Sunday, August 3, 2008

A question of your honesty...

I appreciate an honest performance. One without airs, gimmicks, gratuitous costuming, or obvious trend following.

But how do you know when a performance is honest? How can you tell when the performer is genuinely enjoying herself without worrying about impressing the audience or whether her performance will be well-received?

I thought back to my skating days, when my mother and I would get annoyed at the skaters who were rewarded by their use of gimmicks and props, while the skaters will skill and musicality weren't always recognized.

In belly dance, I think gimmicks are also overused, and often point to a disingenuous performance. My friend the Oxford English Dictionary says that a "gimmick" is "a tricky or ingenious device, gadget, idea, etc., especially one adopted for the purpose of attracting attention or publicity." In this definition, there is an inherent intend to trick or mislead. In my mind, a gimmick in a performance can be used to distract the audience away from the fact that a dancer is not accomplished or secure enough for her dancing to stand alone. That gimmick could be the use of an unusual prop, wearing provocative or unusual costuming, using catchy music, or gratuitous humor. (This is not to say that I believe that anyone who uses a prop is doing so because they can't dance. On the contrary, I've seen many a skilled dancer use props in a manner that compliments and enhances her dance.)

Other elements that seem to tip off a performance that isn't wholly honest is gratuitous use of trendy or scandalous music, overly-revealing costuming for the sake of garnering attention, or scandalous movements. These things are also gimmicks, inadvertently placing skill and expression behind gaining attention or notoriety.

I think it takes a long time and a wise dancer to give an honest performance. The most honest and raw performances I've seen are from dancers who have either been dancing their whole life or who have been dancing for 20 or more years. It's difficult for a new performer to have the confidence and sense of self to give an honest performance. Many of us newbies are still focusing on whether our technique is correct or whether or not the audience cares or appreciates what we're doing, or whether or not our costume might... "malfunction." An experienced performer is so open on stage that she's not paying attention to these things - she isn't paying attention to anything, in the conscious sense. It's as if she's turning her emotional self inside out, baring her shadows for all of us to see, and she isn't worrying about whether or not we like what we're seeing. She just IS, and that's all that matters.


Nia said...

An excellent article. Would you mind if I translated it, giving you full credit, for my blog about belly dance in Spanish?

Anonymous said...

I feel like I'm big time on the wrong side of this post, considering I just posted pictures of my feathered ass all over tribe. :) But that's ok. *sniff*

Disclaimer: everything that follows is my opinion, and given with the best of intentions, without meaning to criticize or cause offense. It's given in the spirit of discussion.

I agree with you to a point and disagree with you to a point. My troupe and I perform as part of a circus collective, and we're on a big theatrical bent right now. It's interesting to us to play with sets and props and costumes and moods and atmospheres and stuff more in line with a theatre troupe because it works hand in hand with what we're trying to do, and for our relationship and performance schedule within our specific community. Cirque du Soleil is a big inspiration for us, and they're certainly not performing in jeans and a t-shirt (Heck, they've got a nekkid circus show in Vegas). The whole idea is to create another world through a lot of different elements. What's so wrong with that?

Also, what's the difference between using a gimmick and offering a variety? Our sets last 40 minutes--how do we hold the audience's attention for that long? We do a lot of different stuff, use different props, different music, different costuming, different types of performances (hula hooper, fire performers, dancers, actors, stiltwalkers. Sometimes we use skits and vaudeville comedy routines because damnit, we feel like being silly. Sometimes we get tired of taking ourselves super seriously). We've all been to those workshop shows and galas that go on forever and ever, and no matter how high the quality, eventually you just get bored. Honestly, I can only take so much of the same stuff, artistic or not, over and over.

Yes, I care about what my audience thinks. I am not ashamed to admit that. Do I pander to that shamelessly? No. I take risks and do what I want first, but I do take my audience into consideration. I am sharing my art with them; I want to involve them in my performance and inspire them to go home and try something impossible. I am also a business woman for myself with a responsibility to 8 other performers. I do this for a living, and I don't pretend that money doesn't factor. I don't think being an artist, eeking out a living, caring about your audience, playing with the bells and whistles periphery stuff like costuming and props have to be mutually exclusive. At least not all the time. Sometimes you gotta sacrifice one or more of the above, but why not shoot for the moon and try for all of it?

I'm not sure that this is what you're intending, but I get this vision of me having to dress head to toe in minimalist black and giving melodramatic performances in a disconnected trance state to be considered an "honest" performer. Maybe wearing a black beret on my head. :) If that's true, I'm sorry but I can't make myself do that, I'd be miserable. I get the sentiment behind what you're going for--that all the bells and whistles are secondary and it's the technique and the emotion and the confidence in your art that's important. But there seem to be a lot of limitations involved on the basis of this post. Consequently, if I did follow this rulebook, I'd be moving away from what *I* want to do on the basis of what you may or may not think of my performances. Seems contradictory to me. I love you, dearest, but not that much. I'll have fun doing my own brand of dishonesty over here in the corner. :)


Abigail K. said...

Natalie - I don't think what you're doing with your cirque is dishonest. Why? Because you're NOT performing for the sake of garnering attention, and it's clear to me that this is something to which you are TRULY dedicated. There's nothing wrong with having fun, and I don't think fun elements in a performance are necessarily gimmicky. A gimmick is meant to distract the audience from an otherwise apparent lack of skill or experience... and if you're aiming to create a CIRCUS, then the circus elements (stilts, fire, etc.) are not gimmicks; they're an integral piece of the SHOW.

I don't mean that an honest performance has to be someone all in black being melodramatic. In fact, if I saw that, I might be like, "what on earth?"... unless that performance was done well. (And what's a "good" performance anyway? Augh... That's a whole 'nother Oprah!)

I think what I'm trying to get at is that there's a lot of "wannabe" in tribal right now, and I'm getting tired of all the vaudeville, Indigo, Rachel Brice, Zoe, Mardi, neo-Victorian, Balkan knock-offs. It works for The Indigo because for them, it's clearly where they are in their artistic journey. So many of the others seem to be just trying it on to see where it gets them.

I think you can offer a variety if everyone in that production is a master of their art. Gimmicks are apparent when the performer is just using something to gain attention. It's a lot different to walk on stage with a sword and dance poorly with it than it is to be an excellent balancer with clean dance technique (Belladonna, I think, is a master of the sword, and her sword performances are not gimmicky to me).
Now, I haven't seen your productions, but having talked to you about them, I'm pretty damn sure you're wholly dedicated to the process and you're not just "trying it on" in order to gain some fame or notoriety in the belly dance world.

Amber said...

As someone who is still trying to find herself as a performer and figure out exactly what her style is, this post resonates deeply for me. I'm trying very hard to not only practice good technique, but to get exposure to many different styles and presentations (for lack of better words) of belly dance to work towards finding my own dancing voice. It's definitely not a short journey, and I definitely have a ways to go :)

Indotari said...

I agree with Asharah.

Sometimes I watch performances that are very spectacular, but are lack of ¿magic?.
There are very theatrical performances, that's good, but I need to see people DANCE, not only see a person in a very beautiful costume and makeup doing whatever but dancing.

I need to see people dancing as I want to dance, not only having the coolest props/costume that I want ho have.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I would much rather watch a dancer new or old who puts her heart into the dance. I am often disappointed by some dancers where I live because they seem more about showing off than actually connecting with their songs and moves. To them, it's about pitching out that certain move that gets the audience to clap (most of the moves are knock-off trademarks of other dancers!). I'd rather watch someone who just gets out there to have fun and let go and revel in the music.

Your posts are so insightful by the way. I love checking for updates!

Abigail K. said...

Nia - I'd be honored if you translate it for your own blog. Thank you so much! :)

Anonymous said...

So, SO well said. When I'm really in the pocket, I feel broken wide open when I dance -- no barrier between me and the audience, no walls, no nothing. I feel utterly transparent. It's an AMAZING feeling.

Shay Moore The TribalDancer said...

I completely agree, m'dear (as I do with your observations, more often than not). I use the word "contrived" versus "authentic". And by authentic I mean authentic *to that dancer*, not historically.

I see a lot of contrived performances--in aesthetic and execution. I see a lot of inauthentic dancers. Dancers who are not being their authentic selves on stage. They are clawing and grasping at trying to be or do the next big thing. I remember one gal at a workshop I taught not too long ago saying she was going to take a hula class because she was excited about the possibilities of fusing it with her bellydance, but then she found out Unmata was already pretty famous for that, so she was going to try and find something else to study to fuse. I was stunned into silence.

That, to me, is the quintessential problem these days: reverse engineering fusion. So many dancers are shoehorning things into bellydance just to try and be new and different--rather than pursuing your bliss and letting that fusion organically flow in the process. The best of all worlds of classical or fusion bellydance forms is when someone is just dancing their own being and that which grows out of their experiences organically. Isn't that what we are always saying is a primary root of bellydance as we know it? Honestly and openly revealing something of ourselves in the dance, rather than trying to gauge what will get the best reaction or the most buzz, and chasing after that? Is not "dancing our stories" the very essence of bellydance?

This is part of why my troupe has taken a very conscious step back from the entire tribal "scene" in the last year. We were frankly exhausted with the frantic "lookatmeeee!"/"wannabeeee!" energy that flows through it so much any more. We really missed that familial warmth, the genuine baring of souls through dance, the meeting of like-minds, unaffected groove behind the community that drew us to it in the first place. We wanted to get back to our own roots and remind ourselves what we stand for, what we dance for, and what we want to communicate in our work; separate from the grasping expectations of tribal audiences who lately seem too easily bored and jaded by anything that has "been done". We didn't want to stay on that train of constantly trying to go to the creative well, and becoming artistically contrived when the genuine inspiration dried up.

So we slowed down, and it feels good. Really good. And our work feels more honest, more pure. We honestly haven't had any big new things come of it yet. We are on our own creative schedule. We turned our energy inward toward one another and the voice we want to speak with. We have been honing our most basic technique and revisiting our foundations to make ourselves stronger overall. And when we come back out "on the scene", if we have something new and amazing to show for it, great. And if not, we can at least be assured we are stronger, better, and being true to ourselves.