Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Kitsch, Cliche, Australia, and Big Emotions.

The concept of "cliche" has been following me around lately.

It all started with Sarah Dahnke, who's been working on a lovely blogject, "This Dance is a Cliche", examining and exorcising the cliches that seem to keep presenting and re-presenting themselves in dancemaking. Then the awesome Adrienne Truscott (who's my mentor through the Van Lier Fellowship) came and sat in our last rehearsal, checking out the guitar solo along the way, which lead to a great discussion about the fear of cliche in postmodern movement work. Link number three in the chain was an email from friend/collaborator/composer/co-poster Theo Wilson warning me against palling prey to cliche in my piece. Last, the New York Times reviewed Baz Luhrmann's new epic "Australia" (which, for the record, i've yet to see) with some words about kitsch that helped me tie all this haunting together (full review here).

So this is the story about all of those things.

What is a cliche? Why has cliche become frowned upon (specifically in PMD, but in a larger context as well)? Are they dangerous, or simply a nuisance? Why?

For me, the idea of "cliche" has always been one of the simultaneously most terrifying and harmless things i deal with as a dance maker. On one hand, I've always had a fixation with doing something "new", never wanting to make the same dance over and over, never wanting to make something that i've seen before. While i assumed this was the mode of all artists for quite some time, my friend Jeremy helped point out that this was far from true. But, while some would like to make the same dance a million times (since, of course, each one is vastly different anyway), each time refining their skill and craft, that option panics and bores me. New, new, new. It's a pathos. And, even if the end results don't look that vastly new or different, holding myself to it in the process keeps me interested and making dances. On the other hand, much as i might wince to admit it sometimes, much of what i make is highly cliche. What is a cliche, after all, than something that's been felt/thought/expressed so many times and by so many different people, that rather than having to respond specifically to this incantation of it, audience members look at it as one instance of the larger and largely repeated occurrence? Love is cliche, heartache: cliche. To look at it flatly, humans are cliches, repeating an endless cycle of life love loss recovery heartache brilliance sex and death. And, for better or worse, that's what i make dances about.

So I know, on one hand, that what I'm making will always have a tint of "cliche" about it. I don't make abstract anatomical experiments, i don't make strictly spatial analyses, i make dances about love, and i make people cry. Invariably, my pieces seem to strike a human chord with my audience, prompting both dance people and non dance people to tell me that they've "been there before" or "reminds them of that time in their life". My dances, very simply, are love stories. Why fight it?

At the same time, working on this piece, i find myself terrified that this piece is nothing more than a cliche. For me, the saving grace of working with a cliche base is that it offers connection and humanism. From there, there's always a new way to see it if you work hard enough and look in unexpected places. As Aderine pointed out in our meeting, when someone tells her that something is "cliche" it just signifies the challenge of finding additional layers to it. However, it makes sense that i'm terrified: though i'm no stranger to narrative work, this is the first time that i'm taking a direct chain of events and crafting them into a dance (eg: boy leaves girl, girl is heartbroken, struggles toward meaning) rather than using a question or topic (eg: long distance relationships or gender power struggles). Additionally, dances have always held a therapeutic position in my life, meaning that the working of my personal shit into some sort of craft has always been my catharsis, my way to process and finalize. That doesn't mean that the entire making it therapeutic, however. Crafting necessitates remembering, reanalyzing, and reworking, all of which are usually messy, sometimes painful, and hold the threat of sucking you back into the muck that you're exorcising.

The recent big question for me being: when is this process helpful and productive (god forbid i ever stop being productive) and when is it whiny and a sob story...dare i say...a cliche?

A recent email from Theo snapped me on guard again. I've been thinking about the setting of the piece as a sort of purgatory - a reckoning place for the characters at hand. He writes:
You get to weep. You get to bitch. If he's allowed to break your heart, you get to tear him apart. There is no need to respect his feelings. But righteous self-pity is a self-extinguishing flame. Eventually contemplation must preside, and it presides in purgatory. You feel bitter, but you don't feel good about feeling bitter. You know how you must behave, but you find yourself unable to live up. That's an interesting struggle, and one I haven't seen you attack, whereas you have explored victimhood already (very skillfully, I might add). Like I said, though, as a thinking person you cannot continue without morality asserting itself.

Men have a right to hurt women's feelings. Women have a right to hurt men's feelings. The utopian alternative is emotional chattel slavery.

Use the rock song test. Rock songs have a built in language of cliché to address break-ups. Go down the list. Can any of your dramatic or symbolic devices be fond on the list?

Is anyone breaking your heart and tearing you apart?
Are you standing in the pouring rain?
Do you find yourself saying "how dare you"?
Are there clouds in an otherwise sunny sky?
Were you "shocked to discover"?
Have you "lost everything"?

You are literally taking out the trash. That's a filthy enterprise. The dirtiest part is getting rid of one's own hypocrisy and coming to terms with righteousness. The cleanest, easiest, and most rock-songy part is vilifying the other party.
So there's the line. Victimhood versus villainy versus reckoning. And reading it again in the midst of writing this post, i'm immediately aware that he's not saying that victimhood isn't necessarily "bad" or a cliche, just that i've been there before. Funny how when i read that, his pointing to that i've already explored it immediately crossed it off of my list. Oh, patterns, oh pathos. But this piece, though i've been here before, needs some sort of understanding of victimization to initiate the reckoning. At least, i think it does. Will this be the piece that re-makes what i've already done? And...don't I do that anyway? I've been joking that this piece will be called "Over Again" since it so closley parallels "The What's Left Over After", but as the piece evolves and tectonic plates shift, that become both more and less true.

Regardless, i don't want to play victim in this piece. It feels weak, feels uninteresting, and frankly, isn't where i am any more. I don't need this to be a victim piece because i've already exorcised that journey i took. I need the answers about what happens after. In words it seems clear enough: the difference between the question of "what is remembered and why/who does the other become?" versus "why did this happen to me? I didn't do anything wrong". However, it's one thing to be able to speak those two and understand the difference, and quite another to express them through bones and muscles.

Reading the New York Times's review of "Australia" gave me a little clarification this morning, and pushed me to write this post. A long time fan of Luhrmann's work (especially his over-use of everything, refutation of "clarity", and love of the epic) I haven't really been drawn to Australia, perhaps because of my bordness with it's two main actors. However, reading this review might have convinced me to see it instead of Transporter 3 (say it isn't so!). Also, the pictures of Hugh Jackman. Of Luhrmann, they write:

A maximalist, Mr. Luhrmann doesn’t simply want to rouse your laughter and tears: he wants to rouse you out of a sensory-overloaded stupor with jolts of passion and fabulous visions. That may make him sound a wee bit Brechtian, but he’s really just an old-fashioned movie man, the kind who never lets good taste get in the way of rip-roaring entertainment. The usual line about kitsch is that it’s an affront, a cheapening of the culture, a danger. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession,” Milan Kundera wrote. “The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”

True, but it doesn’t make the second tear any less wet.

So that's the line i'm walking right now - trying to move, together all mankind, to remember how that purgatory feels, without making it a victim story about me. Though, clearly, it's my story. I guess what i'm saying is, i'll take a tear that's backed by kitsch over dry eyes any day. Always have...probably always will.

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