Is “Process Art” Making a Comeback?

October 5, 2013

In the 1960 and ’70s, many in the dance world railed against the polished product of concert dance and searched for something more real. They wanted to see the performer as a person rather than some ethereal or heroic being. They wanted to let the audience in on the process of making a dance.


In Merce Cunningham’s 1963 piece Story, Robert Rauschenberg furnished the dancers with what Carolyn Brown called “a crazy assortment of garments” that was different each night. In her book Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham, she wrote, “This was Art-and-Life, Cage style.” The audience saw the dancers adapting to new costumes and props in real time.


Story, 1963. Courtesy Dance Camera West.


When I was dancing with Trisha Brown in the ’70s, we built a brief section into Line Up when we actually created new choreography instead of performing set work.


Of course jazz musicians have a time-honored tradition of improvising in performance. And we got a taste of that recently when Michelle Dorrance brought her SOUNDspace to Fall for Dance. It was highly structured and patterned, but one section broke away, allowing Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Jumaane Taylor, and Dorrance to improvise, riffing off of each other.


Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (center) in Dorrance’s
Photo by Matthew Murphy.


Last weekend I saw a program that presented another possibility of process art. It was the last in a series of “live choreography” called Surprise Every Time, conceived and organized by Sally Silvers, at Roulette in Brooklyn. The challenge was to make a dance in 20 minutes—with audience watching. And the choreographers were game—and fast. This was process revealed and condensed.


Silvers had organized them in pairs. Last Sunday, the pairs were Koosil-ja with Alexandra Beller, Donald Byrd with Li Chiao-Ping, and Mark Dendy and Stanley Love (the final duo chose to make two separate pieces). Some moments were like seeing a very rushed rehearsal. But at other moments you saw how a particular choreographer worked/thought. Mark Dendy threw many ideas together: phantom drumming, blocks of ice, a crippled soldier, reams of tangled audiotape. Stanley Love tread the line between sentiment and cliché in a louche group work to a Whitney Houston song.


Mark Dendy gives quick instructions to Clare Porter (far left with the block of ice),
Miz Cracker
, and Bita Bell.

Photo by Stephen Donovan.


Donald Byrd
quickly gave instructions of how to manipulate a phrase that Li Chiao-Ping had given the dancers. After the dancers made those variations (e.g. transfer the arm movements into your legs), he suddenly asked for a volunteer to go tipping around the space. That verb was new to me: it means walking like a runway model. To demonstrate, Byrd himself walked lightly on half toe, swishing his hips and curling his wrists. This was a side of Byrd I hadn’t seen before, which is what “process” can reveal.