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…..