Art and Such

October 16, 2011 § 6 Comments

Theatre (and performance art) is weird.

Last night I went to a show called Infinitum with my dancer friend and had a good time. The dancing was superb, the choreography (as far as I, a non-dancer, can be an accurate judge of it’s worth) was excellent, and the story was completely incomprehensible. I agree with the review I linked: it’s mesmerizing, but very, very hard to understand.

Which wouldn’t be a problem if, y’know, the story hadn’t been a major part of it. It tried really hard to impart some sort of meaning which most of the time was lost on me. I think this was a problem (communication, after all, being a two-way street and all that), and that this problem is endemic to the “art” scene.

Here’s a description of the show from the ticket website:

Infinitum is an impressionist movement-based response to the concepts of infinity and repetition. This fresh, interdisciplinary piece features the internationally acclaimed Dr. Draw’s electric string orchestra, choreography by the renowned Faye Rauw, and is directed by the award-winning Melissa Major.With aerial, bouffon, contortion, and silks this original show is something you won’t want to miss.

Do you know how this show was described to me by my dancer friend? “It’s a circus show”. “Movement-based response to the concepts of infinity and repetition” was not how it was described and frankly, I wouldn’t have gone to see it if it was (and, for the record, I would have not seen an excellent show). That style of description, where much is said and nothing is communicated, is a real problem as far as openness and the approachability of art is concerned.

Mimes: post-literate imagining of life's borders, real and imagined, that separate, distinguish, and obscure reality. Or, some dude pretending to be stuck in a box.

Let’s back up a step. I was talking with my actress friend and she shared my amusement at how the show was described. I said it was pretentious, because in order to appear more valuable it inspires confusion and removes clarity in favour of sounding “more legitimate”. In an academic paper where how you define seemingly common terms (like “affect”), you must be exact and often times obtuse in order to be perfectly clear. This is acceptable because it is academia and we are word Nazis of the highest order. I had a two-hour class where we talked about affect, and I had no freaking clue what they meant by it.

However, this show is not taking place within the boundaries of academia. It was a public show that was trying to make money (first rule of creative productions: don’t ignore the money), and thereby trying to attract audiences. I, as a viewer, was not attracted by the description. My actress friend said (I don’t keep MSN logs, so forgive the paraphrasing) that “theatre can’t afford to be pretentious” because they need audiences, and the amount of people who would be attracted by the description of Infinitum would be depressingly small.

Further, the producers realized this. Let’s take a look at the image they chose to advertise with:

An impressionistic movement-based response to butts.

I defy you to successfully argue that her butt is not the centrepiece of that picture. It implicitly suggests that “even if you don’t like dancing, you’ll at least get to see girls in skimpy clothing.” That implicit suggestion is, of course, wrong. They didn’t wear clothes like that, and despite wearing nude body-suits, it was in no way sexual. It was a very serious (yes, I include serious when the show itself includes bouffon) show that was all about the dance.

I’m being very unfair to Infinitum, so let me say unequiovically that I enjoyed the show, personally know and respect some of the dancers in the show, and support them completely. I just think they are torn between two competing necessities.

The first is the drive to be legitimate within the discipline. In the interests of fairness, I’m linking my masters topic proposal here. Read it if you want, but the important thing to know is that it’s highly, highly pretentious. That is understood within the discipline. Hell, that’s the case everywhere (SPOILERS: writers can be pretentious. Often, it’s a case of their genius, often unintentionally, being revealed). The problem is that this pretentiousness is an understood phenomenon that is both required and immediately dismissed. EVERY professor out there requires you to have a solid proposal for your topic in order to be certain you’ve thought about it and have some sort of direction to go in. However, these topics change and go off-track all the time. Mine did, and it was the better for it. The problem is that I needed this overly pretentious, highly suspect proposal to sell myself to others. I needed to show how legitimate I was by this ridiculously flamboyant topic. If I walked in and said “I want to study violence”, then people would laugh me out of the school (and rightly so). However, using that language outside of a setting where it’s understood and commonplace, you come off as unapproachable or an asshole. I was reading the online comments (always an enterprise fraught with peril) on a Boing Boing article about Occupy Washington when I came across someone unironically describing humans as “reception/transmission phenomena” (not a word of a lie: link here, search for user “genre slur” and “transmission”).

Do you know what I thought when I saw that comment? Not, “wow, that’s a good, objective way to describe humans if you want to think of their relation to experience and the transmission of ideas.” No, I said, “God, what a twit.”

A real twit, Sir.

Second, theatre is always burdened by the necessity of attracting and creating an audience. You know how you catch more flies with honey? You catch a lot more with ass. Putting on a show costs money. Renting a place costs money. Paying someone to do the lights and work the mics costs money. If you can’t bring in enough to at least pay for the cost of putting on the show, then at best you probably can’t do another one. And in this case, money comes from the audience who go to see the show. I was far more excited about the idea of a modern-dance interpretation of circus shows (AHEM) then I was about the description given.

So if you want money to put on your shows, you need to attract people. But if you want to be taken seriously by others within the discipline, you need to alienate the common folk through difficult, often pretentious, description and extravagant self-presentation.

I think that this is pressing especially considering the glut of entertainment options in this day and age. I can watch tv, go on the internet, listen to music, watch a movie, and play several types of games without leaving the house, much less finding a show to watch and actually getting up to go. That is a shame, because there is nothing, nothing like actually seeing people dance or act in real life. Nothing comes even close to the feeling. There is an intimacy (that goes beyond the fact that the sight of a woman dancing is probably the hottest thing in the world) that is shared when you’re among other people.

There's a good reason it's still pole-"dancing".

You might hear someone cry or scream on tv, but it’s distant and put in a medium you can approach. You can control the volume or turn it off. Go see someone cry on stage, or listen to the heavy breathing that comes after screaming your lungs out. It can not be replicated any other way. You have no control over it, and your unconscious body realizes that. It’s out of your hands, and so much the better for it.

Live theatre and dance still have an important place in the entertainment world (hell, I’m talking with dancer friend about collaborating on one. The idea I have is that it’s God answering questions which are acted out through dance), and it needs to be aware of this situation. Also, every creative discipline out there would benefit by opening their doors a little wider to the hoi-polloi. If Infinitum described itself as “an exploration of infinity and repetition through dance, silks, and bouffon,” I am almost certain it would have opened itself up to a wider audience.

This does not mean, however, you lower that bar. Dammit, those folks worked hard on that and earned every letter of that description. If they wanted to describe it as a “post-structural interacted dynamic among transmission/reception phenomena intended to explore conceptual frameworks and the dynamics of post-temporal infinity and repetitious actions” then they would have every right to do so. But I wouldn’t have wanted to go see that show. Nor would I have wanted to see a show where the bar was so lowered to attract non-dance folk that it was exactly the same show but done in skimpy thongs and bikinis.

If only so I wouldn't have to sit beside this guy.

Taking your work seriously is so important because it’s, deep down, work. Seinfeld might have been a show about nothing where everyone had fun, but they had people who worked hard on that show. Hell, look at South Park. I have no doubt that Trey and Scott have an absolute blast making that show, but also that they work like dogs.

I started listening to the smodcast and pretty much stopped after the third one I chose. In it, Kevin Smith is speaking to an audience and let me down very hard:

It was fun in the way that Clerks was fun to make…all the movies that were fun to make where no-one gave a shit. You got to find the nooks and crannies nobody gives a shit about. You now, when people are looking and have expectations you have to deliver, y’know fuck that noise. You gotta find something where the bar is low.

That is a defence of mediocrity, and mediocrity is the death of art. Yes, even South Park. I don’t think that’s what theatre and dance should go, even if it would increase the audience. Theatre, you aren’t going to pull in cineplex numbers, and dance, you’ll always be overshadowed by strip clubs (I doubt the Brass Rail has attendance problems), and you certainly aren’t going to do it by denigrating the hard work you put into your shows. Sell what you’ve got, which is an experience that can, under no other circumstances, be replicated. It’s about being there. No-one else can do that, and that’s why I love you.

Just…make yourselves as open as you can and don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Opening up and attracting new people is always a good idea. The only bad fan is the one that isn’t there.

That said, Infinitum is closing after tonight (if you want to go here’s the link), but I would recommend it to anyone. But, readers, being the intelligent people I know you are, please give the poor dancers and actors the benefit of the doubt. When you’re wandering the streets of Toronto, looking for a better way to spend your entertainment dollar, keep an open eye and an open mind if you see something interesting. You just might enjoy yourself.

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§ 6 Responses to Art and Such

  • Hey John. I love this article. Very well done. I’m glad you liked the show. I was going to see the show myself when it as at the TO Fringe this past summer and it is a shame that i have missed it again.

    Theatre does suffer from the other forms of media which can be louder, more spectacularized (?… actor, not an English student… YES there is a difference…lol), and easier to approach (by this I mean TV). But it is the people who are willing to take a chance on theatre (and by theatre I am talking about all forms of live entertainment) and to see what they like and don’t like, and not to shut it out completely after seeing one show and branding that all shows of that type as they won’t like it. Heck, I took a chance on ballet the first time I went and saw a show and it was amazing! I didn’t think I’d like it, but I gave it a chance. Since then I have seen some ballet and other dance shows where I thought “what the heck was that?”, but I still go and see these shows.

    Live entertainment can and is superior than all other forms of entertainment… well…. not entirely true, but they all have something the others cannot do and that is why I think everyone show enjoy ALL the forms of entertainment equally (and I’m not just saying that because I’m an actor).

    On a side note, I also know people in Infinitum… actually, I know the woman on the poster.

    • Calamanas says:

      I believe it’s Catelyn, and if so, then I know her too! She’s really nice and an absolute ball of energy, a lot of fun to watch perform.

    • I feel that the only problem with that is that so few people are willing to take those chances, because, well, the hoi-polloi don’t like pretentious art. I’d even argue that most artists don’t like pretentious art, and yet we make it because we’re all caught in a cycle of needing to impress each other. Theatre, and especially theatre in Toronto, is very theatre-for-artists, not theatre-for-public. It just isn’t (unless, of course, we’re talking about Mirvish. Mirvish is just one big ball of money and y’know, there’s a reason for that- they put on shows that EVERYONE wants to see: pure, entertaining ones that frankly have no risk to them). And it’s a shame- because a hell of a lot of that theatre-for-artists is great stuff. It’s just not accessible.

  • HI JOHN says:

    That is pretty much my thesis. I didn’t see a need to be super serious with my intentions and developed a work that appeared to be so fun but also prove a point. I could have said “I am a bi-product of the media” and done some sort of performance piece where I danced to the sounds that media produces and it would make sense only if it was explained..etc. But I chose to become well known gimmicks within the context of media to pull the audience in and have my performance art be a youtube hybrid. I wasn’t choosing these characters randomly either, they were personal, but they disguised my work against all the pretentious work beside it and it became a party. An actual party.

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