Dr. Sally R. Sommer in Conversation with Abigail Levine

Sally Sommer has a unique eye on the history of post-modern dance. Arriving in New York in 1967, she fell immediately into the post-Judson scene, writing criticism and reviews for the Village Voice through the 70s and 80s. With a doctorate from NYU's Performance Studies Department just as the discipline was forming, she went on to teach for a decade at Duke and another at Florida State University (ongoing), founding the innovative, practice-based FSU in NYC program. And through it all, she spent 4am-9am in the city's underground House clubs, observing "all these geniuses dancing away." This turned into the acclaimed film ethnography Check Your Body at the Door (25 years in the making.)

In this interview, Sally walks me through her take on New York's downtown art scene from the late 60s on, the distinctions she draws between criticism and reviews, her priorities as a dance educator and, most passionately, her advocacy of the extra-official dance forms and venues that she sees as the sites of some of the greatest vitality of the form.

—Abigail Levine

Abigail Levine: It is April 8th, 2014. I' m here with Sally Sommer at her home on 10th street. Sally, would you introduce yourself?

Sally Sommer: I'm Sally Sommer. I first came to New York in the 50s. But the first real  visit (a couple of months) was in 1961, and I have lived here since 1967. I’ve been involved in dance since I was 7 years old. I was raised in Arizona on a small ranch and I had a mother with artistic longings.

AL: And after you came to New York in the late 60s, what was your involvement with dance?

SS: Let me put it this way: the second day I was in town, I was at a party with all of the Judson people, with Trisha and Steve and David and Yvonne, maybe at Yvonne's loft? I immediately jumped into that scene because I knew Steve Paxton since I was a kid in Tucson, Arizona.

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AL: Briefly, if it’s possible, can you describe the feeling of that scene that you walked into? That sort of New York world?

SS: It was thrilling. I thought that they were fascinating, really smart, with a certain kind of humor that was very much in vogue at that point. You know, the wry smile. No gut laugh -- but they were funny, and the parties were a good time. Nobody got smashed and boring. It was more about people getting together and having a good time. Also they were a talkative, not people who were silent. And, to see them in action? In a casual situation?  Absolutely perfect. I thought, “This is it, I’ve found it.”  It was like my second day, so it was fabulous.

AL: And were you performing with them?

SS: I did some performances with Steve, State, Satisfying Lover; my husband, Bill, did Steve’s first IV blood transfusion piece…

AL: Paxton’s IV piece [Intravenous Lecture], what was that piece?

SS: It was made during the height of the Vietnam War so it had all sorts of overlaid meaning on it that was powerful. Steve talked and very slowly walked with an IV tree hung with saline solution drip-bag.  Bill walked with him, in his regular doctor’s coat from the hospital and very slowly fed the saline solution into Steve’s arm. They had talked about letting a certain amount of blood slippage into the tube. The dance was also done in protest because NYU (I think) would not allow nudity in a performance that Steve was going to do:  No nudity?  How about blood?  It had tremendous significance.  It was resurrected and redone by Stephen Petronio recently at the Joyce Theater. It’s a testament to what the dance was, what the dance meant, and what the dance can always mean as it goes through time and accrues different sorts of sensibilities. Petronio is very different than Paxton. Paxton is very matter of fact, very logical.  Petronio was much more emotional in his talking and movement and hooked it to AIDS, something of interest to him -- and something of great significance when you think blood and transfusions. So, the dance is like a sponge in absorbing whatever significances.

By then I was a trained dance historian and I was writing criticism. I use the word criticism and not just review because we had length [in our publishing allowances.]

AL: We’ll get back to that in a second. ...And you started writing criticism?

SS: I wrote my first… I was not wiring criticism. I was doing a lot of copyediting.

AL: You came from Tulane having done…

SS: I had started my doctorate at Tulane. Then I spent two and a half years in Italy.  It was the height of the Vietnam War and Bill was going to be drafted because he was a doctor. He was actually forewarned by his draft board because it was a teeny-tiny little regional draft board, and he received a phone call. I remember he joined the Air Force about an hour later because the Air Force was better for doctors than any of the other services. After our service in Italy we came directly to New York City because he got a psychiatric residency here. I remember riding in on the bus from JFK and thinking, “What the fuck are we doing here? Let’s go back to Brindisi!” Thank god for Steve.  Thank god for immediately getting in a scene where I was comfortable.

I was doing a lot of freelance work in publishing, but not writing. I was copyediting, really correcting other people’s writing, which is a great way to learn how to write. I decided to have a child and then did have a child. But immediately decided I needed to go back and get a doctorate because I didn’t see my life being reduced to changing diapers and taking care of an infant.  So I had this wonderfully balanced life: on one side Performance Studies; on the other side a screaming, very difficult little infant.  She became an adorable baby -- but was a tough young infant.

AL: So you did your doctorate at what would become Performance Studies at NYU?

SS: Yeah.

AL: Then you started writing for The Drama Review?

SS: I was not writing reviews. I was writing for The Drama Review and it was very different, very phenomenological, because, at that time, structuralism was really the modus operandi of Michael Kirby who was my chief advisor/professor and also the editor of The Drama Review at the time.  Then I was asked to write for the Village Voice by Burt Supree. So, for me it was like falling off a log, but I realize that that is not the case for most people now. For me, it was really easy. I’d get invited to do something for The Drama Review, do more, and was invited to write for the Voice.

Just before I started writing for the Voice I was writing for four Brooklyn papers that were syndicated. My first meeting (I had written a piece on Cunningham I think) I walked in the office with this editor who was about two years older than me.  I remember he pulled out a red pencil, two cups from his bottom file drawer and a bottle of scotch.  He poured a shot for himself and a shot for me and said: “Now I’m going to teach you how to write for a newspaper.” It was fantastic! Because he just ripped it to shreds. That’s where I really learned to do how to do journalism instead of writing for a journal. There’s a huge difference.

AL: What is required to write for a newspaper? Or to write about dance for a newspaper?

SS: For one thing, it has to be very interesting.  You’ve got the grab the reader in the first two sentences and if you don’t you’re dead -- particularly if you’re writing for Brooklyn audiences in the 1970s.  It had to have a kind of vivacity that journal writing, I dare say, never has. The intention and the readership is 100% different. [With a newspaper] you’re writing for people who will never see the dance, and will perhaps read the review just because it’s in front of them. Maybe 1% of the people who read your review actually have seen the dance, or, maybe want to see the dance.  The rest of them are just cold readers. The fewest number of readers are the dance readers.

AL: So what were you interested in giving to a reader who is not going to see the work?

SS: Well, in that first piece that got shredded I was giving them context, I was giving them history, I was giving them blow-by-blow important sequencing, which signifies the deeper meanings of the dance. That’s fine for a journal. But it’s not fine for a journalist. I had to learn how to write quickly, get right to the point and make the thing come alive. That’s very different than talking about dance. There’s discussions about dance that happen with great pleasure among other people who know a lot about dance -- and nothing is more fun. But, for people who know absolutely nothing about dance?  That kind of discussion is utterly boring.  It’s like me listening to a detailed discussion about football. I hate it.

AL: Was this the approach that carried over into the Voice writing?

SS: No.

AL: So what was your mandate or what were you able to do there?

SS: I was first and foremost a dance reviewer, one of a kind of stable of steady free-lancers. If I had the space I would do what context I could. It depended entirely on space. When I had 1800-2000 words (that meant I had a long story), I could really get into something. But when you’re writing 250-300 words, 750, 800, sometimes even 1200, you don’t have much time to do anything. Once again, you have to remember who your readership is. The Voice had more dance aficionados reading it than the four Brooklyn newspapers but many of the same principles applied. And Burt [Supree] who was the editor, was extremely skilled and taught me a lot.  If you couldn’t say it in one or two good sentences it got cut -- and he did the same cuts to himself. It doesn’t take a lot of space to be smart. It doesn’t take a lot of space to make some cogent sorts of observations and comments.  I always compare it to haiku. It’s very, very different than...

AL: So you were sort of…you were creating the dance for people who were not going to see the dance.

SS: No, not just that. You do some of that of course.  But mainly what you’re doing is you’re trying to create an interesting piece that will bring people into the dance.  You choose those dance points, physical descriptions or talk about “meaning” something strong that will lure people, get them interested in reading more and seeing more. You stay away from the kind of dance details that you and I would talk about or what I would talk about with my friends. The way critics, or I should say reviewers talk among themselves and what they write are two distinct expressions.

AL: Who were some of the people you reviewed?

SS: Oh my god.

AL: Some that you recall or that were…

SS: Oh, I reviewed Trisha [Brown], I reviewed David [Gordon], I reviewed Cunningham, I reviewed Paxton, I reviewed everybody, ballet, tap. I reviewed people who were a flash in the pan, dead and gone.

AL: What years were you at the Voice?

SS: I wrote at the Voice from... maybe it was 1974, until right after Burt died. And after Burt died, the Voice changed radically, because it had a new owner.  You write because it’s a pleasure.  When you’re writing with a good editor, I can’t tell you what joy it is, it’s an entirely other creative process. There is the creative process of writing a piece and another creative process of editing the piece. It’s absolutely delicious.  But when he was no longer there...

AL: And is this when you started teaching fulltime?

SS: Yes, I had been teaching almost always -- not full-time -- but almost always. I started out as a grad TA of course, and I immediately started teaching performance studies right after I graduated. I taught a class called something like “African-American Rhythm Tap.” But really, I was doing African American performance because it took a very long time for tap to define itself, to distinguish itself and separate itself from what I would call a larger gestalt of certain African-American social dance performance.

AL: So tell me a little bit about your scholarship and what I recall was, certainly as soon as I got interested in dance, you said go out on the streets, go to the clubs, that’s where interesting things are happening. It’s not happening in the studio, it’s not happening in the proscenium stage, so you did that as fieldwork… Tell me a little but about the focus of your scholarship.


Post-screening conversation with the cast of Check Your Body at the Door at the premier, Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, 2012.

SS: I was interested in the post-modern scene and in tap. Bill grew up in a family that had him doing tap dancing, acrobatic, ballroom from the time he was really young. He an act with his brother, called “The Sommer Brothers.” His parents wanted him to be a doctor and Fred Astaire. He was a good tap dancer and he did become a doctor.   He’s the one who introduced me to what I would call “real” tap done by the great African-American tap masters. He told me I didn’t know anything tap. When I first saw and heard “rhythm tap,” or “jazz tap,” what I call African-American tap, it blew my mind, turned my world around.

I was not interested in what was happening at New York City Ballet.  And being a silly snob that way I subsequently missed some really brilliant performances. I feel like an asshole for having missed them now. But you know, you’re young, you’re arrogant. I also regularly took classes twice a week at Cunningham because I loved Cunningham technique.  So did Bill; so did your mother [Abigail’s mother, Helen Levine].

I started going to clubs in New York City in the 1970s because I wanted to see what was going on. Also, any time I got bored with what was going on onstage— you know a lot of the post-modern stuff was not happening onstage thank god, it was in display windows, lofts, and on the street. I always found those performances more interesting that anything that was on the stage.  Anyway, I always escaped to the clubs in order to refresh myself and in order to get in touch with what was going on (a lot of the dancers were there by the way). I always find it interesting that they don’t remember it, or they don’t talk about it; I don’t know which it is.  I’ve always found the vibrancy of dance to be happening on the street and in the clubs.  That does not mean that I love concert dance any the less; it just means that I have a much broader palette from which I choose to watch stuff. You know, as far as I’m concerned, there’s good dance and there’s bad dance. I don’t give a fuck where it happens or who’s doing it.

AL: And you started filming some…

SS: Well I remember I wrote my first really serious piece about club dancing in 1976. I was really writing about -- it wasn’t even called hip hop, it was sort of pre-hip hop forms, it was dance that was happening.  I was writing a piece about roller skate dancing, because roller skating was very big then.  Inside the circular track there would be dancing.  Walking into those places was like walking into the Garden of Eden. The unwritten rule was as long as you were inside you were safe, nobody was going to rip you off.  Of course I was always by myself, I should add. I went less as a participant and more as an observer. I was an early urban ethnographer, and I didn’t even know what that was, in reality, although we used the term in PS classes. I had had one undergrad class in anthropology. When you go by yourself, you threaten no one and no one threatens you. You’re not there as a tourist. I remember they wanted me at PS to teach a class, I was supposed to teach a class and take all these people to the clubs with me and they were offering me a lot of money to do that as a summer class. I said “No,” because I was not going to embarrass myself or the dancers at the club by having all these students come in, as a group, staring at them. There is a thing about respect: if you’re going to become a part of a community, and my intention was always to become a little part of that community, you go faithfully all the time through the years.  I don’t think I announced, “Oh I’m going to be a part of that community” -- it just was in my heart.  You do that by being unobtrusive, by being yourself, by not coming with a whole pack of people. I like to slip and slide through crowds like a water moccasin. I think that gives freedom. I like to ask anybody anything. If you’re by yourself and you strike up a conversation with somebody … I never had anybody say no to me, I never once had anybody get angry at me or pissed off. I think it has to do with the one on one, which is “I’m me and you’re you” and we’re just talking.

AL: So where did this project evolve to, or these trips?

SS: Well, I started writing about social dancing. I was always interested in social dance. Even as a kid I was an avid social dancer. It always seemed strange to me that there was this kind of division between what happened onstage and what didn’t happen onstage, between what people studied as being bona fide and what people didn’t study because it somehow wasn’t bona fide. It never made any sense to my viewing and my practices. So I began writing about the social dance scene. There were publishers at that time who would call and say “Oh we want a book on roller skating.” I thought, “Well not from me, you can get it from someone else but not from me,” because I didn’t want to get involved in sort of…what they now would call commodification. I didn’t want to. That is not what it was for me and somehow it felt not pure.  When I was there at the clubs it felt fine to write an article. I never ever tried to hide that.  In ‘76 I wrote my first big piece on social dance then kept writing more about social dancing. Then in 1981, I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts as an adjunct. At SVA I taught a class on social dance. Social dance and tap are related because they cycle information between them quickly. All of the great popular dance styles came out of the black community, moved to the white community and moved from the nation out to the world. That’s been the way it streamed. That’s the way it’s still streaming. That’s the way it’s going to stream until I’m dead. I was at SVA and one of my students was Archie Burnett. Those classes were great! I would probably have 96% black and Latino kids, 4% white kids; but the classes I would teach on post-modern dance, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, would be exactly the opposite: 96% white kids, 4% black and Latino. So, anyway, I was in front of all these students looking at me and I said: “I know what you guys are thinking. You’re thinking what am I, white woman, doing up here talking to you about your dance forms?”  I told them, "Because I follow the kind of dance that interests me. That’s the reason I’m doing it.  And I’m the professor and you’re not, which is the other reason I’m doing it.” Then I put on James Brown. Well James Brown, man, that’s when Archie started screaming, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Archie scream, but he’s got this huge, basso profundo voice, “Oh no! You didn’t do that!” and the class was off and running.   Archie asked, “So you go to clubs?” and “Which clubs do you go to?” I told him and he said “Uh uh, you gotta go to the Loft with me” and I said “OK.” So I met him at the Loft and it was a turned-my-life-around experience, because the Loft was absolutely astonishing.

AL: Where was the Loft?

SS: The Loft, at that point, was on Prince Street in Soho, which was still pretty wild and wooly. It had three floors; of course, if you want to see the best underground dancing you go to the deepest and most underground place, which means the basement. So I headed for the basement and sure enough, there were all these geniuses dancing away. I knew when I saw that dancing, I knew. I said to Archie, “You know we really should film this,” and he said, “Yeah,” and that’s the way it began.

AL: What’s it?

SS: It evolved into a film that I finally released in 2012 called Check your Body at the Door, which is about underground House dancing in the 1990s. I didn’t get the money together to begin shooting until 1992.

AL: And who filmed for you?

SS: It was filmed first by Michael Schwartz and Mark Robinson of Character Generators then it was filmed and directed by Charlie Atlas.  It was edited into its final rough-cut by Charlie.  The producers were me, and Archie, and Bobby Tsumagari.  When it came to finalizing I put Al [Alessandra] Larsen on as another producer because she did so much work. Finalizing the film is a big bitch, particularly when you have all kinds of footage from as early 1992. I had 35 mm film, 16 mm film, and a lot of footage from some of the first video cameras ever made. They were huge! Like 35mm and you had to use with a harness and everything cost $1500: to rent a camera was $1500, to rent a sound man, $1500; to rent a studio $1500; to rent the editor $1500, an Avid editing room. I would get these grants for $50,000 and they were gone in two weeks because everything was so expensive. Now, what I love is that you just go out and shoot.  It’s fabulous.

AL: And that project is now touring around to festivals and universities.

SS: Around the world. I just got a query from Japan. It’s been subtitled into nine languages, and it’s going to be subtitled into two more, Korean and Mandarin.

AL: And while all this was going on, I know you taught at Duke for some years.

SS: When I was in New York, I was at the School of Visual Arts for a couple of years and NYU for a year, adjuncting at both places. Then I was at CCNY MFA Dance full-time for 3 years (the program closed), then I was at Duke full-time for 11 years, then I went to FSU [Florida State University]. I got to FSU just as they got money, facilities and all of that stuff.

AL: And you’ve designed a program called FSU in NYC. Will you give a brief rundown of what that…describe the program.

SS: I developed the program the first summer I was at Florida State University in 2002.  At regional universities the students are crippled by lack of exposure. They don’t have experience of a lot of things -- people jammed together in a small space, which I think is important, because there is a frisson, an energy; different kinds of art going on all the time; a huge street scene; a huge dance scene, any kind of dance you choose.  They needed exposure. I began “FSU in NYC” with the purpose of bringing the student into New York City, not for a cute little visit of three weeks, but for a semester. They had to find their own housing, it’s tough, it’s rough; they have to take my classes about the relationship between city and dance, very New York specific. The students carry a full 12-credit load and take three to four dance classes per week at studios of their choice, plus a 10-hour voluntary internship.  One purpose is to teach them how to survive in New York, not because New York is the be-all and end-all, but simply because if you survive in NY, you can survive most any place.

Each person possesses a ton of flexibility.  Here you can learn about that in yourself. I was tired of dancers coming to New York and getting depressed and leaving, feeling personally miserable, not being able to handle the pressures of trying to dance and find your niche in the city.  I run a heavy academic class with research papers, readings, the whole thing. But I try to structure the academic component alongside the practical component, both historically and contemporarily, so they see how they mesh together.  It’s not just learning in a vacuum. I’m also very practical in the ways that I teach, and what I’m interested in teaching. The program has been in existence for 14 years.  The student internships embed them in the working, admin side of the community, in the trenches. They learn how the dance world actually functions in terms of spaces, classes, people, money and no money. I thought what they were learning at the university was out of date.

AL: That makes sense. How so?

SS: They’re taught that if you just learn really strong technique, learn to get that leg up there and keep form on your pirouette, to be responsible and diligent, then you do an audition, and guess what?  You’ll get in a company and your life is set.  First, somebody is always going to dance your ass off.  Forget about being the best technician. Next, what’s technique anyway?  How does it serve the kind of dancing going on? They’re “narrowed” in terms of what they can work within.  Still I do not want to smash down traditional technique. I think any dancer should learn how to move their bodies well. Even if your performance is walking down the street, or you’re dropping pieces of silverware you still, I think, should know how to move. I appreciate that.  Then they thought/think [because of how they are taught, it is a deep down dream] there are actually dance companies able to pay them for 48 weeks out of the year. They thought somebody would make beautiful pieces for them and they would tour. It doesn’t exist! I teach them that they must learn how to make a dance on $3.38 (a favorite figures because it’s dumb). Anyway, you have to be able to make a performance, any place, anytime, with no money -- and also understand that you dance because you would be miserable if you didn’t dance. You’d go crazy if you didn’t dance.  ‘Fess up that’s why you do it. You’re not going to make money, you’re probably never going to become famous. So just scoot that out. That is a dream and can remain the dream. Dance because you must.  If you don’t have the drive to dance then I suggest that you try something else you feel you must do.  I haven’t made any money in the dance world. I’ve made money in the academic world, but not in the dance world. I’ve made money not writing about dance so much as writing about other stuff having to do with popular culture. But I wouldn’t leave the dance world for anything! That’s where I live. This is about survival -- but in a very special way. It’s about learning how not to be afraid, learning how to learn.

AL: Is there anything else you would like to add?

SS: Why did you want to do this interview?

AL: Ahh…

SS: I think it all started because you were saying, “Ooh you’ve gotta have context [for a dance review].” And I said “Ooh, if you’re a reviewer you ain’t got no space to do context.”

AL: OK, well those are two different things. I wanted to do the interview because I think you have a very particular lens on the last number of decades of dance life that resists a lot of the myopia and amnesia of a lot how people talk about New York dance over the last decades including it not all happening at Judson Church, or on the stages.

SS: You know how many people came to those famous performances? On a lucky night, there were 35 people in the audience. I’m probably the only living soul who saw every single performance done by Grand Union in that two-week or three-week extravaganza of every-night performances of Grand Union at the Dance Gallery on 14th St.  Yeah, a hefty audience was 35 sometimes up to 50 or 75. But sometimes it was way below that.  That “important” post-modern dance was not popular. Nobody at the time had any idea that they were causing a revolution. They had a lot of ego but they were unassuming; those qualities can go together.

AL: What prompted the interview, perhaps, was there’s been in my circle in the dance world a lot of anger directed at mainstream, print-based criticism, journalistic criticism, and also...

SS: Oh listen, that was there was in my generation too. Anna Kisselgoff was the pits. And before … I remember Bill writing a really angry letter to Clive Barnes in defense of Yvonne Rainer. We were busy attacking everybody too, it’s not new, it’s very old, and, following in a very wonderful tradition.

AL: And so just to get a sense of what the desires were for writing about dance, and the parameters, and mandates and just trying to suss out a little bit more. Because there have been a lot of artists saying that there have been these reviews- and you’ve made the distinction between review and criticism – and that they should be a conversation with the artists to further the form. That has been repeated…

SS: …I think that it’s exactly what you just described, “the conversation with the artist to further the form.”  I don’t think that’s a review.

So yeah, I think there is a huge difference between a review, a piece of criticism, and an interview in Time Out; there's a huge difference in publications, and in what those publications can and should cover. Alistair, for example, is writing for a very particular audience and they tell him what audience he’s writing for. They are detailed in their demographic readership.  They write towards that readership. The Times distribution is huge online, and tiny print distribution. I like printed newspapers. It's one of the things I like about Movement Research Performance Journal is that its big piece of newspaper that you can hold in your hands. You turn the pages. I’m of that generation, that’s what I like. I don’t like reading online. I like to see everything that’s pictured alongside  an article, the ads, other articles.

AL: Does that happen in print?

SS: You mean, does the conversation with artists happen to further the form? It happens, for example, in Critical Correspondence; it happens at Movement Research panels and in their Journal, it happens in online blogs and discussions on Culturebot, and online reviews. In those venues you can have those kinds of conversations. I think that’s appropriate. This is also the future of writing about dance, and ranges from the stupid to the splendid. There needs to be all different kinds of dance writing.  Depending on who’s doing the interviewing and who’s doing the answering, I’m fascinated. But do I look for that in a newspaper? Never!

AL: Do you value what shows up in newspaper?

SS: I probably read fewer reviews than any other person I know.

AL: Of any art form? Or dance in particular?

SS: I would say…what reviews do I read? I’ll scan Friday, I’ll scan Sunday, and… if I’m going to go see something, sometimes I’ll go look it up. Most often I don’t because I want to go in and just see it and see what I respond to. When there’s a big brouhaha going on, of course I go back and read all the reviews and all the comments. Yeah. I follow it like interesting reading. I don’t follow it in order to stay informed about what’s going on. I stay informed about what’s going on by going out as much as possible and seeing as much as I can, and a wide variety of stuff, although I must admit I haven’t been uptown in ages, meaning I haven’t seen Paul Taylor, I haven’t seen NYCB, I haven’t seen…

AL: Are you still going to clubs?

SS: No I don’t go to clubs anymore. I’m too old. I get tired. Even when I was going to clubs and I was older, I waited until I got the phone call, generally around 4 in the morning. The best dancing at clubs always happens between 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 in the morning. That’s when the serious dancers are left and the tourists have gone. That’s when they’re so loose and they’re into it. Those are your prime watching times. I think that’s worldwide, not particular to New York. I follow serious dancers at the clubs. I’m not interested in unserious dancers, and I don’t like people who scope and go there to be scoped. That’s not the purpose of a club for me. The purpose is to get out and dance.  You don’t hit the zone until you’ve been at it for quite a number of hours.

Because I’m on the Bessie’s committee I see a shitload of stuff, a minimum of three performances a week, sometimes more. I think there is too much “context” emphasis.  If it works for them (the dance-makers) as a conversation, a discussion and dialogue, they think it’ll work onstage. But there’s an enormous gap between the talk and the walk – to stretch a metaphor. If it is not in the structure then it doesn’t exist for the viewer. Basically dance is a visual moving form, and a performance because it is done for other people.

Where dance is performed, who the dance is performed for, and who’s doing it, is going to have to shift. You guys should have whole underground system of “round robin” in people’s living rooms and basements and street corners and parks and roofs and everything else. 90% of dances are not going to get onstage. Forget it.  The way it exists now, audiences are small and tiny and specialized.  Everything has shifted radically to small audiences, small dances.

I see a lot of lazy dance-makers out there, A LOT of lazy dance-makers. They think, “We’re just going to do improv, just go out there and be ourselves, talk about ourselves and our lives as we move around, and it’s going to be great.” It isn’t.  Basically that stuff is really uninteresting for everybody except their lovers. Some of the really well-funded, well-known artists who are getting residencies all over, and money, just fuck off.  They kinda “We’re going to hang out and perform”. Good improvisation, by people who know how to do it well, is thrilling.  But rare.  Mostly there’s just a lot of you know… somehow “process”.  The reason they make the “god of process” is because they don’t know how to structure. I want them to do both.

AL: Should we keep recording this?

SS: No.

Filed under:


Abigail Levine, African American dance, Archie Burnett, Check your Body at the Door, clubs, dance criticism, dance review, David Gordon, Grand Union, House, improvisation, journalism, Judson Church, Merce Cunningham, Performance Studies, Sally Sommer, social dance, Stephen Petronio, Steve Paxton, Tap, The Drama Review, Trisha Brown, University Project, Village Voice, Yvonne Rainer


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Sally R. Sommer

is dance historian, dance critic, academic and recognized expert on dance in American popular culture. As associate professor of the practice of dance at Duke University, she taught courses in history...
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Abigail Levine

Abigail Levine is a New York-based choreographer whose work is rooted in dance and draws from visual and performance art. Her works have been presented and supported by venues including Movement Resea...
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