London to New York: two movies, a bit of sleep and one article read.
New York to Philadelphia: trying to figure out how to post in the blog, reviewing the paper for the presentation and thinking how nervous I will be tomorrow.

I landed yesterday in New York, and now I am in the train to Philadelphia. I was invited to present my paper at the annual Congress On Research in Dance (CORD) Conference, that this year is going to be held in Philadelphia, 17th to 20th of November 2011. My paper titled “Dancing Nationhood in Spain” address the problems of gender and national construction in contemporary Spain through a close reading of a contemporary dance piece, Bésame el Cactus, by Catalan choreographer Sol Pico.

Like Woody Allen when discovering the murder in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), just before a conference, I enter in a state of excitement where I feel “I have adrenaline coming out of my ears”. I love academic conferences. And maybe, this is the paradoxical feeling of excitement and nervousness that drives me crazy until the end of my presentation.

The opportunity to meet renowned scholars and socialize with other researchers is a great chance to check the actual status quo of the profession. However, at the end of the conference, safely back home I normally need five days of forced repose to restore the normal function of my brain, after such research presentations overdose.

Now, while getting ready for my talk, I leave you with the Mission Statement of CORD: “(CORD) promotes a globally inclusive respectful dialogue around embodied and discursive approaches to dance research. Building on the rich legacy of dance scholarship, CORD advances innovative and creative understandings of dance. Through mentorship, advocacy, and outreach, CORD fosters an international community of current and future dance leaders.”

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In the end of June the Postgraduate students and staff from the DFT department were invited to share a collaboration experience guided by the Map Consortium crew. The workshop was part of the Research Skills through Collaboration project of the department and supported by the University of Surrey. Curated by the Dance Lecture Jennifer Jackson, since 2009 the series has been providing different opportunities for the current postgraduate scholars and practitioners in performance from the University of Surrey to explore interdisciplinary collaborative skills and develop creative and innovative approaches to research. The second edition of “Point: Counterpoint”  was a day of experiments aiming to investigate the creative dialogue between movement, sound and film.

The group of collaborators was composed of dance, film and music staff and students including external guests. Inside the brand new Ivy Performing Arts Centre the hands-in workshop was divided into morning and afternoon sessions. It started off with an introduction to the work leaving each participant with the curious thoughts of what was really going to happen. We were invited to understand and explore different approaches into collaborative composition of interdisciplinary art pieces.

Going through the exercises proposed by the facilitators, it was interesting to notice the way in which the gaze and imagination of each one transformed the view and imagination of the other in a constant feedback process. Together we realized how each person can change and influence on what the other is thinking and doing and how collaboration can change the pathways of the work and can reach unexpected results.

Different than most (and usual) collaborations in which one person has an idea and selects other disciplinary experts to join in with their know-how, all activities proposed in the workshop involved the beginning of a new idea by each team. Although this approach is seldom explored it provides the collaborative partners an enhanced fertile ground on which to work on.

The afternoon was set for a single exercise where we were to create a collaborative performance from the scratch. There was no fixed style to be followed. The only requirement was that the whole group should be involved in all stages of the process.  We worked together with enthusiasm till the performance time. In the end of the day we were able to discuss the process and results of each work presented.

Although my current PhD research does not involve collaboration, this workshop was extremely important to enlighten creative approaches into my own thinking. Regardless that it was only a small taste of the numberless possibilities of collaboration, it was interesting to learn (and live through) that many times we anticipate and struggle to know everything that is going to happen from the start of a process. However this can kill opportunities, creative methods and possible outcomes. On this workshop we were given a chance to ease our anxiety and let ourselves take the risk and discover the beauty and richness of the unknown, something that we tend to instantly rush through in our daily research lives.

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Tate Modern has announced that British-born, Berlin-based young artist Tino Sehgal has been commissioned to create an artwork for the Turbine Hall project next year, as part of the London 2012 Festival and the finale of the Cultural Olympiad. Sehgal who studied political economics and dance in Germany becomes a phenomenon in art, having exhibitions all over Europe and the United States during a decade. Ahead of Sehgal’s commission work to be unveiled in July 2012, Tate Modern offered a four day workshop (20th – 23rd August) with Sehgal, which any ages and experiences could join in, so I applied for participation. The workshop taking place in Tate Modern comprised open discussions about a theme initiated by the artist and physical activities or games in relation to the theme. Since I am concerned about whether the workshop could relate to his Turbine Hall project which details have not been disclosed yet, this writing will illustrate why I got a distinct impression of Seghal’s artistic productions and approach, rather than reviewing my experience of the workshop.

The first time I learnt his name was at an exhibition Move: Choreographing You at the Hayward gallery in Southbank Centre last year, which invited visitors to physically experience installations and sculptures created by visual artists and choreographers who have contributed to contemporary aesthetics of art and performance. It was overdue to be aware of Seghal’s work since his works have been critically acclaimed since his first exhibition in 2000. One of the reasons I had heard of him belatedly was because he had presented works in the context of art institutions – museums or galleries. However, he does not produce material objects as works of art, but rather focuses on human voices, movements and lived experiences, which he refers to as “living sculptures”. He creates “constructed situations” in which visitors encounter actors whose are partly improvised but primarily governed by a set of rules Seghal establishes. For example, Kiss (2002) is a performance work in which two performers continuously enact kiss scenes from famous works of art. In This is New (2003), a museum attendant read out a headline from that day’s newspaper. In his latest solo exhibition, This Progress (2010) at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, visitors were invited to the museum’s iconic spiral ramp in which all the paintings were taken out for the first time. Instead of seeing artworks, the visitors are arranged to walk up the ramp while coming across and dialoguing with trained people from a child to a senior person.

Seghal’s performance-based works, not object-oriented works recall happening/performance artists in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman, and Allan Kaprow. Nevertheless, what differentiates him from the precursors is his objection to be called performance art. His practices qualify as visual art, by embracing traditions of art world: presenting a work during opening hours of a museum and being able to be bought and sold through a verbal contract with Sehgal. However, at the same time, he defies the conventional context of art institutions, by setting up complex and picky rules devised for his commissions: no photography, no recording and no catalogue are permitted. Seghal insists that ephemerality and irreproduciblity are exclusive natures of human embodied experience which he believes are destroyed in mediated forms. I found out a contradiction in his artistic approach since he refuses the conventional context of performance/theatre but embraces the orthodox notion of performance in terms of its ontological nature. His insistence on immediacy and disappearance of human embodied experience but also its ability to be sustained and to be owned reflects his political and philosophical statement. Relying on his recent artistic approach, I can assume that his upcoming work for Turbine Hall would include audiences’ active engagement in the work. Sehgal’s new work will be shown on 17th July until 28 October next year.

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I’ve just returned from a trip to the east coast US.  The main purpose of the visit was to attend  Visible Evidence http://www.visibleevidence.org/, an annual perambulatory international conference on documentary and non-fiction media.  This year our host was New York University (NYU) and there was the usual rich variety of papers, workshops, screenings and presentations from theorists, practitioners and educators.

While I was in the city, I took the opportunity to see Punchdrunk’s production of Sleep No More (http://sleepnomorenyc.com/), a site-specific piece of theatre/ performance that’s running in the old, vast McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea.  The piece heavily references Shakespeare’s Macbeth with some strong allusions to Hitchcock (Jimmy Stewart’s search for Madeleine/ Carlotta in Vertigo, for example, takes him to the McKittrick hotel in San Francisco) and is an extraordinarily immersive, dynamic experience.  The portal to the performance is a 1930’s era bar, where the audience sips cocktails before donning white masks and being whisked away in an elevator, from which we were ejected onto different floors of the hotel.  We were instructed not to remove our masks, not to speak and advised that ‘fortune favours the brave’ before being let loose to roam the mysterious hotel in which a half-dozen performers enact a series of intertwining, choreographed and mostly silent narratives, seemingly oblivious to us interlopers.

Sleep No More is described as an ‘individual experience’ as you are free to interact with the space and the performances taking place however you choose.  I opted to stick close to one actor (once I figured out he was ‘Macbeth’), which involved much dashing up and down narrow staircases and through the spaces of the McKittrick, often in a big crowd of other ‘spectators’, as he traversed through a ballroom scene, a witches’ coven-turned-ritual accompanied by pounding techno and strobe lighting, some dramatic contretemps with a feisty female counterpart (Lady Macbeth?), a moment of crisis amongst fir trees (Birnam Wood?), ending in a dramatic ‘Last Supper’ style finale.  There are a multitude of potential experiences of Sleep No More, depending on which actor(s) you follow, whether you are one of the lucky few to experience one of the ‘one-on-ones’ interspersed throughout the show, or whether you choose to avoid the action and wander the many spaces of the hotel.

One common experience, however, is the sense of voyeurism and this is another way Sleep No More references the films of Hitchcock.  As you stand watching the performers you cannot ignore the anonymised masked faces of your fellow spectators, crowding round to get a glimpse of the action.  The audience and actors share the same space, yet we are at once visible and invisible in a way that challenges the conventional theatrical/ cinematic experience of viewing from a distance through the proscenium arch of the stage/ screen.

I hear rumours the producers are looking for a suitable location to bring the show to London, but if you happen to be in New York City I recommend a visit to the McKittrick hotel, just don’t forget a pair of comfortable shoes.  And your sense of adventure.

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Since the end of June, I have been out of the UK for my third annual research trip to South Korea. I always try to schedule a lengthy research trip during this time of year, as I can collect research materials while spending the summer with my family. Nonetheless, this trip was different from previous trips, where I had spent most of my time visiting the Korean National Ballet for observation. This time I have been busy collecting historical sources from various cultural institutions to evaluate the shifting notions of Korean identity.

For this purpose I went to the National Museum of Korea (NMK) for a couple of weeks to review the permanent exhibition hall, which mainly displays the domestic cultural heritage. The museum is divided into three floors, each of which presents two galleries: the ground floor is arranged into the Prehistory and Ancient History Gallery and the Medieval and Early Modern History Gallery; the first floor presents the Calligraphy and Painting Gallery and the Donations Gallery; and the second floor features the Sculpture and Craft Gallery and the Asia Gallery. I focused mostly on the structure of the museum, including the sub-divisions of each gallery, as the arrangement itself revealed the way in which the NMK constructs Korean identity. National identity is proclaimed by the NMK through its focus on the idea of national history with strong territorial, religious and cultural implications. Here, the concept of dance/movement is highly excluded, highlighting the importance of my role as a researcher to suggest dancing bodies and dance institutions as prominent agencies in articulating national identity.

It was also nice to see the current cultural exchange between the museums of Korea and Britain. The NMK’s Special Exhibition Gallery is presently featuring Princely Treasures: European Masterpieces 1600 – 1800 from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is one of a number of special events that meet the NMK’s aim of bringing world history and culture to Korean audiences. It specifically focuses on the court and upper class life of the Baroque and Rococo periods through displays of paintings, sculptures, furniture, jewellery and fashion. The Ulsan Museum of Korea has also introduced a similar kind of event, Fantastic Creature, bringing approximately 170 cultural pieces from the British Museum. While I was delighted to see this kind of cultural connection between Korea and Britain, I hope to see a more active exchange between the dance fields of the two countries. 

Before I close, I would also like to let you know of some rather pleasant outside exposure our PGR blog has recently received. The official website of the Ninette de Valois conference has recently been updated with post-conference materials, and, thankfully, it includes a link to my short conference review, posted in May 2011. You will be able to see this by going to www.royalballetschool.co.uk/dvconference/conference.php and clicking on ‘Links to articles on the conference’.

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After a manic spring dashing from one event to another, I thought I was going to settle down to a long, slow summer of reading theory at the lakeside and coming indoors (whether from the heat or from the rain) to add to the word count on my annotated bibliography. Instead, I’ve been dashing around again. In June it was ds6 in Aberystwyth, last week it was EVA London 2011, today I’m off to see The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic at the Manchester International Festival, and next month I’ll be a student volunteer at MobileHCI in Stockholm.

The ds6 conference was the annual festival of digital storytelling in the tradition of the Center for Digital Storytelling in California. Their model is to get people who aren’t performers or media professionals to create their own short film of their life story using their own personal photos. The ds6 participants believe passionately in the power of narrative in the digital age to bring people together across any number of divides: geographical, racial, social, generational.

EVA London 2011 was a somewhat more academic and cerebral event: three days of papers and demonstrations on electronic visualisation and the arts. Ruth Gibson’s motion capture visualisations of dancing stillness using the Skinner Releasing Technique (http://ewic.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/40639) and Donatella Barbiere’s film of her experience in the V&A’s performance archive (http://ewic.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/40636) would have captivated everyone in our PhD programme, I’m certain.

Tonight’s performance by and about the grande dame of live art, as Marina Abramovic has been called, will doubtless be written up all over the internet, and MobileHCI promises to blow my mind with new developments in the ways we use mobile devices, including applications in the arts.

If you triangulate (quadrangulate?) these events, you get an interdisciplinary mishmash that I’m trying to turn into a thesis. I couldn’t possibly have turned down these opportunities to get new perspectives, meet new people and gather more resources and references.

I still wouldn’t mind a couple weeks of reading theory in the sun, though.

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This week, I am pressing pause on my dance PhD research and heading off to the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts. While I am looking forward to Mumford and Sons, U2 and Beyonce, I am also excited about immersing myself in other aspects of the festival, including dance, circus, cabaret, comedy, theatre, poetry and even bingo.

Dance performance has become more and more apparent at UK summer festivals, and below are some of the best dance finds of the 2011 season.

Latitude 2011
14th-17th July 2011
Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk

Latitude festival celebrates the performing arts and prides itself in being ‘more than just a festival’. This year, Sadler’s Wells hosts its own programme on the Waterfront Stage, which includes FELA, Rambert Dance Company, Zoo Nation, Tommi Kitti, the English National Ballet and more

Guilfest
15th-17th July 2011
Stoke Park, Guildford

Guilfest is the University’s local festival, and will feature a Ceroc dance tent and barn dancing.

The Big Chill
4th-7th August
Eastnor Castle, Ledbury, Herefordshire

The Big Chill offers an all-round experience for 30,000 people including a wide variety of music and performance, art, spaces for kids, comedy, dance and film. For a full line-up, check out the Big Chill Arts trail.

Bestival 2011
8th-11th September 2011
Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight

Founded in 1995, Bestival is the last festival of the season, and has a fancy dress theme every year (this year it’s Rock Stars, Pop stars and Divas). In 2011, the ‘Time for Tease’ tent offers a delightful selection of burlesque and cabaret, while the Come Dancing tent teaches styles from the Lindy Hop and Viennese Waltz to Hip Hop, Tango and Breakdance.

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Over the last week Dance, Film and Theatre hosted the Research Week. The department organizes twice a year five intensive days of lectures, conferences and workshops where PhD students and professors present the status of their research.

As it was my first Research Week I was excited to attend the expositions of my colleagues and to learn from their processes. I benefited as well from the feedback received on my presentation. Moreover I would say the Research Week is important to connect us, the researchers, to identify us as part of the same community of academics. Since there is no necessity to attend modules and classes, PhD students are often reading and writing alone. Each one has her/his own research, her/his own bibliography and her/his own outline for study; we all have different lives that bring us different choices. Nonetheless researchers of similar fields will have similar problems and different ways of resolving them. It is always worthy to see how other researchers have found a solution for a problem that can be yours in the future.

The Research Week is the place where all of this can happen. This is the moment to connect with our colleagues and share our knowledge. It is an opportunity to create a network of future academics that can make a difference to our PhD experience.

Over the last week I have enjoyed meeting other researchers in my field, and overall sharing our experiences. After this, I think the Research Week has been a successful encounter for all of us.

I am looking forward to attend the next one in November!

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Conference Review – Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist (1st -3rd April)

Over the first weekend of April 2011, The Royal Ballet School (RBS) hosted a three-day conference on Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), the founder of the The Royal Ballet School and the Companies, to mark the tenth anniversary of her death. Even though this event took place last month (and hence is not the most up-to-date news), I thought it would be beneficial to share my experiences by reviewing the programme and its outcome.  

Entitled Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist, this conference proclaimed de Valois’s philosophy and accomplishments as the founder and leader of the English ballet. The conference was held at different locations on each day – first at the Royal Opera House (ROH), then at The Royal Ballet Upper School, and finally at The Royal Ballet Lower School – allowing the audience to appreciate de Valois’s legacy in both an artistic and a geographical sense. With the aim of creating a cross-disciplinary exploration of her life, it encouraged a valuable exchange between dance practitioners, scholars, critics, and historians.

As a prologue, the exhibition, Invitation to Ballet: Ninette de Valois and the story of The Royal Ballet, at the ROH, was opened to the conference attendees in order to provide a visual introduction to de Valois and her legacy. An announcement by Jane Pritchard, the conference chair, marked the official opening of the conference, and David Bintley gave the introduction through a filmed interview. The highlight of the Friday programme was, indeed, the performance, Step by Step, or Theatre by Theatre, given by the students of the RBS and the artists of The Royal Ballet (RB) and The Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB). Representing de Valois’s choreographic life, the performance focused on reviving her own works. They showed a number of her early works, including Satan’s solo in Job (1931) and The Haunted Ballroom (1934), and also her later work, Vestris: Every Goose Can (1981). The role of the Betrayed Girl in The Rake’s Progress (1935), performed by a second-year student from The Royal Ballet Upper School, was further evaluated on the following day, when reviewing de Valois as a choreographer from the dancers’ perspective. The performance also included the works of Frederick Ashton, Bintley and Christopher Wheeldon, showing the choreographic lineage of the Royal Ballet Companies.

Supporting the practice-based programme of the previous day, the Saturday programme was a mixture of academic presentations, practical demonstrations and panel discussions. Exhibiting this combination, a well-structured morning session was presented, focusing on de Valois’s training system. To begin, dance scholar Geraldine Morris presented a paper on the development of training styles in England since the early twentieth century. Secondly, providing a practical demonstration of de Valois’s syllabus, Valerie Adams taught an advanced-level syllabus class to the second-year girls of The Royal Ballet Upper School. I was very excited to see de Valois’s syllabus as it has not been taught since the closure of the Teachers’ Training Course at the RBS. Her syllabus emphasised the execution of clear alignments and focused on developing fast and crisp footwork. Lastly, as a closing session on the training system, the conference presented a panel discussion between Adams, Julia Farron, Henry Danton, Michael Boulton and Michael Hogan. Through this session, they shared memories of de Valois and her teaching in the early days.

On Sunday, the diversity of de Valois’s role was assessed in the context of her partnership with Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, her influence on the development of a notation system, and her contribution to the growth of Irish ballet in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I was delighted to see presentations by lecturers from our department: first, by Jennifer Jackson with Susan Crow on de Valois’s role in forming a collaborative group of artists, and second, by Helena Hammond on the influence of the Bloomsbury Group on the artistic approaches of the RB. The final programme of the conference was the revive performance of W.B. Yeats’s The King of the Great Clock Tower (1934), showing the exemplary collaborative work of W.B. Yeats and de Valois at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

Monica Mason closed the conference with a touching speech recalling fond memories of de Valois. As many of those in attendance knew de Valois personally by working with or for her, they shared this time to remember her and her legacy. While I was very thrilled to see the many ex- and current members of the RB, including major ballet figures such as Beryl Grey, Peter Wright, Antoinette Sibley and David Wall, and to hear the anecdotes and personal recollections of de Valois, I would have welcomed a deeper level of exchange between practitioners and scholars, especially on Sunday, when some of the major figures were absent. Overall, the conference yielded profound knowledge and rich discussions on de Valois, and successfully highlighted the significance of her dedication and contribution to building the English ballet. Nonetheless, the complexity of the term ‘English ballet’ was not fully articulated or defined, leaving further, and perhaps, more critical evaluations for future events.

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The four finalists for the 4th Place Prize were selected from 16 works commissioned for the competition and premiered at The Place in September 2010. After ten nights of the finals in April 2011, Ben Duke & Raquel Meseguer (Lost Dog) won the competition and were awarded 25,000£.

Launched in 2004, the Place Prize is the biennale choreography competition which any UK-based choreographers can get into, regardless dance genres and styles or professional backgrounds. It was established to discover and support talented choreographers who develop their own idiosyncratic movement language and expression imbued with creative ideas. The object of the prize has been already achieved despite its short history. The former winners (Rafael Bonachela in 2004, Nina Rajarani in 2006, and Adam Linder in 2008) have been critically acclaimed and called for creating works for international dance companies. Also, one of the finalists in 2004, Hofesh Shechter, who was a relatively newcomer when he competed for the prize, has became one of the outstanding contemporary choreographers in Britain.

In terms of judging original artworks by the creativity, the Place Prize is paralleled with The Turner Prize in visual art and the Man Booker in literature. However, what distinguishes the Place Prize from the other arts prizes is to give audiences opportunities to choose their favourite work as like X-factor. The winner’s work It Needs Horses is about a dark side of circus performance featuring two contrasting characters, a male ringmaster and a female performer. Even though I voted Freddie Opoku-Addaie and Frauke Requardt’s work, Fidelity Project (It was really hard for me to choose between this and Duke and Mesequer’s work), I could expect that audiences voted winner would be Duke and Meseguer’s work. It is because the work It Needs Horses comprises a variety of theatrical elements  such as a narrative structure, humour, grotesque body images, and mimetic movements, which are enough to make strong impressions on the audiences. Indeed, Duke and Meseguer were chosen as audience voted winner nine times during ten nights of the final performances.

If you want to quickly grasp the trend and prospect of British contemporary dance, it would be a shortcut to check out the list of the finals(and semi-finals) for the Place Prize (the Place Prize Website: http://www.theplace.org.uk/placeprize).

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