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Review

Artist and Critic in [Virtual] Dialogue 

By Philip Szporer, Pamela Newell
  • Elizabeth Emberly and Nadine Sures in “Being Susan Sontag” by Pamela Newell / Photo by Deborah Dunn 
  • Elizabeth Emberly, Mathilde Monnard, Nadine Sures and Katie Ward in ““Being Susan Sontag”” by Pamela Newell / Photo by Deborah Dunn 
  • Elizabeth Emberly, Mathilde Monnard, Nadine Sures and Katie Ward in “Being Susan Sontag” by Pamela Newell / Photo by Deborah Dunn 
  • Elizabeth Emberly, Mathilde Monnard, Nadine Sures and Katie Ward in “Being Susan Sontag” by Pamela Newell / Photo by Deborah Dunn 
  • Elizabeth Emberly, Mathilde Monnard, Nadine Sures and Katie Ward in “Being Susan Sontag” by Pamela Newell / Photo by Deborah Dunn 

“Being Susan Sontag”

Pamela Newell

Montréal  November 16-19, 2006

Editor’s Note: When I asked Philip Szporer to review Pamela Newell’s new work Being Susan Sontag, I didn’t remember at the time that he had worked with Pam and other choreographers as a facilitator during the Montréal Danse Choreographic Lab in January 2005. This being the case, a straight review seemed somehow inappropriate. As an editor, I am interested in opening up the singly authored text and in developing dialogue and conversation about dance that will (hopefully) engage readers in a more immediate way and nurture further discussion and debate. This seemed a perfect opportunity. I asked both Pam and Philip if they would agree to a “virtual conversation” or “written post-show chat” and they did. What follows is the (lightly) edited transcript of their email conversation over the course of one week. I thank both Pam and Philip for their wholehearted commitment to this experiment, for letting go of their usually autonomous positions as artist and critic, and opening themselves – both -– to questions. With due respect, they did not hold back (much). Questions have been asked, answered and generated, and I hope you find their conversation as thought provoking as I have.

PS: I hope I’m not too presumptuous in jumping past your improvisation opener to get a greater understanding of “Being Susan Sontag” (“BSS”). I have to admit that I am not a Susan Sontag scholar, but I have read a couple of her books and a few essays. I also had the great occasion to hear a full-hour interview with the author on Eleanor Wachtel’s wonderful “Writers’ & Company” CBC radio program. I was fascinated by Sontag’s description of the writing process and how it affected her way of being in the world, how writing could be a lens to see the world. I was entranced by her articulate voice.

In your program note, you write about Sontag’s “engaged feminism” and her influence in the intellectual world of the 1960s and 1970s. You mention that she is the anchor for this new work, an exploration of an “internal identity” and a “public face”, between a woman and her equals, and between the being and the alter-ego” (forgive any lapse of translation as the program was in French). Striking images abound. First there are crosscurrents of monologues, in French and in English. Two women (Nadine Sures, with reserves of irony, and Mathilde Monnard, using great depth of resonance in delivery) aren’t listening to one another. Little blips of phrases surface (from the start there’s a reference to “Susan’s books”). Vowels and consonants are exaggerated and elongated. Throughout the piece there is talk – but the tone is often high-falutin’. From what little I’ve read of Sontag’s, and certainly from what I heard in that revealing interview, I never perceived of her as bombastic. The persistent use of fragmented conversation was equally disconcerting, and gave me an uneasy feeling that Sontag was being used for her marquee value but not much else. Of course, not everything you’ve used is drawn from a Sontag text. Could you talk about the relation of Sontag to the work and how affectation helped elaborate your process?

I’m hoping that you can respond to this. Of course, usually, I formulate my own hypothesis. It will be good to hear your perspective. 

PN: Great start! Let’s get right to it. I too am no Sontag scholar and the interview to which you refer was perhaps the one I heard rebroadcast in the days after her death in December 2004, which instigated my interest in her as a potential source for work. Generally, I do not approach creation with much in the way of external sources; that is, intending to make work “about” something. However, at this particular point in my career, when I am returning to working with dancers after years of making solos for myself, I wanted to get beyond personal content by imposing outside influences – enter Susan Sontag.

Other than this awareness, I had at least two loose objectives for myself with “Being Susan Sontag” when I started: 1) to work with some of the theoretical ideas on the choreographer-dancer relationship in the creative process that I had developed in my Master’s degree research; and 2) to address some concerns about the disturbing state of women’s health (reproductive and otherwise).

Susan Sontag represented many things for me. At first, she was all image: the Susan Sontag (with that shock of white hair) of the 1970s and 1980s whom I knew very little about, but whom I admired greatly. As the process began, I tried to treat her like the feminist everywoman, as a foil or mirror that reflects information and helps us see ourselves. Like John Malkovich in the film “Being John Malkovich”, she was a portal. She was to me, as I (as choreographer) was to the dancers. I was in dialogue with her, as the dancers were in dialogue with me.

I deeply admire Sontag and it is my hope that “Being Susan Sontag” demonstrates that. However, who can resist poking a little fun at someone who uses terms like “moral detonator” and invents words like “groupuscule” in French, or who says things like “I don’t write because there is an audience. I write because there is literature.” However, again, you are not wrong in detecting her marquee value. Exploitation is an underlying by-product of this exploration. I was exploiting the dancers, they were exploiting me – and I don’t think Sontag was above a little exploitation herself. She called herself a “professional adversary”. She took hard positions; she made enemies; she took no prisoners. In my admiration for her work, I did not want to neglect the intense reactions she aroused. For example, she was much maligned for never having “come out” in the press. Many felt she was too worried about her reputation as an author to be pegged as a gay/lesbian voice.

Fragmentation is not easy, but it was very much Sontag’s compositional style in the 1960s and 1970s. She is a monumental subject about whom one could make a monumental piece. I chose to focus my work on the short story collection “I, etcetera” published in the 1970s and on several interviews. However, other essays were influential, in particular “On Photography”, “Against Interpretation” and “Illness as Metaphor”. The stories in “I, etcetera” reminded me of dance in their complex formal structures that leave the reader running after the content. But one in particular entitled “Debriefing” was surprisingly moving, again perhaps in the way a super formal Cunningham piece catches your emotions by surprise. The dancers and I fragmented her already fragmented style. It was great fun.

I love words. With “BSS”, we were exploring the power, the weight of words, distorting them as they distort us, as some have distorted Sontag’s words. I love words, but I don’t always love the sense we seem to need when we use words. I compromised, and for me there is a lot of sense in the piece. I love words, but maybe, too, I feel a discord between words and dance, which was something I was trying to reconcile in “The Sunday Project” solo.

I realize that I am in Canada, where Sontag is perhaps less known, or known only in specific circles. I wonder if the audience really needs to know who Sontag is to get something out of the piece. This troubles me a bit. 

PS: I really understand your take on Sontag. We often forget that the New York postwar, bohemian subculture of the 1950s and 1960s was a thriving, radical place where, as characterized in a recent New Yorker article by Calvin Tomkins, “sadness, bawdiness, humour, and romanticism” were the mainstays of the pulsing cultural scene. And Sontag was a questioner. As artist Jasper Johns, the subject of the article commented, “She was certainly lively in her thought, and in her willingness to encounter things.”

The more I think back on your piece, I recall those hilarious Saturday Night Live (SNL) sketches with Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer as the super low-key hosts of the National Public Radio cooking show (what was it called, Delicious Dish?). I remember one spoof was all about the double entendre of a pastry chef and his “schwetty balls”. Essentially the comedy “took the piss” out of the dry, ever-nice, erudite propriety of those broadcasts. As I see it, there’s a quality to your work that is an inadvertent but direct link to that kind of send-up. I don’t think you were aiming for farce, but the delivery and the tone of the piece made it spring to mind.

To segue to another aspect of the work: I want to ask you about movement ideas. For the most part the four dancers move as if in separate universes. Bodies lunge to the floor in pairs, they melt into the floor, on another occasion they move in unison, they roll, they reach, etc. As much as the talk is distorted, I couldn’t get a handle on an identifiable movement language. On the way out, I heard some people referring to your research into the relationship of dancer and choreographer as a connecting line for what they saw. Okay, I thought, but what about those who aren’t privy to that process? Do they need to know that to gain insight? I guess what I search for and seek in a work is the vision of the piece. For me, “BSS” seemed too fragmented. 

PN: Yes, I think you are in the ballpark with your comparison to SNL and the like. I’m certainly flattered that they spring to mind. However, I hope the tragic side of that public face was not lost on viewers. That is, the tragedy of a friend’s suicide, of women conflicted about their relationships – at times supportive, at others downright cannibalistic – or the tragedy of a serious, even terminal, illness.

I was juggling a lot of balls in this piece – not schwetty ones, but dance, theatre, scholarship – and perhaps the movement has not reached its full potential yet (ironically, since I would consider myself first and foremost a mover). However, for me, that didn’t take away from the piece functioning as a whole. As a choreographer, I am certainly looking for a movement language, or languages, that my audience can get a handle on. Still, I’m not exactly sure what you mean when you say “identifiable” movement language. A single language intrinsic to this particular piece? I hired four different women, with very different corporal affinities and backgrounds. I don’t know if it’s a chicken-or-egg question, but that fact, as well as my choreographic methods, may have inevitably led to diversity – I hope within unity. While the overall vision was entirely my own, I knew I wanted the dancers to play an important role in the development of the material. I wanted to experiment with changing the “author”-itative source, whether me, or each individual dancer. Specifically, I was interested in the constant appropriation and re-appropriation process that defines the choreographer-dancer relationship, and also how that relates to the quality of a choreographic seed or prompt. For example: one section was developed by the dancers composing short phrases based on a single action that had a particular significance – first for me, then after discussion, for all of us. This material was appropriated by me, then re-appropriated by the dancers, and on and on. When I watch that section, I don’t totally recognize myself, which is interesting to me, but not without some inner conflict. Another section was developed in a more traditional way: I invented movement material that had a particular significance to me and taught it to the dancers. Over a period of weeks this material went through the same appropriation/re-appropriation process but with the authority skewed in my favour.

During much of the research process, the movement material, themes, and the methods to some degree, were exclusive to each section. I began to develop their interrelation during the last weeks of rehearsal. Opening night found us where we were in what I feel as an unfinished process. To answer your question, I think it goes without saying that the audience shouldn’t need any special knowledge to appreciate a work of art. But I think that whatever knowledge is there to be triggered when interacting with a work only adds layers.

So, this discussion of diverse approaches leads me to the solo, which was an improvisation. Does the fact that one piece is an “improvisation” and the other a “choreography” set the audience up with two different perceptual modes? I can’t really judge because I’m not entirely on the outside. But from inside the one piece, the improvisation, I imagine there is a much different sense of time than the one I have while watching the other, the choreography, from outside. 

PS: Thanks for the expansive insight into your process. When I say “identifiable language”, I’m looking for something that I can distinguish as being Pam Newell’s language. I am completely aware that, as a choreographer, you are accessing information from the bodies in front of you, ruminating on the possibilities, and then “appropriating/re-appropriating”. Nonetheless, upon reflection, I want to know who you are, and if I’ve seen your previous work, to see a development, or decline, and be able to ascertain where I – and you as an artist – stand in the face of all of that.

I’m glad you brought the conversation back to the improvisation. I watched “The Sunday Project” with the same eyes as I did “BSS”. The time indication (15 minutes) in the program was my first direction. But also I never fully felt the communion between the sound and lights and the dancing body. It felt quite linear, and I “got” the nature of the movement – bones moving through space – quite quickly. The variations that may have been intended just never came for me, and seemed too similar.

I appreciated your expressive arms, the range of expression in your feet and legs, the softness of the touch, the body in repose, the arch of the back, the openness of the space that surrounded you – but I registered all of that quite quickly. At one point, I questioned who was triggering whom (among you, composer Dino Giancola and lighting designer Yan Lee Chan), in terms of the motivation. But then I dropped that question. I sensed you were building something, and then not. What I saw seemed very choreographed. Perhaps I expect an element of surprise or awakening when I watch improvisation. It doesn’t have to be a big “ta-da” revelation, but a deeply felt emotion/reaction is what I like to have generated. I want to feel like something has changed in the room. “The Sunday Project” seemed more “head-bound”, grounded in concept, than the expression of an in-the-moment discovery.

When I watch you – and I know your superb abilities as a dancer – I want to be charged and altered. Lulled is not part of the equation. 

PN: Okay, this is getting tougher. I’m getting panned by a critic to my face … okay, my cyber face. This discussion could easily be an extension of the head-butting intellectual characters of “BSS”. All in good fun, I borrow from SNL again … Philip, you ignorant slut! From your comments, I understand that you appreciate being able to follow an artist’s work through an identifiable movement language. I also hear you say that you like to be charged and altered by the work. I will address these two issues in turn.

Frankly, I am a bit ambivalent about the identifiable movement language issue, especially at this point in my development. A choreographer’s aesthetic (how and to whom they want to convey meaning) is bound up in their attitude toward the body (a HUGE topic, I know, and an awkward way of saying it. I prefer “rapport au corps” in French). For me, some, like Marie Chouinard, Merce Cunningham, even Trisha Brown these days, speak through a more reified, singular body, which lends itself to an identifiable movement language. Others, Pina Bausch or Alain Platel, for example, speak more through an environment, which includes an attitude toward the body that is more individualistic (respects the individual’s body), and their language reflects that. I admire both approaches.

The movement language that I recognize in my work feels very personal and identifiable to me and I wanted to explore ways of expanding what I know and recognize. Other aspects of the choreographic process were more important to me than the struggles of imposing an identifiable language on, or even composing an identifiable language with, the ancers’ bodies. I’m ambivalent also because I wonder why I should have an identifiable movement language, one that a viewer can compare with my past work. The only answer I can come up with right now is so that I can be categorized, put in a box, marketed and consumed.

Speaking of surprise, flaws not withstanding, I would have thought that, with the Sontag piece, I damn well shocked some people who know me and my work. I certainly shocked myself.

I find it a tall order that you ask for an artist’s work “to charge and alter” a viewer. (I’m sure you like it to do other things too, but those are two you mention.) I’m sorry, maybe I’m cynical, but I just don’t have those expectations of work. Frankly, I think transcendental meditation, Jesus Christ, Kabbalah or drugs would be more effective. Of course, I don’t want to lull my audience, but one person’s lull is another’s thrill. You are right, “The Sunday Project” is grounded in concept AND the expression of an in-the-moment discovery, as well as residue from past discoveries. 

PS: Thanks for the frank discussion and openhearted response to my e-mails. I will wear my “ignorant slut” tag with appropriate zeal. I also acknowledge the “sharp pencil” in my last correspondence. But if I was sparring, I knew that I had a worthy “opponent”. I’m drawn to the notion of putting forward ideas, sometimes uncomfortable ones, to bring about debate. Nothing is pat in our exchange. Glad for that. And for the record, I love the resourcefulness of your thought process.

As far as the “identifiable movement language” discussion goes, I sense a large measure of egalitarianism on your part, and I accept and understand your analysis. In a broader sense, though, I am worried when I watch too many choreographers trying to fit into what’s in vogue, or what’s perceived as such, and distancing themselves from their own voice. What you are talking about is a challenge to your own process, which again I salute. But working with an identifiable “language” does not mean imposing anything. In fact, I just met with a young contemporary choreographer who is working with dancers in another country. She is stimulated by the prospect of challenging what she knows about process and meeting with bodies that DON’T “speak” the same language, how to accommodate difference, and how to find ways to direct her own sensibility. It’s an ongoing project for her, being a stranger in a strange land, and she was initially threatened by the difficulty of working with more classically trained performers. But the immersion that she is undergoing is producing results. It’s making her understand facets of herself, and the amplitude of her choreographic ideas. The one “hic”, she acknowledges, is that she questions whether she should just settle down and find some identifiable dancers from here, and in essence, be more like everyone else. But I think that’s a rhetorical question.

This is delicious territory we’re wading in. Again it speaks to the importance of extending discussion in dance. Writers and critics can do so, and hopefully we’ll continue to have forums to do just that. Engaging in discussion with articulate dancers and choreographers makes the endeavour even more stimulating. I’ve said it many times (as have others), but it bears repeating once more: dance writers/critics are not the enemy. The more there is rigorous analysis and opinion, as we see in other art forms, the better the state of our art will be. It’s true I like to position myself, thinking that art can be an inspiration and that transformation and challenge are inherent to both the process of watching and making work. For me, it’s all about the body, that increasingly fragile entity. On a global scale, the body challenges philosophically, emotionally, sexually, politically. But it’s the myriad of possibilities contained in the body that makes the realm of dance so charged and essential.

Cheers, dear Pam, and again, thanks for your views.

Philip 

PN: Well, I’m sad this must end. What a privilege to have a platform to discuss dance ideas and concepts as they relate to ME, MY work.

I will just say that I appreciate your concern for the authenticity of my voice, but I don’t think I’m trying to be in vogue, or even innovative. I’m just trying to work out how I make dances, which I think you ultimately recognize. For this particular evening, it was working out my interest in words and speaking that keeps showing up in my choreography, as well as moving from a body of experience that includes interpreting for others, making solos for myself and now making choreography on others.

The classic dilemma of our days is very much summed up with the choreographer you mention: the meeting of the one with the other. How do we choose to make sense of it? By “positioning” ourselves and boldly going about the business of constructing a reality? Or, by deciding to exist in the unanchored realms of the deconstructionist vision where everything is relative? Or, are we always ultimately doing both?

Our exchange is very much a reflection of that dilemma, I suppose. I certainly wondered sometimes with this discussion about “BSS” if we were watching the same piece. And we haven’t even mentioned gender. What about all those vaginal speculums hanging from the grid? … To be taken up in the studios, on the stages or around the corridors of academe, I’m sure.

Indeed, thanks for the robust next act in an extremely rewarding process.

Cheers, my friend.

Pam 

 

Comments:

Hello Pam and Philip:
Congratulations! … It was delicious to read! … finally … a dialogue … people actually listening to each other … and responding … what a concept! It could happen so much more … and I thank both of you and the editor at The Dance Current for putting the idea forward … and for your great decision to go ahead and answer each other’s questions in your own fashion and with a forthrightness that is so refreshing! … something that is alive and vital and has something to say …
yes, transformed I was … merci encore ….

Lin Snelling
Montréal, QC

The virtual conversation was invigorating for the community, and especially the time both of you spent to articulate so vividly your positions and ideas. It was as if you and Philip had experienced different kinds of performances. What it does reveal quite efficiently, and with passion, is how one choreographer understands her process and one critic sets up personal parameters for judging value.

Dena Davida
Montréal, QC

I just loved it. The format is great - artists and critics putting out ideas or perspectives in response to the other. I loved your rebuttals on the unique language question though I wouldn’t mind going deeper into that one with you and Philip. The article makes me think again about just what it is I am looking (hoping) for when I go to see work. Interestingly, not a simple question to answer.

Kathy Casey
Montréal, QC

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