This semester, I am taking the Aerial Dance class at CU taught by Nancy Smith of Frequent Fliers. It has been a really great and eye opening experience in terms of learning an entirely new skills and continual struggles with the responses of instructors when I questions why things are done the way they are.
I am really fascinated by the way that avant garde subsets of populations quickly become institutions that then perpetuate the same nonsense that the group originally combatted. I have especially noticed this in the maker field (the community of people who make things, especially when using prototyping electronics like Arduino), but I did not expect to find it in the dance world as well.
The original ideals of modern dance from people like Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller, and Ruth St. Dennis, was to make dance easier for people to access and a better means of self expression by doing away with the classical technique defined in wester ballet. These women all accomplished this and their own way and blazed a trail for the women, and later men, to follow. This became pretentious, and post modern dancers from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, sought to fight against this institutionalized dance system again... However, it seems we have again reached the top of the cycle, 100 years from the pioneers of the form, where there is more technique and structure where there should be expression.
Bringing this back to my experience at CU, I have been in many modern dance classes that seem to, in my opinion, adhere to the modernist ideals and the general spirit of modern dance (or self expression with hits of balletic technique but without the pretentiousness, and then there are some that take the more pretentious side of modern dance, exemplifying the attitude that seems to start the revolution ball rolling.
This pretentiousness creates an attitude of superiority around dance not based in classical technique that is also fascinating. I do a lot of varied activities, including Muay Thai. In the Muay Thai class I am taking at the moment there are two men that are non traditional dancers, people who have only been dancing a few years and who have never been classically trained, and they said, without prompting from me, that they recognized this attitude around the dance classes they were in; modern and somatic conditioning. The two theories that were suggested were the dancers having a Napoleon complex or the simple desire to be different.
How the Napoleon complex applies to dance is how dance has never been considered an academic pursuit. Sure, it is something you study in college, and I personally believe that it is a worth while pursuit for anyone of all ages for their mind, body, and spirit. However, it is not physics or advances mathematics, or engineering. Dance and hard science are both challenging and rewarding in their own ways, but not in the same way. The Napoleon complex comes from trying to make dance feel like an equal pursuit in the eyes of others in an academic setting. In order to accomplish this, they must create an air of elitism, which they do with attitude. The dancers of institutionalized avant garde techniques, in order to feel equal in an academic setting, act pretentious to equate the challenges of dancing with the other academically rigorous studies present at a university.
Lastly, the desire to be different. Everyone want to be different, to feel like an individual in the sea of mass production and standardization. Modern dance is a place where individuality is celebrate, too a point, rather than subverted. Nancy often says that she is going to write a blog post about how being an artist in a subversive act in todays culture, and it is—although that statement reminds me of the Napoleon complex explored above more than leading me to being sympathetic with an artist's crusade. But isn't that where many modern dancers get their pride from? From being different? From subverting the norm that the Nancy wants to write lamenting about? Being different is ok, its great even, when done for the sake of being yourself, not for the sake of simply being strange. You can be yourself anywhere you're ready to fight to be yourself. And you do have to fight. Everyone who wants to be an individual does have to fight, so it ironically, no longer makes the struggle to be unique, unique.
In conclusion... I am constantly astonished by the cycle of avant garde arts becoming institutionalized, and the attitude of superiority that surrounds the art, why that occurs, and how we can get back to just being humans who are nice to one another even if we do different things that require different skills sets.
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