"The imagination is always at the end of an era." -Wallace Stevens
There are people in the dance world who believe that single-choreographer companies are on their way out. The choreographer Stephen Petronio has not been one of those people. His troupe recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and in an interview this year in The New York Times, he adamantly defended the idea of a dance company as an instrument of unparalleled value for a choreographer, speaking of “the depth of research possible with a family of dancers.” But Mr. Petronio is also among the many choreographers whose minds turned to questions of legacy after the death of Merce Cunningham in 2009, and especially after the Cunningham company disbanded two years later. The announcement in 2012 that Trisha Brown, because of illness, would no longer make new works increased his sense of urgency....
The iconic Limon, Graham and Taylor companies have all shifted away from the single choreographer model as well.
First, the basics: why does lineage matter? In order to break the rules, you have to know them. In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom argues that throughout literary history, “fruitful” influence has come when writers resist iconic influence as a means of finding their own voice:
Poetic Influence--when it involves two strong, authentic poets--always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.
Bloom's work has been criticized for limiting the literary canon to dead white men. Indeed, questions of lineage are more fraught for women artists and artists of color. We must first find precursors “who, far from representing a threatening force to be denied…, prove by example that a revolt against… authority is possible.” (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship).
Whether ancestors are in plain sight or buried in the margins of history, articulating lineage is a necessary stage in the development of artistic voice. At some point, in the words of choreographer Andrew Wass, we have to “stop pussyfooting around and appropriate/steal/use/riff on/reject performance history…. to …create our own skeletons/structures.” But as central as lineage is to all artists, an overly cozy relationship to influence remains taboo in the dance world. Beth Gill's recent New Work for the Desert took a controversially transparent relationship to Trisha Brown's Newark. Here, Gill talks about her anxiety about rooting her process in Brown's work:
It has been really difficult for me actually. I find myself going back and forth, but some of that fear and anxiety is part of the reason why I’ve taken a stance of being as transparent as possible. I feel intuitively there is something so basic about working in a state of inspiration. That practice shouldn’t have to be so intensely closeted, and it felt like I should really honor it. The anxieties about that have really changed over the course of the process, because when I look at what I’ve made, it is much more multifaceted than that one initial concept line, which was essentially to move toward my interest in that work in particular, but her work in general. To give myself permission to work inside of it. I think I’ve really moved through that in a lot of ways, but it still feels important to me to acknowledge it.
Conversations about lineage often assume a linear view of history, a premise that invariably leads to the "what's next?" question. But it may not be useful to frame artmaking as an endless search to “make it new." Experimentation motivated by novelty usually doesn't last. See Can Writers Still Make it New? N.Y. Times, Dec. 30, 2014 ; see also, What Are the Consequences of our Cultural Obsession with Newness?, N.Y. Times, July 14, 2015. What is new may not even feel contemporary. Awhile ago, I conducted an informal poll among colleagues by asking, “what makes dance feel contemporary?” Some artists associated contemporary work with newness (dated work features “movements and design I readily recognize from a previously codified aesthetic” or “heavily quotes a prior work or influence or relies on an established form or technique as its primary mode of communication"). But one artist associated contemporary work with “vocabulary that cannot be easily replicated or named.” And another responded:
Anytime movement looks or feels too familiar, as if it may have been used in a technique class, it reads as dated. Contemporary dance reads as movement that is singular to the piece…it has been found through the research specific to the work. Contemporary is arranging sequence and structure specific to the work.
Whether or not art feels “contemporary” might be more a function of method than its particular relationship to history. In the words of my friend poet Brenda Hillman, we can choose to frame our artmaking, rather than as a search for the next big thing, as an ongoingness, a “spirit of experimentation that continues through daily commitment to re-making form." Art that feels contemporary needn't resist history; perhaps it need only become fully itself.
As artmaking methods change, our questions about lineage must also change. Our conversations about lineage must address both product and process. An artist must articulate a relationship to her ancestors' aesthetics and ethics, which may or may not be related. Art can be made through contemporary methods, but generate dated results. Art can also be made through dated (i.e., hierarchical) methods, but generate contemporary results.
Traditional conversations about lineage often have a geographic component. How can conversations about lineage shift from valuing centers of power to valuing local practice? How can we talk about lineage that flows laterally or weblike through peer networks?
What does lineage mean if information is not passed body to body, but through other means? How does the conversation about lineage extend to training? How can we train the body in non-traditional, but nonetheless rigorous ways? As contemporary choreography migrates increasingly toward the use of scores, as opposed to mimicry of specific bodies, how can authorship in dance remain an embodied practice? The ability to articulate movement values through language has never been more important. How can we incorporate writing and speaking about dance into dance training?
Hope Mohr Dance's Bridge Project continues to explore questions of lineage and artistic practice. The seventh Bridge Project, Rewriting Dance, in association with Counterpulse November 6-8, features choreographers Deborah Hay and Jeanine Durning, dance curator Michele Steinwald, and philosophy professor Alva Noe, as well as a host of Bay Area choreographers working at the intersection of language and choreographic thinking. For a video of the 2014 Bridge Project panel discussion on artistic lineage featuring Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Dr. Janice Ross, click here.