Perceptions of datedness and dance practitioners' personal narratives of dance history

Research Project Report. See also my final presentation: www.hallvord.com/dance/dated/

Project background

The perception of "datedness" of movement stems from an assumption of development. Development requires a "shift" from "yesterday's" to "today's" style and/or issue. Characterizing a performance as "dated" or "old-fashioned" means to relate your perception of the piece to a certain aspect of your ideas about how dance has developed over time, what I call a "personal narrative of dance history".

This project has asked professional practitioners from the professional dance field about their usage of words such as "dated" to study their ideas about the development of the art form.

As a way to bring up comments and ideas, the project asked for names of choreographers or companies perceived as dated, however I wish to emphasize that the main topic of this research is our perceptions and ideas, which I find much more interesting than a popular vote over what dance companies and choreographers are in vogue or considered avant-garde.

Method

The research was carried out as an Internet questionnaire, advertised to a limited audience of mailing lists and special interest fora on the net. This method was chosen because the range of people that I could get a response from would be greater than by personal interviewing and respondents could reply when it suited them and at their own pace. It may be difficult with such research to get enough response while ensuring that the respondents are from your targeted group. The questionnaire had 27 responses, many of them containing very interesting comments that proved that the respondents were indeed from the dance community.

The log of responses was used to automatically build the presentations page through a processing script. The the processing script / presentation output is published at www.hallvord.com/dance/dated/

The questionnaire used photographs in an attempt to bring up more specific comments about datedness. The photographs proved useful at provoking more detailed response. They were chosen with the following criteria in mind:

There were some drawbacks to using photographs. Some respondents felt that photos are "automatically" dated - but their very nature, they depict something happening in the past.  They also give a very simplified glimpse of the complexities of choreographed movement. A respondent criticized the use of photos with the following comment: "it is the feel of the piece and what it is trying to say to me/evoke within me that determines how i feel about it!" It also occurred that respondents evaluated the photo's technical qualities rather than its movement content ("quality of photo means this is not so dated").

The questionnaire gathered a combination of quantitative and qualitative data. The quantitative include statistics of respondent background, how many of the respondents confirmed or denied using words like "dated" and how many thought what about the various pictures. The qualitative data consist of comments on word usage, pictures and on the project itself. The final presentation consisted of  a combination of statistical data and selected comments and interpretations.

The project summary aimed at extracting conclusions about our ideas of dance development. Qualitative data is obviously difficult to summarize - any generalization risk imposing biases one way or another, and impressions from the diverse source called contemporary dance can safely be expected to include perceptions and comments that contradict each other. The summary also runs the risk of excluding very interesting but off-topic comments.

The original project plan contained some ideas that proved impossible to follow up, given the time constraints. The original plan included studying reviews of named companies but it soon became clear that this was a very big task due to the number of companies and choreographers mentioned. I also felt that such research might bring the individual companies rather than our ideas about dance too much into focus, though it would indeed have been interesting to learn more about the ideas of dance critics since none responded to the questionnaire.

The number and quality of Internet responses meant that no personal interviews were necessary.

Respondents' backgrounds

Half of the respondents were teachers or professional practitioners. This was reflected in the high average experience with dance (the median value was 18 years which is quite high). Dance students were under-represented, surprising given that the project was advertised at the two major educational institutions Laban and LCDS. Part of the reason for this may be the complexity of spelling the address, partly it is due to neither school allowing advertising directly above, on or next to the computer screens, and partly because the description of the project was too complex for some students to understand and many may have felt unsure of whether they would have anything to contribute. This was partially addressed after feedback from students who received the advertising by re-writing the text of the brief project presentation.

Unfortunately there is no record of the gender of respondents due to a technical error in the form.

"Dated" - a contentious word

As being "current" is often seen as contemporary art's "raison d'etre", "dated" is often considered a negative characteristic, nearly equivalent to saying that something is no longer interesting. Many of the respondents seemed conscious of this, some seemed hesitant to use the word while others felt the need to emphasize that they implied no criticism. It was interesting to see that 73% of the people responding have thought that a sense of "datedness" enhanced a certain performance and only 26% find that "datedness" is "very important" when judging the quality of a work. Nevertheless it seems that "dated" retains strong negative connotations. This reflects the imperative of the new in contemporary dance.

Datedness of movement versus other production aspects

This project focuses on our ideas about movement. For many of the respondents, several other features of dance and performance might evoke "datedness". Such production choices as costume, scenography, lighting, use of space and music / sound scores were brought up as relevant for "datedness". Details here are lacking because the main topic of this project is our perceptions of choreographic content and the development of movement. Although some of the photos invited comments on such visual aspect as the costume or hair style, there were no in-depth questions that could reveal in more detail how respondents thought of the development of these aspects of performance and there was obviously no way of evaluating the music choice of the performance captured in the photo. This is something I might choose to address in more detail if developing the project further.

"Datedness" perception criteria

This section sums up common or striking observations among the respondents. This attempts to summarize comments that were given either in reply to the question "what would make you use words like dated or in response to particular pictures to give the reason why that photo would seem dated to the respondent. I have tried a rough categorization into comments dealing with movement, production choices, viewer's experience and content.

Movement

Technical

Choreographer's approach

Choreographic properties

Production

Besides being very clear about fashion-related costumes or dance wear, respondents did not comment on these aspects in detail.

Viewer's experience

Content

Later on I will sum up what ideas of development I believe these comments to be rooted in.

The importance of "generations"

In an art form that is so hard to document and only really exists in the moment of performance, our historical narrative is limited. It is interesting about the response to this research project whether a sense of "generation" has an impact on our perception of dance development.

By the nature of the question, most of the choreographers / companies mentioned are still active (10 vs 5). Existing choreographers and companies are mentioned far more often than older ones.

Names such as Graham and Limon seem associated more with their techniques than with their staged work. This is a reminder of how we in dance practice only really relate to our immediate predecessors. Maybe this makes the development of dance more volatile, more fluctuating?

The "past" of the respondents seems to be the Cunningham/Alston/Davies generation. This generation is what most of the respondents relate to as "experienced history" and thus "dated".

Is a notion of "datedness" limited to the world of contemporary dance? Many of the respondents label ballet as "timeless". It is seen as a "fixed" tradition that is not developing and thus ballet images do not relate to any particular stage of development.

Summary: respondents' ideas on dance developments

It seems the respondents have these dance developments in mind when using words such as "dated":

Conclusion: how the project feeds into my dance training

I believe this project has helped my movement observation skills, enabling me to be more aware of the vocabulary I use to describe movement and use a more specific language. Hopefully this will feed into my performance course as greater awareness of the language used in our profession and how we express our beliefs in development and our sense of history. Using a more specific vocabulary helps me to explain my perceptions and give a more constructive feedback when required.

I have also become more aware of the range of views and ideas in the contemporary dance community, and the ways in which people express those ideas when asked for them.

While becoming more aware of my vocabulary and probably less likely to use words such as "dated" I would find it interesting to experiment with the notions of datedness in performed work as these notions include signifiers that may enhance the audience experience, for instance if one takes recent history as the inspiration for a piece. "Datedness" may be a way a choreographer can refer to or question our personal narratives of personal-, dance- and world developments and I would like to see choreographers challenge the negative connotations of the word "dated" and explore how references to tradition in new works can engage an audience.

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