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justin hall
9 december, 1997
world dance forms
sharon friedler

ambient dance

"Ambient music can best be defined as music that is atmospheric, contemplative, arhythmic, and non-lyrical."
- Ujamaa Kaliamato

In the back rooms, separated from the frenzied dancing of most raves, there's a "chill space;" where flagged dancers and the more sedentary lounge on pillows to the spacey sounds of "ambient music" - dreamy, often ethereal auditory environments. Inspired, seemingly, in large part by the repetative and natural sonic work of Phillip Glass and John Cage, respectively, these pieces never quite appear to end, or exactly arrest one's attention; the emphasis is on slow evolution and gradual shift of attractive sonic states.

If that aptly describes ambient music, then Wil Swanson's dance performance piece, "descriptions without place," performed at Swarthmore College November 9, could quite rightly be termed "ambient dance."

The lights were low, the dance floor was marked off with lines like a football field; black and white clad, slender asiatic/caucasoid dancers emerged from the wings and performed loose steps of gradual synchrony.

Dancers shifted in space, quietly, gradually. Each action they performed seemed loosely a reaction to prior or surrounding action. At times, multiple scenes filled the stage without particular focus. Other times the performance lingered on a single movement phrase repeatedly articulated.

The barely audible music was little more than forest breathing - amphibian chirps, babbling brooks, unidentified woodland creatures. The proper soundtrack was missing as the soundman had met with some misfortune - this was a replacement. The planned music was described as a series of improvised noises from the cast that had been altered and strung together in a synthesizer. Either recording sounds quite ambient - "atmospheric, contemplative, arhythmic, and non-lyrical."

To this music, the pacing was just a bit quicker than ponderous, but not enough to keep me awake. The movement, repetative, harmonic, had a lulling quality to it, and a strange timelessness. I nodded off, and awoke, and had a sense of having missed only slight development. Merely the position and movement of the dancers had shifted; besides missing out on attractive phrasing, or witnessing the microcosm of the evolution that lead to that particular phrase, the audience was allowed to join the performers in straying from linearity.

This freedom from movement only dawned on me late in the piece. Until I realized its deliberate attempt at an organic quality of growth and evolution, I was stuck looking for plot, narration, politics or progress. Where was the statement involved? Nonstop abstract forms frustrated me at first. Where was the anger, angst or irony? Where was the transformation for the viewer? I was being asked to pay attention to their actions; the performers must be saying something, and I wanted to know what it was.

i was seated with a number of young men, and we shared our frustration. The dance seemed to have no point. Why, we asked, were we watching a dance with nothing to say? Either that, or the statement was over our heads, which made it all the worse. Perhaps, I thought, I didn't have the vocabulary to understand what Wil Swanson and his evolving dancers were saying.

The dance appeared almost as moving sculpture. Where sculpture takes on a heaviness or resonance with its fixity in space, he transformed that grounded momentariness into evironment through movement.

Or it was like staged improvisation, where performers riff off each other, create in reaction to each other's movement. Here the typically frenetic quality of improvisation was replaced with a deliberation of movement. His description of their creative process corroborated this impression: first they moved according to notion of creating natural form/environment. He videotaped these improvisations and then watched them, picking out the most attractive gestures. These he strung together into this piece.

I was at some point marvelling at the unstoppable flow of the movement - the dancers didn't seem to be remembering steps. They kept up and I thought they might forget but they were in a momentum that perhaps made it easier to remember.

Eventually I decided this might be simply a pastiche of attractive movement; I was meant to relax and observe the process of bodies in motion. It was Wil Swanson himself who aknowledged as much, after the performance during the Q&A session; he mentioned personally "being moved by small things," as in nature, one might observe the tiny gradual movements of plant and insect life, and take the same value of insight from that as from the newspaper or major human-world events. But he was careful to avoid certain concepts: he espoused "non-agression." More than a purely aesthetic experience, Wil Swanson was here reaching for something quietly "natural." Natural being in this case non-agressive, non-political, or might we say, "atmospheric, contemplative, arhythmic, and non-lyrical." "Enter a child's world," he advised, "avoid understanding;" I could see his movement would be better observed with a pair of unpolitical eyes.

Prior to this presentation, Wil Swanson worked extensively with Trisha Brown, doing more political work. Sharon Friedler, my World Dance Forms professor, theorized that this work might then be a personal reaction to her politics (with which I am not at all familiar), a reaction of apoliticality.

Some say it's impossible to make apolitical art. Swanson's work, if apolitical, is then in itself a rejection of the current battles being waged over identity. Most who choose to ignore politics do so with irony, but there was little irony apparent here.

In some way the politics emerging from this work are those of the new age - beauty, transcendence, and active (passive) defiance of western/linear performance and statement. He attempts to create worlds without end, pieces that enjoin the audience to absorb, or even enter, more than watch. Whether we can safely say any performance is political, we may say that any performance that proposes to engage the perception of the viewer has a stance. To perform is to in some way reach out to grab or pull someone into a perspective. During the performance, and during questions, I realized that Wil was asking me to abandon my fixation on focus. Focus, we might argue, is what makes "the (western capitalist) machine" run. Engaging against focus is then a statement against that machine.

His seeming passivity, his stated "non-agression" policy (come in, watch the show, take away what you will, bring what you will - I have no stake or statement to make) fostered in me some frustration. I thought afterwards that I would have preferred some introduction: "hello, welcome to descriptions without place, avoid understanding." By not informing me of his direction or intent, I was further forced to examine my expectations of dance performance.

Clearly, I gleaned from conversations outside, afterwards, that many on hand had proper contextual understanding to appreciate the performance as is. But he claimed to not have targeted this piece at any particular audience. Perhaps this represents both a current output of the history of dance, and a contemporary correlary to organic space creation happening in digital media and ambient music. In that way do these steps and staged harmonic evolutions seem intuitive to him, and many of the dance department viewers. While the piece may have lacked specific vocabulary elements (compared to something like ballet, which has a rigid historically determined set of steps), to an appropriately literate audience, "Descriptions without Place" was a sensical addition to an ongoing conversation about dance and space.

After I had peeled back my strict politics and plot perspective, I was more willing to see his moving world. It was definitely "atmospheric, contemplative, arhythmic, and non-lyrical," which, like ambient music, I like sometimes. I have a hard time going to performances of ambient music - I end up talking to the people around me. Or, it's music I can listen to when i study, or do other things; relax. I found the performance context not well suited to atmospheric music; I wonder if it is the best context as well for atmospheric dance. I will be interested to see where Wil Swanson can best plant his "Descriptions without Place."

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