What is dance? HCDE has a winning answer

by Dance

Student dancer/choreographer Ricky Kuperman '11 shares his experiences attending the 2010 New England conference of the American College Dance Festival last weekend.

This past weekend, the Harvard Contemporary Dance Ensemble participated in the New England Conference of the American College Dance Festival. This annual event brings together student dancers and choreographers from colleges across the region to share their work. The effects of this cross-campus interaction are long-lasting; participants leave the conference galvanized and ready to apply their new-found knowledge and perspectives to their dancing and to their choreography. As interpreters and creators of dance, seeing new work is vital to our continued growth and success, and seeing this amount of diverse art means that we’re all the better for it.

Harvard contributed two interesting dances. HCDE performed my own to dust, which was originally choreographed for the Harvard Ballet Company, and Claudia Schreier '08's stunning piano ballet Anomie, which premiered last year at Dancers’ Viewpointe 9. Both pieces were praised by the adjudicators for their careful crafting, but also specifically for the technical proficiency of the dancers. Considering that Harvard has no formal, full-time program for dance – unlike many of the other participating schools – this compliment is particularly flattering. And in comparison to the works presented by other schools, it is clear that the technique showcased by Harvard dancers was significantly above that demonstrated in other pieces. This could be for two reasons: first, that the other dancers did not have a comparable level of technique to show, or, second, and perhaps more likely, that the choreography showcased by other schools was substantially less rooted in technical vocabularies. In other words, the form of their pieces was less "dance-like," which brings us to a question worth probing: How does what is commonly referred to as dance differ from performance art or physical theater? Do we call particular types of movement "dance" and not some other form based solely on the "recognizability" of the movement, or the piece’s overall structure? If so, how then can "dance" innovate, without transforming into another medium? Are these demarcations even useful?

These questions were most salient while I was watching a solo by a dancer/choreographer from the University of Vermont. The soloist consciously constrained the majority of her movement to the torso, while having her feet planted on a broom (a Swiffer, maybe?). The piece, cleverly entitled Quickie, explored the notion of physical intimacy with an inanimate object. Conveying orgasms with full-body shakes, and subsequent exhaustion in an almost mime-like fashion, the performance certainly kept the audience engaged. But what was the source of this magnetism? Were we so enthralled because of the nontraditional subject matter, or because of the unique talent of the choreographer to translate thoughts and ideas into movement? Does it even matter why we were engaged? Should we praise innovation within the traditional boundaries of "dance" – i.e. where we recognize aspects of a certain technique or references to a well-known dance piece – or should we praise choreographers that break all of our preconceptions of form and think so far outside the box that we may wonder what sort of art we are watching? I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions, but I found myself pondering them throughout the course of the weekend.

With these thoughts aside, Harvard was able to win over the hearts and minds of the adjudicators. Anomie was selected to perform in the final gala performance of the weekend, and was executed marvelously. The OFA Dance Program certainly put its best foot forward, and made us all proud. I personally had a great experience and look forward to participating in ACDFA again in future years.

[Caption: Ricky Kuperman '11 and Liz Walker '11 perform Kuperman's "to dust." Photo by Andreas Randow.]