The Hawaii International Conference on the Arts and Humanities
Dance Scholarship in Paradise
by Jeff Kuo
January 9-10, 2004 -- Renaissance Ilikai Waikiki Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii
The Hawaii International Conference on the Arts & Humanities is co-sponsored by the University of Hawaii—West Oahu, the East West Council for Education and the Asia-Pacific Research Institute of Peking University and their 2nd annual meeting was held this past weekend (January 8 to 11, 2004) at the Renaissance Ilikai Waikiki Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Hawaii Conference is a large humanities conference with panels, papers, posters, and performances encompassing such diverse areas as film, literature, music, history, architecture, and dance. In fact there were over 3 dozen presenters for dance covering such areas as ballet, dance and the electronic media, dance analysis, tap dance education, dance history and politics, pedagogy, and more. Dance scholarship in Paradise -- could anybody ask for more?
Unfortunately, budgetary and time constraints only let me attend about a day and half (Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon) but there was still a lot to see and learn. Here are some notes …
On Friday afternoon, Betsy Cooper’s (Univ. Washington) paper, “The Hollywood Musical and Censorship: The Dancing Body’s Subversion of the Production Code,” was about the dynamic between dance, politics, and ideology in the Hollywood musicals of the late 1930s to mid 1950s. Specifically, her topic was the ways in which the movie industry’s self-censorship of the Production Code (aka Hays Code) worked. Though the Code was meant to censor out material considered immoral (in other words, too sexy), Cooper discussed how the censors tended in practice to focus on theatrical material (language, situations, costuming) but had something of a wooden eye when dealing with choreographic material.
She showed us the dream scenes from “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Oklahoma” which contained obvious but coded material of a passionate and patently sexual nature. These passed the censors, Cooper suggests, partly because it was dance and was therefore not considered as “dangerous” as narrative or design but also because the movement of these “integrated musicals” tended to be more balletic and aesthetized compared to the more episodic “backstage musicals” (her example was choreographer Jack Cole). Like much fine art, dance can both conform to externally imposed standards at the same time as it subverts them.
Lisa Naugle (Univ. Calif. Irvine) presented her work in dance and electronic, visual media. We saw excerpts from her performance piece, “Night Driving,” which was premiered at a dance dept. performance last year. She showed us how she collaborated with visual artist, John Crawford, and the dancers to exploit new ways of both choreographing and presenting dance using live dancers and their electronically manipulated images. These were explorations of the “generative nature” and the “generative possibilities” of dance and digital technology. Her object was “to expand the perceptual experience in relation to the proscenium stage using real dancers and virtual dancers” and “to train the audience” to see how dance and digital media causes emerging, transforming, aging, and disintegrating visual experiences (this is my rough paraphrase).
An interesting experiment in dance history was Sharon Carnicke (Univ. Southern California) and Dora Krannig’s reconstruction of Nijinsky’s “L’ Apres Midi D’un Faune” – but not the notorious Ballet Russ production but Bronislava Nijinska’s 1922 revival of it with herself as the Faune. Carnicke had researched Nijinska’s role in the ballet’s creation when her brother had choreographed the Faune on her and also possible influences she may have had on “Faune” and “Faune” on her own work. Can you imagine the Faune danced by a woman? Carnicke showed us some fascinating video clips of a workshop production of the Nijinska “Faune” using advanced USC ballet students.
York University’s Mary Elizabeth Manley presented on “Vertical Dance” (aka “Aerial Dance”), a relatively new dance form akin to extreme sports. These dancers perform on large scale (and I mean Large) vertical surfaces such as mountain cliffs and skyscrapers – tethered by long wires, they cast themselves into space with something of the confidence and grace of trapeze artists and high wire acrobats. (I thought of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” … but am I thinking of the right movie?) Practioners however distinguish vertical/aerial dance from sports by their emphasis on movement with nature rather than the X-treme athletes struggles against nature. Video excerpts were of Springboard Dance Company and Project Bandaloop.
On Saturday morning there was a workshop performance and discussion of the SPR Synthesis Project. Jennifer Fisher (Univ. Calif. Irvine and author of “Nutcracker Nation”) led the discussion joined by dancer/choreographer John Pennington. The SPR Synthesis Project is a collaborative dance theater work examining the Human Genome Project. “SPR” stands for scientist, Robert Sinsheimer, choreographer Pennington, and visual artist, Susan Rankaitis. The choreographic elements of this 20 minute piece, danced by Pennington and assisted by Jerrad Roberts, takes its inspiration partly from the visual images of DNA and partly from the social and ethical implications of the Human Genome Project. At times Pennington uses large and small curvilinear movements reminiscent of the double helix and at other times he uses metaphorical devices such as asking each audience member to make their mark on a latex sheet which he drapes over his body (a mark like the way each of us are marked by their genetic information). The dance ends with an image of the healing potential of such research as he stands a forlorn object plaintively whispering “hurry … hurry…”
Later in the day I caught the last part of a presentation about the resurgence of tap dancing and the many kinds of classes offered on university and college campuses all around north America. I’m afraid I didn’t catch the name or affiliation of the presenter. In her paper, “Literature as a Basis of Choreography,” Sybil Huskey from UNC-Charlotte described a class I personally would like to take – it’s a GE class called “Art and Society – Dance” which is designed for undergraduates to learn about the arts by studying the relationship between literature and dance. In her syllabus, Huskey covers the various kinds of literature that have been source material for dance choreographers through history – of course, fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and myths from classical antiquity like Orpheus and Eurydice, etc – but also the Shakespearean theater (“Othello” and “The Moor’s Pavane”), short stories, and poetry (“Letter to the World”).
The last dance presentation I saw was Elizabeth Terzian’s “Giselle—An Archetypal Story of Individuation” where she applied what sounded like fairly complicated Jungian theory to the ballet “Giselle.” In her analysis, the ballet becomes an enactment of archetypal dramas of psychological individuation – a sort of process narrative featuring complicated sounding symbols like animus, anima, and so forth. Her analysis of individual symbols such as Bathilde’s gift to Giselle, the oracular daisy flower petal game, and Myrtha’s rosemary incantations is the most detailed I have encountered yet. I’m not sure I “buy” the archetypal approach which I believe is considered a somewhat quaint analytical technique (at least in literature depts.) but the detail was impressive.
Since I missed the deadline for the paper presentations, my own offering was a poster, “The Pleasures of ‘Don Quixote’” which I originally wrote for a comparative lit. class on the principles and practice of comedy. A fairly straightforward piece of formalist analysis, my thesis is that comedy in the ballet “Don Quixote” is the result of tension between modes of signification which express themselves as power imbalances – particularly between the sympathetic characters and the unsympathetic characters. The ballet sets up this basic opposition but repeats it not only in thematic but formal terms as the tension between low and high social class, romance and class ambition, mime and pure dance, narrative and divertissement, and ultimately between what might be residual formations such as the ballet d’action and ballet a’entrée.
In addition to attending some of the dance panels, I also got to attend presentations and talk to poster presenters in areas closer to my major. Particularly interesting was John Marmysz’s (Corning Comm. College) “The Drift from Modernism to Post-modernism in the Rollerball Films, 1975-2002” and Kathleen Baum’s (Cal State Long Beach) “Modernity a la Derive: Federico Fellini’s ‘Il Nave Va’ (The Ship Sails On) and Werner Herzog’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’.”
My only complaint about the conference is in how the conference schedule book was organized – my suspicion is that there were more dance related papers but were listed as “Cross Disciplinary” and there were too many such listings to read each title and figure out which were dance and which theater. But this is a small complaint. I would definitely go again. The conference was held in beautiful if touristy Waikiki; and the weather was a balmy 70+ degrees and sunny meaning that everybody who stayed indoors was a truly dedicated humanities student. Paradisaical reputation or not -- spam musubi or not, I liked Hawaii more than I thought I would – and this without even getting to try the fare at such legendary chow spots as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue and Drive-In.