PARIS- Tonight I saw the company of Mathilde Monnier. This is solid work with a point of view. It seems to me that this artist is tackling the very hard question of how does the dancer get out of the way of the dance? In other words, how can one make a dance that isn’t about the technical skill of the dancers? This is not a new thing, we have been thinking about this since Judson days, but here she has even skirted the usual pitfall of the star personality. We are not looking at Trisha Brown being Trisha Brown or David Gordon being David Gordon. She has transcended skill and personality and even any traditional concept of beauty. The dancers do not have dancers’ bodies, the movement isn’t linear or aesthetic in the ways we are used to. What we end up watching is a different kind of skill, the skill of perception- the dancers are relying on very intricate internal timings to sync up with each other, they are breathing together and focusing together in a way that is not showy, but ultimately very satisfying. And all of this to the strange and wonderful music of Gyorgi Ligeti. I have heard my discerning opera friends sigh with glee over Ligeti and I never really got it. Tonight, seeing/hearing it juxtaposed with this minimalist gestural movement, something finally clicked for me. It was like Monnier was giving the viewer the space to just roam inside of this musical landscape. So all in all a pretty good art viewing experience. I mean, my panties aren’t moist, but I enjoyed being in the presence of such competent artistry with such a distinct point of view.
But what I really need to marvel about was the audience and the reception for this program. Imagine, first of all, an American artist doing an evening length work about unison (yes, that was the subject of tonight’s piece). Imagine that there are no beautiful sexy dancers and no feats of bedazzlement, no confrontational statements about race or sexuality, no live music (the Ligeti was recorded). Yeah, try to imagine it. I can’t quite get there. Well, it’s a whole different story here in Paris. The theatre de la Ville is a huge space (easily 2,000 seats) smack in the middle of the most touristic part of Paris. And it was packed. I had to buy a scalped ticket at the last minute because I couldn’t figure out how to buy one online in advance of getting here. And again, like my German experience at Tanz Im August, there was a palpable excitement in the crowd. They were excited to see what this artist had for them. They were ready to be challenged, even edified by the experience.
So what does this mean about the state of American performance? Will it always be true that an artist working on an esoteric track like this one will be relegated to the garages and alternative spaces? Are we condemned to a future of Stomp and River Dance? I have to say that I think it is partly a failure of our institutions. We don’t have a place for artists to experiment and veer off from the center. We don’t support research that is not headed in the direction of commercial viability or, at the least, some kind of familiar palatability. No wonder contemporary dance in America is mostly playing second fiddle to the composers it is paired with. We don’t believe in our ideas. We don’t have institutions that support really new thinking. European artists have surpassed us in their willingness to experiment and fail. The economy for the arts over here is not a cash and carry economy. An artist can risk being cerebral or pedantic, even solipsistic. And while I am sure that some of that is dreadful to behold, it has the effect of creating a much more tolerant and educated audience, an audience that is on the long journey with you. Not just a thumbs down “this ain’t box office” audience.
Okay, I will quit my bellyaching. I think we have some work to do back home. And it won’t be the hired hands, the administrative wonks or the political appointees who will make it better. It will be the artists, like myself, who shoulder some of the responsibility for finding ways to ignite discussion and curiosity and experimentation. I believe. I think I believe.