The following is an initial meandering musing on dance: casual, staged, amateur, professional, choreographed, spontaneous, celebratory, liberatory.
Six years ago Pet Shop Boys issued their album Electric and I bought it for the cut “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct,” a sentiment I’d been voicing for some time. But I was much more taken with the promo video for the more nuanced “Vocal.” Directed by photographer and filmmaker Joost Vandebrug, it is compiled from amateur video shot at British late-’80s raves as well as Manchester’s Haçienda club. Given the visuals, the song suggests a nostalgic number, but the singer is surprised: “Every track has a vocal/ and that makes a change.” The music—“Expressing passion/ Expressing pain”—is the glue that binds its listeners as well as the promo’s dancers. It can be seen as a tone-poem-take on the experiences of ecstasy, a drug of choice at the time.
In the milieu of the multitudes, Vandebrug’s choices convey not only that E-intimacy but also a heterogeneity—racial, sensual, presentational, more.
The “Vocal” visuals only hint at what was taking place across the pond in the waning ’80s, as do those for Madonna’s promo for “Vogue” (1990), which is an oddly literal (mm… periodical) treatment, a recreation of classic West Coast film and fashion photography, even as her choreography, by Karole Armitage, was a lite—and largely synchronized—version of East Coast ballroom moves (at least in the five-minute cut).
Last fall when we subscribed to Netflix briefly I was told by a friend in L.A. about all the available drag etc features and series, like Pose, but I also noticed a vintage documentary I hadn’t seen upon its release (or since), Paris is Burning, centering on New York’s ballroom scene of 1990. I told my friend I remember watching a family-friendly short on the same subject that same year, Diane Martel’s House of Trés. As a record collector myself I could appreciate the lead-off: Deee-Lite’s Supa DJ Dmitry browsing through his vinyl. He easily could have pulled out “Jam Hot” (1983) by Johnny Dynell, who appears at 0:30 and 5:11, and who started his recording/DJ/nightclub/etc career at the Mudd Club. Martel documents the walks, of course, but also shoots motion portraits à la Avedon/Longo, again with diverse genders, body types. (A year later she choreographed R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” and went on to direct promo videos for everyone.) Note the Freudian slip at 2:23 regarding the name of the Paradise Garage.
Twenty years earlier, Soul Train featured its “stroll,” which can be seen as a precursor to the balls’ runway walk. And many of the moves are remarkably the same, as in this unofficial Daft Punk video.
House of Trés was broadcast midway through Twin Cities Public Television’s Alive from Off Center series—so poorly documented itself that some writers online can’t even agree when it began and ended (roughly 1984 through 1996). Had you not seen its artists before, this would have been your introduction to Shirley Clarke, Charles Atlas, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Trisha Brown, Michael Clark, Paul Taylor, Brothers Quay, Eric Bogosian, Ann Magnuson, Spaulding Gray, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, La La La Human Steps, Karole Armitage (!), and on and on. An AFOC compilation would be welcome, but likely impossible, given the burden of obtaining rights from artists, directors, musicians, et al. The network’s website doesn’t even reference the series despite the life support provided by the Walker Art Center and the Walker’s 2014–15 limited retrospective as well as The Paley Center for Media’s collection and the WGBH Open Vault.
The AFOC piece that followed House of Trés was Doug Elkins Dance Company’s It Doesn’t Wait. Viewing it again after many years I’m struck by two aspects. First, the electroacoustic score, provided by Bob Clarida (Balbastre Transcript, Spy Music, and Cadille) and Ken Walicki’s Bad Dreams in Foreign Beds. Clarida is hard to track down, but Walicki, who teaches at Cal State Fullerton, lists as influences: “Ligeti, Zorn, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, vegetarianism, Public Enemy, Buddhism, Che Guevara, Duran Duran, and the Zapatista Revolution in Mexico.” His recent CD release, Cyberistan, “conveys the effects of globalization and increasing dependency on technology.” The Elkins video’s extract from Malcolm X, “America has a serious problem,” in this context is contradictory: contemporary dancers, white to a fault, moving as though it were the most natural thing, almost as if tying up traffic, seemingly without a care, let alone a problem. (Later in his speech Malcolm X talks of how only when blacks fought back in Birmingham did Washington pay attention—when “the black steamroller” was about to move to D.C. “It was the grass roots out in the streets.”)
Second, I noticed a similarity between It Doesn’t Wait and dancer-choreographer Rudy Perez’s District 1 (1973). Both use an urban landscape for a backdrop, with dancers in casual street clothes. Perez’s piece isn’t available online but the still images below show his dancers interacting with the location—Boston’s City Hall—as well as moving through it. The work was well crafted: “Using still photography, portapak equipment and a small crew, Perez was able to create a series of studies for the work, which were used to carefully plan shots during the production of the actual work.” Audio came from marching bands.
Rudy loved working with objects, whether stationary or handheld. In the early 1980s friends and I studied in his Art Moves workshop for artists of whatever stripe who wanted to incorporate movement into their own material. (Some of the workshop material—and workshoppers—wound up working with his Performance Ensemble.) Rob Berg and I also created scores for a couple of Rudy’s pieces. As Lewis Segal remarks in the trailer below, Rudy walks a tightrope between dance and natural movement, which I find very attractive.
And then there is choreographer Lloyd Newson and his company DV8’s collaboration on the Durutti Column video “When the World” (1988). Again, the cityscape is the stage. The movement is brutal, but not much has changed in thirty years.
From its inception the music promo video has incorporated choreography, as demonstrated by MTV’s dance awards, beginning in 1989. With singer-songwriter Will Young’s “Thank You” (2015) I’m reminded of the stylized naturalism of Rudy Perez—and Doug Elkins. In the video, clients of all sorts in a typical but spacious old-world Turkish bath are compelled to move, even to create a Busby Berkeley-esque routine. They are spellbound, not performing. The choreography, appropriately enough, is by Parisian duo I COULD NEVER BE A DANCER.
And then there’s another “Thank You,” by Voice Farm with standard strutting by Oblong Rhonda, from a 1991 show I was lucky enough to take in at the Roxy in L.A.
I was first introduced to Will Young by his promo for “I Just Want a Lover” (2012) in which an alienated worker becomes rapt in revery: an amusing pas de deux. Choreography by Lorena Randi.
Young’s punch line above reminds me of Gregg Araki’s promo for the Micronauts’ “The Jag” (1999) but in this case the protagonist is an alienated patron. Choreographer unknown (Araki?), but the lyrics are lifted from the Goffin/King/Wexler chestnut “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and its vocal from the version by Joyce Sims.
Alienated patron—and worker—intersect in Moonchild’s “The List” (2017). Choreographer: Cristina McKeever.
Below, in “Still Feel” (2018), the band half•alive takes the viewer to a vaguely corporate/convention setting, with choreography by the JA Collective. Next, in “Losing Myself” (2012) Will Young and four alter egos prepare uneasily for the daily grind with superb synchronization (dig the French presses). For that, choreographer Aletta Collins won a UK Music Video Award, beating Richy Greenfield & Petro the same year for the late Avicii’s “Levels” in which an office worker takes the elevator up only to break down.
Knee, Sugar, Hammer, Shame
A week after House of Trés and It Doesn’t Wait aired, Alive from Off Center presented five videos from different countries under the title Music Transfer. The piece from Germany, by Klaus Blume, is Kneeplay (Kniespiel), and it uses what I call a sort of cinéma-musique-concrète treatment (à la Jon Appleton) of traditional Bavarian Schuhplattler dance. (Not to be confused with Robert Wilson’s “knee plays”—i.e., intermezzos for various operas—, which involve movement.) The same video (not audio) technique is employed in last year’s Chaka Khan promo for “Like Sugar,” featuring choreography by Olivier Casamayou (and bassline by Fatback Band).
Following Kneeplay was the piece from USA, Hammer, by fine artist Matt Mahurin whose images I first became acquainted with in the op-ed pages of the Los Angeles Times. These moving images become balletic even as they record the work lives of their subjects. (Music by James Turner, Diana Turner, Darroll “Shamello” Durant, and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler.)
This “hammer song”—of the sort that Lead Belly popularized (becoming the title of the 1963 James Baldwin documentary)—begins with familiarity: “Take this hammer and carry it to the captain.” But it turns defiant: “Tell him before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave.” And then: “Take this hammer, captain!” Followed by Shamello’s rapping riff on the original.
Young Fathers’ “Shame” is defiant, too, but in a claustrophobic way, even as it is shot outdoors. Choreography by Holly Blakey. Dancer is Joshua Hubbard, himself a choreographer.