Remixing Dance (2014)
The ethos of the remix culture has never been more pervasive in popular culture than it is now in the digital age. Artists like Beyoncé are really testing the line between plagiarism and remix. Our definition of property and ownership is traced back to capitalism where artistic work is considered intellectual property and it adopts the law and rhetoric that is granted to other tangible assets. Following this ideology, choreography is credited to an individual and it becomes part of his /her identity. In Memory Mash, choreographer Julia Rhoads explores movement that is transmitted by oral tradition and accumulated to build a dance lineage that forms part of an individual and collective identity. She acknowledges ownership of work but questions and redefines authenticity and originality more specifically in the digital age.
Every year, the CalArts Sharon Disney School of Dance hosts a residency of the winner of the Herb Alpert Award of the respective year. For 2013, Julia Rhoads was the winner; she is the founder artistic director of Lucky Plush Productions based in Riverside, Illinois. She visited our Institute for a weeklong residency to teach classes and set a piece on selected undergraduate students, including myself. Memory Mash, which is an excerpt from the evening length Punk Yankees (2009), was performed last December at the Modular Theater in CalArts and at REDCAT as part of the Winter Dance Concert.
In Memory Mash, Julia introduces the term “dance sample”, which can be a brief series of movements or gestures. She examined the dance lineage of each of the cast members by asking us to bring several dance samples. These could be taken from popular modern and contemporary choreographers to pop culture and even social dance. The piece required a broad skillset: triple threat performers proficient in various dance genres. I remember struggling with one of the sections that required doing the gestures of a sample from Xsite! Performance Group: walking in a grid pattern while singing the melody of a classical tune. The next moment, we were rocking out Beyoncé’s Single Ladies leading into a corps du ballet from Petipa’s Swan Lake.
Julia and the cast remixed the pool of samples that we had collected to create variations on the material. The new movement phrases could mix the stylistic quality of a gesture sample with the rhythmic structure of the footwork from another one. First, I was mashing up an expansive sweeping upper body swing from Stephanie Nugent’s technique class with the rhythmic footwork from the tap dance routine Shim, Sham, Shimmy. Next, I was scrambling to connect a Lion King split leap with Ohad Naharin’s highly specific and expressive gestures. My performance quality was drastically contradictory to perform Tere O’Connor’s elegant and poised movement followed by the explicit and grinding moves from Michael’s Telo’s popular song Nossa Nossa. The act of remixing dance was a mind-juggling task and required maximum concentration. Organizing and performing these samples took me on a physical journey condensing my own dance lineage yet fully realizing the emotional potential of each one.
Julia was particularly interested in how we had learned the samples and/or who had taught it to us; every detail was important. It came to my attention that she specifically used the word “steal” to refer to the act of taking a sample and reproducing it. She was very clear in crediting the choreographers reassuring their ownership for the creative rights. The samples or references were verbally cited during the piece or included in a bibliographical list in the program, even if it was from an unknown author found in the Internet. The piece also comments on media like YouTube or Vimeo and their potential to be a source for plagiarism and remix. Julia’s remix questioned originality and theft. An entire section was created based on the original samples yet Julia nor the dancers choreographed any of them. In some cases, the samples were still recognizable even when far removed from their original context thus making plagiarism debatable.
I believe the value of the remix relies on the creative repurposing of the material and how it revolutionizes our definition of creativity. Our former notion of creativity emphasizes and fetishizes the individual as an isolated creative source and creativity as an act of absolute creation from nothingness. On the other hand, the remix allows us to see the deconstruction of various aesthetic elements that form a complete piece and reveals the act of creation as dynamic. It redefines art with a dynamic purpose: we experience, we assimilate and then redeploy our relationship with the material. It demystifies the artist as the absolute creator and repositions art as accumulative and evolving in a continuum of creation.
At first, the cast and I were overwhelmed by the challenge of genuinely embodying a mixture of samples. “We learned this off of YouTube! I hope we are doing it right!”; we cried out in the melodic tune of Ohad’s Minus 16. Ironically, we had to resort to the Internet to perform accurately the samples. As we continued with the rehearsal process the material started to naturally blend in my muscle memory. It seemed new exciting material but its similarities were resurfacing familiar movement. A codified dance technique like classical or contemporary was serving as a commonality or base to allow an efficient process. The material seemed to make connections from social dancing, ballet, modern and back again to popular culture because we already embody a multifaceted identity. We are vessels that absorb, carry and project cultural content and in consequence our movement accumulates to an extensive dance lineage. The result is a remix of diverse aesthetic influences filtered through our individual experience, tools and skills. On top of that, the Internet provides the ultimate platform to share and release our work to an audience that will “steal” it and remix it to add to the collective continuum of ideas that we call “Art”.
Here’s a video of Julia Rhoads talking abut her work: