Contemporary Dance Investigating Social Dance Investigating Contemporary Dance

doug elkins choreography, etc., scott, queen of marys @ playbac, 21-25 august 2020.

One of the great turns in contemporary visual art over the last fifty years has been toward a fascination with embodiment. Performance art as a key example of this. This interest has pushed the visual arts world closer to contemporary dance. One of the great strengths of contemporary dance, however, is precisely not embodiment, but rather abstraction. Whether on a proscenium stage or in site-specific setting, contemporary dance does not really blur art into life. Instead, it harnesses gesture, movement, and performance for intellectual contemplation and reflection. It does not necessarily use spoken or written language, but it is philosophy.

To be sure, contemporary dance is also many other things, lots of them contested, but in watching Doug Elkins Choreography, Etc.’s wonderful “Scott, Queen of Marys,” recorded in 2012 and screening at the PlayBAC series from Baryshnikov Arts Center until August 25, 2020, the power of contemporary dance’s capacity for abstraction stood out to me most of all.

Elkins’ “Scott, Queen of Marys” is a deeply playful meditation on social dance. It was originally created and performed in 1994. The piece incorporates references to voguing, tutting, breakdance, English country dance, modern dance, and more, always with an eye toward heightening awareness of—and generating implicit (and sometimes quite obvious) commentary on—the implications of social dance. Elkins and dancers provide captivating choreography and performance with these moves while also continually asking the audience to draw back a moment with them to observe social dance and its dynamics askew, askance, anew. Two steps forward one step back. Maybe even one step forward two steps back. Contemporary dance is investigatory. It performs and watches itself performing all at the same time.

There is something doubly funny going on in this respect with “Scott, Queen of Marys.” The social dances themselves that the piece contemplates already contain a level of contemplation. Which is to say, they already contain moments of abstraction, irony, and virtuosic physicality coupled with expressive signaling that the dancer is well aware of the social relations, historical legacies, interpersonal negotiations, and power dynamics in which the dancing is located. Voguing, for instance, already uses abstraction, slicing up moments of stillness and flow, appropriating gestures from Hollywood starlets, the fashion show, and the House Music dance floor into movement that demands attention and provides reflection and commentary all at once.

So this kind of abstraction is already present in many types of social dance. But contemporary dance really focuses on it as a mode. If one locates the origins of contemporary dance in Anna Halprin’s experiments out West and the Judson Theater scene in downtown New York City, it was always in conversation with social dance and also with the mundane movements of everyday life. Crucially, it sought not to merely dissolve art into them, but rather to draw attention to social life and the everyday aesthetically and ethically. And to do so with great force and beauty. If contemporary visual artists wanted to take paint beyond the canvas, contemporary dance wanted to frame the world and the way we move through it so that we could contemplate it more profoundly.

In the 2012 version of “Scott, Queen of Marys,” with its clever title inversion already signaling a kind of abstraction, the ostensible “queen” is Javier Ninja (b. Javier Madrid), who moves his arms in all kinds of impressive contortions around and behind his head, sways his hips, and compellingly holds center stage while striking one pose after another. He exudes the confident jousting of the Harlem Ballroom Scene, bringing it into the contemporary dance setting, at times almost seeming to throw shade on the entire production and its audience, at other times basking in the glow of a transposed setting.

Ninja comes from more recent generations of the underground voguing houses first brought to greater attention by the 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning. While the documentary film rather exoticized performers in the subaltern world of voguing, “Scott, Queen of Marys” brings Javier Ninja into a continuum of social dance. Voguing turns seamlessly into two-stepping into English country dancing into b-boy breakdancing, whose gendered forms are then fabulously abstracted through reversal, particularly by Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, who identifies as a b-girl, and Cori Marquis. They take on the masculine roles of classic breakdance posturing, grabbing their crotches, nodding their heads, popping and locking, symbolically thrusting their groins into the upraised booties of male dancers.

There are even some moments in “Scott, Queen of Marys” when moves from modern and contemporary dance appear: more upright spines, unison ensemble choreography, and the carving up of stage space with side lifts and turns that are descended from, but also rebelling against, the formalities of ballet. Only now, within the established scheme and mood of the piece, it is almost as if we are watching contemporary dance investigating social dance investigating contemporary dance. Who’s the queen now?

With “Scott, Queen of Marys,” Elkins and his dancers do not ask us to dissolve the boundaries between the immersive, informal worlds of social dance (themselves already containing their own modes of abstraction and self-awareness) and the more formalized spaces and assumptions of contemporary concert dance. Instead, he and his company refract and replay social dance, defamiliarizing it, investigating it, moving it this way and that, stepping just to the side of it, entering into it only to step out of it again, doubling it back on itself, and even turning social dance’s attention to modern and contemporary dance so as to invert the power of who’s gazing whom, calling into question the hierarchies of elite art worlds and social dance settings.

Elkins and his group bring us closer to social dance’s power and, simultaneously, further away from it to a perspective of observation and commentary. Art does not blur life, rather life comes through more clearly under the magnifying glass of art. Elkins and company most of all dance on the line between art and life, holding forth there, motioning to us: hey, people, come over, take a look, and think about this.

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