What struck me was the Great Divide. At the recent Parallel Voices seminars at Siobhan Davies Studios, a group of visual arts people – including Isaac Julien, Pablo Bronstein, Helena Blaker, Mark Nash and Catherine Wood – were talking about performance to a group mainly of dance people. The visual arts people seemed to understand each other perfectly; the dance people seemed to understand each other, but – with the exception of choreographer/film-maker Yvonne Rainer – the twain did not really meet.
From the way Rainer spoke, it appears that things were different when she started out. Back in the mid-60s, she was part of a seminal moment in dance history as a member of New York’s Judson Dance Theater. Two of the Judson group’s defining traits were to think conceptually and to work across artistic borders. Dancers and artists from other disciplines got together because their ideas and interests coincided – and the results were fertile. In the UK, something similar happened a few years later in the late 60s and early 70s centred at the Place Theatre in London, a founding moment for British contemporary dance.
Choreographer Siobhan Davies, herself from art college, began at the Place, and now, four decades on, she seems to be hankering for a similar spark. For a few years now, she’s been focusing on working beyond the proscenium stage (her next work will be for the Victoria Miro Gallery); and last year, she set up the Parallel Voices seminars to “expand choreographic imaginations”.
A visual arts seemed an obvious choice. As Isaac Julien pointed out, recent visual arts practice has seen a movement away from “the object” towards “performance”, introducing time, space, movement and live protagonists into the artwork. That all sounds very choreographic – so why the yawning gulf of incomprehension?
Well, I’m a bit stumped by it all myself, but let me give some preliminary impressions from where I’m standing (ie with both feet in the dance camp). Visual arts practice seems to spend a lot more time in bed with academic theory than dance does. There was an awful lot of postgrad cultural-studies jargon from the panellists; unless you’re familiar with it (and often even if you are), this just makes your eyes glaze and mind wander. Because talking is not just about ideas, it’s about performing – communicating to an audience, making a live connection. A different presentational style was immediately apparent when Yvonne Rainer spoke: she pegged ideas to illustration and anecdote, mixed history with personal experience. Suddenly, I was interested.
So ironically, for all the talk of “performance”, the panellists left me with an impression of an overwhelming interest not in action, but in representation and concept – at the expense of, for example, communication, engagement and effect. From their point of view, I suspect the visual arts panellists found us dance bods an uncritical, possibly undereducated lot. And maybe they have a point.
But one thing seems clear: we’re not in the 60s any more, when (it seems) choreographers and visual artists could both walk the walk and talk the talk and yet still understand each other. Perhaps today’s chasm of incomprehension is because contemporary dance and contemporary visual arts have headed off in different directions; or perhaps it’s down to something deeper, an altogether different zeitgeist.