Choreographers: Julia Harvie (Christchurch), Sarah Knox (Auckland), Lucy Marinkovich (Wellington) and Jessie McCall (Auckland)
at Te Whaea Theatre, 11 Hutchison St, Newtown, Auckland
From 20 Apr 2016 to 21 Apr 2016
WARNING: THIS IS GOING TO BE A LONG READ BECAUSE I’M ALL FIRED UP
I’m in a quandary. I volunteered to review the Footnote show and so I must go ahead with it. However, this is not going to be easy. Something has to change. I am going to attempt a different kind of response from normal. I refuse to comment on any of the individual works or the choreographers involved. Nor am I going to mention the dancers. Instead, I wish to review Footnote.
The dancers are great. They are always great. And the choreographers are deserving of support. But in this programme, the standards and outcomes are unacceptable for a leading professional company, so I refuse to put that on the choreographers or the dancers. I know they are not to blame. It is unfair that a programme of juvenile, hackneyed choreography puts the choreographers in the firing line when it is Footnote itself that should be up against the wall.
Footnote! Where to start? Let’s check the brief that they put out in September last year titled ‘Choreographic Proposals Now Open For 2016 Programmes’. I read: ‘Working from our Wellington home, Footnote’s desire is to create an environment that offers opportunities for dancers and choreographers throughout New Zealand and abroad to make and present their work.’ Ok, this is good. No problem here. It’s a sound vision statement that would sit very well with their major funding body, Creative New Zealand, and with the wider dance community.
The document goes on to explain that ‘choreographic projects are selected by the Artistic Advisory Panel, in conjunction with our General Manager and Artistic Liaison’. Hmmm. A lot of cooks here with diverse titles and roles. But I guess spreading the decision-making around in this fashion is bound to ensure that all bases are covered and the best proposals get chosen… I guess! And I imagine the people at CNZ will be saying, ‘Yes, very good. This is robust!’
Under the heading, ‘New Original Works Season’, details are given as to what the company is looking for and offering. Firstly, they want ‘fresh new choreographic ideas from New Zealand’s emerging choreographers’. This will ring all the right bells. Someone in the country has to do the right thing when it comes to up-and-coming contemporary dance talent. And Footnote has decided that’s their bag. They’ll run with that one. Good job! For this they can be applauded. (However, I secretly hope it’s not because they want to carve a special niche for themselves with Creative New Zealand in order to safeguard a flow of funding!)
Next. ‘Each short work will be created over a two week period… ‘ EH? Two weeks? I am shaking my head in disbelief. This is 2016! I’ll have to come back to that. Let me read on: ‘… and should be 15-20 minutes in length and able to be presented in non-theatre spaces such as galleries, clubs or other alternative venues as well as black-box theatres’. WHAT? Ok, 15-20 minutes in two weeks is just manageable. A choreographer might just be able to get past a rough 1st draft of some kind… It’s not hard to make up lots of movement, particularly if all the dancers help…
So now I’m thinking as a choreographer… my work would have to be adaptable to theatre AND non-theatre spaces. That’s a difficult challenge. For a gallery, I imagine I couldn’t rely too much on lighting effects or off-stage areas for entrances and exits. The work would have to be fairly self-contained and suitable to open exposure, fixed lighting states and an audience that might be viewing it from different sides, or even coming and going.
Clubs! What’s that about? Do I have to make it ‘young people friendly’ and give it some kind of zany impact or beat-driven music to make it ‘cool’? This is starting to sound a bit all over the place in its specifications. It’s also type-casting an image of what an ’emerging choreographer’ is, i.e. young and facile.
‘To get the best results from an intensive working period… (now that’s an understatement… two weeks is not going to be anything less!)… your concept will have been researched and your approach developed before arrival in Wellington’. Ok, what does this mean? I’m imagining myself as an emerging choreographer. Do I have resources around me? Dancers? Studio space? Time? Money? No, I’m frigging poor. I don’t make a living from this yet. I have to bribe a friend to come and work with me in my living room and I film us on my phone.
And how do I research my concept other than think about it alot and make copious notes, etc. Of course I’m going to do that anyway. But there is a huge difference between imagining or diagramming a work on paper and actually working with dancers to realise the ideas. It’s the latter that is the essential factor, not the preliminaries. The work has to be materialised in all its conceptual sophistication and uniqueness through the bodies and minds of a group of dancers who I probably don’t really know or have ever worked with… and on top of that, IN TWO WEEKS! Impossible! I’m sorry but for anything other than highly experienced practitioners with the proper resources around them, the ask is IMPOSSIBLE!
I’m starting to understand now why young or lesser known choreographers who have considerable potential, intelligence and ability end up making puerile, incomplete or severely formulaic work on Footnote time after time. How they try to make impact through gimmick. Why they mostly use beat-heavy music. Why the movement in every piece looks the same. Why the same choreographic structures involving robotised unison movement that breaks up every now again to isolate individuals or different pairings and groupings that then merge once more into unison ensemble happen time after time.
The rehearsal constraints that Footnote imposes, alongside hints that prospective work contains marketable ‘coolness’, i.e. ‘club-friendly’, are insufficient for the kind of in-depth exploration that is needed to produce unique or substantial choreographic outcomes. This is doing these young choreographers no favours. Of course they’re all happy for the opportunity, wider recognition, a fee, etc., but they are learning nothing significant about their craft or artistry. Instead, they are forced to become sloppy, to take shortcuts, and to rely on the dancers to quickly manufacture movement, hence the sameness of vocabulary in piece after piece. The only way to compensate for this sameness of movement and performance vocabularies is to introduce gimmicky visual concepts involving costumes and objects, somethingFootnote is becoming consistent with. It’s the only way choreographers can at least guarantee some kind of difference from one another.
The rest of the Footnote proposal document for prospective choreographers covers mundane things such as travel arrangements and fees. Nothing more about artistic objectives or content. Except perhaps a little bit about the availability during the making process of the company’s Artistic Liaison person whose role is not that clear. Is this to do with artistic interaction and support, or simply about pragmatic matters? It doesn’t matter. Two weeks is two weeks. No amount of artistic support of any kind is going to get the work to an acceptable level of completion or complexity to properly showcase an emerging choreographer’s skills and imagination.
So where am I with this Footnote critique? What are my insights? What do I really want to say?
I know no-one likes reading this kind of thing. I hate writing it. Please, can something be done so that no-one has to write like this again. Come on Footnote. Get it together once and for all. I’m a company man. I started one of the first contemporary dance companies in this country. You were around not much after that. You are still going and for that I am very happy. It is so easy for companies to go under if they’re attacked. I don’t want that to happen to Footnote. It’s not my intention here. I just want you to get your act together so you stop being a toy-town outfit and figure out what it takes to have proper artistic vision and a mature foundation to the making of work. Just do it, for God’s sake! It’s time to stop f**ting around! Get proper studios and re-learn how to prioritise your budget for choreographic excellence, at every level.
Creating work for wide public exposure is a limited opportunity for many emerging choreographers, but important for them in terms of growth and, more importantly, feedback. Footnote is providing such opportunity with its support of new or under-exposed dance-making talent. By writing a critical response that targets Footnote, I realise I am denying four worthy choreographers valuable individual feedback, which is something that most of us as artists rarely receive to any substantial degree, but absolutely need.
The United States Patent Office has three requirements before it recognises a creative product as new, it must be –original, meaningful and surprising. While the four emerging or new choreographers in this programme show elements in their work of all these (mostly in their design choices and themes), the area that consistently lets all of them down, as I’ve said above, is the movement language. This is the thing that lies at the very heart of dance performance. Why is this now a let down?
To repeat: choreographers who are forced to work quickly must enlist the dancers’ help in order to come up with sufficient quantities of movement material to meet impossible deadlines. (Quantity first, quality second.) In fact, through the device of being given specific choreographic tasks in the rehearsal process to improvise around or solve, dancers probably provide the bulk if not all of the movement content seen onstage.
What we get as a consequence are recycled sequences and styles of movement that we see over and over again. Dancers must eventually tire of this demand in terms of coming up with distinctive or original movement responses. And in this programme it shows. Here we had the same choreographic approaches, configurations and cliches we see over and over again – straight out of the textbook – with the same movement language across all the pieces.
The danger to our artform is that the pooling of movement in this way from the bodies of dancers mistakenly makes an onlooker feel that contemporary dance is straight-jacketed by one generic movement style. Over time this becomes familiar, lacklustre and empty of surprise. It is time to explode this misconception. Let’s put originality, meaningfulness and surprise back in the area that is the most important. Not the design, gimmicky costumes and objects, not overpowering or quirky music choices, not choreographers trying to impress or enlighten us with voice-overs and meaningful programme notes, but the movement itself.
Fundamentally, Footnote has trapped itself into perpetuating its own bad habits. In spite of longevity and increased levels of government funding, there is absolutely no defence Footnote can make to counter this critique. Amongst colleagues, they’ve tried to justify themselves many times, but the examples they give of choreographers succeeding under these severe time constraints are never ’emerging choreographers’. Nor is the fact that they have a loyal audience and receive numerous favourable reviews evidence that the work generally is of a high enough standard. Reviewers want to be supportive and will frequently look for the good. And loyalty is simply that.
How can the traps alluded to above be avoided? There is only one solution – time. Give emerging choreographers sufficient amounts of time in environments that resource them properly. To that, add stimulating interaction with colleagues and peers to help them engage with their creative processes and efforts more insightfully. Footnote should lead the way in this regard and not be attacked like this for downgrading the growth and excitement that should come from nurturing the new.
A shoe-string is no longer enough.