This spring, at an On the Boards/Culturebot event called Everyone's a Critic, where critics, artists, and audience members talked about the relationship between art and audiences, a woman turned to me and said: "I hate modern dance. I don't understand it. There's no story. It makes no sense." It's true that classical ballets can be easier to understand—usually there are enough program notes, literal costuming, and miming movements to communicate a very clear story, and this can be a super-fun way to experience dance. But even the old story ballets (Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Giselle) have hidden and intricate commentary about emotions, politics, and human society. It's the same with modern dance—it just sometimes requires a little more looking to see it.
Next week at Velocity Dance Center, Daniel Linehan will present and participate in a series of the kinds of events that help us look a little better, culminating in a presentation of his solo piece Not About Everything.
Everything begins with Linehan standing stock-still, hands at his sides; he starts slowly spinning in a circle and then gaining speed, arms sometimes slack, sometimes on his head, and sometimes out to his sides like a child pretending to be a helicopter. He chants, repeating phrases over and over that are recorded in real time and played back almost in unison with his live voice. The phrases—including "This is not about everything" and "This is not about therapy"—are parts of what Linehan considers his self-produced dance rhythm, a way to break from reliance on outside music.
While he was working on a different project, Linehan says, he realized that he didn't want to keep making pieces made of dance phrases (groups of steps strung together to constitute a piece of choreography, similar to the way stanzas help constitute a song). Linehan wanted to "find an action that wouldn't be improvisation or a set series of dance phrases, but that would still have that strong physicality and energy to it." He was spinning around in a circle one day and stuck with it, finding different rhythms and speeds to create a composition of different actions and energies within that single action of spinning.
The kind of "energy" Linehan describes is the same thing that compels us to give standing ovations, or to stop and stare at a painting, or to bust out our lighters and sway during a Journey concert. Linehan's work can create this energetic charge with unpredictable series of movements and sound, "choreographed" by him—this is not improvisation, but seems so outside what most dance audiences might expect as to seem alien, making it surprisingly easy to be gripped by and lost in the image of a single man spinning in circles.
The whirling is very reminiscent of Sufi dervishes, who spend hours spinning in circles for meditation and inspiration. Linehan acknowledges this similarity but says he didn't research that for this piece. "It's kind of like [Sufi whirling] in its meditative qualities," he says, "and there's something about the action that brings me inside myself—my vision gets blurry, and I can't see. There's also the text on top of it, so there's something being thrown outside of myself, two forces that produce an experience for everyone rather than just meaning for myself."
Linehan talks about this kind of experience with dance as a "certain force." This "force" includes things that aren't normally considered dance, including photography and point-of-view camerawork by his dancers (though not in the pieces presented this week) to give audiences a chance to see what the dancers see while they're dancing.
This week's events at Velocity include an open-forum series titled "The Good Life" (Sept 5–14), with classes, performances, and conversations about "what it means to take an ethical approach to life and art." Linehan, like most artists, creates work through a process of discussion (be it only in the artist's head, or via months or years of exchange with friends and colleagues), but it's rare that the rest of us get a direct invitation to these kinds of conversations—the kinds of conversations that make dance seem less tricky and intimidating, and can help us all to look a little more closely.
See velocitydancecenter.org for a full schedule of events.