Archive for choreographer

Victory! (for me, sorta)

Posted in Anthropology, Art, Artists, Contemorary Art, Criticism, Film, Literature, Music, Pop-culture, Social Science, Technique, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 5 September, 2009 by endlessslug

I had an unexpected epiphany today: I was right, damnit.

About five years ago at an embassy dinner, I was put on-the-spot by a number of other Americans because, apparently, they were offended by a comment I had made to another person earlier that day. I had said, “[serious] painters should not work to sell, but should work to communicate.” This statement was made to a girl who had no idea about fine art as we were looking at some total street-crap local art being sold by some opportunistic ex-pat geared at selling at tourists. Of course, the statement was perverted by this idiot to “he said artists should never sell their work,” which was not only what I said, but it also suggests a plethora of other related meanings that make me sound like the idiot. Well, this all came up at this dinner at a table of about 20 intellectuals, made up mostly of excellent graduate students and some government officials. I was really very unprepared for an argument and was in the middle of marking down some field notes when all the sudden I was fighting for my artistic life. Partly, I couldn’t remember what I had said exactly, because I have stated that I don’t think artists should sell work – but at the student or amateur level as a means to make them think a bit more outside their little selfish boxes. The point when I lost the argument came when my attacker said, “So, you’re saying artists should not sell their work, then what about choreographers? They live only by hiring people and showing otherwise there’s no art…” I really didn’t have an answer to that and clearly had lost the argument by then. This has always annoyed me because I could never explain myself. But today I figured it out.

Choreographers are illustrators they are not painters.

Here’s some explanation: For years, I’ve followed the social science of Levi-strauss, Geertz, and Bourdieu, meaning structuralism (with a hint of functionalism), interpretivism, and very early post-structuralism. I, like these people and most other humans, polarize and categorize the world around me. One of the most misunderstood aspects of polarism is that the poles always represent the extremes which most people are not – most people fall somewhere in between and are made up of millions of interrelated polemics which affect one another – much like a gene structure. An early painting teacher turned me on to thinking of art in a polemic – there are painters and there are illustrators, with drawing students somewhere in the middle but more towards painting and watercolorists more toward illustration. The basic distinction is not the materials used because uneducated people believe that whenever you use paint in a painting that makes you a painter – this is untrue. The distinction is in the function of the work, is it having a conversation with me or is it simply telling me something? We converse with Van Gogh’s color and movement, Rothko’s panels, Degas’ atmospheres, Hemingway’s doomed protagonists, Maupassant’s surprises, Dante’s longing, Pavolva’s rending Dying Swan, and literally with the humor of Pak Edy’s Punakawan puppets (wayang kulit clowns). We are told what’s happening in comic books, mystery novels, children’s books, modern public murals, social-commentary art, computer-aided art, and musicals. This is not to set firm categories which are unchangeable, but to acknowledge that there are general categories. It’s called observational data (science!). We must also distinguish between the stuff we personally just ‘like’ vs. the stuff which everyone should be able to converse with at some time or another. Every male American should be able to understand and enjoy Hemingway at about 30 years old, if not, 40. Every college student should be able to understand and enjoy Shakespeare in most of his levels. I’ve noticed the aging artists tend to really enjoy ballet – I’m not a huge fan but I do respect it greatly and look forward to the experience. Yes, I am a master of sweeping generalizations, but then again, that’s what science and art are all about. The “fine” part of fine art is the refinement of the generalization in the attempt to develop something akin to scientific laws. We want the laws of art because we cannot always explain why certain works evoke a conversation or emotion and why other works do not. As we teach in my anthropology courses, fine art is the ability to communicate something efficiently, which is otherwise impossible or too complex for simple vocal conversation (words). The poet manipulates language for efficiency in emotion, the short story author gets to the point, the novelist takes us on a journey, the novella author – well, nevermind this, no one knows what a novella is anymore, the painter evokes feelings long lost, the dancer gives us hope, the musician makes us move – they invoke.

So, what does the choreographer do? In the modern world, the choreographer gets much of the ‘props,’ which is something I did not know when entering my argument years ago. Why? Because we live in a world where the people require immediate gratification and complete knowledge of every aspect of the show they’re going to see before, during, and after they see it. The dancer has been removed as the central point to the dance. It is now in the hands of the director, producer, lighting guy, stagehands even, everything except that person on the stage doing all the work. As an acting teacher of mine said many years ago: “[Dancers, like] actors are taught their parts. An actor is just portraying what they’re paid to do and only the best actor for a part is hired by the director. Thus, there are bad plays and bad directors, and thus there are no bad actors. However, there are great actors who go above and beyond the part, bringing it alive and communicating with the audience in front of them. Essentially, to be an actor you must play the part. To be a great actor, you must become the part.” This is how it was. Great movies and great plays still are defined greatly by the actors, although many film friends of mine might say differently. Really, a film, play, or dance, is created by all of it’s parts, there really is no ‘one thing’ which defines it, and I think this is where the public generally is. The public doesn’t know why the liked something, they don’t need to, but they want to, leading to millions of water-cooler conversations about aspects of movies the public thinks made it a ‘good one you should see, man’.

So here it is: The choreographer instructs the dancers on every aspect of the dance, the whens, hows, whys, wheres, and so on. It is their job to make sure that the show looks good to bring in future audiences. I would never claim these people are not artists, they surely are. But their art falls on that illustrator side of the pole. They are putting together a show to tell the audience something based on a script. They cannot create a communication as a lone dancer can. They can set the stage for it, literally, and hope it happens, but it stops there. Their job is to bring in the clients, by making art, yes, but they don’t do it for free. And this was my point in that argument five years ago. Fine artists who are creating something powerful, are often aware of it and create it to create it for themselves and others, not because they’re looking for a sale. “I’m painting this because I want to talk to you. ‘You’ being humans for the next 500 years.”

As a final note, here’s a quote from Anna Pavlova about her dancing: “What exactly is success? For me it is to be found not in applause, but in the satisfaction of feeling that one is realizing one’s ideal. When, a small child rambling over there by the fir trees, I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong. Happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away.”

If you think everyone can be an artist, and that all artists are fine artists, you think as a child.  But this is fine, it simply means that there is much more for you to learn.

I win.
Nooge.

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