What’s the Story: Is It Dance or Theater?

In this article on Matthew Bourne’s “Play Without Words” John Rockwell says:

But my main interest is why Mr. Bourne, like several other European choreographers, seems so eager to market his dance as theater.

Good question. And it’s not just the Europeans or dancers. Many theater artists refer to their work as “dance-theater” or “movement-theater” or even “music-theater” (as opposed to a musical?). What gives?

Part of it may be a “grass is greener” phenomenon. Each type of artist perhaps sees the other discipline as being somehow more legitimate or less sullied by commercialism. Maybe they think the other discipline is currently more innovative. Maybe artists feel that by defining their work as “hybrid” or “hyphenate” it will by definition be more innovative. Which is a bit of a trick and not necessarily a great one at that.

It is probably simpler to just do what you do, in the discipline you’ve chosen, and let the audience and critics sort out whether it is, in fact, “dance” or “theater” or “music”. The artist’s job should be about making work, regardless of genre.

But if people are really worried about it – and for the sake of getting reviews and feedback, being categorized in the appropriate genre is a legitimate concern – then maybe it is time for us to start using the British/European term “Live Art” more regularly. It seems to accurately sum up what’s going on – art is being created live – while resisting traditional formal definition.

And of course, then we can all start using my favorite phrase, “Art Workers”, for anybody involved in the creation of Live Art.

thoughts? opinions? discuss.

6 thoughts on “What’s the Story: Is It Dance or Theater?”

  1. Sarah Maxfield says:

    I love the idea of using the term “live art.” It cuts through everything. I think we’re all afraid of labeling our work because we want to be free to explore the broad base of media available to performance these days. However, we’re also afraid NOT to label our work because we want audience and press to have a sense of what to expect and therefore be interested in attending our performance. This connundrum is how we end up with the myriad of hyphenated genres floating about in contemporary performance. I’ll say it again: I love “Live Art”. Let’s all use it, so we can all stop worrying about packaging and focus on what’s inside the box. (Oh, and “Art Workers” is a great term as well.)

  2. Jake Hooker says:

    I plan on writing up a whole diatribe about this later…but one quick point about ‘Live Art’. Simply put, I’ll bet you money (dollars or pounds, whichever) that on some message board in Britain they are having a lively debate about just what in the hell the term ‘Live Art’ means. Ask any so-called Live Artist (Live Art-maker?) working in Britain what it means and there will be a lot of scratching of heads. It seems to be not unlike the senatorial definition of pornography in The States: They know it when they see it. Be that as it may — it has it’s uses. And for what it’s worth: I think, actually, that putting a microscope on the term ‘dance-theatre’ might be an incredibly useful thing. We shouldn’t attempt to limit ourselves by genre, but we also shouldn’t take nomenclature for granted.

  3. Sara Juli says:

    I agree with Jake- if it’s not one name it’s another. Instead, let’s do the work that needs to get done to find out what “dance-theater” does and doesn’t mean. This conversation being a great example.

  4. Sarah Maxfield says:

    I think the tricky thing is finding a way to keep simplicity of meaning in the words. “Live Art” works for me at the moment because it means simply art that is live. Those two words strung together still have distinct meanings. At one time “Performance Art” did as well, but now those two words have merged to become a term that is now a genre. The same thing happened with “Experimental Theater.” It used to mean theater that was experimenting with form, etc. Now it is a genre referring to a type of theater that replicates the outcomes of a certain kinds of experimentation. I wonder if it’s possible find a way to define the term while retaining it’s simplicity, or if our terms will continue to lose their power and we’ll constantly search out new ones.

  5. Karinne Keithley says:

    This is a huge problem. I for one find the concept of disciplines completely useless. In my own semantics I transfer the possible good of the disciplines into the term “practices” — because I do see the incomparable good of spending a lot of time really exploring certain practices. . . but that practice can then feed into something which is much less categorizable. There’s no reason why a person can’t bring different practices together, though, and if it’s all generated from the same noggin, then it stands to reason that some _commonality_ stands at the base of their dancing, writing, sewing, what have you. It’s not a hybridization of foreign things, necessarily, but a multiply stranded instantiation of something.

    But this desire to categorize invades all manner of thinking- in terms of professionalism, in terms of art disciplines, in terms of academia. What gets put on the inside and outside of a category, and why?

    Having played around with terminology for the communicating of my own performances – dance theater, dance plays, hybrid performance, etc. – i have ended up feeling that a different kind of description works better (or at least is more fun). Like “deluded entertainments” or “performance curios” or when i’m feeling cynical but also appreciating my dog, “mongrel dances”. Better not to worry, especially about what the NY Times thinks, no bastion of either forward or free thinking, to say the least, about the discipline. I see a time (standing on the crest of a mountain staring off into New England vistas) when the university system will catch up with this in terms of theater at least. I hope that performance spaces are already well on their way to giving up disciplinary definitions. Professionalism and tenure stand in the way of all such loosenings. But there are ruptures everywhere.

    I was recently asked what I did and I said, “world of things in duration.” I was laughed at. Oh well. “tiny actions in the now of recognizability”. . . “Live art” is a great term, as is the PICA festival “time based art.” But maybe we can look for guidance to the esteemed Kurt Schwitters, who just called his work Merz. For him it could encompass things, presences, languages, sounds.

  6. John Wyszniewski says:

    So good to read so many great comments running off this thread. Hmmm…What do we call ourselves??? To begin, I do agree with all of the above. That terms like “Live Art” or “Performance” tend to classify our work in a more flexible and true form. But is this necessarily a more open term?

    I do need to stick my small hand in the fire and speak about those people we like to call “average audience” or the “average person.” Except for family, I’m sure they’ve never seen my work. And yet, I do think the categories of dance and theater, music and film, visual art…help these people in talking about what they see. It gives them a point of reference, a way of getting into the experience, a door for them to walk through that is something that they potential understand. Seems less scary. And no matter how genre-defying our works may be, we all fundamentally work from our training, our experiences, much of the work we make is in response to work we see, and the work or yours that I see.

    But perhaps by embracing these simple words of “dance” or “theater” we can help to expand their definition, as opposed to creating something new that distances ourselves from our audience. Do we really want to create new words and new genres? Or do we all want to make our work and have people understand it as “dance” or “theater?”

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