excitement of the new

In March 2012 I presented my adaptation of Deborah Hay’s I Think Not at Napier St in Melbourne. It was an invited audience, for the most part limited to people who had contributed £20 to my involvement in Deborah’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project. Seating was also limited because the work is performed in the round.

One of the people who supported and then watched I Think Not that night was Jeremy Crow. He works a lot online – thinking about how ideas are presented and communicated.

Jeremy wrote a response to his experience of I Think Not: www.jhcrow.com/2012/04/communication-and-the-excitement-of-the-new/

I like his generosity and curiosity, but also the simplicity of the statement, “I don’t think there’s many times we’re really ever privileged to see something truly new these days”. Of course one person’s new is another’s derivative, but Jeremy’s words did remind me just how narrow we tend to focus our gaze. We seek out familiarity; novelty is difficult.

One of the deep challenges of being an ageing dancer (aren’t we all?) is of remaining open to the possibility of novelty, and in particular outside of my usual fields of interest.


Sarah Crompton has written an opinion piece in The Telegraph about The Place Prize. She suggests that dance can’t “gain a foothold in the wider culture” because it is inward-looking (that it survives – just – in its own bubble).

Her logic, however, is flawed. On the one hand she likes work that is “radical” [1] and unsafe. On the other she hopes that the judges will “champion a work that suggests contemporary dance has something to say to the broadest possible audience”. These two ideas are, for the most part, mutually exclusive.

I understand that the work of choreographers is to develop artistic work that reflects their interests in the world. These interests might indeed be about pushing the art form further (something like the old idea of the avant-garde), or perhaps small-scale communication (since when is having the broadest possible audience something we should all aspire to?), or making bold statements about love, power, war …

What choreographers can’t really do is second-guess the interests and desires of audiences (and the judges of The Place Prize finals certainly can’t and shouldn’t try to do this). This is the contract in performance: it is a meeting between the changing interests of artists, and the changing desires and tastes of audiences (however big or small those audiences might be). Sometimes these meetings are extraordinary, sometimes they are difficult, sometimes they fail, but they are also, for the most part, unpredictable.

I like this unpredictability. It is the line between my work as a choreographer being seen as outward-looking or existing within the bubble of contemporary dance.

The Place Prize has significant short-comings – not least of all how it bows to and feeds on our culture’s insatiable appetite for competition and simplistic button-pushing responses – but it does enable work to be made and seen.

And three more things:

  • Just in case you were wondering about how far contemporary dance has to go before it’s as culturally significant as, say, film, check out Wittgensteinsfoot’s comment at the bottom of The Telegraph article:

The operational definition of a great kindness is to be a contemporary dancer and to never display your ability in public.

  • I don’t buy the idea that somehow The Place Prize is valuable because it opens up debate about what contemporary dance is. For example:

Surely this debate is largely irrelevant given the breadth of practices that seem to fall under the banner of contemporary dance? I wish the debate involved difficult discussions about meaning, values, entertainment, politics and ethics, and how works of art speak to us (or not), and how we (as audiences) are responsible (in return) to these works of art.

Link to Sarah Crompton’s article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/10003017/The-Place-Prize-2013-does-the-dance-world-only-care-about-itself.html

  1. This is a term that Crompton uses to describe Rafael Bonachela and Hofesh Schecter.

100-day project

Back in January I watched this TEDx talk by Emma Rogan about 100-day projects (such a pleasure to hear her kiwi accent) based on the teaching work of Michael Beirut. I was really taken by the simplicity of the 100-day idea and of how it relates to the work I do with students to help them get started with the importance of daily work (aka a practice).

I thought I’d have a go, and yesterday was the end of what turned out to be a rather shambolic rambling-type experience. I got bored, excited, confused, and uncertain, but I didn’t skip a day. My project was taking an Italian[1] word of the day and then somehow illustrating (at times very loosely) the word with a photograph or sketch.

Doing the 100-day project certainly involved a certain amount of discipline, but the difficult part is creating a structure (or set of constraints) that are tight enough to make it playful and to perhaps give the project a particular character. I’m not sure I did this that well.

Just for the record, the photographs are here: flickr.com/photos/skellis/sets/72157633258793450/.

And for any of you interested in software, I kept the Italian words, example sentences and the images in journal software (that exports as text files if necessary) called Day One (that syncs across OSX and and iOS).

Now to start preparation for a 100-day project that is a little closer to my work as a dancer …

  1. I started to learn Italian last September.  ↩


Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.

— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

A professor of engineering at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) – Melih Sener – reminded me recently of Whitman’s famous lines from Song of Myself. I was reminded of the philosophy of Henri Bergson who was renowned for changing his position on ideas (particularly in relation to time and memory), and also of Slajoy Žižek who is politician-like in his ability to flip-flop. But, I’m also drawn to the kind of confidence and playfulness involved in openly expressing change in one’s understanding and take on an idea. Or better still, not even alluding to the change of tack – just letting it sit there.

Students who have had me as a supervisor will recognise a vaguely similar trick I often play. If a student were to say, “I think there is too much repetition in my choreography”, I might respond, “What if there is not enough repetition?”

But this, of course, is not the same as contradicting myself.

I’m wondering just how far I might push keeping contradictions alive in a teaching and learning situation. It’s built into so much choreography (indeed, I’d argue that good [1] choreography is good because it contains contradictions that somehow force me to confront my biases and experience; that make me work). How would students find pedagogy based on stoking contradictions? (bloody frustrating I imagine).

  1. And by this I probably mean choreography that I like

difference and change

Melbourne-based choreographer-director Bagryana Popova and I joke that we only ever make one work (for the record, mine is about death and memory, hers is about power and solitude). The joke does bite a bit though, and reminds me of just how difficult it is to: 1) confront difference, and 2) actually change. Here’s W.H. Auden in The Age of Anxiety[1] as a reminder that this is not a new problem:

It’s about change, and a confrontation with change.
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

How can artists create the conditions by which difference and change are even vaguely possible? We tend to use the word influence as part of a process of shaping that goes on in our development as artists. Influence has a softness about it – as if we are occasionally caressed by another – rather than the crack of change.

Why might I want change?

In part I think it’s about boredom with recycling the same ideas (be they mine or an other’s). The confrontation with difference that might elicit change is stirring and difficult, and it forces me to recognise things about myself and others that I don’t like, or that don’t register within the safety of personal identity.

These things sound like ideal situations for making something a little less recognisable (even if only to one’s self).

Addition 10 April 2013:

“Everyone was trying to give up European aesthetics,” he recalled, meaning Picasso, the Surrealists and Matisse. “That was the struggle, and it was reflected in the fear of collectors and critics. John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that: nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by his adaptability to change.”

— Robert Rauschenberg from his NY Times obituary

  1. Auden, W. H. 2011. The Age of Anxiety. Princeton University Press.