While I’m not an academic, this weekend I went on safari into academia attending the Performance Studies International Conference (PSi19) at Stanford University. The safari entailed talk of the temporal divide, non-events, slippage and re-performance. Despite the opaque codified language and a major heat wave hitting hard in Palo Alto, the rare opportunity to hear from Peggy Phelan, Susan Foster, Anna Halprin and Shannon Jackson all in one place was too enticing to let pass. (Their names are just a fraction of the artists and scholars listed as in the hefty 250-page program catalog.)
On the Caltrain back to San Francisco, I let the threads of ideas weave, braid and detangle:
1. Susan Foster’s Performance Chops
Wow. I had encountered Susan Foster through her words on the page years ago, with books like Reading Dancing important to how I watch performance. I therefore expected a lecture when she stepped up to the podium in the Pigott Theater as part of a praxis session called “The Implicit Body in Performance: Rupturing Habit in the Live Act” a program shared with Amelia Jones, Marin Blazevic, Julianna Snapper and Ron Athey. (At PSi, praxis sessions titled are sort of like the “other” category – not straight paper presentations, but often loose and hybrid in structure, similar to Pop-Up Magazine shorts.)
This was not a lecture. The performance, which merely began at the podium, was an exquisitely crafted dance through which Foster managed to discuss trust and authenticity via So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD). The message, that no relationships are built free of agendas and manipulation in a post-fordist, capitalist society was transferred by Foster’s controlled physicality and intellectual analysis of SYTYCD. She performed as a thinker dancing (precisely) and as a dancer thinking (deeply).
A PowerPoint slide offered facts about SYTYCD protocol: the contestants must appear to be friends and support each other; they may not reveal their sexual orientation; they will work hard to learn the routines of different styles. Foster performed a routine, which she learned by watching SYTYCD on YouTube, narrating her interpretation of each move: “Compulsory display of heterosexuality…” as she shimmies; “I’m so available…” as she rolls her hips and grazes her pubis with her hand.
She then draws our awareness to the structure of SYTYCD: share intimate details through personal story in a clip aired before the contestants dance to create audience empathy. Foster rolls down her pants to reveal her hip replacement scar and talks about where else she possesses titanium in her body. Just as structures in SYTYCD repeat with each episode, Foster uses repetition, rotating through the same three PowerPoint slides illuminating new interpretations of her actions, the dance routine from SYTYCD. Which version should be trusted? “Are you my friend?” she asks an audience member. “Do you trust me?” she continues downstage. Returning one final time from center stage to the podium she recites with authority “And I am the lecturer, and this is the end.” I will never be able to watch SYTYCD again without Foster’s voice in my head and imaginings of how she might tackle the routine.
2. Narrative and Desire
After addressing narrative in a blog post follow up to ODC Theater’s WDDF-SF, I found myself nodding along with Katherine Profeta, who has worked as a dramaturg for Ralph Lemon and Alexandra Beller. Profeta was presenting from a paper “Temporality and Narrative in the Dramaturgy of Movement-based Performance” which asks “Does perceiving events in time inevitably engage a narrative understanding?”
Quoting Foster, Profeta maintains that “Narrative is inevitable” and discusses the combination of embedded narrative (that which is offered by the work or artist) and the emergent narrative (the spectator’s narrative which is self-referential and generated by the audience member). Having written about co-authoring meaning with artists and the relationship of narrative to psychology, I appreciated Profeta’s connections between cognitive science, the making of meaning and narrative impulses.
Narrative was approached again during a roundtable on historical paradigms, this time in relation to desire. Building on the how of what Profeta referred to as the emergent or spectator’s narrative creation, Pannill Camp commented, “Desire is key in the way we frame our object of analysis.” We discussed the ways in which narrative is a structure of desire and how it is helpful to be aware of methodological habits. Most of us hate to address the contradictions to a smooth narrative. What are personal tendencies for filling in the gaps? The resurfacing of the topic made narrative feel especially vital as a mirror, mind map as well as a generative and collaborative process of the spectator.
3. What about dance?
During Roundtable: Back to the Future of the [Performance Studies] Field, an attendee demanded to hear from the panelists (Branislav Jakovljević, Shannon Jackson, Stephen Bottoms, E. Patrick Johnson, Edward Scheer, Erica Magris, William Sun, Richard Gough), “What About Dance?”
With Performance Studies as a fairly new field, formalized in the mid-90s and originating as hybrid study including theater (of which dance is a part) and anthropology, each speaker riffed about where they observed Performance Studies to have evolved since the 90s. One assertion is that the notion of representation is old. This causes Performance Studies to either be exclusionary (focusing on non-representational work and non- theatrical performance) or take the stance that everything is performance (social actions like protests, serving and eating a meal etc).
With much talk about politics versus aesthetics in performance, artist Suzanne Lacy, part of the Pacific Standard Time city-wide exhibition in Los Angeles grapples with the multiple goals of her work: “We had two interests: one in making art and one in making social change.” It’s a spectrum of what the viewer privileges. So what about dance? Shannon Jackson, professor at UC Berkeley who has worked as a dramaturg for choreographer Dean Moss maintained that dance indeed has a place in Performance Studies.
Dance, or the kind of movement one might recognize as corporeal “dancey-dance” is just a fraction of the field. Part of the reason many people with dance backgrounds have difficulty with Performance Studies and work rooted in performance theory is that they remain well on the aesthetics end of the spectrum in terms of evaluation. The 19th century ideologies of virtuosity (precision of delivery) privilege the aesthetic. Therefore, when someone is not demonstrating “dancey-dance” the work is considered a failure because the aesthetics are not virtuosic. As an extension, so much institutionality is based on 19th century forms (the ballet, the opera, the symphony), which accounts for the division of academic performance culture and mainstream culture. Therefore, the main takeaway is to ask “What are the emerging cultural practices versus existing structures?”