Notes from Exceptional Behavior in East Village Dance: Spotlight on Yvonne Meier’s The Shining

Photo: Ian Douglas

By Doran George

The Shining is a great opportunity to put scholarship and artistic practice in public dialog. New York East Village Dance is a large focus of my doctoral research and I have found that my project has catalyzed fruitful exchange with artists in the process of articulating recent dance history. I am defining the East Dance Scene as artists who participated in changes in choreographic strategy that began to occur in late 1970s and early 1980s, and also by venues and organizations that housed their work, which sprang up during that era including St. Marks Church, PS 122, and Movement Research. The definition of any community, artistic or otherwise, is always rife with problems because whatever terms you use, there are always exceptions. However my reasons for definition are to make my idea of the term explicit, and to suggest that the East Village scene made a particular contribution in the late 20th century.

I am researching and writing about approaches to training and choreography that had enormous impact on me as dancer and an artist. I met Jennifer and Amy in the early 1990s at a school in the Netherlands called the European Dance Development Center, for which the primary faculty were guest teachers from the US, and a large proportion of those came the East Village dance scene. Amy and I were students and Jennifer was a teacher who visited the school along with people like, Ishmael Houston Jones, Yvonne Meier, Jennifer Miller, Mimi Goese, and Stephanie Skura. I was drawn to the way their work seemed to have political potency and yet they did not communicate explicit or transparent messages. Their dance practices seemed to offer space within the idea of social identity through prizing open the way that I could imagine race, gender and sexuality.

I am very excited that this community has begun to reconstruct works from the 1980s and 1990s, because it gives us a rare opportunity to reflect upon practice that could otherwise have disappeared. Unlike more conventional choreography much East Village dance did not become repertory, but it had an important impact upon the development of the field, and wrangled with social issues at a time of enormous cultural conflict within U.S. history. Yvonne Meier’s performance The Shining depended upon and emblematized an approach to dancing that emerged in the East Village dance scene, which is characterized in part by an approach to choreography that is difficult to reconstruct.

The 1980s and 1990s

As a scholar I became interested in the way that the social and political mores of the 1980s and 1990s were embodied by East Village dance even while it was critical of the conservative ideas. Reagan pursued an aggressively individualist rhetoric that was echoed in most Western economies. The collective bargaining power of the unions was crushed, and attacks were made upon the welfare state. Fulfillment was promised through the radical pursuit of self-interest, and it was argued that freedom and individual potential had been stifled by the demands of attending to common social need.

Dancers who had been part of collective projects in the 1970s exploited the entrepreneurial possibilities of the new era using “idiosyncratic choreography,” as an artistic signature to compete for opportunities. However East Village artists also pushed against commercial imperatives using the emphasis on individuality, and they contested the viciously conservative cultural agenda that attended Reaganomics. They exaggerated the 1980s idea of self-interest to a point where it could no longer be considered economically viable. Furthermore as attacks were made on reproductive rights, and proper medical attention was denied to people dying of Aids, the singular practices of East Village artists purposefully embodied the social identities that were being marginalized. Jesse Helms used Movement Research Performance Journal #3 on gender as an example of why Federal Funds must be cut from artistic projects. His choice of a publication from East Village Dance demonstrates that artists participated in discussions about what constitutes appropriate social mores.

The Shining achieved East Village mythic status because it relied upon the strong sense of individuality nurtured by the milieu, which engaged in a complex negotiation of politics. While the conservative right was not happy with what downtown dancers were doing, neither was the liberal left. Many of the artists who performed in Meier’s work resisted political propriety as they refused to discipline their representations of marginalized bodies into a socially acceptable claim for rights. For example Houston Jones’s vision of non-heterosexual bodies was found lacking by commentators who sought singularly positive images of gay sexuality. Furthermore, while he was foregrounding the lack of visibility of African American artists in the East Village scene, Houston-Jones also used the experimental context to stage critique of what he considered an official African-American aesthetic or politic within institutionalized modern dance. Huston-Jones brought his choreographing of complex and ambiguous politics to his performance in The Shining. Similarly Annie Iobst’s performance of femininity in the work transgressed protocol on both the left and right. Her character had already been crafted, actually in other work she made with Meier, and most of the cast brought their idiosyncratic practices to The Shining. Political correctness was a set of rules through which the liberal left achieved comfortable sociability in the late 20th century. The Shining exemplified an East Village ethic dedicated to the disruption of political correctness as much as it resisted conservative values.

Contemporary Risks with Audience

One of the reasons that The Shining is such an important work is because of the risks that it took with audience. Yvonne refused to embody a commercially viable model of choreography in her staging of strident individuality. The audience for The Shining were not allowed to ‘consume’ the artistic products of the performers but instead were required to participate in the work as a kind of community. More than achieve institutional success with their work, some of the artists who developed highly individual approaches in the 80s and 90s generated a social milieu in the East Village. The Shining manifested principles that were evident in practices, which supported the cultivation of a communal body of exploration and transgression. Open Movement started in the late 1970s and was neither a performance nor a class, but rather a space in which artists interacted through dance and voice, building a radical culture of expression.

Along with many of the performers in The Shining, Yvonne participated in Open Movement from its very beginnings and she was also instrumental in the introduction to the East Village of Authentic Movement. Practitioners work against judgment of their dance practice in Authentic Movement, resisting their concern about what looks attractive or how they think they should move. In Yvonne’s classes, dancers would engage in behavior that was unusual in everyday life and dance class, and was often reminiscent of cinematic representations of insane asylums. They would press parts of their body into each other, make non-musical sounds of varying pitch and volume, as well repeat actions with relentless obsessive repetition. Practitioners also witnessed each other in activity that appeared inappropriately sexual, aggressive, depressed, afraid or bored. The regular contravention of expressive and interpersonal protocols forged a sociality that transgressed the social mores of the era, and it was this kind of culture that the audience for The Shining were invited to embody along with the performers.

Breaking the fourth wall, and involving audience in a piece of theatre, has subsequently been used in ways that have different social poignancy toThe Shining, and sometimes in ways that do not push against dominant values. Some shows have now achieved commercial success in New York by capitalizing upon the excitement of participation as a selling point. Yet even while it has become more common to position the audience as something other than passive spectators, choreographers have nevertheless continued to find critical tractions in different ways of engaging an audience. This has included working with the social values that are relevant to local contexts beyond the East Village scene.