform found the perfect balance between bringing forth a stable subject and staying critical at the same time.
Now, this is all to show what discourse is produced from the curation of the work. We haven’t even been talking about the performances. That brings me to my main point: Such an approach to dance programming should serve as an example for European festivals and dance programmers. Many may employ a theme or general topic for a festival or seasonal programming, but it then seems to serve more as a marketing tool than that it actually adds something to the programming. It seems they haven’t discovered the possibilities that curating can offer, and the extra layers it adds to a program. Curating really is an art in and of itself that not only boosts the appeal of a program, but is also stimulating the dance community and builds a loyal audience, because the spectator becomes now not only engaged with the performances, but also with the venue.
To come back to my introduction: a festival like Dancing On The Edge in The Netherlands could specifically benefit from such an approach. Having the Middle East as a topic, the festival is representing the Dutch as well. The largest minority in The Netherlands is made up of Turks and Moroccans, coming from countries that arguably are considered part of the Middle East. Both countries have an Islamic tradition and inevitably, nowadays that is seen as one of the main characteristics. Now, this is not exactly comparable to the topic of black dance. America is a country of immigrants, and therefore has much experience dealing with a diverse population. Even though black has become rightfully part of what America is, something that Turks and Moroccans are far from in The Netherlands, there is for obvious reasons a lot of sensitivity around the subject too. Careful curating nuances the topic, which is definitely something that Dancing On The Edge, and most Dutch festivals for that matter, could benefit from.
Butler, Judith (1999). Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. London and New York: Routledge.
DeFrantz, Thomas (2012). “Performing Black” Danspace Project, PLATFORM 2012 Catalogue
Gottschild Dixon, Brenda (2003). The Black Dancing Body. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Houston-Jones, Ishmael (2012). Curatorial Statement in Parallels catalogue.