What session was most impactful for you, and what issues or questions did it bring up?
Through my contrasting experiences in two separate sessions I was surprised by the degree to which I perceived scholarly discourse as having the ability to fruitfully reveal previously unconsidered aspects of dance works already familiar to me, or to obfuscate, through a researcher’s narrowing into one hypothesis, the work’s import. In the session on Masculinity/Choreography, chair Clare Croft presented a stunning account of the backlash resulting from the Martha Graham Company’s participation in State Department tours. It was a revelation to hear the degree to which an earlier “culture war” followed on Graham’s frank portrayals of female sexual desire performed in a framework using artists as ambassadors. The floor of Congress was occupied at the time with specious descriptions of Graham’s work, stirring a “witch hunt” mentality in the halls of power, not unlike that of the McCarthy hearings, at the same time that the work was embraced and lauded as an important and vital cultural development.
In contrast, Karen Schaffman’s analysis of the portrayal of grief in Ralph Lemon’s most recent work struck me as off-base. Her premise, which I recognize may be shared by many, was that Lemon had accomplished a successful rendering of the state of grief that could serve audiences by “beckoning an empathetic exchange.” Because my own perception of that performance was at odds with hers—I had been quite discomfited by the very section of the performance Schaffman zoomed in on, finding it unskilled and unconvincing—I had an emperor’s new clothes kind of experience listening to her arguments. Schaffman was a student of mine in the Netherlands twenty years ago, and I am aware of personal history that would draw her toward this subject matter. Seeing a scholar’s research as driven by personal imperative while disagreeing with her fundamental premise is an interesting balancing act. We spoke about my questions afterward and she acknowledged that not everyone might agree that the perception on which her entire paper is based is universal—that Okwui Okpokwasili’s “tears are real.”
How could this session/conference influence your approach to your cultural practice?
In the same way that certain performances and performers ‘hit it,’ creating excitement and the sense that they comprise a crucial part of the zeitgeist, so I perceived some of the speakers I heard to exhibit that quality. It was thrilling: scholar-as-performer unfurling a skein of brilliant or surprising thought, with an appetite for the tastiness of language. In my work at Bryn Mawr, and also with thINKingDANCE.net, feeling more attraction to expressions coming from the world of scholarship means that I may invest more deeply in formats that embrace the scholar’s voice, depending of course on who is doing the talking.