Dance, Making It Visual

Site-Specific Performances vs Concert Theatre Performances.

Now you are probably thinking to yourself that this is self explanatory, just a bunch of people or one person dancing randomly in a public space. Well you are spot on. That is exactly what it is, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Yes, it does relate to what you might know as flash mobs and street dancing. Interestingly so, it is a lot more complex than that.

Let me guide you through it slowly. It will be easy to understand site-specific dance works if have you seen the dance movie Stomp the Yard or Honey. If not perhaps you are a fan of the Step Up movies, where the best dancers of all time unexpectedly perform in many different sites. From art museums, shopping malls, and restaurants, to sandy beaches, pavements and crowded car parks.

Step Up Revolution
(Photo credit: Summit Entertainment) Step Up Revolution dancers performing on the streets.

This idea of performing in any site is not classified as a site-specific dance work. I know, mind-boggling isn’t it? A site-specific dance work mostly relates to the choreographic approach to the site, meaning the dancers’ experience and engagement with the specific site. So, the complexity lies within the approach, how a dancer engages with the space and that it not just about performing outside of a studio.

So, what is site-specific dance work?

Site-specific dance works were experiments of the 1960s Avant guard movement. They were explored by post modernist choreographers such as Trisha Brown, whose choreographic approach was refusing to choreograph in a studio. She rebelled against all limitations, restrictions and boundaries imposed by a traditional auditorium. In an auditorium the dancers perform on a traditional stage, enter and disappear into wings and dance under the limelight to Beethoven’s classics or Beyonce’s latest hits.

The whole idea is for the dancer to not be objectified by the audience; to purposefully serve as an object of entertainment seen from one angle. To break the convention where the audience watches and the performer performs. Initially Trisha Brown wanted the audience to engage with the performer in many different ways and to view the dance from many angles.

As an audience member, you have a certain way of engaging with the dancer. You’re either entertained, challenged or bored out of your socks. Additionally, the relationship with the performer becomes a conversation, so you either decide to respond or completely ignore the performer. If you have not seen a traditional concert theatre dance take a trip to the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town and watch Cape Town City Ballet perform the good old Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or Swan Lake. If not ballet maybe a Contemporary African dance show or Contemporary dance work at the Baxter Theatre in Rondebosch. The only way to really grasp the difference between a concert dance and site-specific dance is to physically be in the theatre and experience it.

Site works are choreographed in the site itself, meaning the choreographer does not create the dance in a studio and then perform it in the site, which is exactly what the Step Up movies and flash mobs do. The choreographer in a site would engage and respond to his/her surroundings. The dancer channels what the environment offers at the specific time that the choreographer enters the space. The idea is that he/she plays with their senses; what the dancer sees, smells, touches and hears. By applying these elements, the choreographer automatically behaves in a certain way, evoking an emotion and responding to the space.

Another great description is by The California Institution of Arts, which describes site-specific work as a response to space:

Site-specific dance/performance is work created in response to a particular place or site, inspired by its architecture or design, its history, and/or its current use”. 

Due to the crazy post-modernist world we live in today, site-specific dance work may not be as ‘dancy’ as you want it to be. High legs, split jumps, backflips, 100 turns… These may be present, but it is more about the site than the dancer’s flexible legs.

So, if you haven’t seen a site-specific dance work, having expectations is going to ruin your first experience. The footage of site dances might be very confusing if you are not physically in the space when it is being performed. Watching a video of it online might just be one of those strange, supposedly hilarious Facebook videos you come across. Something you would watch during your peak procrastination time. I mean you’ll find it interesting for a second, completely puzzling half way through, then lean towards “What the hell am I watching?” Well, since it caught your attention you either love wasting time watching the dance video or admire the fact it makes absolutely no sense to you whatsoever.

Alan Parker, a professional choreographer who has had many site-specific experience more so choreographed site-specific works will provide insight about the difference between the two.

He is a very well known figure in the South African dance industry who has experience in many different fields of dance. Ranging from experience as a dance researcher, performer, contemporary dance teacher, South African choreographer, lecturer at the Rhodes University Drama Department and a part time lecturer at the UCT School of Dance.

Alan also trained in creative movement, contemporary dance, physical theatre, contact improvisation and Ashtanga yoga. He also specialized in physical theatre, choreography and mastered in Drama at Rhodes University.

Since 2007, he has performed, choreographed and taught for the Grahamstown’s First Physical Theatre Company, but has also choreographed various works for the company and for all of the major national Arts Festivals.

Not only is he acknowledged as the Assistant Artistic Director, but appeared in many First Physical productions. Alan is currently lecturing undergraduates and postgraduates in contemporary dance, physical theatre and choreography.

An interview with Alan Parker on the 30 May will provide insight about site specific dance works and all what there is to know about choreographing in a site.

For more insight about Site Specific dance works, three 3rd year UCT School of dance students will explain in detail, their first site-specific dance experience.

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Dance, Making It Visual

UCT School of Dance on FIRE!!!

IS THIS SOME SORT OF ‘AFRIKA BURN’ PRANK OR WHAT? 

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Smoke creeping up the wall (the recycle bins are removed).
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Part of the roof that was destroyed. (Unfortunately due to safety reasons, no images were captured inside the building).

The University of Cape Town School of Dance admin building caught a flame during the early hours of yesterday morning. Around 12-1am the fire was spotted by a campus security guard who immediately notified the fire brigade. As of today the police are still investigating the cause.

The Dean of the Dance School, Gerard Samuel, arrived immediately at the site around 2am after being notified by the campus security. Samuel instantly informed the staff members of the Collage of Music (the dance schools neighbour), Upper Campus Humanities head office and the UCT School of Dance staff members.

Soon after, in the afternoon a meeting in the canteen was held at the school of dance, hosted at 1pm by Samuel in collaboration with the dance schools SRC members (Bronwyn Probert, Talia Lewis and Carla Shultz) to notify the dance students about the incident and clarify what actually happened.

During the meeting the students including the Dean himself were quite emotional…His speech was moving, whilst speaking he stopped and took a deep breath, swallowing his tears from a flashback similar to the incident. This was enough to touch every member in the canteen. The students were fearful are concerned about their safety at the dance school, some were even crying, others just suffering silently. The majority of the students were angry and frustrated about the whole incident, hoping to just scrape through this and carry on with classes. Unfortunately the severity of the event needs a lot more attention than just a meeting.

After this emotional meeting and the affect it had on the staff, more so the students, some teachers cancelled their classes, because no one was in the right headspace to continue the day.

Evidently from an investigation, the fire started from the outside of the admin building, supposedly originating from the plastic recycled bins. The flames from the plastic bags crawled up the wall of the admin building, spreading fast across the security office roof, and damaging the wood. Being the old-fashioned building that it is, it burnt pretty quickly. Thankfully no bodies were hurt or harmed.

This horrific event affected more so disturbed many students and the staff members of the School of Dance. Some conjured up past memories of trauma, loss and for myself emotions of the past protests that took place last year on campus. Seeing such a beautiful university imbued with history slowly be destroyed is depressing. Thankfully the dance schools dearest neighbour, the Collage of Music have opened up their building for Gerard Samuel and the secretary to settle until the matter is resolved, and the building is repaired. With the support of Humanities and the insurance claim, I am sure the incident will be well taken care of.

After the emotional meeting, this school (which most of the dance students refer to as their second home) filled with young ambitious dancers where their passion is being nurtured to become a profession seemed to be slowly fading away with the building itself…

Worst of all the idea of not knowing who caused the fire is agonizing… As a third year dance student privileged to be part of an 80-year-old dance school, which in 1934 was originally known as the University School of Ballet, slowly turn to ash kind of like a valley of ashes.  Thankfully the building does not stop the dance spirit to keep dancing, working hard and supporting one another in love.

Furthermore this seems like a form of protest action. Why would someone single out the dance school? I’m aware that burning art in this manner is for Afrika Burn. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this something is very fishy…

Before this terrible event, there are suspicions that the dance school is some sort of target… About a week ago Maxwell Xolawe Rani’s (the African Dance Teacher and African course convenour) car was stolen during the day. Some say it was an inside job. It was out of the blue that the car was stolen. The car slowly and casually drove off from the School of Dance parking bay, right under our very noses. Two days later it was found in Grassy Park…How hectic? His car was returned in the same state it was stolen. What scares me is we supposedly just go back and dance in peace?

Before we assume, as Vice Chair on the SRC in the University School of Dance, the meeting being discussed tomorrow hopefully will come up with better safety solutions.