A few months ago when I agreed to write a response to New Treaty Militia, I thought it would be an easy task. As a writer with a visual art background, I usually find myself easily weaving together a quick piece, steeped in art history references, analyzing aesthetic choices and projecting an opinion from the viewpoint of someone trained in art direction and production.
Now autumn has turned to winter, and this write-up has continually been put on the backburner. While my response is delayed it is no means because of a lack of interest in performance. I have in fact found myself incredibly intimidated by the topic of “white guilt.” It is a feeling that has haunted me through my childhood in Indianapolis, to my adult-life in Brooklyn.
After the performance, when the Brooklyn audience was asked about differences between white guilt in the United States and New Zealand, the conversation lingered around Native Americans, making a direct connection to colonization in the two countries, while the more obvious causes for white guilt in the United States were sidelined.
In almost every city of the United States white people are flocking back to cities after the “white flight to the suburbs” that took place after desegregation in the 1970s. Rapidly changing demographics inevitably lead to the displacement of communities and has made “gentrification” a household word.
Growing up, I lived off of a main avenue called Martin Luther King Drive, within the inner-city limits of Indianapolis. While my personal relationships/ friendships never fit on one label, going to the local park I was referred to as “white bitch” or “hater” by strangers passing by. It was clear that my optimistic views of universality lacked an awareness of an oppressive history that I would confront for the rest of my life.
Now as an adult in Brooklyn, with close friends and roommates from countries around the world, I am confronted with another set of issues, which place a heavy weight upon the shoulders of my national identity and European ancestry. This weight is magnified when outside of the United States, as I am pigeonholed based on the politics of the country I am from.
It is needless to say the refrain “you make me nervous, nervous” that played throughout the performance, can be applied to my feelings and observations on this topic. Exoticism, attraction, privilege and nervousness are all relevant feelings and conditions that challenge us in overcoming our prejudgments and cultural biases.
Since seeing Cat Ruka and Joshua Rutter perform New Treaty Militia, I have engaged myself in conversation, which once seemed taboo. Treading upon rocky subjects with family members, friends and neighbors has begun to unfold a new understanding of who I am as a person, how I was raised, and how my life experiences continue to challenge my sociological perspective.
Images from Vic Apparel Blog see here
I am very honoured to receive the following words in response to Playing Savage from Peter Cleave. Professor Peter Cleave (Wolfson College, Oxford), is a widely published New Zealand academic currently focusing on issues relating to contemporary as well as historical Maori development.
“Cat Ruka stood out. Dance met theatre at Kowhiti; every dance-picture told a story and hers were the best in many respects even though she did not dance much. Bare-breasted, her solo dance involved props from the world of the Maori woman, a woman trapped. While I was watching Cat I thought of writing by Cheryl Te Waerea Smith about things that trap Maori people (Smith, 1993). In Cat Ruka’s work the entrapment of the Maori woman by cigarettes, alcohol and drugs is to be seen. The woman is also trapped by gangs and also perhaps by tourists – Cat carries a doll as she performs. She is wrapped up in a house of pain. This echoed the role of Beth in the book and the film Once Were Warriors and took it a stage further in some respects ( MacDonald 1995, Cleave 2009a).”
New York has always been the place I knew I needed to spend time in to further my practice as a performance artist working in a contemporary dance context. I’m about the only person in New Zealand who does this so it’s important for me to get out of the country every once in awhile. Contemporary dance is native to New York and can be traced back to a group of people who formed the Judson Dance Theater in the early 60s. The artists involved were avant-garde experimentalists who rejected the confines of modern dance and pushed it into new territory. This later became known as the postmodern dance movement, which my work and the work of my peers descend from (I need to just say that I hate how Judson have become so cannonized and all the other incredible dance artists working at that time never get mentioned. Shout outs to all those amazing people!)
It is no surprise that artistic revolutions like this happen in this city. Complex cultural genealogies and histories, vast economic variation and sheer volume of people make an incredibly effervescent landscape to draw inspiration from. By hanging out with artists who are immersed in a variety of mediums, I have been able to get a sense of the unbounding motivation and drive that propels their insanely dedicated practices. It’s a very ‘go fuckin hard or go fuckin home’ sensibility here, which in all honesty works pretty well for me.
While I’m here I am performing my solo Playing Savage and a work in progress called Wolf. I will also be working on Wolf to get it to a completed version for Tempo New Zealand Festival of Dance in October, as well as a new solo that I will be making for musician Dudley Benson’s NZ tour. The most exciting thing I will be doing here though is collaborating with Brooklyn-based artist/activist Lester Sykes who I met through Helen Anstis, a recent kiwi expat living in Brooklyn. Helen and Lester live in a “collective” together in Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights, a brownstone building of four floors and 17 people who all share their lives together as a family, and who all participate in daily keepings of the building which includes looking after chickens in the backyard and beehives on the rooftop. I heard they are even thinking about getting a goat for their rooftop as well? Maybe they were just having the wide-eyed foreigner on.
Lester and I are interested in exploring the parallels between African-American slave history and the British colonisation of Maori in the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ punk-inspired attitude that we both share. We are currently fantasizing about how amazing New Zealand would be if Lester was to colonize it and turn it into a mini-Brooklyn with the help of his indigenous informant. That would be me. Both Lester and I like to not take ourselves seriously whilst simultaneously taking ourselves very seriously. Our first project together will be a series of stills photos which we started working on yesterday, and a 10 minute performance at The Last Supper Festival warehouse party in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
In the month of June I was invited as an emerging dance critic to attend the Dance Critics Workshop at the 10th Indonesian Dance Festival in Jakarta. The workshop was produced by the Goethe Institut – a non-profit German cultural institution that currently has a two year focus on dance, which they are calling Tanz Connexions.
During the workshop I studied under Keith Gallasch, editor of Real Time Magazine, a major print and web-based arts review publication based in Sydney. It involved a 5-day rapid turnaround of reviewing shows we would see each evening from the dance festival programme, which was an exhilarating line up of contemporary dance by emerging choreographers from Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Europe.
The aim of the workshop was to improve the capacity of reviewers to vividly evoke works for a reader. According to Keith, good reviewing (whether or not it consciously includes social, political and economic perspectives and passes critical judgement) cannot work effectively without this skill. Openness, strong recall, rich vocabulary, a structured response, the careful delivery of judgement, these were the workshop focus.
In comparison to the other countries within the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions that were represented at the workshop, New Zealand’s dance criticism culture is small and under-developed. Dance scholar, archivist and writer Franz Anton Cramer (Paris/Berlin) was a guest lecturer at the workshop, and in his lecture titled The Ethics and Aesthetics of Criticism he outlined the significant amount of power that the critic has to shape and transform dance cultures, contexts and consciousness. With this power in mind, shouldn’t we be putting energy into offering good education in dance criticism? People like Raewyn Whyte (The New Zealand Herald) and Francesca Horsley (The Listener) have been reviewing dance consistently in New Zealand for a long time and are both very well-informed critics, but to my knowledge there is also a number of people writing dance reviews in this country who have had no access (or very limited access) to the knowledge systems around contemporary dance and the histories that inform what it is we see on the stage today. The horrific reviewing of Malia Johnston’s ‘Dark Tourists’ by Bernadette Rae for the New Zealand Herald in 2007 stands out in my mind as being the most demonstrative of how bad our criticism can be. There are also a number of people frequently writing for Theatreview who have little knowledge of contemporary dance and its histories. To my knowledge, anyone can write for Theaterview. My suspicion is that dance criticism might be a wee bit more important in terms of the development of our contemporary dance and its community than we are giving it credit for.
Just over a year ago I initiated a practitioner-based dance review/response blog called Yellingmouth (www.yellingmouth.blogspot.com). This project was started as an attempt to provide the community with criticism that was informed by our knowledge of dance as practitioners and as people who were interested in seeing the level of artistry in our community develop and flourish. It was also initiated as an act of rebellion against the conservative, somewhat modernist old-skool philosophies that we felt underpinned a lot of the criticism that was being written at the time. We knew the critic had power and we wanted to destabilize that a little bit, we wanted to speak for ourselves and claim the right to translate our art into words as our own.
I’m not sure if Yellingmouth is quite the answer to the problem though. Having practitioners write reviews is problematic for many reasons, one being that it is challenging to write honestly about the work of people who are most probably your good friends that you have either trained with, performed with, or are hoping to perform or make stuff with in the future. But until we provide quality training in dance criticism in our institutions, is something like Yellingmouth perhaps the best we can do for now?
I am wanting to share the little writing tricks I was taught at the workshop to the Yellingmouth crew and to anyone else that’s keen, so let me know if you are interested and I’ll flick you some of the things I learnt by email. Also, if you have any ideas as to how Yellingmouth could be improved, let me know this also. Tempo is coming up and it’s going to be a great programme so lets try and get some shit locked down.