Interpretive Dance: A Rant

There are plenty of semantic issues in dance, such as the definition of “contemporary” dance.  But the one that may frustrate me the most is the term “interpretive” dance.

This is commonly used to describe modern dance when people (audiences) don’t seem to understand the artist’s intent.  In many instances, I think it is the lack of cooperation on behalf of the viewer to give in to the experience and try to engage. It is simply written off as “weird.”  And, it can be. I do recognize that it can also be the fault of the artist, particularly those creating dance works that leave little room for dialogue and instead dance to satisfy their own egos without much attention to the craft or the responsibility of the artist.  I think of this as self-indulgence, best done in a darkly lit studio in the middle of the night as in all of the best and worst cliché dance movies. 

The term “interpretive” dance is also assigned to dance improvisation.  Okay, here is where most people, dancers and non-dancers, conjure prompts as the impetus of movement.  The joke then becomes, “be a tree.”  Ha ha ha.

I find improvisation, in the wrong hands, to be dangerous.  As a dancer, improv experiences can be exhilerating.  But when the participant turns facilitator, and attempts to recreate their “feel good” experience for their students, without an educational or artistically based motivation, things can quickly revert back to self-indulgence.  (I actually witnessed a choreographer- in all seriousness- invite auditionees to progress across the floor as a sand bag!!!  No partnering.  No expectation that this should halt movement.  Ugh!!)  It is this kind of work that viewers tend to think of as “weird” when really we should all simply understand this to be BAD dance.

But, back to the language of dance.  Shouldn’t we be promoting accuracy in the description of dance just as we do (arguably) in the acts of dancing and creating?  Let’s get specific.  We do in visual art and it is pretty universally accepted: impressionist, expressionist, minimalist,…..  The masses seem to understand those examples.  Let’s take what they already know (“accessing prior knowledge”, for those teachers out there) and deepen their understanding.  Dance, by nature IS interpretive so to call it “interpretive dance” is redundant.  Isn’t the purpose of art to interpret?  And let’s start with the dancers….I REALLY don’t want to come across another sandbag incident.

And speaking of prompts, here are some of the things that inspired this rant:

First, a clip of the brilliant and prolific Margie Gillis being raked over the coals by a Canadian talk show host.  Disgusting.  Assuredly, there are plenty of items to discuss regarding this interview and I’ve not selected the most important with this entry, but I need to reach a place of calm before I can put tips to keys and write about the rest.

Second, a clip of some seriously beautiful and interesting dance created by Helen Simoneau (and danced by one of my grad school colleagues, He Jin Jang). Stunning. Many words and prompts come to my mind when I watch this, which I find myself doing over and over and over and over……

Oh, and since we’re talking about dance….how about the Deborah Jowitt’s departure from the Village Voice?!  More on that (probably) soon…..

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9 thoughts on “Interpretive Dance: A Rant

  1. Love it, Heather! I also always want to add that ALL dance is interpreting something, right? Like, no dance is an island. When you’re shakin’ your booty to Lady Gaga at the nightclub, you’re interpreting her song. Deal with it, people! In some way, all of life is interpreting your environment. Dance is a form of interpretation. Take that, naysayers!

  2. Yes, yes, yes. I hate wen people ask me if I’m an “interpretive dancer” but to be honest, sometimes the easiest way to describe modern dance to non-dancers would be to call it “interpretive”. Any tips on how to describe modern dance?

    I also agree with what you said about improvisation. I have had some almost out of body experiences improving on stage but I am not always sure if the way that I am feeling translates to the audience. However, I do know that there was artistic meaning behind it which hopefully helped to change the audience experience. Thanks for another great post.

    1. Thanks, Jordon. I m enjoying your blog and tweets. Your question regarding the explanation of modern dance has gotten me thinking. I rather think it might be the most difficult question in modern dance, and it isn’t new to me, but I think I am narrowing my words. I will be bck with more soon….

  3. I loved this post! I personally am struggling with “getting” Modern dance and think that perhaps your comment is helping….sometimes there is just “bad” dance….

    Never ever thought of that before. 🙂 Perhaps that is part of the problem I am having connecting!

    In any case, thanks for your thoughts. Love your blog!

    1. Clearly, you are not the only person struggling to connect with modern dance. I am glad you found my comments helpful. Your comments have spurred some thought for me as well. Thank you! Here are some highlights:

      As you mentioned in your blog yesterday (at least I read it yesterday), program notes and audience education are vitally important. Lizzie (she was an undergrad at UMich when I was a grad!) is absolutely on the right track with her approach to cultivate audiences through education rather than expecting them to come to where she is artistically from the beginning and “get it”. It seems to me to be the only fair approach, (I call it responsible art-making) particularly when a dance is over in minutes and we’re only left with our impressions and memory as food for discussion. In visual art, we have the object to continually examine and can then measure the development of our ideas. In theatre, we are supported with text and physically often provides the subtext. But in dance, we are engaging in physicality and nuance in ways that the general public are not required to do much anymore….as we sit in our cars, talk with our fingers, and see each other through screens where we can’t even observe the subtle physical clues for subtext. I think as that gap of humanity widens, dance will be 1) all the more important for restoring human connection and possibilities for communication as well as 2) even more dependent upon cluing audiences in to what we are thinking/feeling/seeing/experiencing artistically and then communally.

      So pile that on top of choreographers that may choose to use gesture for a plethora of reasons and effects, and it all gets very muddy. I may sound jaded, but I think there is an awful lot of bad dance out there these days. Everyone thinks they can and should choreograph (I agree, I just don’t think it should all go onstage for popular consumption. Some of it should very simply stay in the studio and realize its purpose- as an outlet/clearing of one’s head/opportunity to problem solve). They the use post-modern aesthetic to excuse bad concepts, under-developed movement, poorly rehearsed performances.

      There is also a trap of the second (or third, fourth…) generation artists. They’ve had successful PERFORMANCE careers and are diligently trying to be choreographers. Audiences recognize their names and think their creative work MUST be good. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is brilliant. But sometimes it really isn’t. And few people seem willing to talk about it. (Consider decline of dance criticism here).

      And there are a lot of college dance programs that are not pushing the tough questions: critically, creatively, analytically, academically,…. Dance is treated as a soft subject and it is NOT. The world of dance suffers.

      If it helps, I LOVE modern dance and can still have a hard time connecting.
      Sorry for the long rant. Thanks for continuing to read. I am a fan of 4dancers, as well!
      Heather

  4. I read this entry earlier today and I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since. After watching the “interview” with Margie Gillis and feeling peeved for quite some time, I wanted to find a way to reconcile the two heads of this coin. On one side, the side of the apathetic, hateful, or rigid viewer, there is a refusal to value or acknowledge experiences that are non-normative, uncomfortable, weird, whatever. On the other side, the side of the (possibly self-indulgent) dancer, there appears to be this idea that dancing and viewing dance is to speak some kind of universal language; the good feeling that one gets while performing or improvising is felt equally by the witness. To me, both sides are faulty. Dance is not a universal language of the body, and I think that pretending it is makes the dance maker closed to the spectator.
    That’s why the language of dance is so essential to mediate the dialogue practitioners and non-practitioners. Dance is important, and so is the conversation about it, regardless of what the piece conveys. Maybe?

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