A Review of Saint Mary’s College of California MFA in Dance inaugural concert
Thursday, January 29, 2015
The Flight Deck, Oakland, CA
Saint Mary’s College of California offers two new MFA programs in Dance—Creative Practice and Design & Production, the latter of which is the first of its kind in the United States. Thursday, January 29 was the opening night of its first concert, which featured student choreography (the beginning seeds for their thesis work), as well as lighting, costume and set design in collaboration with their peers. Performer, teaching artist, dance writer and Saint Mary’s MFA student Jill Randall invited me to review the show with an eye to creating a critical discourse around writing about MFA performances.
Before I continue, I’d like to locate myself as a writer and a dancer, trained professionally from a young age in ballet and then modern in college. While earning my MFA in Writing & Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, I continued to take dance classes in the BFA program and performed in students’ work. My art practice has always been and continues to be interdisciplinary. From my early compulsions to write in the studio and dance on the page, I began to incorporate embodiment and spatial awareness into my performances of text, and then started to utilize video as a creative tool to bridge text and the moving body. I find that writing about dance, an act that is a partnership of my home disciplines, helps me absorb and concretize the ephemeral experience of witnessing movement and performance.
Looking back eight and 10 years to my experiences in school, I find that my creative process was shaped very much by what we called “Friday showings,” our feedback sessions within the Dance Department during my undergraduate studies at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. We engaged the work using Liz Lerman’s process for critical response, wherein the choreographer directs the structure of the feedback session by asking us to respond to specific questions. I began to incorporate, and value, this process in my writing workshops.
Many college writing workshops have a strict policy that the writer, after reading their work, be silent during the feedback discussion. I found that listening to other people’s opinions, which were formulated blind, without having an understanding of the context of the work, or what I was interested in investigating or developing, was extremely counter-productive to my process and made the workshop essentially worthless. So I believe that providing the audience with a frame, with a context for what they are about the witness, helps them attune and become sensitive to what is taking place, and find a way in. This is true for both writing and dance.
That being said, I’m curious to know the questions these dancers are investigating. As a non-student of the program, listing a couple questions per piece in the program notes would have been helpful for me to frame what I was seeing. A talk-back after the show, where choreographers could pose questions to the audience, would have been helpful as well. But since I’m absolutely new to these dancers, their work, and their processes, I’ll note what stayed with me and drew me in, according to what I identify as the intention or intentions of each piece. In so doing I acknowledge my own aesthetic preferences in terms of what interests me and what I want to witness in performance, and strive to locate the work’s artistic choices and voice.
In Randall’s 15 questions for choreographers and performers, her last is “What is the dream of the audience?” I immediately recalled the work of one of my all-time favorite artists, Korean American writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who studied at UC Berkeley in the ‘70s and began to use experimental video, visual poetry, text objects, and performance in a manner extremely avant-garde for a woman of color in her time. In her text work “Audience Distant Relative” (1977), she writes:
you are the audience
you are my distant audience
i address you
as i would a distant relative
as if a distant relative
seen only heard only through someone else’s description
[from The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982)
edited by Constance Lewallen, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001. This book was a companion to the University of California Berkeley Art Museum exhibit.]
So I respond to these works as if a distant relative, my notes alive within the audience’s dream.