Early this month, as I settled into my new (university-owned) house on a quiet, part-Wesleyan-part-Middletown street for my last year at Wesleyan, the campus welcomed some new faces. Allison Orr took her place as the first choreographer ever to be a Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment and seven hundred sixty two Class of 2019ers arrived for their freshman orientation.

Every year, as the culmination of freshman orientation, Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts hosts a “Common Moment”–an event that allows students to physically embody a set of ideas around a common theme that they have discussed in the days leading up. This year’s theme was “Comparison,” so during the Common Moment, each frosh learned a dance from one of six traditions around the world. There was dance from Ghana, North India, Japan, Ukraine, and the Caribbean…and then there was Modern dance, of which Allison and I were in charge. Even with the theme of comparison, as we prepared, contemporary felt like a wrench thrown in the mix, though I struggled to pinpoint why it felt so out of place.

My first thought was that the other forms came from a more specific codified tradition–even nominally “Modern” lacks the specificity of Indian or Ghanaian–but I think this assessment is reductive of the other forms. In comparing cultural forms it is a common mistake to view what is Western as fully modern and essentialize all other forms as purely “traditional.” In fact, each of the dance forms taught and performed at the Common Moment–Modern dance included–is always developing and changing in complex ways while remaining rooted in rich tradition.

As we choreographed we thought about the defining characteristics of the Modern tradition: an emphasis on individual expression, improvisation, gesture, structure, and formation. We planned to incorporate the students’ gestures and improvisation into a structured “score” that would move them through space and take them to different levels and tempos. It was pretty much Modern 101.

I was amazed, then, to realize as Allison and I watched the other groups perform before us, that we had taken for granted a key characteristic of the Modern tradition. It was built into or piece even though we had put no thought into it–our ultimate bias. It was, I think, why Modern felt like the outlier of the 6 dance traditions. I turned and whispered to Allison, “We are the only group that is performing to the audience!”

In so many cultures dance is a community event. Everyone participates in one way or another. There is no audience, no passive spectator. In each of the other five performances, the performers were their own audience, interacting with each other in a mutual way. In Modern dance, the audience is at the center–we choreograph for them, we perform for them, and we require their presence to lend legitimacy. This is not inherently wrong, but as it is an invisible bias of Modern dance, we must ask: In our orientation towards the audience, and thus towards performance, are we missing out on something? Do we perhaps miss out on the opportunity to create community around the process of dancing and dance making? The dwindling audience for Modern dance and the widespread trend towards this new thing called “community engagement” seem to say yes.

Of course this isn’t news to community-based artists like Allison, who are always working towards engagement and participation in their art-making. In fact, in our piece for the Common Moment, Allison was prepared to capitalize on our audience-centricity. In a final moment, she and I mobilized our formally passive audience to mirror the group of Modern dancers in unison until the whole group found themselves linking hands. It was the simplest technique, and yet it was enough to demonstrate just how effective it can be to start small with arts-based civic engagement.

Written by Clara Pinsky

Photo by Pam Tatge

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