On Theory in Dance

I recently had an interview for graduate school and they asked me to speak about my relationship to theory within my choreography.

I hate being interviewed. I always think of what I should have said hours and days after. Stewing on what complete garbage I had said, like the anxious neurotic Jew I am. 

Prior to their question, I had said I wanted to go to their program because of its equal emphasis placed on theory and physical practice; all situated within a research framework.

This sounds nice.

They asked me to speak about the place theory had in the work they had watched a sample of. I gave some bullshit answer where I blurted out I was reading Foucault and Butler while making the piece, so it was very theoretical.

What the fuck…

I was unable to articulate any sort of intelligible answer to them, probably costing me admission to their program. So I thought I should try to answer it for myself here.

First of all, asking about theory in dance is kind of obnoxious in my opinion. If you’re pursuing graduate studies, choosing to go back to school, and enter back into the institution, then you’re probably not a notable professional dancer, only committed to finessing your body as an instrument.

Theory seems like a hefty word thrown around as its own performative spectacle in academic and elite spaces in order to separate (establish a hierarchy) from the formerly mentioned dancer. I am one hundred percent guilty of this. I lean on theory and academic jargon to make myself feel adequate, worthy, and better than. In the end, I don’t think what i’m doing is so different from doing physical tricks as seen on So You Think You Can Dance. My tricks come in a different form. In my ability to cite Butler, Foucault, and know off hand that Freud published Studies in Hysteria in 1895. I have read Luce Irigaray, Peggy Phelan, Helene Cixous, and countless other feminist and queer and performance studies theorists. Therefore, MY WORK IS THEORETICAL.

Not.

But when I mentioned these names in my interview, I saw my interviewer’s eyes light up. I was performing the tricks I needed to secure my place in the “us” side of the “us vs. them” dichotomy. I was cementing my place as an intellectual theoretically curious *dancer. I could speak the academic bullshit language, and this is my commodity.

I gave a horrible answer.

I was not able to at all articulate the integration of theory in my research or choreographic interest. I’m so used to talking about it in this fancy, verbose, performative way, that I truly could not answer the question.

I could have given so many answers which would have satiated the interviewer’s query about whether or not I was one of them. One of the elite. I could have said that my choice to use stillness and slowness built on Andre Lepeki’s argument for a slow ontological need in dance to disrupt consumer fetishism, European aesthetics, and spectacle. I could have said that I was interrogating Judith Butler’s notion of subverting gender performativity. I could have talked about identity politics. I could have said that my process exists at the intersection of theory, physical practice, and discourse. Reading about the thing, embodying the thing, and talking about the thing. All circumvented by the experience itself of all three aspects informing one another. All of these would have been answers they would have bought. All of these would have made me feel like I said something smart and feel better about my chances of getting accepted to such an elite program. Instead I simply said that during the time I was making the piece I was reading Foucault and Butler, so the process was very theoretical for me.

I don’t know what kind of BULLSHIT that is.

It was an immediate response. The words were coming out of my mouth before I could think of any sort of coherent answer. I am so conditioned to want validation and perform that I too, can play in the big leagues; dropping names like Michel Foucault. This is my commodity, but I could not sell myself in that moment. I probably sounded like someone wikipedia-ed “Performance Theory” five minutes before the interview. Like I skimmed over the spark notes version of the google search I generated for “theory in dance”.

I am confident I am just writing this to make myself feel better about royally fucking up my interview. But maybe there is something deeper to it. We continue to navigate these spaces where we learn about anti-colonialism, disrupting capitalism, ending institutionalized racism, intersectionality, undoing the patriarchy. Yet we are talking about these concepts within the framework of the institution. The institution which is solely held up by the very pillars we are talking in our ivory towers about dismantling. I will start by holding myself accountable for starting to dismantle this desire for elitism within myself. 

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