It's a rubric of criticism: On some level, each work of art functions as a communicative act, an attempt by an artist to express something to those who experience it. Part of how we evaluate an artwork involves determining what it attempts to communicate, how it communicates, and how successfully it achieves that communication.
But exactly how do we measure this "success"?
Is it a matter of efficiency? Is a work which somehow fully discloses its meaning on first encounter intrinsically "better" than one that doesn't? A third grader plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" perfectly on a toy piano; the Berlin Philharmonic plays György Ligeti's Atmosphères. Which is more efficient?
Maybe this success we're after involves clarity then--the degree of consensus about its message; its ability to get everyone to say, "Yes, that thing is about that." Thomas Kinkade, meet Jackson Pollock.
American Dance Festival audiences have recently been challenged by two works: Emanuel Gat's K626 and Doug Varone's Boats Leaving. Both are new. Both resist initial attempts to make sense of them. And both raise questions about fundamental expectations of live art.
It's easy to understand why immediacy and totality in communication has been particularly valued in the performing arts. Whenever someone's baffled by a poem, a novel or a work of visual art, one can re-read a page or look at a drawing long enough to discern its contents.
But a live audience can't re-hear a line of dialogue or re-listen to a moment in a concerto; they can't re-see a gesture after it's been danced. The pressure to get it the first time is immense. After all, each performance has one chance only to say, mean and be what it will.
Except that isn't true--at least, not entirely. After a full century of recorded image and sound, few believe it's not fair game for a music lover to consult a recording for added insight on a score or a composer.
And yet when I told people I would have to see two performances of Gat's and Varone's new works to write about them, I was asked if that was fair. "The average audience member only sees it once," colleagues reasonably observed. This is true--because the art form has largely demanded that to this point.
But things change.
Is Gat seriously pursuing instant intelligibility when he has dancer Alex Shmurak execute well over 100 individual gestures--in 48 seconds--in her solo near the end of K626? Does Doug Varone expect us to be able to identify each image in that 90-second cascade of at least 37 full- and partial-ensemble tableaus at the start of Boats Leaving? Or are both claiming the same consideration afforded artists in every other genre--the right to make works that require more than one reading?
If dance is to become more sophisticated, its audiences must become so as well. I needed two viewings to write about K626 and Boats Leaving. I subsequently viewed footage of these dances from the archives of the ADF. My knowledge and understanding of both would have been fundamentally reduced without this.
To my mind, these additional interpretive steps do not necessarily invalidate either a work of art or its reader any more than repeated readings indict James Joyce's Ulysses or its scholars. A second view does not take the choreographer or the reader off the hook. The artists are not only obliged to spark our interest, they have keep our attention. Each work must communicate enough of its interior to reward a first examination and encourage further inquiry.
To be frank, K626 almost didn't. Since problematic sight lines in Page Auditorium have fundamentally compromised at least three major works in the past 10 years, I view dances from the balcony. The nuances and smaller gestures that later gave this work savor were largely unreadable from that vantage. In their absence, broader--but apparently random--gestures inexplicably invoking Bob Fosse, hip-hop moves and drill-team maneuvers swirled amidst the unfinished Mozart Requiem referred to in the title.
What was going on? What did women dancing--a theme in the program notes--remotely have to do with the Office of the Dead? Was K626 a funereal commentary on the topic?
I grudgingly came downstairs for an artist/audience talkback after the show. As I listened, I realized others had seen something I hadn't seen from my seat in the stands. I knew I had to see the work from another angle.
Not all of my questions were answered that second night, but a second look at K626 communicated several things. On one level it celebrated pure movement, pure dance, and the dancers' confidence in their advanced abilities to embody it. But by the end it also questioned that dance in a way we might not have expected from a choreographer whose last work at ADF was widely viewed as sexist.
For women and men, the work of dance unavoidably involves being clothed--or coated--in a wide array of images, beliefs, sexual stereotypes and gender roles. The dilemma that Shmurak embodies in her riveting solo involves a woman pulling a number of them down, one after another, trying them on, wriggling to get out of them, flinging them off, while hands apparently guided by another constantly adjust her posture, her head and the positions of her body.
It's the terms of the contract. Women must appear on stage as they are seen, by a host of different artists, in forms they think the public wants, whether they fit or not. What begins as joy on Gat's stage ends as business. The women execute their jazz, ballet and modern moves dispassionately, professionally. We mainly see their constant labor. At the end, they literally kick the last dance form off before they crisply walk off stage. They don't seem happy.
I said to my neighbor that Boats Leaving seemed like a set of images in a photograph album. That conversation came before a post-performance discussion revealed that Doug Varone went looking for the zeitgeist earlier this year in a series of unrelated sports, news and advertisement photos clipped from The New York Times. The work's theme came out of repeatedly re-sequencing them.
The moving result suggests a cross between Robert Silvers' photo-mosaics and the eerie, extended morphing effects seen in two vintage music videos, Godley and Creme's "Cry" and Michael Jackson's "Black or White."
The walls have been blown down in Varone's world. People who seem to be giving a jubilant communal high-five at one point in turn crouch around the body of Natalie Desch in a tableau that suggests urban violence, a wake in a foreign country or the act of triage in a battle zone. A frozen handshake becomes a human lifeline for three people who try to pull the fourth to safety.
The segues continue, relentlessly. Their point? We are all inextricably connected--and none of us is so terribly far from disaster. In a sense, one character alone is on the stage: a community being threatened by forces never specified.
Not all of Varone's imagery works to his advantage. In crucial moments, overextended gestures intended to convey drama flirt with melodrama instead; exaggerated stiffness in other instances suggest a George Romero film more than recent headlines.
But the stoicism, shock and suffering conveyed by John Beasant III, Adriane Fang and Ryan Corriston is balanced by their characters' resilience, concern and lifesaving intervention. The liturgy of Arvo Part's Te Deum requests divine protection while its chords repeatedly cross between darkness and light. It was a suitable frame for a work whose conclusion had me repeating the title of a classic Sandburg poem: "The People, Yes."