Interpretive Dance: The Challenge of Making Meaning through Movement

“If the objective an author has had, in writing a book, cannot be discovered from its perusal, the problem is that it is either very deep, or very shallow.”
– Charles Dickens, in his Preface to Barnaby Rudge (1841)

In last month’s Huffington Post Blog was a terrific post by Columbia College Chicago student Nora Younkin, entitled “What the Heck Is Modern Dance?” Younkin beautifully outlined many reasons why dance is a serious career path and why dancers are simultaneously athletes, artists, educators and scholars whose work has great value in our society, despite being frequently overlooked.

But where I wish to connect the voices of this young student and of the great author Charles Dickens, whom I quoted in my epigraph, is through this paragraph of Younkin’s post:

A great choreographer knows how to use bodies in space to say something or occasionally, nothing at all (a statement in and of itself). Sometimes it would seem audiences are afraid of modern dance because it's not evident what it's about, or what you're supposed to get walking away from it. Let me tell you another secret: that's okay. Sometimes it's boring or sometimes you might downright hate a dance. Even if you love it, the challenge is to figure out why. Maybe on the whole, as a culture, we're so used to being spoon fed meaning that we've lost interest in being challenged by our entertainment. Modern dance is a big invitation for interpretation, and sometimes it requires the audience to take an open-minded leap into the new, unknown, bizarre or abrasive.

I have frequently been one of those audience members who, leaving a modern and/or contemporary dance concert, has felt bewildered. Actually, it was not just when I left – it was during and after many of the numbers I watched. I was confused for most of the concert. I felt like that person at the movies who can’t follow the plot and has to whisper in his friend’s ear every minute, “Who is she, again? …. I thought he was dead. . . . Wait, how did they end up with the secret formula?” (Echoes of Jerry and Elaine talking throughout the movie “Chunnel,” trying to unravel its convoluted plot, on “The Pool Guy” episode of Seinfeld.)

If you're not familiar with the humorous "How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert" video on YouTube, which pokes fun (ironically?) at some of these sentiments, take a look:

As a young artist, I am beginning to experiment myself with art that “says something,” and I fully support dances that attempt to convey particular messages, tackle certain themes, or tell stories. (I even wrote a blog post about my goal for 2012, to take more risks in my life and my art.) I’m also a literature student and aspiring English teacher, after all, and part of my attraction to the novel (and, by extension, art in general) is the way in which it discusses timeless themes and raises uncomfortable questions. Is not the enduring popularity of classic literature indebted partially to the fact that it addresses ideas that yet remain topical?

But I think that there is a clear difference between a work of art that raises serious questions (i.e. Is technology a burden or a blessing to modern society? How are we still challenging or subverting traditional gender roles in 2012?) and a work of art that simply raises confusion (i.e. “What just happened? What was that dance about? What was that naked person rolling around on the floor supposed to represent?”) In other words, I think there is great value in a dance that leaves us thinking about greater ideas or issues. I’m not sure what value there is in art that leaves us confused, lost, and subsequently annoyed or frustrated, ultimately impeding our quest for enlightenment and/or entertainment.

It’s like watching a foreign film without subtitles, or hearing a series of inside jokes. You’re lost, and that feeling prevents you from participating in what’s happening right in front of you, which makes you feel helpless and frustrated. As dancers, we are supposed to entertain. People are paying for us to entertain. If we are frustrating them, I don’t think we’re doing our job properly.  

I do think that Younkin is partially right. Audiences are afraid of modern dance – but not because they’re averse to interpretation. On the contrary, I think audiences are perfectly willing to watch dances that ask them to think. But I don’t think they’re willing to watch dances that are unintelligible or inaccessible. There is little fun in being confused – especially when that confusion persists during dance after bizarre dance.  Dickens, one of my favorite authors, makes a great point in his preface to his oft-overlooked historical novel Barnaby Rudge that I believe is just as applicable to dancers and choreographers as it is to authors. If the choreographer’s objective (or message/idea/concept/etc.) cannot be determined from watching the dance, then it is either too complicated to understand, or too simple to be recognized seriously. Note that I am not saying that an audience member should be able to completely understand and interpret the piece after seeing it – for what is art, if not a medium through which we can wrestle with question for which there is no one right answer? But if, as a choreographer, you want your audience to think about a question you’re asking or a statement you’re making, then that question or statement needs to be clear – otherwise, your audience isn’t going to think about it. They’re simply going to say, “I don’t get it.” Even worse is when a piece has an artistic statement in the program, but the statement still fails to help elucidate it.

That, to me, is an artistic failure. (And I don’t think it’s fair for the choreographer to say, “You’re not supposed to get it.”) If your intent is to tell a story, to present a message, to explore a theme, you have a responsibility to your audience to convey that story/message/theme in a way that is both entertaining and accessible. People are not likely to be entertained if they are confused; they are likely to be bored and impatient.

An NYU writing professor of mine often reminded my class that it is a frequent misstep of young and/or inexperienced writers to err on the side of subtlety. They know that they cannot make their authorial intent completely transparent or blunt, and that they must be creative and artistic about how they go about exploring it, and so they end up trying so hard not to be obvious that they make it too subtle. Sometimes, what we think is completely literal and stupid is, in fact, just what the reader needs. “Don’t worry about being too obvious,” he said. “I’ll tell you if you are.”

I think choreographers often forget that there is a vast spectrum of creativity to explore between the painfully obvious and the bewilderingly vague. Cheesy musical theatre choreography is an example of the former: the lyrics are interpreted choreographically almost word for word, every phrase with its own accompanying gesture. Younkin’s stereotypical example of modern dance, “I'm a tree! I'm the wind!” *insert wave-like arm gestures*, represents the latter. But there is so much room for creativity that falls in between these two landmarks – and as artists, I think that our fear of falling on one or the other end of the spectrum sometimes keeps us from exploring that room.

There are concerns, as Younkin points out, that commercial dance is indeed spoon-feeding us meaning, that people who are used to watching two-minute routines on So You Think You Can Dance (almost all of which are preceded by the choreographer saying, “This is a routine about two people who … [are falling in love; breaking up; fighting; are meeting for the first time; just lost a loved one; etc.]) will not be able to sit through much longer, more insightful pieces presented in a serious concert setting. Perhaps our desire to see dances that challenge us intellectually is waning in favor of watching simple, structurally/thematically similar routines performed by thin, good-looking dancers performing lots of jumps and leaps and turns. I don’t know.

But I really think that people are more than willing to witness sophisticated dancing as long as we reach out to them and make them active participants in our creations. We have to consider our audience and our venue when we choreograph. To perform for an audience and to make no effort to get them to understand what we are doing, nor to engage them in our movement, nor to provoke them to think actively while they are watching, is just rude and irresponsible. Again, it’s the difficulty of finding that middle ground. A responsible artist does not create a piece of art and then spoon-feed us its meaning – but neither does he create a piece of art and offer no inroads by which we can attempt to uncover and discuss its meaning. We have to create and pave those inroads for our viewers.

If we want audiences to not be afraid of modern dance, to be willing to take the “open-minded leap” that Younkin speaks of, we need to teach/show them how.


Getting to Know: Barbara Duffy

Photographer: Julie Lemberger
This week, I had the opportunity to talk to a woman whose company performs one of the most exciting and universal styles of dance: tap.  With her complicated rhythms, versatility and appreciation for improv, Barbara Duffy is spreading the word about tap one shuffle at a time.

REMY: What do you love about tap?

BARBARA: Well I think for me it’s that I’m a dancer but I’m also a musician so I feel like I can use tap to make music also, besides just being a dancer.  That's one reason why I love tap.  And I love that you can communicate with people. I've visited 20 countries and I’ve had to teach classes where people don’t really speak English. Many times I've had to communicate with just rhythm. Rhythm is universal and it connects all people, it really does. It’s amazing, I can go to anywhere and communicate rhythmically because we all feel rhythm. I think that’s why I really like tap.

REMY: Thats so cool, Ive never thought of it that way but I really like that.  Something in particular that I noticed while studying your work is that you use both choreography and improvisation.  I found this so interesting, and was wondering if you could talk about how you use improvisation and how it affects your work?

BARBARA:  Well, for the work that I’ve done, I use improvisation to feature dancers, to give them solos.  I like to give them an opportunity to express what they have to say within my work. They do my choreography, but they’re also dancers in their own rite and have their own style, which is one of the reasons I've asked them to be part of my company.  I might direct their improvisation, give them an intention, but they can use their own voices. Another use of improvisation is when I want to create a chaotic moment.... everyone improvises at one time, or an organized improvisation to make counter rhythms.  Even though we’re improvising, we’re blending into a groove so, again, we’re creating something musically and and because we're improvising, it's always challenging and different.

REMY: Do you ever use improvisation to build or influence your choreography?

BARBARA:  Sure, because when I’m creating something I have to improvise right away. I feel a rhythm, and then I’ll make it with my feet; that’s improv.  I think that it all starts that way and then becomes more organized.  Then I've got to settle on what steps I want to use and what picture I want to make.

REMY: Being a girl who's always favored jazz, I can't help but notice that dance forms like modern and ballet are much more main stream at the moment. How does those styles, if at all, influence you?

BARBARA:  I can't say that ONLY modern dance influences my choreography. It doesn’t actually matter what the dance form is.  If I go to any dance concert, what moves me is the story and the emotion of the dancers. So whatever form that comes in, that’s what inspires me.  I could go to watch African dance and get totally inspired, or it could be modern or ballet or opera.

REMY: Is there anyone or anything in particular that you feel has inspired your work?

BARBARA:  I've loved seeing Koresh Dance Company, based in Philly, as well as Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, here in NYC, because of the stories they tell through dance. I'm also continually inspired by all kinds of music, from Bonnie Raitt to Santana to Oscar Peterson.

REMY: When youre creating a piece, do you usually go with the rhythm of the music or do you create a rhythm that complements it or all of that?

BARBARA:  All of that. It also depends on whether I’ll be dancing to live music or to a recorded piece of music, each is a little bit different. If it’s a recorded piece of music, of course it doesn’t change ever, it’s going to be the same and we memorize the song so I really try to create choreography that is influenced by the ups and downs and the moods of that music, so that will definitely affect what I’m going to do with that music.  Or sometimes,  when I’m making a piece, maybe I'll start with no music and then bring some music in later.  I’ve also worked with  musicians to arrange a particular piece of music that I want.  And a lot of times within that, it will be Jazz-based so the musicians will be improvising within that in certain sections, so that makes things a little bit different.

REMY: So when you have the musicians improvising, is that a point of time when youd have the dancers improvising or would that be too hectic?

BARBARA:  No, it could be either way.  That’s what Jazz musicians do. They improvise and play with the song and then improvise off of it musically, so it depends. I mean there are sections when we’re definitely improvising together, or we might be doing choreography and the musician might still be improvising.  And so I might ask the musicians to play a certain mood, or maybe not fill up with so many notes but still improvise.

REMY: Tap always makes me think of the suave and elegant like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and their light-hearted, entertaining work.  Youre work is much more emotional and theres much more variety and dynamic. Could you speak to that a bit?

BARBARA:  I think that we’ve grown in the art form in that people are more aware of the progress we've made, since Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, which was 50, 60  years ago now, so I do think that the general public is more aware of tap dance since then. But some people, if they’ve never seen tap dance recently, that’s what they might think of. That was a very different style of tap dance because it was for the movies, it was movie tap dance.  The traditional Broadway style of tap, with the exception of certain shows is more oriented to simpler steps and more "showy" effects, arms and hands.  In the late ‘70’s-early ‘80’s, people like Lynn Dally of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, who is a modern/tap dancer, started creating tap concerts. Tap companies started to form. Brenda Bufalino, my teacher, created the American Tap Dance Orchestra, (I was her dance captain and featured dancer). Heather Cornell created Manhattan Tap, for example. Tap dance went onto the concert stage, similar to modern dance concerts. Gregory Hines was a huge influence on-the art form.  He started dancing to contemporary music in the mid ‘80’s, so he really influenced the younger generation to want to tap dance and opened up a lot of possibilities. Jelly's Last Jam & Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk were groundbreaking musicals on Broadway, presenting a different style of tap to Broadway audiences from what we usually would see. So I came from that, I came up when that was all happening.  I have to say that we all learn from each other with tap, and of course Gene Kelly was one of my favorites, and I think it has to do with his energy and his rhythms. Everybody knows [Kelly and Astaire] so a lot is influenced by them and other famous movie stars, like the Nicholas Brothers and the Condos Brothers, that’s what made me love tap dance as a kid, those movies. 

REMY: Its just so interesting to see how different forms of dance have evolved over time, and even looking at all the styles and genres within each dance form is amazing.

BARBARA:  Right, and the tap world has really grown in that way, it’s really grown. Savion Glover changed a lot of things technically, people are doing things they’ve never done before footwork-wise. 

REMY: One of the things that I personally had a hard time with when I was taking tap was how to coordinate and control your upper body when you were moving your feet so intricately and quickly.  So when youre creating a piece, do you mostly focus on the footwork or do you also work with the whole upper body at the same time?

BARBARA:  I think what happens is, basically, I’m focused on the rhythm that I want and when I figure out exactly what footwork I’m using, my body kind of goes naturally where it wants to.  I’m pretty much a whole-body tap dancer anyway, I don’t just stay in one place and I move a lot and my upper body moves, so I kind of have my way of moving.  But sometimes I really get specific with my dancers about really wanting to exaggerate a movement and we all need to be together and pretty uniform most of the time, unless we’re improvising. So I think the answer is that I focus on my music first with what I want to say, and then also it depends on the mood of the music or the mood I want to create. and how my body would move to that.

REMY: I really like that idea of starting with a rhythm and feeling how it moves you, rather than deciding to move this way or that way.

BARBARA:  Right, well I’m not saying that’s the only way it could happen, because there’s many ways to approach it.  I give an exercise to my improv class about dancing first and then seeing what your feet are going to do and how your feet will follow, that’s a whole different way to approach it. 

REMY: So is there anything else you really want to say about your work or your experience with tap?

BARBARA:  I feel really lucky that I’m making a living doing this and I think it’s important to pass the word about tap dance.  That’s been the mission, to make people aware of tap dance because people love it when they see it, but it’s interesting to see how many people in the general public really don’t know much about tap dance and it's history and what's happening now. A lot of people think it's a dead art form, when actually it's growing and thriving all over the world.  So that’s the mission, to make people aware of this Americana dance form and the artistry of tap dance, not just a preconceived notion of what they think it is.

REMY: Youre right, any time anyone sees a tap dance performance they love it, its impossible not to!

BARBARA: I know! It’s very true.


Add Some FREE Dance Into Your Day!

Are you looking for something to do on Saturday?  Head on over to Harvard Square and check out Dance for World Community!  There will be all sorts of FREE performances and classes from noon-7pm in and around Jose Mateo's beautiful space, including Dance'n Feet @ 4:05, Monkeyouse @ 4:40 and MANY other members of the Boston dance community!

Don't Miss It!


At Least Five Good Things!

Summer is once again bursting with exciting announcements. We are so proud of everyone associated with Monkeyhouse and we especially want to congratulate:
  • C2C Intern Sarah Grace is graduating from Natick High School on Sunday!  We will miss you as you begin your adventures at Brown! 
  •  Our Moving for Meaning Intern, Dana Moskowitz,  just received her Masters Degree from Lesley University! She quickly landed a job at the Arlington Center for the Arts this summer.
  • Zach Galvin, longtime friend of Monkeyhouse, was just awarded the Massachusetts Teachers Association's Kathleen Roberts Creative Leadership Award for 2012!  We have always known that Zach is a rockstar and we're excited that he is being recognized for his "significant and unique contributions well beyond the classroom." 
  • Company member, Nikki Sao Pedro, just received her Masters degree from Endicott College and then a week later married Niles Welch. Way to multitask, Nikki! 
  • And Boston Magazine decreed Monkeyhouse's friend, Richard Miner, One of the 50 Most Powerful People in Boston! Richard then honored his mentor at UMASS Lowell, another one of Monkeyhouse's most loyal friends, Dr Patrick Krolak, by naming an endowment after him. (Oh, and Happy Birthday, Pat!)
Please keep us posted on other wonderful news in your life. We love to spread happiness around.

Last Chance!


Getting to know Remy!

by Courtney Wagner

Recently, I had the pleasure of conversing with our newest C2C intern Remy Marin! She's quite a busy girl and I look forward to reading more of her interviews!

CW: What made you decide to apply for this internship?
RM: I've always been passionate about dance and journalism, so it seemed only natural to put them together and Monkeyhouse was the perfect opportunity to do so! Plus I am a huge fan of Monkeyhouse work, what it stands for, and the company members who I've gotten to know quite well over the years, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the team.

CW: How did you first get involved or hear of Monkeyhouse?  What is your favorite aspect of the organization?  
RM: I had the privilege of being taught by Karen Krolak and Nicole Harris during my years at Impulse Dance Center, so I was familiar with Monkeyhouse through years of working with them, hearing about their work and seeing some of their performances. What I like about Monkeyhouse is that it's not just a company, but also a group that honors different artists and explores what else is out there. I think that addition makes Monkeyhouse really special, and is what attracted me to the organization. I'd say that I knew a substantial amount about the group, and everything I knew and continue to learn about them just makes me more excited to have this opportunity.

CW: What are you most excited about as you start your new role as C2C intern?
RM: I'm most excited about getting to know and talk to different artists and choreographers whom I admire.  There are so many interesting people and artists out there, and I'm so lucky to get the chance to converse with them about what they do and why they love it.

CW: Have you done any previous blogging or writing about dance?
RM: I've been writing for an online teen health website for since March 2009 and am an English Major so I have  experience writing.  I've only had a little bit of experience writing about dance though- I conducted an independent study last year about dance's impact in the medical field and am turning that topic into a Double Major, so I had to do some writing about dance for those, but have minimal experience aside from that.

CW: Your bio says you have interned with AileyCamp, Boston Ballet and BodiMojo.  Tell me a little more about these experiences and how they affected your decision to apply for this internship. 
RM: AileyCamp is a program that provides at-risk, inner-city youth with the opportunity to experience dance and the arts.  Last summer, I volunteered there as a part-time general counselor, and essentially went to different classes with campers and assisted the dance teachers when necessary.  At the Boston Ballet, I interned in the Education and Community Outreach Department, where I helped coordinate, organize and assist youth dance classes and educational programs.  At BodiMojo, a National Institute of Health funded community website focused on teenage health and wellness, I was a media intern and content contributor. While there, I researched and wrote numerous lifestyle articles of interest to teens, uploaded content and managed social networking.

I've always been passionate about writing and dance, which is why I applied for these three internships. While I enjoyed all of them, and they solidified these two paths as strong career opportunities for me, I wouldn't necessarily say that they made me more or less interested in applying for the Monkeyhouse internship.  C2C's combination of dance and writing is perfect for me, and I feel I would've recognized that even before my other internships.

CW: What exactly is Dance Medicine (they must not have had that when I applied to Skidmore, otherwise I would have wanted to know more!).  Do you feel your background in dance has had a strong impact on the direction you've chosen to go in your studies? 
RM: Dance Medicine is actually a self-determined major, which means that I created it on my own by pulling together courses from different areas.  I think that my background in dance definitely has impacted my decision to pursue this field of study. I've been dancing since I was a little girl, and I have always believed that there is more to dance than just movement as I've personally found dancing to be very therapeutic after a difficult day, always able to lift my mood and give me a burst of energy. When I started hearing about dance being used as therapy for patients with neurological disorders, which was around my junior year of high school, I was struck by the concept that dance could be as beneficial for doctors trying to treat patients as it was for me trying to relax after a stressful day. It was incredible to read that the simple exercises and techniques I practice every week are actually being used to treat people with chronic illnesses and make substantial medical advances.  I was instantly hooked, and after observing a dance class for patients with Parkinson's Disease that the Mark Morris Dance Group offered last October, I knew I had found a new potential career path.

In my research, I have come across a lot of different explanations for why dance and medicine are connected, and I can't say I fully understand the answer as of right now. What I will say is that exercise in general has a whole range of positive effects on people, and much of that has to do with the connection between the body and the mind.  I've learned that movement and exercise can actually help the brain thrive and possibly prevent or even reverse neurodegeneration. With regard to dance in general, something about the fluidity of the motion along with the movement and the neurological benefits that come from exercise seems to be extremely powerful when used as medicine.

I know that all seems like a jumble, but as I continue my research I'll be sure to keep you posted.

CW: Has Skidmore exposed you to any new people or forms of dance you think you'll be writing about soon?
RM: I think Skidmore has more allowed me to delve further into the art forms and artists I already know for the most part, but the one person I'd say that Skidmore exposed me to was the choreographer Pina BauschPina is absolutely incredible, and her choreography is stunning and composed in such a skillful way that it's impossible to tear your eyes away. She unfortunately passed away a few years ago, but I'd love to write about Pina or the people with whom she worked.

Also, I took a seminar called American Political Theatre that provided the opportunity to do a weekend-long workshop with an experimental theatre group called the Living Theatre Company.  Their style of performance is much more physical than transitional theatre, and working with them opened my eyes to the different styles and applications of movement. I learned a lot about using improv to act out a more ambiguous, spontaneous story, and used an abstract yet mechanical form of movement called biomech that was so different from any style of movement with which I was familiar and really cool to try out. I'd love to write about the Living Theatre at some point, definitely.

CW: If you could meet and/or take class with any dancer/choreographer (living or dead) who would it be and why?
RM: That's a really difficult question, though I'm sure it is for everyone. I think I would probably have to say Bob Fosse. Something about the way that man moves and views dance strikes a cord with me, and I would give anything to have been able to take a class with him.

CW: What other fun facts should we know about you??
RM: Along with dance, I tried my hand at gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, acting, singing and figure skating. Let's just say that, given my skill level for each of those, my decision to stick with dance was a given. Also, my dream is for Beyonce and Justin Timberlake to drop a track together. That collaboration would shatter my heart in the best way possible.

Thanks Remy!
Read Remy's first two interviews here and here and keep an eye for more of her work!

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