I recently had a discussion with Read My Hips’ director Stephanie Barto about the effect of the internet and on-demand media on the natural organic progression of art. I think performance art struggles in particular in the new millenium, victim of the “glazed over eyes after 60 seconds” and “that was so 5 minutes ago” attitudes, in a way that visual art does not.
Here is a snippet of what she shared (which is in part a discussion she was having with another dancer), and my thoughts in return:
Dancer A: “The internet has so much influence over the spread of tribal belly dance. I wonder if the internet just kills everything because it doesn’t let it grow naturally.”
SB: “It’s also interesting how tribal bellydance in the days before social
networking and YouTube was a much smaller world, and did tend to evolve in a more organic ways. (My troupe) is an example … I started with Carolena’s foundation, and the ways I changed it were all about making it more “me” and/or being inspired by the skills of the people I was working with. What I arrived at felt honest, even if it wasn’t anything shockingly innovative or spectacular in the big scheme of things.”
My response to these observations after the jump.
A sculpture or a painting–even a piece of music or a video–is not expected to change, and is appreciated for its unchanging beauty. It is it’s solidity that is part of its appeal, in a way. We see the same piece over time, and instead of expecting it to change or adapt to us, our perspective adapts and changes. We see it (hear it, experience it) from different angles, in different lights, in a different environment, our attitudes change, our perceptions change; and we find that our appreciation deepens and becomes richer and more multi-faceted as we take the time to consider the piece from all these perspectives. The work to appreciate that art day-to-day is in our hands as the viewer.
Our art as performers exists in a finite amount of time, and is never the same twice–no matter how we might strive for consistency, we are not carved of stone or molded metal. As a moving, living, breathing conduit of our art, we are always changing so our art is always changing. Unlike visual art–where once the piece is complete and the artist has put their stamp on it, most would agree it is up to the viewer to interpret and decide what the piece provides them in the way of entertainment or food for thought–with performance art, and even more starkly in recent years in tribal bellydance, the expectation to impress/entertain seems to fall squarely on the performers, with the audience taking little to no responsibility for their part in the equation. Audiences expect us to deliver an emotional response to them like so much cheesy pizza, while they sit back and wait for it to fall in their laps. And if we don’t hand it to them as “promised”, they find fault with us as performers. Add to that, when we take our art from one venue to another, somehow the expectation is that it should have changed and evolved significantly in the time between, however short. If they see “the same thing”, instead of feeling a responsibility within themselves to try to see it in a new light/from a new perspective/with a richer understanding/with fresh eyes, they chalk it up to the performer failing them for not bringing them something “new and cutting edge”.
To be honest, this is part of why I love tribal group improv. Because not only does it demand a level of consistency–foundation, if you will–to be able to be strong and cohesive, it also embraces and is bolstered by organic change from show to show– group improvisation is something different every time, which keeps it fresh for both the dancers and their audiences. And watching it, the nuances of the performance, including the different dancers from show-to-show, their chemistry and how they interact, how they use their space, how they interpret the music (even if it’s the same music, it’s interpreted differently each time). But now you hear comments from audiences like “They’re using the same moves as last time…where are the new moves?” or “They always dance to this music. Boring…”
Rather than looking to see what is new, what new levels there are to appreciate, these audiences are expecting fast food delivery of all-new material, or else they withdraw their interest.
At home they change the channel, where there options are to watch a television show, which they recognize as unchanging once it is secured on video, like sculpture; or a reality show, which is constantly changing because of the human element, and is all of-the-moment shock-and-awe. But at a performance venue, they check out, and sometimes dismiss the performance/performers wholesale. I have seen this phenomenon increase exponentially each year I have been going to Tribal Fest–people won’t even show up to watch if they don’t think they are going to see something brand new. That is, with a few notable exceptions, with pioneers like FatChance and Hahbi Ru, who keep rocking their “classics”, much like fans show up in droves for Kiss concerts even though they are wearing the same costumes and doing the same music as they did 30 years ago. These artists were the first, and they are authentic to who they are and what they have created, and that in itself is remarkable in its timelessness. And people respond to that in the long-term, not just the flash-in-the-pan fad following that schtick-users garners. But I digress…
Basically, no wonder performers these days are so hungrily seeking the next new fad to lead the pack with. The message being sent by tribal bellydance audiences is that if it isn’t the newest, nuttiest, oddest, strangest, sexiest, most different thing on that stage, then it won’t be worth trying to focus their narrow field of attention.
But what will last? Being true to ourselves. And frankly, I have found the best way to achieve that is to not create my art specifically for other bellydancers–this is where the whole inbred tribal copy-of-a-copy starts and ends. If all I am thinking about is how to impress the audiences at the next Big Festival, I am not looking inward for my inspiration, but outward. And if we’re all looking to the same people and places for that inspiration and validation, what we create will all look and feel very much the same. I saw myself going down this road a few years ago, and made a conscious choice to remove myself from that endless loop for a while, and I have been much happier, and what we have been creating has never felt more right. Keeping my focus on audiences who have maybe never seen bellydance before; or on dancers who approach performance art the same way they approach visual art, taking responsibility for viewing the art from all angles and seeing the nuance and detail that goes into a strong performance–people who will be uplifted and empowered by our joyful energies–has kept my motivation strong and my creative focus clear. And keeping my mind and heart on my troupe sisters and what we want to say with our collective voice, is a surefire way to keep my own creative well overflowing for a long time. It ensures that what we create together will be authentic to us.
We slowed down a lot, re-focused our energies; and maybe we aren’t creating new material as quickly as we were, or anything incredibly cutting-edge or monumental, but we are doing it all more thoughtfully and hopefully nurturing our own repertoire such that it will last us into the future. The pioneers I mentioned before, like Carolena and John, and many others who have followed since, gained their success through simply doing what they do. There weren’t a lot of bellydance-specific festivals, online discussion groups, YouTube and the like, so they weren’t creating their art in a fish bowl. They worked small, locally, intimately, slowly. They weren’t afraid to experiment because the world wasn’t watching and putting on the pressure to succeed at every turn. Dancers could take more risks, and if it didn’t work out, live to dance another day. 🙂 This is what I aspire to have the courage to do, even under the microscope of today’s social media…
Megan Hartmann posted some thoughts of her own after reading my article on Gilded Serpent. Check her post out here: http://meganhartmann.wordpress.com/2009/07/28/obsessive-tribe-checking-disorder-and-youtubefrenia-outbreaks/#comments