POP CULTURE--A CORRUPTING INFLUENCE?
As the cymbals crash and a Las Vegas-style drumbeat kicks in, the lights rise on a sequined parody of royalty calmly surveying her kingdom.
A trio of red-headed mock-showgirls in high heels and gold bathing suits sashays toward the audience and then stops at the edge of the stage, glaring. The drum stops, the women walk backstage to two waiting male flunkies, and then the whole thing repeats itself, over and over, until Her Highness finally addresses her audience in a sort of porno Bronx cheer.
The name of this 20-minute dance piece is “Queenie.” Its choreographer, costume designer, composer and producer is a 24-year-old from Brooklyn named Diane Martel. To some people, “Queenie” is a symbol of all that is problematic in experimental dance at the present moment: dance values being corrupted by pop culture.
Along with Frey Faust and Hope Gillerman, among others, Martel has unambiguously alloyed her work with the traditions and aims of commercial entertainment. Threatened by the isolation (financial and artistic) of contemporary dance, this new breed of New York choreographers deliberately turns its back on the high art pretensions of modern and even post-modern dance, risking hoots of derision from traditional audiences.
As a formal strategy, of course, modern dancers have incorporated pop culture in their work for years. What makes Martel and her partners in crime different is that their understanding of what a dance is seems founded more in the aims, vocabulary and methods of pop culture than in dance history.
“I’m definitely not interested in reaching a dance audience in any conscious way,” admits Martel. “To me, the culture of modern dance is just not that interesting but the culture of popular dance, show dance, social dance, video dance--anything where the performer has either more or equal weight to the work and you’re not watching a structure but a person-- that’s what I’m really interested in. And that’s definitely not a fine-art aesthetic.”
Martel’s words seem equally relevant to Hope Gillerman’s dances. For example, in one scene in Gillerman’s recent “Family in the Work,” a self-described “myth of the decaying nuclear family,” a paraplegic bound to his wheelchair tries to arrange a marriage between Gillerman (playing a man) and another woman. The paraplegic marries them, forcing them to take an oath--"I promise never to hurt anyone without a spouse close by"--which each one then breaks in a brothel inhabited by dancing nymphs screaming “Skin! Skin! Give us some skin!”
“When I came to New York in 1980,” Gillerman recalls, “a lot of what I was seeing was still in the school of Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown, but for me the ‘70s were so picayune about the things people were becoming fixated on.”
“I felt strongly that the abstract part of dance wasn’t enough for what I wanted to do. Gesture was starting to come into people’s work and I was starting to ask what the point of gesture was unless you had it mean something.”
Gillerman, who describes herself as a “stylistic chameleon,” turned for her gestural vocabulary to television--a source she says has had at least as much effect on her choreography as her dance studies.
“A lot of what I do uses cliches and idioms, things a lot of people know about from our history and from our TV,” she says. “TV really gives me a sense of what everybody everywhere is thinking about. If I’m reacting to that, that’s part of how I’m reacting to a broader scope than just the art world.”
No dilettante flirtation with pop culture here. Instead there’s fascination and careful study, often to the point where traditional dance values become subsumed to pop theatricalization.
Yet, at nearly the other end of the pop spectrum is 24-year-old choreographer and dancer Frey Faust. Faust’s twistingly complex, abstract solo dancing may remind audiences of everything from Broadway to Baryshnikov with bits of Bowie, Astaire and Liza Minnelli thrown in for good measure.
In “Alone” he dances to a jazz/rock score, layering phrase upon phrase of different movement styles with all the grace of a mime (which Faust began his career as) or a contact improviser.
“I don’t really consider what I do to be pop,” he says, noting that his career began by dancing with his sister and “Gypsy queen” mother at Renaissance fairs throughout California. “But the tradition of pop dancing is essential to what I do.”
“It’s the stylistic elements of what I’m doing that have a wide popular range. People have seen them before; they can appreciate funk, jazz and break-dance, and what I’ve done is to absorb those styles and techniques as a vehicle for the content of the piece--about solitude. Since my intention is to reach people, on being reached they have a response. It’s a universal experience I’m after.”
But Faust also warns that aligning oneself with the culture of pop can be a very dangerous business. “When I think of pop,” he says, “I think of the mediocre culture designed for money-making purposes. I align myself with humanity as a whole and if that leads me to a popular audience, so be it. But my intent is to keep blowing the style wide open so as to remove any possibility of affectation.”
Gillerman agrees with this assessment. “I think we all add dimensionality to pop images and ideas from different media,” she says. “The problem with pop culture is that it’s very repetitive and very limited, so if you take one of the ideas that has been repeated and is very obvious and then you add more humanness to it than reduced images usually have, you can make it real again.”
“It’s just like in soap operas,” she adds. “People say the same things to each other every day in every show for years. But they’re really dealing with things that have a lot of emotional weight. And if there’s a really good actor, he or she can take that very simple emotional thing and give it meaning.”
“In a certain way, that’s how I approach these popular ideas: I try to say something, but to say it in a way so that it does have meaning. It’s just that paradoxically, it’s been reduced to a universal language.”