Saturday, May 31, 2008

the gaze of the beloved

Sometimes we think that the gaze of the beloved is more benevolent than the gaze of the judge. We dance under this gaze thinking we will be safe. We "love" people in order to construct a safe framework in which to engage with them. (I love black people, I love french people, I love chinese people, I love white people. Or, I love my dancers, I love my collaborators)

But love is violence too (the arrows! the arrows!)

As fellow-blogger Adriana Bucz said, to "fall" in love suggests an accident. A crash. A scraping of elbows and knees.

To fall in love is to come up against another human being. The warm baths, the caresses, the flowers - they are all strategies to penetrate you, to change you, to be changed by you.

This chemical reaction is violent.
We want it because we depend upon it to survive. To move through what could be the morass of life.
But we are afraid of it because like all true engagement - art, conversation, war - it threatens to annihilate us.
Our edges dissolve and we don't know who we are anymore.

my gaze

I have been dramaturging Martha Carter's Twisted Project this week. I am discovering or having it re-affirmed, that

when you observe something, it changes

it is hard to observe that which you judge

if you truly observe something, you are changed by it

Friday, May 30, 2008

Wagner and orgasms

I was talking about Body-Scan and The Whole Beast to Marc Olive and Amandine while in Brussels. I was talking about le lenteur, the slowness as something that had to be installed, to be experienced, to withstand, to submit to, so that a transformation could happen.

Marc said, like Wagner.

Non, non, non, I said, (arrogantly, because I really don't know Wagner) don't talk to me about Wagner. I hate Wagner. German opera - all that recitative. Mon dieu, c'est insupportable. (Amandine, at this point, raised her eyebrows and said, il ne faut pas dire ça, scolding me for wanting people to be open to my work, yet making sweeping dismissive statements about other work and artists..yes, yes, yes, mea culpa mea culpa)

Of course, it turnes out Marc loves Wagner. He talked of sitting in a chair and listening to Wagner and how this was like having an orgasm.

So maybe now I have to listen to a bunch of Wagner to find out if it is a male orgasm or a female orgasm. (First Beckett, now Wagner...oh god)

Because, really, the idea of admitting that the structure of my work is akin to Wagner 's is just too irritating.

the gaze of the king

Anis talked beautifully (with his whole body) about the outrage of the Cambodian monkey dancer dancing under the gaze of the king; how this outrage is tranformed by the dancer into the force and energy of shakti and then into a gift of rasa - feeling, emotion - for the audience.

It occurs to me that this is the female orgasm - shakti corresponding as it does to principles of feminine energy. Ziyian once told me that my work was like a female orgasm in its rhythms and structure. It is an offering. And if the offering is not received, I, the dancer, the lover, am left with the outrage. Hurtling through my body, smashing up against soft vulnerable tissue and psyche.


How does one make an offering such as this if the king is looking for something else and thus, does not see, does not receive?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

love and thievery

The heart is an organ of fire.

To fall in love is to allow your heart to be stolen.

And even if you are very happy about it, it is very unnerving to go about life without an organ.

So You Think You Don't Folk Dance - thievery

I wanted us to talk about art as an act of stealing.

Zab (my heroine) said, why must we "steal"?

I said, (after having to think about it for 10 minutes) that in a world driven by words like "the marketplace", "buying", "selling", "ownership", it was a political choice to use the word "steal". If I want to believe that art is an offering, a circulation of gifts as opposed to the buying and selling of commodity, then the only way I could subvert this society was to think of artmaking as stealing and regifting.

Later I saw a dance performance during which I thought, if we are going to steal, we must make sure that we have stolen the flame, not just the wrapping paper.

And like Prometheus, we must be ready to pay for it with our livers.

So You Think You Don't Folk Dance - being white

Zab said that being white is not just the colour of your skin.

Being white is a political and economic privilege, either constructed by history or by oneself.

I can construct this white space and I do, despite my chinese skin, very often, during the day.

I construct it in the way I speak. In the languages I choose to speak.
I construct it in the way I dress. In the way I gaze at other people.

On the bus, when I encounter incidents of racism, I construct this white space around me. I "become" white so that these moments of violence do not touch me.

When I am with other white people, I construct this space by keeping silent about the things that would bother them. By adopting an interest in subjects that they deem universal. Such as motherhood, being a woman, being in love.

But I KNOW I am constructing this. I KNOW what I am stealing, where I have stolen it from and what I am doing with it. I do not have the privilege of denial. I do not have this privilege, not because my skin is not white, but because I have bartered that privilege away for the privilege of being an artist.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

So You Think You Don't Folk Dance - violence

Sébastien asked me, after I had ordered a martini shaken violently, if I liked things violent. I said, without thinking, that no, not really, being a dancer was violent enough. As I said it, I thought, whoa, that's interesting, what the hell did I mean by that?

Well, this weekend's So You Think You Don't Folk Dance conversation provided lots of answers to that question. Here are some of the words that ocurred over and over again:

folk dance is murder
contemporary dance is dead
rupture
violence
outrage
stealing
lying
subversion
post-genocide monkeys
honorific thief
bifurtication of the body

No wonder I am in my fifth day of a headache.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

So You Think You Don't Folk Dance - my opening speech

good evening
my name is Su-Feh Lee and I am a dancer, choreographer, the artistic director of battery opera.
and this is my party.
Thank you all for being here.

Over the last little while, often, when I mentioned that I was organizing a discussion, a conversation on the continuum between folk practice and the palace, people would say, “and you are doing this for….?”

with the implication that this was yet another panel discussion initiated by some funding body, a governmental agency, an umbrella organization with agendas that have been handed down by politicians, policy-makers, bureaucrats and boards.

Well, this isn’t it. This is a conversation that serves nobody else’s agenda except mine. Which is that of an artist. An artist with questions about my craft and my instrument -which is my body - and the political and historical pressures upon it.

Having said that, I must now thank all the funding bodies, the governmental agencies and umbrella organizations that have helped me and battery opera do this. First, the Equity Office of the Canada Council for giving us the money. The Canada Summer Job Program for allowing us to hire an assistant, Sameena, who will document and disseminate the conversations. And of course, the Dance Centre for giving us the space and support.

Mostly, I want to thank my guests for agreeing to talk with me. They are
Dr Anis Nor, professor of Ethno-choreology and ethno-musicology from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Hari Krishnan, artistic director of Indance, based in Toronto, who works and teaches within and beyond the Bharatanatyam tradition.
Zab Maboungou, artistic director of Nyata Nyata based in Montreal, who is dancer, choreographer, teacher of philosophy, writer, activist and has been working for the development and promotion of African dance across Canada and abroad. Finally, closer home, Jennifer Mascall, artistic director of Mascall Dance. Jennifer is choreographer, teacher, educator and practitioner of Body-Mind Centering, of which she will tell us more later.
I had also invited Michelle Olson of Raven Spirit Dance Company to join us but unfortunately she has had to pull out due to unforeseen health complications. We will miss her perspective but we wish her well and a speedy recovery.

The term “folk” is a term loaded with imperialist and colonial implications as well as nationalist overtones. Any discussion of “folk dance” must deal with issues of power – political and economic - as well as issues of identity. As we discuss “folk” and the “palace” we will all have to grapple with the semantics of the words folk, ritual, traditional, contemporary, classicism, court, temple, sacred, popular etc etc. within the context of politics, patronage and the marketplace. Over the next few days, I am sure my guests will have plenty to add to this part of the discussion.

For my part, I would like to take back the word “folk” from its colonial, imperialist and nationalist projections and think of folk dance as just what folk do. Implicit in my definition of folk dance is dance that is ritual based. Dance that has a function other than being ornamental, other than being entertainment. In this category I include dances that are performed to bring rain, dances that are done to flirt with members of the opposite sex, dances that celebrate rites of passage, dances that celebrate the harvest, dances that help you commune with the divinity of your choice. Thus, in my definition of folk dance I include breakdancing circles, contact improvisation jams, dancing all night at a rave while on ecstasy, lion dances on the street during Chinese new year.

In my definition of folk dance, I do not include the “folk dances” that one sees on a big stage such as, say, the Shumka Dancers. I do not include the breakdancing or hip-hop that one sees on a music video. I do not include the Chinese lion dance that is performed on a stage to impress the audience with virtuosic acrobatics. I do not include them because they have been taken out of their ritualistic function. They have become entertainment. A commodity for the palace.

What is this palace I am referring to? In the past, it would have been the European courts of Italy, France or Russia where classical ballet developed. Or the courts of South-east Asia where certain court dances developed. Implicit in my definition of the palace is the notion that the dance is being seen and paid for by a party that holds political and economic power. The nobility, the landed gentry, the bourgeoisie. While we can argue that these frameworks are also a kind of social ritual, the function of dance in these instances is often as object, as ornamentation not as the primary action of these rituals.

In the present, I believe that the demands and expectations of the palace continue to influence how we present and watch dance. We watch dance, often, in proscenium spaces such as this one. In which the audience has bought a ticket, has paid money to see the dance. In which the language of the marketplace – buying, selling, owning – has been used in the exchange of art. Who are the stakeholders in the artmarket of today? Are they governments, are they corporations – sporting or otherwise? In these palaces, old and new, it seems to me the circle of the folk ritual has often been transformed into something more linear. Function has been replaced by aesthetics. Aesthetics, in turn, are governed by the agendas and expectations of the palace.

In the practice of dance today, I believe we move fluidly, sometimes more sometimes less, between these two paradigms – the folk and the palace. Neither are ideals for me.

But I wonder what happens to the dance, to the body of the dancer, to the body of the community that dances, I wonder what happens to this body as it moves between the “folk” space and the “palace” space.

As the dancer moves from one function to another – from invoking to evoking or provoking, from action to subject to object to action again - I am curious about the changes that occur in the architecture of space, in the organization of the body, the role of the regard – the regard of oneself, the regard of the other. I am curious about how time is used in partnership with the dance, the role of rhythm in the organization of time. I am curious about the question of narratives, about the notion of ownership and authorship and how they are affected as we move from the sacred, intimate dance that we have with the divinity of our choice – either a god-figure or our deepest personal bliss - to the public dance under the gaze of the other.

These are my questions as we head into a weekend of conversation which I hope can inspire and provoke each of us as we go along our paths of making, teaching and studying dance.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I can be very slow

Sometimes we are incapable of hearing the things we want to hear.

A long time ago when I was much younger than I am now, I spent an evening flirting and dancing with the lead actor of the movie in which I had a bit part. We ended up in his hotel room talking about Joseph Campbell and b-movies (my intelligence! my intelligence!) I was expecting to end up fucking him. At some point he said, well, I am going to have bath. I thought, whaddaya mean you're gonna have a bath? Have you been stringing me along the whole evening?? Am I not good enough for you because you're the lead and I am not glamourous enough for you? So I said, well, ok, I'm going back to my room then.

I left, thinking I had kept my pride intact.

Later, much later, ten years in fact later, while walking down Commercial Drive, it hit me out of the blue: the bath!! - it hadn't been a rejection after all, it had been an invitation. He just wanted to be clean! I had totally missed the signal.

I told this story to Laetitia recently while we were talking about how often we misread messages because we are too afraid and insecure.

It is as hard to accept, as it is to give without wanting anything in return.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

l'amour, l'art, le marché

I have discovered this week, punctuated by this evening, my last at the Kunstenfestival in Brussels, that the love boat can indeed get you places. Yes! It is possible to make art an act of love in this world! We don't all have to go to hell in the handbasket of the marketplace!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

me and my beast #2

In Brest, after the shows, a young man came up to me and told me he was moved by my work. He said my smile was something very special. At that time, much as I was touched by this, I also thought to myself, whaddaya mean, my smile? What about my art?

Recently, a couple of Belgian programmers told me that what attracted them about my solo was me. Again, I thought, whaddaya mean me? What about my art?

I was starting to think, maybe I am not an artist after all, maybe I am just a nice person. What the fuck?

The other day ML told me that all those years ago, when I was a young wannabe dancer, Krishen had told her that I was an instinctive dancer.

What??? It wasn't my intelligence? My rigour?

And so, once again, I find that I am sometimes full of shit. I say that I believe in the intelligence of the whole body - a body governed equally by sensation, intuition and the intellect; yet I want to be recognised for my intellect more than anything else.

I had an epiphany while talking to Alexandra the other night - that for me, making art was an act of love. We then laughed about how impossible it would be to use that as a tagline in the art market. Just not fucking intellectual enough.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

honest lies

It occurs to me that often we are just fumbling through inadequate words and half-truths as we grapple with what life gives us. We say things we don't mean even as we feel what we feel with all honesty. Imprecision, and even outright lies, buy us time to process what threatens to overwhelm us.

If I insist on living, loving or creating outside preconstructed narratives and structures, then I must accept that my path is going to be filled with a series of lies as I stumble along towards the truth.

My lies become my failures.
My failures become my life's work.