“Purely Aesthetic?” An Introduction to “No Such Thing as Neutral”

In November of last year, well respected post-modern choreographer Deborah Hay presented Blues for MoMA’s dance series, “Some sweet day.” For this piece, Hay divided the dancers into two casts: the blue whites and the blue blacks. The blue whites, comprised exclusively of white dancers, were instructed to stand still in quiet observation, while the blue blacks, comprised of dancers of color, were instructed to improvise in the center of MoMA’s cavernous white atrium. According to Hay, this casting decision was purely an “aesthetic” one, because she was intrigued by how the blue blacks’ dark skin contrasted with the MoMA’s white walls.

A circle of white dancers in black leotards, with several black dancers moving around them and the audience beyond that.

Performance of Deborah Hay’s Blues (2012) at The Museum of Modern Art, November 2012. Part of Some sweet day (October 15–November 04, 2012). © 2012 Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Paula Court

Though Hay hotly denied  any concerted racial segregation in her casting, her claim was soon troubled by pay discrepancies that her dancers discovered following the MoMA performances: while blue white dancers received $200, the blue black dancers received $700. A series of reaction articles and panels followed the performances, as audience members and participants processed their experiences and what Blues signified for the state of race relations in contemporary post-modern dance.

At a fundamental level, I wondered how Hay was able approach her work from a “purely aesthetic” place while making a work that was so squarely about race. Did Hay’s privileged status as a white choreographer allow her to circumvent explanation for her racialized casting choices, along with the discrepancy of the dancers’ paychecks? Once a work of art is defined as abstract – particularly an ephemeral form like dance – is it absolved of any socio-political interpretations?

The controversy of Blues stirred some necessary conversations in the contemporary dance world around race, the philosophy of aesthetics, and the visual language of Abstraction. It forced choreographers, dancers, critics, presenting organizations, and viewers to re-evaluate the notion (or more accurately, the fantasy) of objectivity in art. Like any form of cultural production, dance does not exist in an ahistorical vacuum. It is rife with social and political significations that inform how the work is produced by its makers and understood by audiences. When the incredible opportunity came along for me to work with the BCRW, I immediately knew that this was a dialogue in desperate need of further unpacking, and that Barnard would be the place to do it.

As 2013-2014 Alumnae Fellow, I am looking forward to Barnard becoming a platform for artists, activists, scholars, and enthusiasts to explore the paradigm of Abstraction and Objectivity in movement-based art. I will work to provide visibility to contemporary queer, trans* and POC movement-based artists who engage notions of subjectivity and materiality of the body in their work while utilizing the technical formalities of Abstraction. Rather than promoting a politics of intellectual exclusivity and post-raciality, how can Abstraction be used to reveal the very non-representationality of identity itself?

I am looking forward to how we as a community can develop this project to be something that is sincerely interactive and engaging. Suggestions for artists are always welcome!

Ali Salas ’13 is the 2013-14 BCRW Alumnae Research Fellow and the Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. Before graduating, Ali wrote her senior thesis on the appropriation of voguing in contemporary post-modern concert dance.

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