Feedback at the Flea

Photograph of Neta Pulvermacher.

For the uninitiated, there are often two common responses to dance: bafflement or boredom. Reasons for these reactions vary from work to work. Some choreographers create works with a narrative or theme that either doesn’t quite communicate or one that has gone too far beyond any level of comprehension. A dance doesn’t have to be intellectual to be good, but like any other art form, dance isn’t very forgiving of artistic laziness or a lack of clarity and thematic structure. This is perhaps more true of dance, which relies on movement, or the nonverbal, as a means of expression.

In part, choreographer and dancer Neta Pulvermacher has been addressing this issue through a Dance Conversations series at the Flea Theater in Tribeca, which aims to create an opportunity for discourse in the dance world. The idea is simple. Choreographers present works in progress to atypical audiences who then stay, talk, and offer informal feedback. For Pulvermacher, the Dance Conversations are an attempt to widen the lens choreographers use to look at and think about their work so that choreographers are “making choices in their works, not just sailing because it feels good.”

Now in its second year, the monthly Dance Conversations series is free to the public and has included the work of 69 midcareer and fledgling choreographers. Pulvermacher says she’s aiming for an arena that is a cross between a workshop and a performance—akin to a laboratory of sorts. The Flea Theater, with its medium-sized wooden floor, seating for fifty, overhead lights, and a red curtain behind which dancers change, provides an appropriate venue for such a laboratory—relaxed and informal. The Flea donates the space, the technician, and even the printed programs. Pulvermacher works for free.

The series is competitive. This season, Pulvermacher received about 80 submissions for 36 Dance Conversations spots. It’s also very common for choreographers who participate in Dance Conversations to have their works restaged at venues like P.S. 122 and Dancespace Project St. Mark’s. Past participants have included Heidi Latsky, Pat Catterson, Ann Liv Young, Philippa Kaye, and Jennifer Nugent, to name a few. Moderators have included well-seasoned choreographers like Arthur Avila, Sean Curran, Susan Marshal, and Gus Solomons.

Dance Conversations’ free admission draws an accidental dance audience. Ross Guberman found out about the series by searching “free events” online. Guberman’s guest, Catherine Deutino, had never been to a dance performance before. A twenty-two-year-old teacher and recreational dancer who moved to the city in June and Doug Post, a 58-year-old self-defined “computer geek” from Central New Jersey, were also part of the audience. A repeat customer, Post works in midtown and is trying to take advantage of the city’s cultural opportunities. The other half of the audience included friends of the participants.

The basic design of the evening is not so different from a postperformance Q&A—work is presented, there’s a break, and then the conversation begins. But rather than hearing what choreographers have to say about work that’s already been officially presented, the moderators are earnestly looking for—and value—unadulterated audience feedback. 

The series is meant to challenge choreographers and to give them access to a broader dance audience. Though the talk during the Dance Conversation I attended was at times overly precious, it did seem to force the choreographers—Mary Seidman, Daman Harun, and the La Manga Collective—to consider their decisions. At one point, a choreographer announced that a dance was about “x.” A bewildered silence followed. Another choreographer, whose work was titled Mama, complained that people who’d previously seen the work always asked which of the two dancers is supposed to be the mother. The choreographer explained that the title of the dance was simply named for the title of the music. In this case, the problem is not access to feedback but making proper use of it. Another choreographer was asked about his choice of music and responded that it was just what he had “heard that week.”

But it was La Manga Collective’s Notes of the Hershey Man that became an example of the “thinking community” Pulvermacher would like the Dance Conversations to foster within the larger dance world. Improvised and created anew each time it’s performed, Notes of the Hershey Man features Columbia University-based philosopher Maxine Greene offering various thoughts on beauty and violence. Two female dancers in suit pants and buttoned-up shirts seem to dance a philosophical conversation, clutching at their legs, making faces, breathing, thumping. Simply put, it’s a dance about living in a world where violence is rampant, not only politically but interpersonally. When it came time for the discussion segment of the evening, it was clear that previous debates about the work had been channeled into the project. It was a ferocious and challenging work. I loved it—and so did Doug the computer geek.

The last Dance Conversation of the season takes place on May 17, 7:00 pm, at the Flea Theater, 41 White St., between Broadway and Church St. Admission is free and drinks are provided. Choreographers interested in submitting to the series should e-mail Neta Pulvermacher at npulvermacher@nyc.rr.com

Emily LaRocque works at the Poetry Society of America and freelances as a dance writer.

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Emily Larocque

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