Art Scatter goes to dance appreciation class

Oh man, we left you hanging there for a couple of days with Thomas Hobbes! Art Scatter can be SO cruel. What can I say? We watched some debate. We watched some Project Runway (Leanne won!). We prepared to meet a roomful of students in Linda K. Johnson’s dance appreciation class at Portland State University. We didn’t blog.

Maybe I should say a few words about that dance appreciation class. First of all, it sounds like a great class. Linda, who has been involved in some of the very most interesting projects around the city in the past decade (and more!), including the Halprin fountain City Dance event and overseeing a year of artist-in-residencies in the South Waterfront district, has set up a pretty rigorous course of study. For example, the class sat in on a rehearsal of Swan Lake, which became a sort of lecture-demonstration because artistic director/choreographer Christopher Stowell was so open to explaining what he was trying to do. Their writing assignments sound quite interesting, too, which maybe was where I came in — to talk about writing about dance.

This is something I love to talk about, even though I’ve actually done it far less than I would have liked. Time machine time: In 1978 I wrote about a visit to Seattle by Twyla Tharp’s modern dance company. That was the first time I committed an act of criticism with intent. To publish, I mean. And it caused me a great deal of grief and excitement and a couple of all-nighters spent writing and re-writing and throwing my hands up in despair. How could I possibly bottle in words what I’d seen onstage (not to mention the interviews I’d conducted with the dancers; Twyla wasn’t along on the tour), for consumption in a newspaper (the Seattle Sun, RIP)? Well, I had an excellent guide, who was in the process of developing a deep understanding of newspapers, though he knew even less about dance than I did, and we muddled through.

My premise then was the same as it is now. If you watch a dance (or listen to a concert or examine a painting) very closely, think about you’ve seen (and heard) and organize a written response to it, then there’s some chance that you will write something that people will want to read, especially people who have seen the dance, but not limited to them. The better you watch, think and write, the more your readers will want to read it.

Simple. But also very difficult, as I have learned in the thirty ensuing years. Because all three of those things are hard to do. Watching openly with as few preconceptions as you possibly can and attending closely, minute by minute, accumulating data in all the various ways you can — from empathetic muscle memory to conscious note-taking — this is more difficult than it sounds, because various reveries call you as you watch, other arabesques you’ve known and loved, and your attention wanders. You can also get hung up in the task of instantly translating what you’re seeing into words, which means you’re always a little behind the movement instead of riding the crest of its wave.

And then how do you “think” about dance, exactly? What are you looking for with your thoughts? How can you push your thinking when you are doubtful about your memory of something as elusive, as ephemeral, as dance can be? How do you keep your search for “meaning” from spoiling the “experience” of watching? And then the organized response: From the bewildering array of possibilities how can you possibly give a fair AND interesting account of what you’ve just seen? Have I mentioned “amusing”? Because that’s important, too.

So, yes, hard, at least for me. But also incredibly fun. And as I looked at Linda’s class, young and engaged as they were, I got really excited, thinking about how they would manage their encounters with dances and dancers and dancemakers. For a split second, I was envious, remembering my own first encounters (O Merce, O Cunningham) and how vivid they still are. But that was silly. There’s a way in which every encounter is the first encounter, e very dance is an occasion for a new thought, every dancer, a medium for a trip into the unknown. As I think I told the class: It’s on me. Specifically, it’s on my preparation, my ability to bring more to bear on what I watch than I have before

Maybe all of this is so obvious that it goes without saying. Art Scatter readers know by now: I am the master of the obvious! But Linda’s class was lively and they humored me as I told a few stories and tried to make sense of what I do when I watch dance. So this is a public thank you to them, for their tolerance and good cheer, and to Linda for inviting me to participate. And to you Art Scatter readers, an apology: we’ll try to leave you in gentler hands than Hobbes’ the next time we bug out for a couple of days.