Rock The Boat, Baby: or, Early thoughts in the first few months of a new director’s tenure at Movement Research
First of all, I can’t believe my good luck. As the new Executive Director of Movement Research as of June 1, 2002, I’ve inherited the worthy but daunting challenge of stewarding a tiny-budgeted, NYC-based organization with a venerable legacy, spawned by artists for artists, into its future. This is the same teeny, undercapitalized grassroots organization, just shy of 25 years old, that I remember believing some years back was an influential giant in the contemporary dance field, locally, nationally and internationally. As an experimental laboratory for artists—an “energy vortex,” to quote one board member—my esteemed predecessors at Movement Research worked a small budget into considerable and ongoing impact on the field-wide discourse on movement, the “body” and other dance/art forms. MR has always resided, by desire and need, at the very bottom of the dance field’s food chain. Here, the necessary incubation of fledging ideas, vital undercurrents, illogical thoughts and seeming chaos, the constituents of art, takes place long before any finished result ever, if ever, sees the light of day on our next-tier public stages—the DTWs, Danspaces, P.S. 122s, and Kitchens of the world. The failures, not just the successes, are at the core in developing an artist’s voice.
And I thought more about my good fortune and (daunting) responsibility when I came to watch a Movement Research at Judson Church showing this past spring, as I considered whether to take the position. Within that sanctuary, which has been generously donated by Judson Church for this series for 10 years now, so much investigative work has transpired. (Not to mention the still amazing work that took place in the Judson gym in the early days.) I thought of the special alliance through mission of these two organizations, Judson Church and Movement Research. Both, in their own practices, work to honor concepts of community, process and investigation, as well as freedom of expression. And they serve, or should serve, as vital alternatives to the corporate sector as it makes inroads on the destruction of our public and creative spheres.
At the same time, it’s an odd moment for dance (not to mention social and political movements). It’s a time when funding couldn’t be more difficult (has it ever been easy?), especially for non-product-oriented work; a time when the arts, and independent thought in general, continues to deal with the fallout from the Reagan years and early-‘90s “culture wars,” and now the current erosion of civil liberties; a time when most of MR’s sister organizations in the country that supported Research and Development have closed their doors for lack of financial support; and a time when young “immigrant” artists arriving in NYC face an increasingly difficult economic terrain, many succumbing to the pressure by skipping over an essential developmental step—that of a deeply worked exploration of forms—to production of product and technical acquisition, in hopes of getting in the alleged “game,” of getting the “gig.” The shifting over to system-driven art, from art that develops from a genuine and perhaps long-gestation feeding ground of inspired and challenging teaching and human experience gleaned over time, is symptomatic of our era.
And it’s a time when I have heard from certain artists and others that dance, like God and painting, is dead. There’s been something of a palpable malaise going on for a few years now, where the philosophy of investigation and the definition of “community” are on the line. With NYC— Manhattan in particular—becoming economically out-of-reach, both artists and cultural life are being driven out to the far boroughs. There are questions —good ones—about the place of live performance in this age, the role of nonprofits and institutions, and the notion of “community” in a transient, nomadic and digitized environment. At the clubs, one younger artist observed, only the heads of young people are moving, reflective of an internet generation. And Movement Research, once a youngster itself, an organic organism attuned to its sociopolitical moment, has become a slower moving, less agile institution.
But I feel a proverbial rumbling in the earth. First of all, the human creative spirit is inextinguishable. Art always finds its way, ultimately, irrespective of any of us. But, independent artists and a committed, smart, nimble institution that foregrounds the work of artists as opposed to the institution, that lobbies passionately for a safe creative space—physical and intellectual— that can be a generative partnership. And, as I heard another artist say recently, “As far as live performance goes, we are still, as far as I can tell, living human beings.”
Lots of questions for me at this stage. Not about Movement Research’s mission—that, I believe, is still right on—but about how it needs to function to best serve its mission, and even if, in any form, it still makes sense. Compare the ecology today with what it was like when MR first took hold—vast differences. Should we continue? What should we look like? What will the next movement form(s) look like? In its role of incubator, in some ways once the only game in town, Movement Research now has sister hybrid organizations in the outer boroughs—Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx—also initiated by artists for artists. A number of other organizations in Manhattan are doing classes and workshops, not just us. How do we hone our work to service what most needs doing, and what we can do best?
That’s the terrain. If artists believe Movement Research can still serve, in a, perhaps, re- envisioned form, their investigative processes and the development of the form, I intend, with these artists, the staff and board, to see that it does. Till the soil, light some fires. That is, if the artists and this moment in history will have it, want it, guide it and participate in it. The artists, not the administrators, mandate. Seek the seekers, build the bridges for divergent views.
Finally, I want to say how pleased I am to have inherited this next edition of the Performance Journal, the product of PJ editor Sarah Michelson’s exceptional work. The topic is important. In the months to come, I’d like MR to work with others to develop ways in which this issue can be used as a springboard for further dialogue and action among all of us—artists, critics, arts administrators, programmers, funders—who make up our passionate ecosystem.
— Carla Peterson