Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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Critiquing Criticism and Other Meta Dilemmas

On Wednesday night, I went to see the choreographer Meg Stuart’s collaboration with German dancer Philipp Gehmacher and Belgian singer/songwriter Niko Hafkenscheid, Maybe Forever.

I first saw Stuart’s work in November 2004, in Brugge Belgium while on my first European tour with Braxton. We had a night off, and the extraordinarily cool proprietor of the place we were playing hooked us all up with tickets to cultural events happening that evening in the city. Most of the band went to hear some Beethoven string quartets, but when Rik found out my wife was a dancer, he scored me a ticket to see Stuart’s work Forgeries, Love and Other Matters. This was also a collaboration with another male dancer and a musician, this time Benoît Lachambre and Hahn Rowe, respectively. I was totally blown away; one of the best performances I think I’ve ever seen. Abstract yet narrative, funny yet profoundly moving, totally entrancing yet consistently surprising. Virtuoso performers wedded to a powerful overarching vision.

Stuart is an American choreographer, but has been based in Europe for the past fifteen years so rarely gets to perform in the States. When she brought Forgeries to New York a few years ago, I was out of town, but my wife went and came back similarly impressed. So we were psyched to catch this next piece.

I can claim no expertise for dance criticism, so I won’t even try. But the performance brought up a lot of questions, and I thought I’d use it as a jumping point for my own ramblings on criticism and aesthetics. I will admit the new piece did not move me nearly as much Forgeries, though it did have many fascinating ideas and arresting moments. It is unfair to compare them, but almost impossible not to, since they have such similar “instrumentation”, if you will. Stuart is a truly powerful stage presence, and I felt Lachambre did a better job of rising to her intensity than Gehmacher. And musically, fully admitting my own bias as an avant-weirdo, Rowe’s electronic noise was far more satisfying and evocative than Hafkenscheid’s blandly diatonic indie-pop ballads.

But like any excellent and searching artist, the things Stuart does that I don’t like I find almost as interesting as the things that I love. And in critiquing the new trio, I reveal my own shortcomings as a reviewer. First of all, in between these two trios, Stuart created three large ensemble pieces that I did not see! Had I experienced that work, I would be far less likely to draw comparisons between the trios, and would be able to put the work in the context of her larger oeuvre.

It is frustrating that only the smaller manifestations of an artist’s vision are able to tour due to economic realities. Right now, I’ve fallen back into the large ensemble trap, currently writing new music for my groups SpiderMonkey Strings (eight pieces) and Positive Catastrophe (ten pieces). I love dealing with the complex musical possibilities of more instruments, but I am dooming myself to limited touring and an empty wallet. (Not completely; thanks to much love from the kind folks at deSingel in Antwerp I’ll be bringing SpiderMonkey to Europe for the first time this April, but that is a rare opportunity. Sometimes folks like my music enough for one plane ticket, maybe three or four, but very few people like me enough for eight or ten flights!). And it is disheartening to see artists of Stuart’s stature and accomplishment be limited to only presenting her smaller works in the States. Not that those works are any less potent or important than her larger ensemble pieces, but it provides us with such a limited view of her interests. Even Braxton is talking about stopping touring with his Trio, since promoters only want to book that rather than the Septet or 12+1tet. It would be fine if festivals wanted the Trio for specific aesthetic reasons (i.e. an electronic music festival, or something focused on small group interaction), but it is usually simply because it is the least expensive ensemble to bring over. They want the prestige of presenting an “Anthony Braxton” or a “Meg Stuart”, but they want it on the cheap. (Or to be fair, they want to be able to do it on the absurdly limited budgets arts organizations are forced to deal with.) Braxton recognizes the danger of an artist’s vision being limited to what the promoters are willing or able to pay for, rather than the full breadth of their creative expression. But that said, I’d rather see a trio than nothing!

Returning to the specific thoughts off of Wednesday’s performance, I will say that a too regular disappointment of interdisciplinary collaboration is when the primary discipline involved exhibits a complexity and brilliance lacking in the accompaniment, be it thrilling dance with simplistic music, or passionate music with clichéd improvised movements. Obviously, one genre can slyly use another, like a David Lynch movie deconstructing a silly pop song through its very use, but in live collaboration I want to see all sides rise to the challenge of exceptional creativity. One of the reasons I so enjoyed Forgeries was I felt Rowe really matched Stuart, and the music and movement were fully integrated and equal. But to return to critiquing my criticism, my complaints about the indie-pop stylings of the musician in Maybe Forever reveal more about my own taste than the quality of the music or the success of the piece. I happen not to like that kind of music, so it didn’t work for me. But for someone who has an emotional attachment to those kind of songs (presumably including Stuart herself) the use of the music was probably very effective. One thing that kills me in bad criticism is when the aesthetics of the reviewer overwhelm a reasoned discussion of the work at hand. To paraphrase something Bill Dixon once said: “The role of the critic in serious art is to let the audience know what the artist’s intent was, and whether or not the artist was successful in achieving that intent. Whether or not the critic liked the work should not really be of interest for the artist or the reader!” Speaking as a great admirer of her work, I would imagine and hope Stuart would give a rat’s ass whether or not I like rock waltzes! I think her idea was to use the very simplicity and ironic sentimentality of the songs as a contrast and comment to the charged relationship of the two dancers (perhaps similar to the Lynch example); though I prefer the subtler musical commentary of Forgeries, I respect the fact that she uses music in such a different function in each piece.

My final thought concerns my own headspace as an audience member coming into the performance, a context that is far too rarely recognized in criticism. When I saw the first performance in Belgium in 2004, I was in a marvelous mood. I was touring Europe for the first time with one of my greatest heroes. I had spent the day wandering the windy cobblestone streets of a magical and beautiful city, drinking delicious Belgian beers and eating big meals with good friends. By the time I went into the performance of Forgeries, I was floating. I also went in with zero expectations, I knew nothing of Stuart’s work. So I was fully primed to be astounded. Last week, when I went to see Maybe Forever, I was jetlagged, having just returned from another blissful tour to the much harsher realities of New York City. I barely made it to the theater in time, having fought the noise and stress of rush hour traffic and construction for an hour driving from Brooklyn to Manhattan. And I went in with the inflated expectations of a critical fan. So it is no wonder I enjoyed the earlier experience more! I stand by my personal assessment, overall I still believe Forgeries the more consistently compelling work, at least for me personally. But it would be foolish to ignore the difference in my own context…if the pieces were switched, could I really say I would have reacted the same way to each one? It is something to always remember, that the audience often brings as much to a concert as the performer; one’s enjoyment or displeasure rarely rests at the feet of the artist alone!

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