Monday, December 23, 2013

Robert Hoffman: Creating TRUE Contemporary Work

If there is one question that currently arouses hot debate within the dance industry, it most certainly is "what is contemporary dance?" As a competition judge and choreographer, I often ask this question to gauge how deeply the media has infiltrated the mass consciousness. Many times, pop culture drives this tendency to categorize and label "what is" and "what is not." Because of this, one typically hears generalizations such as "its just ballet mixed with hip hop" or "a fusion of all styles." However, these are naive attempts to frame contemporary dance within a rubric of "moves" or "steps," when in fact, contemporary dance is reaction based by its very nature. This is why Robert Hoffman might actually be considered one of the most truly "contemporary" choreographers working in the industry today.

True contemporary dance is the exploration of the "now" and the present state. When a dance is truly contemporary, it must take into account all the feelings and sensations that the dancer is experiencing in that exact moment. It is for this reason, that European contemporary masters rely heavily on the art of improvisation to create honest and authentic movement. True improvisation taps into the unique set of environmental factors that are present at any given point in time. This is the reason that many people find compelling contemporary dance "edgy" or "relevant." If a dancer is being genuine in their exploration, there is the opportunity to fail and the possibility for someone to wonder "is this good or crap?" However, the irony is this: if we deem something to be "good" then it immediately becomes a past reference and no longer exists in the "contemporary moment." In a society that revels in past accomplishments and building a repertoire of "classics," this aspect of contemporary dance can be frustrating to grasp. In essence, just as you reach your "success" you are asked to let it go.

And here is the kicker, the only way to truly access these "past references" in a contemporary context, is to view them with self-awareness and understanding that they are literally "of the past." It is for this reason that Robert Hoffman is actually creating "contemporary" work with this piece of video satire. He is expressing his "current state" of observation with regard to the subject of CONTEMPORARY DANCE. And in providing a humorous self-awareness, he demonstrates a reaction-based experience to the feeling we have when we watch this SYTYCD-style, media-defined, mass-produced, market-promoted "thing" that has been labeled "CONTEMPORARY DANCE." We all know, on some level, that what the American public THINKS is "contemporary dance" is actually a glossy, hyped-up, performance that is referencing a past idea or pre-conceived shape. And because these are shapes that are so easily recognizable, Robert's contemporary reaction hits the nail on the head and achieves his critique brilliantly.

In the early days of hip hop, the pioneers of the movement always referred to the EXPERIENCE of "breaking." However, the media always attempts to synthesize an experience into a commodity, so that it can be mass-produced and consumed. This happened before in hip hop, and is now happening within the world of contemporary dance. To hold and smell a real flower is a sensory experience and is very different than seeing a photo of a flower on a magazine page. In all probability, the original flower is probably dead and destroyed by the time you see it on the page. In the same way, true contemporary dance must be experienced in the moment. Someone could perform a "contemporary dance" on SYTYCD, die the next day, and the episode will still air one week later. And this effectively disqualifies it as being "contemporary" since it is no longer "of the now." But since experiences have little to no shelf life, corporate executives need an artificial stand-in that will give television audiences the "flavor" of contemporary, without the actual meat.

So for this moment in time, Robert Hoffman is my featured contemporary artist…because he is actively engaged in the current state of affairs. He alludes to past references with a knowing and observant eye, and makes relevant and accurate comments about the misinformation that has been fed to the American public. Robert understands that the executives at shows like SYTYCD are in the mass-produced entertainment business, and if the word "contemporary" sells advertising dollars, then they will milk that cow dry. But the experience that I felt, while watching Robert's satire, was authentic and totally present in that moment. It is for this reason that I deem it incredibly contemporary work. Interestingly though, now Robert's video itself has now entered into the realm of my own past references….and so goes contemporary dance.

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