Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Modern Dance

Marissa Skudlarek continues her mis-adventures in the Bay Area performance world and beyond!

When cultured Parisians invite you to do something, you don’t say no. On the last night of my stay in Paris last month, my host family asked me to accompany them to a dance performance, a collection of pieces by French choreographer Philippe Decouflé. Of course I accepted – how could I not?  But I was very worried, in the days leading up to the performance, that I might find it boring or no fun.

I know very little about dance as an art form. As a highly verbal person, I always feel out of my element when dealing with art that does not involve language or narrative. My favorite form of classical music is opera (because that’s really just theater) and it’s very, very hard to get me to go to a symphony or chamber-music concert. Sure, like every little girl, I had a ballet phase, but things like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake tell stories through dance. Modern dance, I knew, tends to be much more divorced from narrative.

Moreover, this was a dance performance in France, and when I think of the French artistic temperament, I think: serious, abstract, a little pretentious. This sounded like a recipe for a really tedious, turgid evening of modern dance.

On the night of the performance, my host family and I were in the lobby waiting to go into the theater, when we heard drums beat, whistles blow. Decouflé’s troupe emerged: three women, four men, with both sexes dressed in bizarre majorette outfits — as though the costume designer had seen a picture of a majorette once, years ago, and then tried to recreate her outfit from memory. They marched around the lobby, twirling batons. It was strange and whimsical and fun – though, determined as I was to worry, I fretted, “Are they making fun of American culture? Is that what this show is going to be?”

The evening proper began with some of Decouflé’s pieces from the ‘80s, with street-influenced dancing that wouldn’t have been out of place in a music video. (Indeed, Decouflé directed the acclaimed – and totally ’80s – video for “She Drives Me Crazy.” YouTube it!) Many of the other pieces involved dancing with props or other design elements: costumes with weird tentacles for a piece called “Microbes,” dancers in a stylized boxing ring, dancers strapped into harness for an aerial ballet, dancers interacting with their own shadows. One young man recounted a folk tale while illustrating the action with hand shadows.

I don’t know if this art revealed anything deeper about the human condition, but it was very entertaining and I was never bored. Rather than being a pretentious choreographer, Decouflé is a showman who aims to delight the audience with humor and creativity. Some of the pieces, such as the hand-shadow folk tale, blurred the line between theater and dance.  “Microbes” and the other dances with props reminded me of the work of Portland’s Imago Theatre, which similarly blends dance, theater, and whimsy in pieces like “FROGZ.” I was very grateful that my host family had invited me to see this, giving me a memorable last evening in Paris and also helping to dispel some of my false ideas about what modern dance is like.

In cultured France, modern dance is still a popular art form. The theater was sold out for a Thursday night performance, its approximately 900 seats filled with people of all ages. In America, modern dance is seen as a specialty genre, only for connoisseurs. The same goes for modern poetry.

And modern theater? Perhaps.

My head was full of negative stereotypes about what a modern dance performance might be like, based on the worst excesses of the artform. Is this the way the average person feels about theater? Maybe, when someone hears the word “theater,” they picture only the worst kind of peppy, jazz-hands musical theater. Maybe they picture a bad and boring Shakespeare production, people droning on in affected British accents. Maybe the phrase “modern theater” conjures up images of some ungodly kind of performance art. I don’t know for certain, but I do think that we should investigate the stereotypes that the word “theater” creates in people’s minds, so we can learn how to combat these prejudices.

So yes: seeing the performance in Paris made me stop worrying and love modern dance. (Or at least be more favorably disposed to modern dance.) But, because I always have to be worried about something, it also made me start worrying more about the state of modern theater, and how we can overcome the prejudices that prevent people from wanting to see plays. I would never have gone to the Decouflé show if my host family hadn’t bought the tickets. Honestly, I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to get people to see theater is to befriend non-theater people, convince them that you have good taste, and then invite them to see a play with you. But that can’t be the only strategy we have for expanding our audiences.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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