What to Call it and Why?

Graduate School – GWU December 2012

            I used to call myself a dancer, then a choreographer. Now I call myself a conceptual artist whose primary material is the body in action. Why do I feel a need to change how I describe what I do? I am not alone in this quest to create a label for myself and a category for what I do that is open-ended. I’ve noticed that a lot of contemporary dance and theater have gone hybrid. Many artists I meet say that they make performance. Just that: performance. So, what does that mean? Does it matter what that means? Why does it matter or not matter? Do performing artists need specialties or categories anymore?

            One way I might describe “performance” is to say that it is something done intentionally in time and in front of at least one other person. The description needs to be that vague in order to include the total variation of what “performance” might be today. There is a plethora of labels and categories around “performance” at this moment in history. They include Time Based Art, Time Art, Live Arts, Performance Art, Contemporary Performance, Filmic Performance, Physical Theater, Live Action, and on and on – nobody wants to be stigmatized as JUST dance or theater anymore. Even the long-standing Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) changed its name to New York Live Arts. They now say they support “innovative movement-based artistry”. Wow. I guess dance and theater are not encompassing enough terms to cover all the “movement-based artistry” of today. It’s almost as if each individual or group that is creating a venue, festival, social network, grant category, or even graduate program is trying to come up with their very own, new, different, distinguishing, unique, particular, clever way of saying “performance”. How come?

            I remember when I was first putting the legal paperwork together for my company, Troika Ranch, to become a 501(c)3, the lawyer friend that I was working with advised me to use the word dance in the name of the company. My lawyer friend thought our new company should be called the Dawn Stoppiello Dance Company, or Mark & Dawn & Dancers or some such so that it would be clear what we did. At the time I identified as a choreographer and Mark as a composer, a regular enough combination to classify as dance. But Mark and I had the opposite intention. We did not want to be pigeonholed into having to make a thing called “dance” for the entire existence of this new organization we were about to form. We wanted to be liberated from any one genre since our interests were decidedly “multi” and we were still formulating our craft.

            For a while, we kicked around the name Dance Monster on my Small Song (the title of a Paul Klee painting we both liked*). We knew we’d just go by Dance Monster for short. That name included the word dance, which could have helped in connecting us to a dance world/market, but it also included the word monster, which implied that we were disfiguring dance, or that it might be frightening or surprising somehow. We thought that combination of words might exemplify that we were using dance as a driving engine for our work but that the “monster” part would be a mutable, unexpected component. But instead, we chose to go with the even more vague Troika Ranch. The word “troika” was sort of a naughty word in the early 1990s because it was Soviet and the cold war had recently ended, and the wall had just come down. Troika means three in Russian and has obvious communist associations. It’s a little dangerous. We liked the word “ranch” because it connotes a collective group of “cowpersons” working toward a common goal together out in the west. But what is a Troika Ranch?

            Troika Ranch is a thing that is not explained by its name. It must be explained to any person who doesn’t already know what it is. Mark and I chose this name exactly for this reason. We wanted to be able to define and redefine for ourselves what a Troika Ranch could be and if our artistic output changed over time, then the definition of Troika Ranch could change also. Our company name, and by association our artwork, would not be bound by a label.

            The names of contemporary “performance” ensembles say more about an attitude than a form. However, these people work in what might still be called contemporary dance or experimental theater. Consider the following names of performing groups: Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People; Elevator Repair Service; GobSquad; John Jasperse Projects; Ultima Vez; Damaged Goods; thinkdance; A Canary Torsi; dumb type; Teeth and yes, Troika Ranch. It’s hard to know what these names represent. You have to experience the work of these artists more than once to get a sense of the “genre” in which they exist. And the world has to get comfortable with this amorphous “genre” changing shape constantly. There will be something happening live that’s all you can know for sure. (As I am writing just now I am thinking of band names. They also don’t tell the listener anything about the kind of music they will hear. It’s only in the listening that you know. But the band has to decide to send their demo to the right genre of radio station right?)

            So what is causing this all-encompassing form called Performance (or any of the aforementioned alternatives) to override dance and theater as singular categories? It is really interesting to read the first lines of artist biographies today. For example:

  • London-based artist Aura Satz’s practice encompasses film, sound, performance, and sculpture.
  • MakeShift is a forty-minute collaborative performance piece that uses modern dance, video footage, and improvised live sound.
  • Working with time, music, color, and, temperature, “Ice Music” allows for…
  • Emily Lacy is a folk artist generating works in music, film, and other media.
  • Sarah Michelson is a choreographer and performer who synthesizes performance, installation, sound, and architectural elements…
  • jill sigman/thinkdance exists at the intersection of dance, theater, and visual installation…
  • Drawing from dance, music, theatre, and design, Hand2Mouth celebrate the raw, charged potential of the live encounter, and our methods and styles change to meet the demands of the work.
  • Troika Ranch is an arts organization that creates contemporary, hybrid artworks through an ongoing examination of the moving body and its relationship to technology. The works may be presented as performances, installations, or in portable formats.

            What are these artists saying about themselves? They are saying they do more than one thing that cannot be comfortably categorized. I guess my question is why the field of performance needs categories. It is the people involved with the visibility and support of performance more than the artists themselves that need the categories and they are mostly still stuck with dance and theater. I see the groups mentioned above listed on venue or funder websites under standard old dance and theater. I see their reviews in the newspaper listed under dance or theater. I bet they have to apply for grant support under the categories of dance or theater. If artists don’t think dance or theater work as definitions anymore, then they must have a reason for it. It’s probably because these artists have been excluded from a category, or not understood within a category, and therefore an opportunity, so they must continue to educate as to how to frame and read their work. They must continue to invent descriptions.

            Labels work as both oppression and liberation. The liberation comes from the artist being free to call their work whatever makes sense to them. Artists don’t seem bothered about what to call themselves or their work. But the artists have to ask themselves: how does my work match a grant category? What critic does the newspaper, magazine, or blog send to review my work? Under which heading does my work get listed in the local rag? Artists seem to be loose about their labels while the establishment stays rigid.

            Throughout the 1990s Troika Ranch was deeply ensconced in the Dance & Technology community, but the New York City contemporary dance scene barely knew this active community existed. We were plagued with trying to fit into the prescribed dance box even though we felt our work was somehow “other”. The New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) wouldn’t let us apply in their “multimedia” category because our work was live and at that time “multimedia” meant CD Rom. Thankfully the Jerome Foundation supported Troika Ranch for five consecutive years in its multidisciplinary category, one of the few that had a multidisciplinary category. The program officer told me straight away not to bother applying in dance because it was too competitive and our work was too non-dance. Dance critics often had difficulty accepting our combination of video, movement, and theater as the unified statement that we intended.

            When I was at Prix Ars Electronica, a Cyber Art Competition in Austria from which Troika Ranch won a prize in 2004, Joan Shigekawa, former Associate Director at the Rockefeller Foundation was sharing with a group of us artists that the Rockefeller Foundation was thinking of eliminating grant categories to simply fund “art”. While this statement was exciting to hear it instantly brought up a question: “How does a foundation organize a grant panel around this all-encompassing category called art?” What happens to the comparative literacy of experts from a single field if the panel is a mix of artists from many disciplines? I personally think this would be a really interesting way to discuss the merits of a single work and/or an artist’s body of work. At this late date when so many crossovers between art forms have happened and re-happened, do we need segregated panels? Do we need segregated categories? Why was it ever a good idea to have only dance experts evaluate dance? Have all of the dance experts agreed on what makes something quality dance? What about dance theater? Should there be both dance and theater experts on that panel? Or should they all be Germans of a certain age? Maybe it’s getting ridiculous to rely on the opinions of specialty experts when there are so many forms within forms within forms in any given live event. The variety is so vast. The genres have slipped.

            A close-up example of this genre slip happened for me during a moment when Mathew Bourne’s “A Play Without Words”, an adaptation of Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey’s film “The Servant” was showing at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). Right at that same time, I saw Jerome Bel’s “The Show Must Go On” at DTW (Dance Theater Workshop). It was so curious to hear Bourne being called a director though his play was all choreography, and Bel being called a choreographer though his dance was really not a dance (he said so himself). John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote about this curiosity here: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/19/arts/dance/19bour.html. The title of the Times piece is “What’s the Story? Is it dance or Theater?” This was the first time I became aware that the labels of two artists that “move bodies around” called themselves other things. Now a play can be a dance and a dance can be a theater piece.

            The swapping around of labels does not bother me. There is usually enough supporting evidence in the publicity to give some clue to what “over-genre” the work might be part of. I just find it interesting that artists can pretty much pull any label from the label-drawer that feels like a fit for the kind of work they are making or the method they are using. Labels in contemporary art-making practices are becoming more and more fluid. Dance and theater have shifted heavily toward this dense mix of forms. Why have performing artists become so “multi”? I posit that this is because we live in the age of the “multi”. Is it because ideas can no longer be expressed in one medium alone? Using a mix of mediums does allow for a work to speak on many levels: different media = different sense = different communication types, a multi-lingual approach.

            There is a trend toward over-visuality, which is part of the “multi” also. Moving and talking bodies, lights, costumes, paint, make-up, stuff, video, electronics – are these combinations an attempt to keep up with the deluge of visual imagery we confront every day, trying hard to stand out in the din of seductive images, endless information, and radical hybridizations? Trying to offer as many options for entry as the Internet itself? Is the stage fighting to stay as bright, and full of limitless possibilities as the screen?

            And why has the visual art world – the museum and gallery – become so enamored with performance again, namely dance-like stuff (I don’t want to call it the wrong thing but there is dancing in it)? Is it because our live experiences feel so mediated anymore? We want real-time human contact? My friend Melinda Ring collaborates with her close friend Martin Kersels. Martin makes a physical environment and Melinda makes a live thing on or around it. Dance is a visual art. Dancers are art objects. Is the live element part of the piece when it is sold?

            Troika Ranch’s work used to be described as interdisciplinary. Then it was multidisciplinary. Then it was multimedia. Then it was hybrid. It has always been difficult to define what Troika Ranch makes and does with a string of words. So we, and many others have been exploring words that could encapsulate our “category”. Back in the early 1990s, many artists were using a / to delineate the various forms that they merged; poet/musician/sculptor, programmer/video artist/painter, dancer/choreographer/media artist, or composer/programmer/media artist. It was the slash (/) that was the unifier that created a genre of multi-discipline. As a salute to this unifying image, we tried to call ourselves Slash Artists. We made up a special hand salute to go with it, an emblem of pride for our newly coined community. The term Slash Artist and the genre encasing it, the Slash Arts, never took off as a formal category so we dropped it.

            What is the tipping point for something to transition from being dance to being performance or from being theater to being dance or from being performance art to being time art? It is purely the subjective decision of the creator to call the work whatever they believe it is. New labels and categories were devised by artists to liberate themselves from being pigeonholed as any one thing. But is this “I do many things with different stuff” category creating a giant sinkhole of everythingness?

            I want to understand better how this plethora of labels is resonating with venues, funders, press, and audience. I want to better understand how and why an artist chooses their individualized category. Is it a sense of disassociation from one group or association with another? While I find the wide variety of labels to be curious because they all seem so closely related that seem to make their differences irrelevant, I am also proud to be one of those artists who are always challenging any given label. If allowed I will always tick the box “other”.

* In doing the research for this paper I discovered that the Paul Klee painting is actually called Dance You Monster to my Soft Song.

Research and References