P/W Day 3: Pushing Boundaries

posted 6 May 2018, 13:20 by gwen@centre42.sg   [ updated 7 May 2018, 03:52 ]

American tap dance artist Michelle Dorrance was in conversation with Sinclair Ang as part of a SIFA public talk this afternoon.

- In Conversation with Michelle Dorrance
- P/W Workshop 3

- SIFA Performance: OCD Love

Michelle Dorrance’s passion for tap dancing was apparent and infectious. Even though she had landed in Singapore at 7am today and went straight into teaching a SIFA masterclass, the award-winning American artist still visibly lit up as she discussed her craft with Sinclair Ang at the public talk this afternoon. Both groups of POV participants attended this, as they will be watching her work, The Blues Project, next week.

The talk was both inspiring and eye-opening, thanks to her enthusiasm and her frankness. As a white tap dancer who is recognised for her work in a genre that originated from the black community, Dorrance is acutely aware of her privileged position - something that she wasn’t afraid to openly address. During the talk, she continually stressed the importance of taking every opportunity to acknowledge tap’s history as a black form, and she sees it as her “responsibility to honour [her] ancestors and the backs that [she stands] on”.

On top of educating the public about the form’s roots whenever she gets the chance, she shared that she also tries to honour its traditions in her own practice by always striving to push boundaries. “You have to be yourself to honour other people. No one did something so that after them can do it exactly the way they did it,” she said. “Tap is one of the most cutting edge forms on stage.” To that end, she is currently working with the American Ballet Theatre to create new works inspired by both dance forms.

Dorrance also discussed the blurred lines between dance and music, and introduced some of the masters who had taught or inspired her (including Cholly Atkins, Dianne Walker, and Steve Condos). At certain points, she even got up from her seat to demonstrate specific techniques. It made for an interesting talk, and gave participants some insight into her work and approach to tap.

“I am unfamiliar with tap and while the talk didn't exactly provide a primer into the form, it was insightful to learn about Michelle's personal relationship with it, how she works with dancers in her company, her thoughts on the cultural politics [and] musicality of the form, and the idea of tap being as much a musical instrument as a style of dance,” said Performance Writing (P/W) participant Akanksha Raja.

“I felt that Dorrance's talk [was] illuminating towards the end because it showed more of her own attitude and philosophy with regards to her place in the tap-dancing world, as well as how she went about carving her niche,” shared fellow participant Alfonse Chiu. “I got a clearer picture of her as both a dancer and an artist, especially when she illustrated her points with live demos of the specific movements.”

The P/W participants were divided into groups to brainstorm ideas for a feature article based on the talk with Michelle Dorrance.

After the talk, P/W participants headed back to Centre 42 for their third workshop. They began the session with a general chat about how they felt the programme was going so far so far, which segued into the realisation the that many of them were not very familiar with "dramaturgy" - a term that had cropped up in exchanges over the last couple of days. So Lim How Ngean gave a brief introduction of the word's roots in sociology (as Irvin Goffman theorised that the human behaviour is scripted and performative), and explained that it was first used in the theatrical setting by German practitioners, such as Bertolt Brecht, to refer to the structure and flow of the play-text. Today, however, dramaturgy and the role of the dramaturg have how expanded to encompass a lot more. For instance, a dramaturg could be working with a director or choreographer to develop the concept, structure, and vocabulary for a work (which may or may not be text-based), but he or she may also take on a more research-based role. Lim thus stressed that it is important for writers to be clear about what aspect of dramaturgy they are referring to should they use the term in their work.

Discussions then moved on to the participants' thoughts on the talk with Dorrance earlier, with a particular focus on the role of the moderator. For instance, some felt that Ang's line of questioning was too technical for those who were not familiar with tap dance to follow, while others thought that more time should have been spent discussing The Blues Project.

"I don't think I've ever considered the art of moderation ([for] pre- or post-show talks) with as much criticality as we did during this workshop session," said Raja later on. "It reminded me that moderators - or interviewers - have a responsibility to the artist and to the audience."

Building on that, Lim then set an exercise for the participants to consider how they would cover the talk as arts writers. They were split into three groups and given half an hour to come up with an angle for a potential feature article, decide on five points that they would include in that story, and jot down five questions that they would asked Dorrance if they were to interview her.

It was a challenging task as most of the participants have never pitched a story to an editor before. As a result, they encountered some difficulties in trying to come up with a clear and strong angle, and understanding how to differentiate between stating their points and making an argument.

Still, they soldiered on and gave it their best shot. In the end, Group 1 (comprising Amanda Leong, Loh Anlin, Teo Xiao Ting, and Valerie Lim) settled on exploring the historical influence of tap dance on Dorrance's practice; Group 2 (Akanksha Raja, Alfonse Chiu, and Lim Si Qi) had the idea to explore Dorrance's passion for the musicality of tap dance; while Group 3 (Casidhe Ng, Jaclyn Chong, and Ke Weiliang) hoped to delve into the “constant resurgence” of tap dance, referring to a point that Dorrance made during her talk about how there has been a perception that “tap is coming back” for the past two decades.

“What I find most interesting from today is [how] difficult [it was] to think simply and clearly about a point sometimes,” said Chiu as he reflected on today's workshop. “By going back to the basics and the 'how's of things, one gets a clearer sense of what makes better writing.”

Ng agreed, and said: “[From the workshop,] I realised the importance of thinking through ideas and organisation in crafting the artists' profile. More often than not, what I thought was a ‘point’ turned out to be an uninformed perspective, or as How Ngean said, ‘an argument for the point’, as opposed to the point itself.”

Even though they are not required to go on to write the actual article, the exercise encouraged the participants to step beyond their comfort zone and try something new. It wasn’t easy, but it was wonderful to see them bouncing ideas off each other, and helping one another out whenever anyone was stuck.

After a brief dinner break, which most of the group enjoyed together, they headed to SOTA Drama Theatre for a dance performance titled OCD Love by the L-E-V Dance Company from Israel.

Tomorrow will be a reading day for everyone, but we will meet again on Tuesday 8 May.

Update (7 MAY 2018 6.50PM) - Minor corrections, and added the day's activities, more information about Lim How Ngean's introduction to dramaturgy, as well as the participants' discussion about talk moderation.