does your work do what you say it does?

by Hope Mohr

“True moral complexity is rarely found in simple reversals. More often it is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance.” -Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

“Work with what’s in front of you, not the abstract concept of what the work should be.”   -Dana Reitz

What does it mean to have a meaningful exchange between subject matter and choreographic thinking?  The question is relevant regardless of whether you make political, conceptual, or process-based art.

Let’s say that you make dances about technology (or poverty, home, intimacy, global warming, the gaze—take your pick).  Do you twist the subject matter to fit inside your aesthetic?  Or do you allow the dance to be as radical as the source material and all that it implies?  Does the choreography reflect the content or is it pretty shapes/kinesthetically pleasing pathways against projections/voiceover about [insert subject here]?

This problem occurs frequently in dances that are ostensibly about social justice issues.  Often in so-called political art, if you remove the projections and voiceover, the work could be a generic dance about anything.  The politics remain on the surface of the work.  The artist doesn’t allow the politics to permeate her choreographic thinking. This might happen because of a desire to make the work accessible, a desire to please collaborators, or simply a weak voice.  For whatever reason, there is no real exchange between the outside world and the artist’s inner life.

The flip side of this coin occurs when subject matter overwhelms the artist.  Several years ago I directed a couple of community-based performance projects: one “about” medical imagery of the female body, which featured breast cancer survivors and professional dancers, and another “about” the trauma of war, which featured military veterans and professional dancers. Noble intentions drove these projects. For the most part, they were positive experiences for the performers involved.  But they were not great art.  In both projects, my desire to honor the subject matter overpowered my artistic instincts. Other artists can successfully tackle this kind of work, but I was too young to pull off the moral complexity involved.  To make a dance about weighty subject matter is not enough.  An artist must come equipped to deliver a compelling point of view.   Otherwise, again there is no real exchange between outside world and the artist’s inner life.

Even for artists who push back against the notion that their work has to be “about” something, it’s important to question how source material influences choreographic thinking.  Let’s say the source material is the ineffable creative process itself.  You’re a process-based artist and/or you explore choreography as structured improvisation. Even in making this kind of work, there can be a disconnect between rhetoric and inner life.  I’m currently collaborating with Christian Burns on a work that explores improvisation, but sometimes while extolling the virtues of creating open systems, I’m longing to boss the dancers around.

When internal experience rebels against our rhetoric, that’s rich territory.  Contradiction is the meat of nuance.  When I allow my unconscious to challenge the story I’m telling about the art, suddenly the art doesn’t fall into a clean category. That’s uncomfortable, but necessary.  “You cannot just lop off the negative or contradictory impulses and hope for the best” (Maggie Nelson).  Embracing detour, non sequitur and dissonant chords as choreographic strategies opens the door to nuance.  In the words of director Richard Foreman, “At every moment, the world presents us with a composition in which a multitude of realities and meanings are available, and you are able to swim, lucid and self-contained, in that sea of turbulent multiplicity.”  If our source material is life itself, the work should contain multitudes.

We all fall into the trap of marketing ourselves, even to ourselves. We have to write aspirational artist statements and ambitious grants. There is little monetary reward for the porous, open field so critical for making textured work.  (When I served on a recent grants panel, the most striking comment I heard was: “Why does everyone use the word ‘explore’ in their application? I don’t know what ‘explore’ looks like.” This same grant panel dismissed most work that was research-based, somatic, or durational. Among artists there is plenty of talk about practice and process, but we need to disseminate this value system beyond esoteric circles. How can we be more articulate about what it means to “explore” our source questions? Can our language around our making be more nuanced?) In the race to distinguish ourselves in a competitive field, it’s easy to grab onto facile categories. But when we make the work, it’s important to let categories go. Again, Maggie Nelson: “An unnerving inscrutability is often a sign that something new is happening.”  Distinctive voices are accountable to a deep longing that comes from unruly parts of ourselves that are hard to name.

We need to challenge ourselves to bring our inner lives to meet our subject matter.  Is our work doing what we say it’s doing?  We also need to be open to changing the story we tell about our work.  Can we connect our language to our longing?  When we go home for the holidays, it’s disheartening when people assume you are the same person you were in high school.  How we frame our creative process shouldn’t feel like a family member we see twice a year. Can we stay present with our longing as it changes?