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Short Excerpt From Danse: A Catalogue

Edited by Noemie SolomonDANSE: A Catalogue gathers newly-commissioned essays and dialogues that draw on DANSE: A French-American Festival of Performance and Ideas that took place in New York in May 2014. The three-week festival presented by the FrenchCultural Services featured 17 French contemporary dance projects and explored the mutual influences of French and American choreographic cultures.

The following is a short excerpt from Incommensurable Gestures, a discussion between Danspace Project's Executive Director Judy Hussie-Taylor and the choreographer Emmanuelle Huynh, whose work A Vida Enorme was presented as part of the festival.

DANSE: A Catalogue is available at select bookstores and online at albertine.com and lespressesdureel.com

[Emmanuelle Huyn:] I have a question for you. Last spring I took part in a public conversation on French feminism and dance that you put together with Jenn Joy at Danspace Project. I am curious to hear about how you see the two relating? Or, how has French feminism influenced your practice as a curator of dance and performance?

Judy Hussie-Taylor: This was a poetic provocation. The initial idea came out of a desire to hear interesting thinkers—artists, writers, and scholars—consider the connections between French feminist writers and French women choreographers. Pretty open-ended. But let me try to make a connection between your work and, for example, Julia Kristeva’s writing. You write that, in A vida enorme, you and Nuno were both topless making you simultaneously equal but gendered, and that by painting the skin gold you created a strange distance so that you were like “jewels of archaic figures.” Here I am reminded of Kristeva’s poetic language and dream logic. In her essay “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” she outlines how the “poetic word, polyvalent and multidetermined, adheres to a logic exceeding that of codified discourse and fully comes into being only in the margins of recognized culture.” To me, the uncanny, distant, and affective dancing bodies of A vida enorme fully appear in these “margins of recognized culture.” You also write of the same piece: “it gave me the idea to let one hear both languages: one, which here in France would be understood; the other [Portuguese] which would not. I wanted the audience to experience incommensurability through the non-understanding of a language.” It seems that this idea of the non-understanding of a language points to a breakdown in literal meaning, moving toward a poetic language where the invisible (again the “margins of recognized culture”) is what comes fully into being. In A vida enorme, jewels and archaic figures shimmer in the margins, adhering to a poetic logic outside of a codified discourse.

As for French feminism in relationship to my curatorial work… Choreographer Will Rawls once asked me if I thought the Platforms series at Danspace were gendered. I’d never thought about it, but immediately replied: “yes, feminine.” I wasn’t immediately sure why I thought this was the case. Was it because the Platforms are predicated on a series of relationships that are generative? Is it that they are designed as “structured improvisations” rather than as fixed or formulaic structures? Is it the idea that we can trouble conventional grammar (art/dance history also being a kind of grammar)? These ideas aren’t French or feminist or feminine necessarily, but rather choreographic, so does this mean that I believe that the act of choreography is somehow feminine (not necessarily) or feminist (maybe)? That said, I don’t think there is a right gender for choreography or choreographers. Questions, only questions!

Curatorially, I am interested in off-to-the-side (marginalized or temporarily de-centered) people, ideas, histories, and forms. But what is a margin or the center depends where you stand. In any case, my understanding of Jean-François Lyotard’s petit récit (little narrative) has informed my work over the years. Let me see if I can explain what I mean by this. I think quite a bit about what the dominant narrative is understood to be in a given context. And how there are multiple stories, large and small, that can apply to places, people, or ideas, dance/art historical narratives or, even, the history of a small organization like Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the- Bowery. Both inside (the specific history of the organization) and outside (for example the contexts of the international dance discourse or of the East Village) of that narrative, I look for artists, histories, and/or forms that have been obscured, inexplicably ignored or hidden. For example, in the 1990s many contemporary choreographers in New York City were studying with and influenced by Willie Ninja from the House of Ninja. In recent years, voguing has returned as a major influence on contemporary choreographers with French artists like François Chaignaud, Cecilia Bengolea, and New York artists like Cori Olinghouse, all having directly studied with artists from the House of Ninja. Working with Cori at Danspace in 2010, I asked her to consider inviting her teachers Archie Burnett, Javier Ninja, and Benny Ninja to perform as part of her evening. I was interested in revealing sources rather than leaving them—in the context of downtown contemporary dance—off to the side or obscured. How can we curatorially acknowledge the complexity of these constellations of influences?

The Danspace Project Platforms also sometimes address dance histories that haven’t been documented or historicized. In 2012, Parallels, curated by Ishmael Houston-Jones, reclaimed a history of a few African-American choreographers in the early 1980s in New York. Very little of that history was available, except to those who were there. In Danspace’s upcoming Platform 2015, Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, curated by Claudia La Rocco, we have made every effort to bring attention to some important players off-to-the-side of the canonic names (i.e., other than Balanchine, Cunningham, and Judson in this case). For example, influential and impactful figures like Edwin Denby and Barbara Dilley are brought back into the picture. It becomes an ongoing practice to always ask questions about received narratives and canons. Who’s missing? Where are the surprising connections? What are the relationships and influences?