On her website, Wendy Perron lists the many occupations that she has held throughout her life. She has been a “dancer, choreographer, teacher, writer, editor, and always a dance addict.” Even if she hadn’t mentioned the latter two words -or highlighted them in red- you would still notice her voracious appetite for dance by reading her recent book. Published in 2013, Through the Eyes of a Dancer compiles a selection of reviews, essays, interviews, profiles and blog posts which weave a formidable tapestry of the last four decades of dance history.
With the embodied knowledge of a dancer, the organizational mind of a choreographer and the discernment of a critic, Perron takes us through the enthralling exploration of the sixties, the surge of performance art of the seventies, the exuberant “downtown” scene of the eighties, shadowed by the devastating impact of AIDS on the dance community. She guides us through the appearance of the internet, noting its effect on both dance makers and critics -how the virtual world allowed artists to be exposed to and integrate other genres and styles, while creating room for many voices to manifest online.
Perron’s book does not only capture both the minute tremors and the larger waves that affected the dance world since the sixties, but it also allows us to revisit our own history as viewers, and consider how our gaze and perceptions may have shifted throughout the years. Browsing through the different chapters, we travel back in time, and sometimes in space, remembering a specific piece, and how it informed our life back then. For instance, when reading her words on Pina Bausch’s Nelken (1982), I was reminded of the captivating performance by dancer Dominique Mercy, whose ferociously carved face and body composed moments that edged on a thrilling line where humor and despair collided. Similarly, Perron’s manifesto-style blog post on Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2010) brought me back to a piece which, at the time, felt like a house with many rooms, each the host of some hard-lived truths about love and loss. I enjoyed the sharp-blade efficiency of Perron’s writing in addressing and revealing such a vulnerable work.
Perron will give a book reading at the Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF on May 31, at 6pm, at ODC. In anticipation of her reading, I talked to her by phone.
MT: When referring to your early days as a performance viewer, you wrote: “Only by talking about [a performance] could I get closer to understanding it.” Today, is it the same need to understand what you see that drives you to attend and write about dance?
WP: I think it has changed. Before I would see something and would want to talk about it. Now, when I see something, I think about what I would want to write on my website, which I contribute to in addition to the blog I post for Dance Magazine once a week. I am always thinking about the thoughts that make me want to write. For instance, there was a tribute to Steve Paxton at the Danspace Project earlier this week. Jennifer Monson performed an improvisation that was so fantastic that I thought: ‘What is the lineage between her and Steve Paxton?’ It’s not a question which I could answer automatically, but I thought that if I sat down and wrote about it, it may allow me to delve into it. Questions such as ‘What will I find out as I write about this?’ make me want to write.
MT: The cover photograph of your book is from Pina Bausch’s Bamboo Blues. Does this choice reflect an artistic connection to the German choreographer’s work or is it a way to avoid the difficult task of choosing among a plethora of American choreographers whose work you relate to?
WP: I had initially thought that I could put a photo of myself as a dancer, but I realized that all the pictures of my dancing self were in black and white, because I pretty much stopped dancing 15 years ago. The photo needed to be in color, in a vertical format. The publishers looked around and sent some color photos from pieces of choreographers whom I didn’t write or care about. Somehow I saw this photo of Pina Bausch’s Bombay Blues, a piece that I have seen twice. The second time was at the Spoleto festival in Italy, five days after Pina Bausch died. Seeing the company perform that piece, which is so joyous and sensuous, right after she died, was an amazing experience. And yes, you’re right, I didn’t have to put an American choreographer on the cover. I did ask myself: ‘Would I put a photo of Trisha Brown or Martha Graham, or someone else?’ But I didn’t want it to be a book about Trisha Brown. The funny thing is that some people think that the woman on the cover is me! I love the picture because I think it’s lively, funny and seductive.
MT: In a recent interview with Wayne McGregor, you referred to his observation about the fact that we all have filters through which we see the world. In those 40 years of dance making, seeing and writing, what have you learned about your own filters?
WP: Because I choreographed for 30 years, I see through the filter of a choreographer. When I look at a new work, I look at the decisions the choreographer is making. Once they set up certain things -the number of people, the music- how do they make decisions within that? I notice it mostly when I talk with some of my other colleagues, especially at Dance Magazine, where a lot of them have been dancers or trained as dancers, but none of them were choreographers. They look at work from the dancer’s point of view. Of course, I look at work that way too, and that’s why I called my book Through the Eyes of a Dancer, but when I look at choreography and think about it, I am looking at the process of making decisions. But my filter changes. I have recently been judging a lot of ballet competitions. Everyone else on the panel was looking at the dancers’ feet. Instead, I was looking at how the person’s dance spirit came out of them. But in the last competition that I did, which was about contemporary dance, I found myself looking at the feet! Sometimes, another person’s filter is contagious. When you are sitting in a panel discussion with Artistic Directors of ballet companies or ballet schools, you see through their eyes as well. There is also the filter of the fact that I danced with Trisha Brown and I love her work. Sometimes, I see a piece that looks too much like her work and I realize that the choreographer doesn’t really understand where the movements came from. Very often, the past comes into seeing. One of the latter blogs mentioned in my book is about Twyla Tharp. I was looking at her recent piece on Broadway with the filter of how exciting her work was in the seventies, and how big of an impact it had on me, as a woman, at that time. So looking at her recent Broadway show, when it opened out of town in Atlanta, I can look at it with the filter of asking ‘does it have what it needs in order to be successful on Broadway?’ or I can consider the piece through the filter of how exciting the work was in the seventies, and see that now that stimulation is gone. Sometimes, there is more than one filter. But I try to come to a work with a clean slate, especially when I see something brand new. But as Wayne McGregor says, we all have our filters.
MT: You mentioned looking at how choreographers make decisions when watching work. The term “choreographic thinking” has been very present lately in the contemporary dance discourse. In a blog entry included in your book, you refer to “that preverbal place” that choreographers have to dig into to make work. Would you define choreographic thinking as a ‘preverbal place’?
WP: No, I haven’t heard that exact term but to me, there are two stages: the preverbal stage is more like a dreamlike place, almost like capturing a feeling you may have had in a dream, or something that is intangible or unexplainable. I feel that’s the first place to go. Then choreographic thinking would be more about time and space, how you move people around, how you organize from here to there. I would say that the preverbal space is more subconscious. There are choreographers whom I’ve seen whose choreographic thinking is very strong -they’re very good with patterns for instance- but you feel they haven’t visited these unconscious places. I’ve done pieces where I feel that I didn’t get to that preverbal place, I didn’t tap into the unconscious. I used the term ‘preverbal place’ in a blog entry objecting to choreographers blogging about their process and I got into a lot of trouble for writing that. I think it is good that choreographers are learning how to write about their work. Yet, at times, it’s premature. Sometimes you don’t really know what the work is about until you see it on stage when it is finished. And as Stravinsky said, sometimes you have to muck around in the dark, and then you can start to see what you put together.
MT: In your 1976 article entitled “Exporting Soho,” you mention the huge success of American dance in Europe. When publishing the book, you added that the situation is now reversed, as European choreographers are exporting their work somehow disproportionally to the United States. In your opinion, what are the reasons of this shift and what can be done better to insert American dance artists into the international dance scene?
WP: I am not a presenter so I don’t really know about strategies to export American dance artists. I think the American choreographers planted seeds of the American modern dance in Europe, and those seeds took root and have grown. I don’t think it’s so bad that we’re now seeing an influx of a lot of European companies coming to the United States. When it first started happening, it was very hard to get an audience in places like Dance Theater Workshop or the Danspace Project, which always presented New York artists, but the situation has changed. New Yorkers are seeing a much more international range of artists now, which I think is a good thing. But I’m no longer a choreographer trying to get work. My work now is seeing and writing about things, so I’m happy with what’s coming through.