Friday, March 20, 2015

The Point of Turning

I'm not sure when it happened or how, but suddenly pirouettes à la seconde, aka turns in second were everywhere.

There you'd be, watching a perfectly decent, even lovely piece, and the dancer, if not a whole ensemble would step high, then low into the preparation of life.  Ladies and Gentlemen!  Ms. Multiple Pirouettes Has Entered the Building!  

You were then treated to a double or triple followed in parallel retiré followed by 8-16 counts of pirouettes in second.  Oodles of spins with one leg extended to the side. No matter what the rest of the dance said, no matter how clear and expressive every other movement, what mattered was completing that turn series. 

That damned turn series.  

Once upon a time turns in second were the hallmark of the flashy coda performed by the male lead in a classical ballet. Now, in an effort to make anything better, folks sprinkle them anywhere and everywhere.  

Pirouettes à la seconde have become the chia seeds of choreography.

Recently, on The Huffington Post Alexandra Villareal wrote a highly inflammatory piece about how Maddie Zeigler of Dance Moms and Sia video fame had single-handedly saved dance, bringing interest to a dying art.  She listed lazy millenials, the retirement of several world-class ballerinas, and a lack of accessibility in postmodern choreography as among the major agents of Dance's death.  The dance community went mad with rage, leaping after her with comment section pitchforks and torches.  How dare she!  Then the blogger behind the site to move and be moved wrote an impassioned rebuttal chastising Ms. Villareal for her ignorance about dance and dancers, lauding all that contemporary dance has given us, and stating point blank that:

no matter how wonderful Maddie Ziegler may or may not be, a twelve-year-old simply cannot resurrect an entire art form."

But maybe what both Ms. Villareal and "to move and be moved" should be lamenting is how we have arrived at the point where for a large segment of todays young dancers, pirouettes in second and other tricks have come to symbolize and validate one's skill set. How is it that when our understanding of somatics and pedagogy have exploded (just ask professional dancers of my generation how they would compare their younger dancing selves to many of today's teens and college students), a small set of movements indicates that a dancer has technically arrived?  

I'm not sure if it symbolizes a lack of faith in both the substance and subtleties of our physical knowledge, or a failure to delve into untapped possibilities.  

Whatever the case, something has gone horribly wrong. 

When I see dance after dance full of the tricks du jour, my head buzzes with questions. A part of me knows the choreographer has made a conscious choice. She values virtuosity wants to show off the pyrotechnics of her dancers.  But then again, maybe the choreographer hasn't learned the art of subtlety - how to use mind-blowing athleticism in service to a bigger theme.  Or maybe the choreographer has decided to give 'em the ol’ Razzle Dazzle, feeling that since nuanced gesture will be lost on the rabble, she might as well make the audience jump out of their seats with legs to the heavens and 847 successive pirouettes.

But when our young dancers choreograph this way, shouldn't we ask them to reexamine their options? We owe it to them, and to dance with a capital D, to let them know that tricks do not make a good dancer, or a good dance.  Of course, dancers must be as strong and as technically versatile as possible.  They need to be flexible yet steely, with gorgeous lines, a fierce jump, and an ability to turn (not spin) for days. Dancers want their bodies -- their instruments -- to be able to do anything a choreographer asks of them.  But what a choreographer wants, at least I hope, and what the art form needs, is people who can communicate with their bodies.  Movers who can tell a story, inviting the audience into an entire world of thought and feeling with a tilt of the head, a roll of the shoulder, with a single percussive breath.  

And those dancers who have been led to believe that the trick is the stamp of approval are in for the rudest of awakenings.  Maybe in college, or maybe when they embark on the audition circuit.   

Your leg up by your ear isn't the same as a knack for hitting a home run against the star pitcher. Dance is an art form, not a sport.  

It's not only what you do, but how you do it. 

Surely there are people out there who see that the emperor is wearing no clothes.  Not only teachers and choreographers in the academic or conservatory circles, but those in the competition wing of the dance world where this aesthetic is most prevalent.  I see plenty of despairing complaints on dance teacher forums.  Maybe the naysayers are in the minority and don't want to risk losing competitions, let alone offending colleagues, parents, and an entire industry.  

Maybe this new set of tricks is too far gone.

Surely turns in second will fade to black only to be replaced by something else.  I am sure when I was in high school there was some "move" or style we younger dancers loved that made my teachers' skin crawl. And surely this step or mannerism was something that seemed so deliciously advanced that even its mediocre demonstration made us feel one step closer to being pros. 

But somewhere along the line I learned the error of my ways, and eventually became mortified to have been guilty of such terpsichorean sin. I hope this current round of tricks will go the same way.  As is bound to happen with chia seeds, we'll see past the hype and move on.  

But my God, what will they think of next?


  1. I'm not a dancer and you use big words, but this has to be a metaphor for a lot of things.


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