Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Moving Experience

Madison’s the type of place where events of international significance can happen without the local public even knowing about them. Don’t let that be the case with the 2009 World Dance Alliance–Americas General Assembly.

From May 28–31, the UW–Madison Dance Program hosts this special conference, themed “What Moves Us,” which brings together dancers, educators and students from around the world to discuss and experiment with diverse approaches to viewing and performing dance.

But the assembly isn’t just for dance professionals. A wide array of classes and concerts are offered during the conference. All are open to the public and most are free.

Ereck Jarvis, a project assistant at the UW Dance Program and coordinator of the assembly, recently answered some questions, specifically about the assembly and more generally about the state of dance today.

How did Madison become the host of the 2009 World Dance Alliance–Americas General Assembly?

The 2009 WDAA General Assembly builds on the success of the UW Dance Program’s 2007 and 2008 Intercontinental Summer Dance Festivals. In 2007, the program’s initial Intercontinental Summer Dance Festival involved roughly eighty-five dance artists, practitioners and students, including dancers and specialists from Germany, Liberia, Taiwan and Canada. Through a series of twelve daily classes and four concerts, festival participants developed knowledge and experience in a broad variety of dance styles—from contemporary, modern and ballet technique to Chinese opera dance, Appalachian flat-footing, African dance and Central Asian dance.

The 2008 festival, which brought together over 150 participants from Taiwan, Mexico and numerous locations within the U.S., presented five free public concerts of participants’ choreography to full-capacity crowds. In its second year, the festival expanded the diversity of its offerings, increasing participants’ opportunities to develop knowledge and experience in a broad variety of dance styles, traditions, techniques and pedagogies. New topics included “Violence Prevention through Movement and Creativity,” Egyptian and Middle Eastern performance, Bharata Natyam, Israeli folk dance and “Non-Traditional Ballet Curriculum in Taiwan.”

Both the 2007 and 2008 festivals received sponsorship from World Dance Alliance–Americas, a member-driven organization whose mission is to discuss and debate aspects of common interest in order to help all the dance professionals of the Western hemisphere. Its aim is to support and preserve dance by promoting movement-based art and practice, encouraging collaboration and facilitating international exchange and study of common problems. WDAA is itself a regional component of the global World Dance Alliance, which serves as a primary voice for dance and dancers throughout the world and encourages the exchange of ideas and the awareness of dance in all its many forms …

Jin-Wen Yu, the chair of the UW Dance Program and coordinator of both its 2007 and 2008 summer festivals, is actively involved in WDAA, serving as a board member and head of its Creation and Presentation Network. Yu was eager to share the intercultural educational opportunities and diverse aesthetic dialogues offered by UW–Madison’s summer festivals with the members of WDAA. Similarly, WDAA found the international scope and thoughtful approach of the UW–Madison’s 2007 and 2008 summer events to be in line with the alliance’s mission.

What are the current trends in dance and how will the conference address them?

The assembly embraces one recent trend in the discipline of dance: a shift away from exclusive focus on high art and toward the inclusion of more broadly defined movement-based practices and the cultivation of global accessibility. By movement-based practices, I mean such things as martial arts, Tai Chi, yoga, popular dance, folk dance. These forms have really begun to influence contemporary choreographic art. We generated the assembly’s theme, “What Moves Us,” from an interest in investigating what this sort of openness to influence and involvement means for contemporary dance. The theme emphasizes the simplest, most vital and critical component of dance—movement. To be alive is to move—blood must circulate, air must pass in and out of the lungs. So dance may be something we all can and do participate in. We include the word “us” in the theme because we want to question who is the “us” of dance; what do we look like. We’re particularly interested in how different forms of movement—art dance, folk dance, ethnic dance, popular and street dance—help create and define communities. Within the theme of What Moves Us, our primary focuses are issues of community dance, international exchange and disability in movement arts.

What will the conference and festival entail? What will the focus be this year?

The assembly received over 170 proposals for contributions to its program, including submissions from individuals or groups based in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Kenya, Latvia, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Venezuela. We’re currently working with potential contributors to set the program of events. The current draft of our master class schedule features over eight different techniques of modern dance, classes on blending martial arts and creative dance, and cultural dance classes such as Afro-Cuban, Israeli Folk, Manupuri (a form of Indian classical dance), Flamenco and Moroccan. 

Presentation topics include methods of using movement analysis to assist blind audiences in appreciating dance, a workshop in body-mind centering, discussions of work by celebrated community dance innovators such Liz Lerman and David Dorfman, and the use of dance practice in refugee resettlement and general community building. Several artists will conduct choreographic projects during the assembly: either they will set already choreographed pieces on assembly participants or they will collaborate with assembly dancers to create a new work. The results will be presented in our final concert. Other concert programs will present choreography and performance by locally, nationally and internationally renowned dance artists, including groups of disabled or integrated (mixing both disabled and non-disabled) artists.

With community dance and building community through dance as two of its primary concerns, the assembly is eager to include the local general public (non-dance-professionals, movers who do not identify themselves predominantly with dance art, or individuals without extensive training in dance art and technique) in its events. Daily concerts will be open to the public, and some of the pieces performed in the concerts will feature non-traditional performers. For instance, Jin-Wen Yu will present a work he created in collaboration with local tai chi teacher Blair Mathews. The piece features four trained ballet dancers and eight local tai chi practitioners. The assembly will include some performances out in public areas. Philadelphia-based artist Merián Soto is designing a performance of her “Branch” project to take place in the UW Arboretum.

But we’re also interested in getting the public to dance as well as to watch dance. In the current draft of the schedule, we will invite the local public to participate in two free daily classes/workshops. These classes should include introductions to and instruction in African dance, integration of disabled and non-disabled movers in creative dance choreography, Israeli folk dance, movement improvisation, Native American dance and Tai Chi.

What is the significance of this event coming to Madison?

It’s so incredibly unusual for an event of such international magnitude to take place outside one of the U.S.’s major metropolitan areas. The Madison community will have a truly unique opportunity to access performances from individuals and group from around the world. And, we’re excited to present local artist’s work alongside those by artists from elsewhere. We’re working very hard to make these performances as accessible and well attended as possible.

What is the future of dance?

Terry Teachout (drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the chief culture critic of Commentary, and the author of “Sightings,” a column about the arts in America that appears biweekly in the Saturday Wall Street Journal)—who, mind you, is a huge fan of and advocate for ballet and dance art in general—has lamented that dance will be the first of the fine arts to die. Based on the exciting, innovative work that the assembly will include, I’m a little more optimistic. So many of the artists and experts contributing to the assembly demonstrate that the art is very vital and transforming in very constructive ways. I certainly hope Teachout is wrong: As the importance of virtual or computer-based worlds continue to grow in our society, I firmly believe that we will have more and more to learn from dance, which, for me, is the art that helps us understand what it means to have a body, to negotiate the world through our bodies which constantly radiate multiple levels of communication and meaning.

Photos are courtesy of the UW Dance Program.

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