Ephemeral art, according to the Tate Museum website, “is usually used to describe a work of art that only occurs once, like a happening, and cannot be embodied in any lasting object to be shown in a museum or gallery.” Though this term may be used to describe a singular dance performance, repertory dance companies, Broadway revivals, and dance for camera have all proven that dance can transcend the ephemeral. Most dance history books would lead us to believe that it’s this kind of dance that holds the greatest cultural value, supported by the advent of dance notation practices, written reviews, and codified dance techniques handed down body to body. While video archiving has been the norm now for decades, in the age of social distancing, artists have no choice but to preserve and document their practice through use of virtual platforms. Though it has been inspiring to see the creative solutions, innovations, and rise of the part-body-part-screen cyborg dance community over the past several months, I have to admit I deeply miss the magic of ephemeral bodily experiences.
Prior to this pandemic, I saw live performances almost every weekend and was in class or rehearsal with other dancers multiple times per week. These experiences were not recorded or live streamed, but their value lives on in my body. This notion took shape recently when my partner played me a historical documentary about the development of European societies. The host of the series showed viewers some of the earliest known cave drawings, suggesting these relics represented the most culturally significant practice of the cave’s ancient dwellers. Upon hearing this, my partner turned to me and asked “but what about their dances?” My first reaction was pride hearing my partner (who is neither a dancer nor a performer) give stock to the cultural significance of undocumented physical practices, but when I thought about it deeper, I was saddened to recognize this is the norm. Western cultures almost always place greater value on the cultural artifact - that which can be archived - than we do on the experiential. We see this in the way Ballet has strong armed its way into being considered the foundation of all dance forms due to its long history of codifying dance techniques and more broadly through the cultural meme “pics or it didn’t happen”. This observation led me to further examine how our culture has linked the value of performance to its tangibility and, with dance now existing almost exclusively on digital platforms, has me questioning the future of ephemerality for dance.
... it’s important to understand the cultural implications of dance not only as a social ritual, but as a theatrical experience.
To understand my personal relationship to the ephemeral, we have to go back to the end of 2014 when I was about to enter my fourth year dancing for LA Contemporary Dance Company (LACDC) under the direction of the company’s original Artistic Director, Kate Hutter. For three years I had dedicated my body to Kate’s creative experiments, usually resulting in a three or four night run, never to be revisited and rarely shared through social media. Though I had very much enjoyed these processes and had nothing but love and respect for Kate and the company, I maintained a belief that “good” dance must transcend a single-weekend run. I took a hiatus from the company and bought a one-way ticket to Europe with the intention of auditioning for a big name choreographer or an internationally recognized company. I stopped in four different countries and took class with many of the companies on my list. It should have been a dream come true, but my experience was less than inspiring. The environments of these company classes were stale and borderline dehumanizing as dancers contorted themselves into physical products for audience consumption. Class was a time to work toward the reproduction of existing aesthetics rather than the discovery of momentary embodiments. I longed for Kate and soon returned to LA where I danced with LACDC for an additional three years. This decision was reaffirmed recently thanks to a conversation between Kate and Theater Dybbuk’s Artistic Director, Aaron Henne, for his weekly interview series. Over the course of the hour, she discussed her creative process as somewhat unpolished with a goal to harmonize rather than homogenize, both with the dancers in the ensemble as well as with the audience. By keeping the work rough around the edges, audiences “end up in a playground instead of a space that’s commemorating a process that’s already happened.” She mused that “dance was [her] gateway drug to finding theatrical experience to be a necessary ritual to society.”
The metaphor of dance as a drug is exactly it: the ability to come together and use our bodies for a temporary high which can only be felt by the participants. As represented in the recently released documentary Uprooted, this is the practice that birthed American Jazz Dance. The film, directed by Khadifa Wong and produced by Lisa Donmall-Reeve, was developed by a creative team who all share a background in dance. As outlined on their website, Uprooted is “set against observational and experiential expressions from diverse practitioners” and pays “homage to [jazz dance’s] lineage, celebrating its many re-interpretations.” Considering much of jazz dance’s origins remain undocumented, the fact that this film is made by dancers with a focus on the “observational” and “experiential” is crucial to unpacking the art form’s lineage. The cultural artifacts of jazz live in the reflexes of those who created it, some of which will forever be lost to the ballrooms and dance halls they inhabited. Of course, while several jazz techniques continue to be taught today, it’s important to acknowledge the vast majority of codified jazz styles were developed by (and named after) white men. This reality leads to some debate over who should be considered the “father of jazz” by many of the film’s interviewed dance scholars. For a movement practice rooted in the resistance and liberation of enslaved Black peoples to be preserved through the lens of its white practitioners is just another example of the Western world’s over-valuing of the archival.
In addition to understanding the cultural lineages of our dance history, it’s important to understand the cultural implications of dance not only as a social ritual, but as a theatrical experience. Simply put, dance culture isn’t reserved solely for the practitioners (the dancers themselves), but also for their audiences. From this perspective, doesn’t it become necessary to codify, capture, or document the experience? While on one hand, a certain amount of consistency is required for the success of any theatrical production, on the other hand the desire for the ephemeral, even from audiences, is demonstrated through the rise of immersive theater over the last decade. Let’s take Sleep No More for example. Arguably the most successful experiential dance-theater performance ever made, Sleep No More, which first premiered in New York in 2011, invited audiences to “choose their own adventure” and included a possibility to be invited into a one-on-one scene. This chance for a private performance which would only live on in the memories and bodies of the participants greatly added to the show’s allure. Throughout the evening, audience members were also asked to wear masks provided by the production, making them active participants in the design elements of the show. However, in 2015 the production had its efficacy questioned as popularization led to commercialization. What was once a momentary and almost secretive event for a handful of participants was now selling artifacts in the form of merchandise. Will a T-Shirt help you relive a moment passed, or does it simply turn you into a walking advertisement? Maybe a little of both.
Western cultures almost always place greater value on the cultural artifact - that which can be archived - than we do on the experiential.
Even for performances that don’t sell merchandise and do seek to honor the magic of momentary experiences, there remains an expectation to document and share at least portions of the event as if to affirm that the value lies in the proof of its existence (see “pics or it didn’t happen” above). Of course, preservation practices do hold understandable importance. The value of a souvenir could be to trigger a memory. The value of codification to preserve a legacy. The value of an archive to identify the who, the what, the where, when, and how of an event. All of these are valuable, but none quite as valuable as the why we participate in dance. The why is birthed and killed simultaneously in the moment it’s experienced. The why can only be felt, never documented. I understand it is not yet safe to participate in dance in the ways described throughout this piece. I also understand that the current shift of dance to the virtual stage has been a matter of survival for the art form and that many artists are already experimenting with socially distanced alternatives to traditional live theater. However, I can’t help but feel concerned that dance in 2020 has become archival in nature. If we think back to those earliest societies, it’s impossible to know if their cave drawings were truly placed at a higher cultural value than the physical rituals of the time.
So with 2020 asking us to rebuild, reassess, and reinvent, how might we revalue the ephemeral? How will we rank our evolving cultural practices? What moments of ephemeral art are being developed right now? What momentary experiences will come from the embodied anxieties and traumas of living through this crisis or the fleeting moments of joy shared by only you and your Shelter-In-Place partner(s)? Would that dance you did in your bedroom lose value if it wasn’t posted? Again, none of this is to suggest doing away with archiving or codifying all together, but when it once again becomes safe to gather, I hope dancers will seek out video-free experiences. I hope audiences will invest in performances without seeing the trailer. I hope funders and grant organizations will alleviate the need to document success when the success in fact lies in the experience. Mostly, I hope historians will say “we don’t know what happened, but we know it happened, and in that moment, it was the most important thing in their world.”