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Austin Chronicle Everybody Has a Body

By Dawn Davis

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  I have decided that the next time I see a bad movie, I will stop going to the movies for the rest of my life. I know, it's a big step. This means that I will never experience the greasy crunch of movie popcorn or the thrill of standing in line for the next Star Wars movie or laughing with other audience members when someone drops a beer and the bottle rolls noisily toward the screen. This means no more first dates, no taking my future children to see Disney, or checking out the John Hughes Film Festival when I am 60. I could just rent movies and watch them at home.

Pretty inconceivable, huh? I agree. Seeing movies is such an integral part of our culture that I can't imagine never going back to a movie theatre because of one bad experience. That's a little extreme. I know that someone will make a better movie and it will appeal to me. But the idea of eliminating moviegoing entirely makes me wonder why we go to the movies at all. Why not just rent them? I believe that it is the live experience of seeing a movie that we all crave -- laughing together, nervously holding hands with your date, eating kid food. It's just not the same at home.

If experiencing a movie in person will draw countless audience members to sit in a dark room with other strangers for two hours, why are dance companies begging for audiences? What makes an audience member decide that he or she doesn't like dance after going to one dance concert? For many people, dance gets one chance, and if it does not live up to the expectations of the viewer, that will be the only dance concert they ever attend. Worse yet, many more people never give dance even one chance. Sometimes it's because they don't know what to expect or how to act. Sometimes they think dance is intimidating and elitist -- a closed society of dancers, artists, and wannabes who think lofty and profound thoughts while drinking foo-foo drinks and complimenting each other on esoteric aesthetic achievements. That's a tired cliché that needs to join hands with the starving-artist-who-can-only-create-while-mentally-tortured cliché and be banished to televisionland where they belong.

Frankly, audiences are alienated from dance. Dance is a celebration of the body, but much of this society associates the body only with sex, and dancers only with strippers. Dance invites creative interpretation. Movies and television, our most convenient media, typically do not require creative thinking. Dance is the oldest form of communication, but no high school or college requires Dance Appreciation 101 in order to graduate. Dance is just not an integral part of our culture and daily life as Americans. It is too bad that in the U.S. today dance is reserved for weddings, nightclubs, and young ballerinas, because the art form has so much to offer all segments of our society. Thirty years ago, there was hope that dance would appeal to a mass audience, but something went awry.

In the late 1950s, dancers began to radically expand the boundaries of what could be considered dance. Rather than using showy technique, they explored everyday task-oriented movement, performed outside the confines of the theatre, and created movement with no emotional meaning attached. Many choreographed pieces in silence or used sound collages or text. Others studied ethnic dance forms or ballet and derived an eclectic movement vocabulary. Choreographers and performers made discoveries that have changed the look of all forms of dance. But somewhere along the way, lay audiences were left behind. It's ironic that while artists were creating new definitions of dance (in part to make dance more accessible to everyone), the audience became more and more detached from dance, lost in an ever-changing landscape of experimentation.

Eventually, an adversarial relationship developed between the artist and the audience. Both sides ceased to understand the other. The very mystique that many performers cultivated became a double-edged sword and experimentation without explanation made much of the work look unintelligible. It seems that much of today's dance audience, or potential audience, feels disconnected from dance. I cannot tell you how many people approach me and tell me they would love to go see dance but they don't feel qualified to watch it; they don't know what to look at or how to interpret what they see. I don't buy it. Everyone has a body and all bodies are expressive. You read people's body language daily at work, at home, playing sports, and in every other context that involves other people. Dance is specialized movement. Sometimes it has meaning attached and other times it is movement that just looks really neat.

In the spirit of peeling away the mystique surrounding dance and bridging the gap between artist and audience, I have compiled a list of tips to use when attending a dance concert.

Get advance information. Prepare yourself for the experience by reading the arts listings in this paper and other publications. Check out feature stories about dance concerts that you might be interested in. Read reviews. Listen to arts interviews on local radio stations. There are plenty of outlets that can help give you an idea of what to expect from dance companies and choreographers.

Give yourself room. When you choose a show to see, don't forget to choose a good seat -- perhaps a few rows farther back than you usually sit for a play or a movie. This will enable you to watch more than one part of the stage easily and take in what's happening without feeling overwhelmed by activity.

Walk in with an open mind. Unlike plays which can be read and studied ahead of time, most times you cannot know the work before you see it, and I know that is scary. But how many movies do you go to without knowing the story? See it anyway.

Read the program. The program is an indispensable guide for information about the pieces, their titles, what may have inspired them, the music that accompanies them, the dancers performing them, and other artists who may have collaborated on the production. It is advisable to arrive early enough to read the program before the concert begins. And you are always free to refresh your memory after each piece, as well as check your program for details that you may have missed during the first read.

Sharir + Bustamante Dance Works

Look for specific qualities. Below is a short list of elements you can look for in dances. It is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you somewhere to start. Choose the elements that you tend to notice most and ask yourself the accompanying questions as you watch. The answers you get will help you formulate your own opinion of what happened during the dance. (Special thanks to Ann Daly, Dance History & Criticism instructor at UT, for much of this list.)

Imagery and gesture -- Are the dancers performing gestures with meaning? Do their movements remind you of something?

Relationships -- Are the dancers expressing emotion or do they seem detached from the movements or the action going on around them? What are the dancers' relationships to each other? Music/movement relationship -- Does the movement go with the music or against it? This can represent harmony or discord.

Space, time, flow, weight -- How much of the stage space does the movement use? Are the movements quick or slow and languorous? Does the movement flow easily or do the dancers seem bound by invisible restraints? Are their movements light and airy or weighty and grounded? Structure -- How many sections in the dance? How are they different from each other?

Mood -- What is the environment and/or the atmosphere of the dance?

Ask questions. During breaks and intermissions, ask your friends/date/significant other questions about things you didn't understand. They might have an answer or they might have questions, too. Stay for the question-and-answer session if one is offered. Feel free to express your confusion, or just listen and see if the discussion enriches your understanding. It may not; you may find yourself disagreeing entirely with what's said. That's fine, too. Whatever you think is as valid as what anyone else thinks (just as with movies). If the question-and-answer session seems too public for you, approach the artists themselves with your questions. Don't be intimidated! Artists love to talk about their work and are flattered by the attention.

Don't worry about "getting it"!!! Sometimes there is nothing to "get" about a dance; it is simply experiential. Sometimes there is a definite story or message within the work, but figuring out what that is isn't necessarily the point. Dance isn't a test with one correct answer. Artists want you to react to their work, to have a visceral response to what they're doing. Did your heart race? Did you find your head tilting to the side until you realized your neck hurt? Did you squirm? Did you go without blinking for a long time? Different artists might have differing agendas; some may want to entertain, some have a message, some may want you to see the incredible shapes bodies can make in space. The point is for you to have a reaction to the work. You may come away from the performance with something wonderful or, on the other hand, you may come away scratching your head. This is good. This means that the artist has done a good job of making you feel something, and this feeling that you are grappling with is making you think about what you saw.

If you don't like one show, try another. The world of dance is so huge and so varied that you will find something you like. Keep going.

If these tips have broken through your fear of dance and you're thinking that you might like to sample some movement, you have an excellent opportunity to do so this week. DANCEfest is a three-day celebration of dance in which 18 local dance companies and solo performers will be presenting short programs of their work in diverse concerts. Think of this as a buffet from which you may sample a great many of Austin's finest dance troupes and independent artists.

The list of performers is impressive. Cultural and ethnic dance groups are well-represented by Aztlan Folkloric Dance Company, Roy Lozano's Ballet Folklorico, the Puerto Rican Dance Company, the Irish Dance Company, and Csardas Hungarian Dancers. Soloists include classical Indian dancer Anuradha Naimpally, Middle Eastern dancer Karuna, and the legendary modern dancer Deborah Hay. Local companies include Ariel Dance Theatre, Ballet Austin, Ballet East Dance Theatre, the Creeps, Johnson/Long Dance Company, KINESIS Dance Theatre, and Sharir+Bustamante DanceWorks. In addition, three youth groups are participating: Auspicious Breaking Crew, Believe in Me, and Body Talk.

DANCEfest grew out of Chris Valentine's disappointment in seeing only tiny audiences at the many dance concerts in town that he attended. He decided to see if he could attract a larger audience to Austin's growing dance world by giving Austinites a chance to see many of the city's dancers in one place -- thus, the festival, which features only local talent. Valentine hopes the event will act as an agent of change, contributing to the education of the audience as well as lessening their fear of the unknown. He doesn't buy the belief that dance is a closed society. He admits to seeing performances and not "getting the point of the work." But he urges newcomers to keep going back because they will have the chance to "look at the world from a different perspective."

Valentine imagines a bright future for the Austin dance scene and the festival. While still in the midst of planning this year's event, he is already envisioning an expanded festival next year, with a lecture/demonstration series and technique classes offered to the public. For the first festival, however, Valentine is concentrating on making the event enjoyable for both the public and the performers. His mission is to provide the community with the opportunity to see the wide range of dance offered by Austin artists.

As a dancer, I too have great hopes for the future of dance. It is one of the few activities that engages your mind, your body, and your spirit. It can heal, entertain, and encourage you to use your own imagination. One of the most wonderful aspects of the art form is that it has as many interpretations as there are dancers, choreographers, and audience members. Yacov Sharir of Sharir+Bustamante DanceWorks once said, "Wouldn't it be an interesting world if people were as excited to see what choreographers have created as they are to see the latest movie release?" It would be an interesting world, indeed. In fact, I don't feel the need to give up the movies to make my point; I will just continue to invite everyone I know to experience live dance performances as well.

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