Read…Question… Challenge…Think…Ponder… Share…What is the State of the Art? What is the State of the Art in Washington? At your next rehearsal, meeting, coffee break, share the thoughts of these eight Washington based artists, teachers, educators, administrators, choreographers with colleagues and friends, and see if you agree, disagree, have more questions and thoughts.
Robert Bettmann, visionary creator of Bourgeon, asked a variety of people to pick a topic dear to their hearts, and to comment. Open ended, the result is here for you the reader to take this as a jumping off point for your own thoughts. As editor of this “focus” section, my job has been to make suggestions to the writers for clarifying their thoughts but not intruding, and for finally finding a way to group them conceptually. As a member of the Washington dance community since 1963, I found these responses to be provocative, informative, and important. Reflection on who we are and existing problems will lead to increased dialogue amongst us, and even possible solutions. Contributors were asked to limit their comments to roughly two pages.
The first two essays deal with the issue of what we call now World Dance: the wide range of forms that emerge from the vast heritage of dance all over the world. The accepted understanding is that these are forms that have developed from a variety of ethnic traditions, and that are embedded in communities both western and non-western. The term world dance has been used to identify forms that do not have the traditions or vocabularies of modern dance or ballet. This term covers a wide range of dance forms that stem from the lives and cultures of people and have been practiced in communities for many generations. Some of these forms have always required significant specific training and have been based on high levels of technical performance, such as the many Indian classical forms. Some of these forms have always been identified as dances that are related to specific rituals and festivities and are performed by all segments of a community. Dance scholarship currently is heavily involved in study of these dances, in terms of the way they have evolved and changed over the generations, the nature of their performance and their complex identities. Many contemporary choreographers who have grown up in these various world dance traditions are now seeking to integrate them with current dance trends and within the artistic frameworks of both modern dance and ballet. There are also artists and scholars who are seeking to preserve the various traditions as they have existed, and to understand what that preservation means. There is now a vast literature on this subject, and two recommendations for current publications are: Theresa Jill Buckland, Dancing from Past to Present: Nation, Culture and Identities ( University of Wisconsin Press, 2006); Dance Research Journal: Re-presenting Indian Dance (Winter, 2004).
Christel Stevens writes about the vast number of ethnic communities in Washington and the dance groups that represent them. The Washingtonian recently had an issue devoted to the demographic changes in Washington, in terms of the large number of immigrants from many countries who have settled here over the last years. Christel writes about the need for greater understanding and acceptance of these companies and artists, and some of the problems they face in communicating with the modern and ballet dancers who pre-date them, when Washington was a different city. She notes that some of these companies are trying to cross the boundaries by integrating their traditions with contemporary dance in all its many guises.
Lori Clark writes about the large Middle Eastern dance community, and the dangers of commercialism and amateurism within these groups. She focuses on the potential for Middle Eastern dance to assume a strong role in the artistic life of the community, but also points to the lack of awareness of the many studios in terms of their professional obligations to present and teach at a high level. These two essays were put first, for two reasons. It is important for all of us to be aware of the exciting dance traditions that exist in this city, and that we might not encounter in our usual round of activities. It is also important for us to have a discussion as to how we can be more inclusive and aware of the rich heritage that these dances embody, and how we can all work together for higher standards and better funding for all.
Helanius Wilkins and Elizabeth Johnson focus concerns on their lives as artists in Washington, and issues of survival, standards, and communication. They talk about the contradictions: the numerous groups that exist and the tendency for each to remain separate and isolated; and the other tendency of bringing people together through Dance/Metro D.C. and the Dance Awards, and various collaborations happening throughout the city. These are very personal statements, but they resonate in broad ways. They ask important questions about quality, training, and funding, and also reflect an excitement about the State of the Art in D.C.
Gesel Mason and Helen Hayes are concerned with how we educate people in dance, and the challenges faced by those who teach in different environments. Gesel talks about her own experiences in college, both as student and teacher. She notes that often fear becomes a dominant factor in the training and learning process, as opposed to developing confidence and creativity, and she also questions what and how dancers are trained in college dance programs. Helen writes about her work with youth at Joy of Motion, and how space challenges resulted in a more open approach to working with young people of varied ages and abilities. She notes the surprising success resulting from the challenge, and how the coming together was instructive and exciting for all.
Robert Bettmann and Nejla Yatkin wrote essays that dealt with broad concerns, and provided a fitting conclusion to this focus section. Robert places his concerns about sex and sexuality in “the District” but in fact gender issues exist in all of contemporary dance and in all forms. What is feminine, and what is masculine? Do we deal in stereotypes, or do we dig beneath the surface? What do we say about ourselves with our bodies, and do we create boundaries or go beyond these? Nejla explores the conflicts between taking risk and getting money, between conforming to what is expected and daring to step into the unknown. She wants to see a national conversation on dance that would reach into all segments of the dance community and beyond.
Read… Question… Challenge, Think.. Ponder.. Share.. What is the Sate of the Art? What is the State of the Art in Washington? I hope these articles will provide much food for thought and a rich agenda for discussion. They certainly provoked and challenged me, and I am delighted that Robert asked me to “edit” this section.
Naima Prevots, Professor Emerita, American University, has been a performer, choreographer, educator, administrator, critic, and dance historian. In 2005 she was awarded the Metro DC Dance Award for “Outstanding Achievement in Dance Education.” She has written 3 books, several monographs, numerous articles, has been awarded Fulbright and NEH Fellowships, and has consulted for The Washington Ballet and currently for the D.C. Collaborative. She writes reviews for www.danceviewtimes.org. She has contributed to the forthcoming book The Returns of Alwin Nikolais: Bodies, Boundaries and the Dance Canon. published by Wesleyan University Press this coming June.