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.