Thursday, August 7, 2014

Interview: Amelia Ehrhardt

For most of us, our experience of dancing is like our experience of singing: from a very young age we do them unself-consciously and seemingly instinctively. But as we become more aware of how we are persons situated amongst other persons that changes. Dancing becomes enmeshed in a maze of subtextural meanings and codified in complicated ways. That has an effect on how we encounter dance as an art form.

I tend to see my fair share of music, so it just happens that the main way I encounter creative dance is tangentially through that. It always tends to intrigue and entice to come face-to-face with a different mode of expression, and I'm generally curious to examine it further, but maybe a little too reticent to approach something outside my boundaries.

To try and expand my conceptual horizons and question my preconceptions, I've enlisted the assistance of local dance artist Amelia Ehrhardt who has thought a lot more about these things than me and is articulate and enthusiastic. In the leadup to the SummerWorks edition of her Flowchart performance series, Amelia graciously shared her time and insight for an online conversation.

Mechanical Forest Sound: Just for starters, tell me a story about how you got involved in dance.

Amelia Ehrhardt: I was fourteen and I had always wanted to take dance class. I went to a high school for the arts and was a drama major, my best friend was a dance major and lived in the same part of the city convinced me to try. We stopped talking almost immediately after that but I became obsessed with dance class!

My informal start was as Ginger Spice in a grade six Spice Girls cover dance band.

MFS: What was the impetus behind the original Flowchart series earlier this year? How did it go, and how did it lead to you being in SummerWorks?

Amelia: The impetus was: there are too many good artists here not to show! I was working on a solo I wanted to present, and there are so many resources involved in putting on a performance, and it seemed wasteful not to have other artists involved. And I couldn't just think of like, two other people to show work with, so I put on three shows of three artists each night.

And setting up a show is setting up a machine, so when one is started... it made as much sense to do three as one, to be honest.

MFS: When I went to one of the Flowchart events, I was struck by the fact that the performances included video work and a comedic monologue. If I may throw eight syllables at you all at once, how important is interdisciplinarity in what you do?

Amelia: I guess very, but in a way where framing it as such feels less interesting than thinking about what the works have in common. Of course I think about having a diverse showing of art forms in this series (though I lean most heavily towards dance) but what's more interesting is just thinking about how things will fit together, who is doing stuff I am interested in. When I started thinking about whose work I liked it was a real split of mediums, some I know really well and others less so, so it was a real challenge to then set up appropriate circumstances for all these people to work in. Like, I know what dancers need but dealing with sound equipment for the first time was a personal nightmare.

MFS: From the department-of-there-being-no-dumb questions, for those of us outside the demimonde, what's the right terminology for your art? (I come from an indie rock background where exactingly-specific genre tags are both universally applied and roundly mocked, often by the same people.) Is "contemporary dance" still a current term? (it sounds a little bit like something from the '70s, like macramé) Do we just say "dance" now? (or "movement"?)

Amelia: I kind of want to start calling what I do '70s new macramé. No, contemporary dance is still the term. Some people who come from/present in a dance context use "performance" instead, but mostly contemporary dance is this enormous bucket term that can mean a lot of things. Like, the strangeness of the fact that that my weird shit gets the same name as Mia Michaels' is not lost on me.

Dance, at a funding structure, is obsessed with genre – like, if you practice urban, flamenco, bharatanatyam, it matters a lot how you identify at a council level. I don't know a lot about why this is. But in this context I still fit into this big bucket term, "contemporary dance".

MFS: Perhaps akin to classical music, for an outsider there's sometimes a sense you need to bring something to dance performance -- some technical knowledge that you need in order to appreciate it "properly". Do you sense this from an audience (or, moreso, from people who avoid becoming your audience)? Do you feel frustrated when audiences don't just take it at a level of intuitive appreciation?

Amelia: people feel this about dance in a huge way!! It is so interesting to me because I remember before I started taking class, being enraptured at dance performances, I never had this experience of feeling like I didn't speak the language.

So I don't feel frustrated by it, but I don't totally understand. I feel like there is an (incorrect) assumption that dancers will know what the moves mean, as though like, an arm reaching up and to the right always meant the colour blue or something. This isn't it! You don't have to be able to articulate what you saw. That's it.

MFS: My theory is that people feel like they need that "higher appreciation" because dance is, at its most basic level, about bodies in space, and people can get pretty awkward about bodies.

Amelia: Truth. There are fields of scholarship about this.

MFS: Pushing that a little further, it’s a little embarrassing to ‘fess up to it, but I know there have been times where I felt like I was appreciating dance at a superficial level -- i.e. a visceral reaction to [female] bodies. Not that I'm looking to excuse the male gaze here, but how do we deal with this in forming an aesthetic reaction to dance? Perhaps restated another way: what do we do with an inherently sensuous artform in a time laden with the hypersexualization of pretty much everything?

Amelia: This is a huge topic on which I have a lot of feelings. I have gotten in arguments with people about whether or not dance is inherently sensuous. I feel strongly that it is not but that it does often gets used to communicate the sensuous, due to the mainstream popularity of the form of male-female duets to love songs.

There are sort of a few different questions to respond to within this one question that I would like to articulate: number one, the fact that dance is a sensuous form in its materials (sensation and the body) but is not inherently *about* the sensuous (so question number one is, can dance be about the non-sensuous?). Number two, that dance is sensuous in its materials and as such is often assumed to be inherently sexual as well (so, there’s your question of how do you deal with the sensual in a time of rampant hypersexalization?). Then number three, the fact that it is a form that does now and has historically involved an awful lot of male gaze issues (question there being, how do we not objectify the performers when we watch dance?).

So my sort of multiple duty response is... Do you feel that dance is inherently sensuous because it is about the body?

Going to the Doctor is also about your body but that manages not to be perceived as inherently sensuous (thank God). A lot of sport is about the body but also manages to escape this realm. I mean, the watching-sexy-bodies question is still there but people don’t assume the form is about sensuality. Other forms of performance, such as theatre or music, are not generally described as inherently sensuous, even though they employ pretty much the same tools. Dance gets a particular place in this conversation about being a site for (especially male) viewership of (especially female) bodies. There are many dance history class lessons within this that I’m not going to get into right now (but here is a google search that can lead you down one answer of that rabbit hole if you want).

With that in mind, I think that the reason dance is considered “inherently sensuous” is that the form is associated with women and is often considered a female form (and for that matter is vastly dominated by women but yet is still a field where women statistically make less than men...). Women in other forms of performance – female singers, actors – are hypersexualized as well while their male counterparts are not. Since dance is female-dominated, it is then lumped in with this category of sensuality-sexuality and presumed to be exclusively of that domain (not accusing you of doing that, just that your question points to this existing generalization).

With this in mind I personally think the best thing to do with this question is simply to interrogate why we consider it inherently sensuous. To look to dance for content within form instead of just the bodies. I think it is crucial when watching dance to remember that although it uses sensual materials, it is not exclusively about sensuality. I think dance is an important site for all of us to practice looking at other bodies without sexualizing them.

MFS: One last maybe-obvious question. Is dance taken less seriously as a cultural category because, until relatively recently, it was difficult to preserve the essence of its performance over time? (one of the few Canadian dancers I could name is Françoise Sullivan, and I mostly know of her work through its representation in another medium -- in this case, the series of photographs of her Danse dans la Neige, rather than her dance itself) Does our everyone-has-a-phone-with-a-movie-camera-now era bode well for giving dance more "presence"?

Amelia: I think certainly the issue of documentation is part of the case, although it is good to remember that in the west dance is relatively young as an art form. The realm of western stage dance has really only been around for a few centuries (dance buds reading can confirm/deny this fact) and has taken a few unfortunate turns (see above linked google search) that have led it down directions that Generally Serious Art People were not interested in. Degas is lauded as something of a hero for documenting dance, but Degas hated ballet. He painted ballerinas as a critical display of these immoral modern times. Dance occupies this weird place in western art of currently being considered one of the weirder, more obtuse, fringier fields of art, but historically being something that was a sort of popular place for the idiot general public to ogle women and maybe bone them backstage (there are multiple reasons that classical tutus are shaped the way they are). It wasn’t until the early 20th century in the west with the emergence of the Diaghilev era and the Ballet Russes that dance developed (or perhaps solidified) a voice in the dialogue of Generally Serious Art People.

So this all takes a bit of a turn to what you asked me before, but, surprise! Dance Is Taken Less Seriously because It Is of The Body and We in the West Don’t Know What To Do with That.

MFS: There's a lot to unpack there! We might have to have a follow-up conversation. But turning for now to the upcoming Flowchart, who are the dancers you're working with? What is the specific nature of your role as curator — does everyone get free rein or are you doing something to meld the parts into some sort of unified whole?

Amelia: At Flowchart I work with artists in multiple fields – in the case of the SummerWorks edition, showing work will be Amanda Acorn (dance artist), Liz Peterson (theatre performer and creator), and Bojana Stancic (artist and set designer). I am interested in how non-dance works appear when they are situated in the context of dance work – although there is usually only one dance work at a Flowchart, that I am a dancer/choreographer (and obviously very vocal about my interest in/obsession with that) colours the choices I make. The specific nature of my role is... I ask people whose work I am interested in, they make something and generally I don’t see it until the night of. I so far have only worked with artists who I know and trust, and have loved this sort of Christmas Morning experience of seeing all the works on the night of the show for the first time. I think what I do is 50% emails and 30% hustle and 20% lovely creative dreaming.

MFS: That's really fabulous. I hope you are surprised and satisfied. Thanks for your time.

[Anyone who wants in on that xmas morning feeling should come down to The Theatre Centre Incubator on Friday (August 8th) at 8:00pm]

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