Why I Choreograph: Douglas Dunn

March 31, 2013

A restless fixture in downtown New York for more than four decades, Douglas Dunn is known for his iconoclastic, risk-taking dances. He danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1969–­73, Yvonne Rainer and Group from 1968–70 and the legendary improvisation group Grand Union. He has collaborated with poets, filmmakers, visual artists, playwrights, and musicians, and he’s choreographed for Paris Opéra Ballet, for public television, and, of course, for his own company. The fabric of his rough-hewn dances can get pulled away to reveal surprising moments of tender beauty. In his SoHo studio he gives classes in technique and “open structures.” A book of his collected writings,
Dancer Out of Sight, was published last December. Still radical after all these years, Dunn responded to the question at hand in his own boldly extremist way.


Photo of Dunn © Jacob Burckhardt 2006.


Modern dance has no place in American life. As colonists we build forts, grab land, kill Indians. As pioneers we trek, we plant, we grow families. We industrialize, we technologize. We have bombs to build, wars to wage, gadgets to invent to outwit our enemies. We have plastic to mold to give us cancer that we be challenged to invent its cure.


There is no time for “frivolity.” The aesthetic life requires sensitivity of feeling based on listening, seeing, touching. Sensitivity of feeling demands a slow pace and an open mind. Success in our American world demands suppressing these delicacies. Breakneck competition is the way to achievement and to prosperity. We work hard, then celebrate with spectacle: melodramas, blockbusters, porno flicks, arousing easy emotions to orgasmic peak as a reward for preternatural vitality. So a few forests fall, a few species disappear. Who needs trees, we have benches made from bottle caps. Who needs cheetahs, we have robots to clean our homes. Soon our organs and limbs will be synthetic, our brains computers. Soon we will live on Mars in artificial environments, won’t we be proud, and our programmed sentiments will infuse us with numbed acceptance.


Modern dance is retrograde. It sees the complex body/mind as a temple to be dwelt in, lived from, revered. It says that any possible spiritual progress must emerge from an unembarrassed body. Thus we are un-Christian. We are not afraid of the flesh. We are interested in its sexual potential and its urges toward pleasure and ecstasy as well as in its capacity for discipline and rigor. We aim to integrate all human vital energies, transforming even the lowest and meanest into radiant beauty and meaning.


How have we fallen so far off track? Modern dance is also elitist and we know now that elites are reprobate. Dedication to excellence makes for cliques and thus militates against homogenized democracy. We should be ashamed. But ashamed of what? That we constitute an insult to the psychic infrastructure of our society, even to our so-called culture, already thoroughly commodified? Or that we are so cowardly that we accept our marginal status and rest on localized laurels, dancers dancing for other dancers forever? Like scientists we investigate, we hypothesize and test our guesses, but we don’t produce results helpful in upgrading weaponry or increasing computer power. We are useless. Our dances are no more than provisional proposals of ideal or hazardous relational configurations.


Reluctantly we rely on Western expertise to make our lives manageable, though our practice requires nothing but human presence. We play like serious children as the machine age gyrates toward self-inflicted cataclysm. We try to resist being dragged into the vortex of responsibility as defined by property and money. Or we accede and enter the fray in order to find space to move and the wherewithal to pay one another to dance, compromising our ideals in order to demonstrate them, polluting the millennially evolved stratosphere by flying here and there to show our steps.


Modern dance isn’t even a burr under the saddle of the Marlboro Man’s imperious ride into an atomic sunset. Modern dance is mostly women and men-in-touch-with-the-feminine. The over-muscled American male has beaten the American anima down to near silence, transforming our life-giving earth into a grave. And we are dancing on it.