Slippage and fracture in transmission

On a talk by contemporary dancer Sara Wookey entitled “Dance is hard to see,” regarding Yvonne Rainer’s ‘Trio A’. Presented by Performance Space.

Trio A (1966) is a historically important, “paradigm shifting” dance. It was one of the first expressions of minimalism in dance, influenced by Rainer’s involvement with a multidisciplinary arts community in NYC which included John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Rainer had recently written “the No Manifesto“: “…no to spectacle…no to make believe…no to narrative…no to moving and being moved…”

Her idea was to make a dance that was only about dancing, not about entertaining. Indeed in Trio A the dancer never makes eye contact with the audience. The dance was striking at the time as ‘democratic’ in that it did not require a professional dancer to perform it and it included many motions of ordinary life. At first, Rainer allowed anyone to perform it.

Later, and this was the topic of Wookey’s talk, Rainer asserted artistic control over her choreography and forbid it to be peformed except under the training of “Certified” teachers.  As one of these, Wookey revealed the demanding precision of Rainer’s instructions, who insisted that it takes more than 30 hours to learn the five minute sequence.

Wookey discussed in detail the difficulty and uncertainty of transmission and attempts to materialize the process. Can it be notated? “The students’ notes are beautiful,” says Wookey, as she humorously demonstrates their inadequacy.

It’s precious because you can’t contain and own it, but people want to learn it.

From the point of view of a tango dancer and teacher, this was a fascinating and suggestive story. Trio A strikes me as both well-defined and limited in scope: There is no need to communicate with an indepent partner nor manage the forces that result.  There is no music which demands expression. There is no disciplined aesthetic to maintain. And yet professional dancers struggle to “transmit” even this small thing. Wookey revealed Rainer’s struggle to describe what she wanted – even as a sole artist communicating to a trained and obedient danceworker.

There is always slippage and fracture around transmission.

And what do i do? I am trying to transmit something both more precise and more demanding of constant accommodation to changing circumstances, weighted with multiple histories and directed by conflicting artists, absent and present. No wonder students are confused and frustrated by their teachers’ attempt to convey the techniques, let alone the essences, of tango.

I was attracted to Wookey’s talk because of the title, “Dance is hard to see.” This touched the profound point that tango videos never manage to capture the intensity that I experience as a dancer. I find this heartbreaking because when I perform I am trying to show the audience, if there is one, what we two dancers are experiencing, rather than to entertain them with spectacle. In this sense, like Rainer, I am trying to achieve a pure state of dance experience. But for me that means refusing to perform choreography.

Wookey never mentioned the title of the talk. But she did alert me to the magnitude of what it means to teach dance. If one, somewhat unusual, choreography, is that difficult to “transmit” to trained dancers, then my project of teaching untrained dancers to improvise with tango’s language, and to communicate it clearly, assumes a humbling scale, in which we must have a healthy relationship to the difficulties of transmission.

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My deepest desire is the same as all my students and friends ... those who have yet to start dancing and those who dance a lot.

It's partnership.

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Stop Waiting for Partners, and start Building them

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