American Realness

Hashtagging Dance

Hashtagging Dance

by Effie Bowen
Published on Jan 8, 2014

American Realness is a festival of contemporary dance, originated as an aesthetic counterpoint to the January performance marathon known as APAP. Dedicated to showing dance and performance work frequently deemed “marginal,” there has always been an edgy air to the works shown in American Realness, especially compared to the decidedly more conservative shows as a part of APAP.

When I was asked to contribute something for the zine this year, I decided to focus on POP as a theme and container that holds much of the work at American Realness. (I will refer to POP in all caps and treat it as an all-encompassing moniker: Pop culture, pop music, the VMA’s,©, or anything currently #streaming or #trending on #socialmedia or #television are all included in what makes pop POP.) Knowing most of the presenting artists and their work in prior contexts doesn’t inspire me to launch into an essay qualifying their practice as anything so commercialized or easily digested as POP is formatted to be. After all, Wade Robson isn’t showing at American Realness, Ishmael Houston-Jones is. The work made for and presented at American Realness will never enter the sphere of POP completely for numerous reasons but that doesn’t keep artists from referencing, appropriating, distorting, or ignoring the influence and impact of POP.

POP is designed for quick consumption, digestion, and excretion, and there happens to be so much of it, that what was “contemporary” one second is forgotten the next. Trends don’t enter or depart at such an expedited rate in dance and the connection between POP and dance is frequently, if not exclusively, a discussion around the involvement of popular music in our genre. So what do I think about when I think about POP? Music videos, television shows, and album releases come to mind but for better or worse downtown dance hasn’t penetrated the viral video market like “tutting” or the Harlem Shake have. Even participants on “So You Think You Can Dance” never reached the popularity ranks of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” Our marginalized form, perhaps, is too multidimensional to be flattened into a meme so what do we mean to talk about when we talk about POP in dance?

Pop culture and dance, though on different planets in terms of money and access, aren’t such distant relatives, and at the start of 2014 we could reminisce at this past years cultural phenomena inextricably tied up in dance: Rick Owen’s controversial step runway show, Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs, in addition to other cultural currency “starring dance.” Films like Silver Linings Playbook, Frances Ha, and television shows like “Bun Heads” and “Dance Moms” let dance enter their field, capitalizing on a form grossly less reliant on product, viewership and sales. Pop music has used dance for much longer and superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna were just as famous for their dance moves as the sounds they produced. The growth of pop alongside the prominence of television was not happenstance, but a vital collaboration. Pop music and pop culture were and are visual fields, another means by which dance and POP and performance relate and reflect back and forth between one another with such ease.

POP’s prolific dominance over our lives is a marketplace system, it creates commodities as well as desire for said commodities, but it also produces ephemeral non-objects like nostalgia. POP can create moods and feelings and memories. It is a widespread, far reaching placeholder, frequently easier to refer to than our own vague recollections of “personal” events. Given the opportunity, POP can usher us back in time and allow our minds to weave together a mash up version of history, part personal, and part product. This POP effect is particularly salient, especially when considering POP with dance because it is pseudo-choreographic. The manipulation of space and time that occurs in memory is expanded in POP memory because it was so prominent and publicized the first time around. Recalling listening to Britney Spears’ first album evokes nostalgia, sure, but it feels fraught with meaning because of the weight of its original sensationalism. So many POP signifiers are intertwined in the actual album that to recall that object is also to recall the fashions, musical effects, advertising and aesthetics of 1999. POP nostalgia is a publicly private remembering. The closest dance comes to POP is in this nostalgic remembering. The ghosts of dance’s ephemerality are equally haunting in their ability to be quickly conjured and resurrect feelings and memories previously had.

American Realness, in its fifth year, presents works that most highly relate to POP ephemera. There are works that relate to POP either through their inclusion of certain soundtracks or objects or pieces that disrupt categorization all together. Given its dominance over our lives at the moment, I shape the following by titling paragraphs with adjectives used to qualify pop music according to Wikipedia, because it seems a relevant means by which to place POP and dances occurring within and outside of American Realness, literally, side by side.


Though it is set in a dance studio in a small town and involves a competition, Tina Satter’s House of Dance doesn’t mirror popular dance programs likeSo You Think You Can Dance” or the more comically vicious “Dance Moms.” It’s nostalgic yet somewhat current, set in a static space in a liminal time: Jess Barbagallo’s character Lee uses their cell phone but doesn’t, for example, talk about Facebook©. House of Dance extends our imagination to a time before the viral embarrassments of celebrity and common folk rapidly distributed on YouTube© and our television screens. House of Dance layers outdated “pop” paraphernalia as a reminder of changing times.

House of Dance is set in the dark basement of Abrons Art Center and queers the tale of a young dancer trying to “make it.” None of the characters are extraordinary dancers, but they aren’t hyperbole of themselves, the way they would be if on a TV show. House of Dance is POP nostalgic because it is a familiar story yet too eclectic to be labeled efficiently. The characters, settings, and props are a little “off,” a credit to the astute performance of awkwardness and melancholy by the small ensemble. Lines are delivered with sporadic slow pauses and there are sequins, headscarves, and a song by Melissa Etheridge, all references for a decidedly non-contemporary, yet POP moment.


Jillian Peña’s new work, Polly Pocket, is “an epic dance drama.” We are spectators to an inner world of actions and relationships but not privy to ever become involved. Cast as passive observers, we are destined to watch the drama unfolding before our eyes without explicitly participating. Peña’s ballet-referential choreography and trending toy title brings us back to earlier times whether we have personal relationships with ballet and Polly Pocket™s or not. This sourcing from the past creates a POP nostalgia that is curated by Peña rather than copying POP currency that was once on trend. Polly Pocket is named after the toy that reached their hay-day in the nineties, branded exclusively to girls. Polly Pocket™s were essentially portable dollhouses with the dolls, character backgrounds, accessories, and furniture all included in the plastic seashell shaped home. Opening the appropriately pocket-sized toy was to open oneself to a complete world, one was both the voyeur and director of the life and times of those miniature bodies. In Polly Pocket, the director’s seat is taken and we succumb to watching a world of live relationships unfold before our eyes instead of controlling the story we want our “dolls” to perform. Peña evokes history, trend, and sensation not by replicating the past but restructuring and complicating our relationship to it.


Neal Medlyn’s work goes straight to the source, puncturing the artery of POP. The musician/performer/rapper’s work disseminates our culture of pop idolatry not by merely questioning celebrity culture or through performative abstraction but by creating pieces that allow him to act like the subject in question. From Miley Cyrus to Lionel Richie, Medlyn doesn’t attempt to replicate these celebrity bodies, but does access their tools and tropes, borrowing from stardom. Medlyn’s The Pop Star Series, started in 2006, is a collection of shows each dealing with the life and times of pop sensations and culminates with King, an ode to Michael Jackson. According to Medlyn, “King is about epic attempts.” The same could be said for the entirety of The Pop Star Series as it borrows from celebrity without trying to replicate. It definitely does not offer a tongue in cheek or ironic bashing of popular music or its darlings. It doesn’t place POP icons on a pedestal either, but reveals constructs of celebrity, culture, and pop currency without preaching to the viewers.


Similar to Medlyn’s The Pop Star Series, Ann Liv Young is the object of her own POP sensation. With the birth of Sherry, a sassy Southern blonde who loves confrontation, Young created her own POP currency. Sherry offers therapy—aptly titled “Sherapy” —has a food truck, and sells her wares including but not limited to leftover paraphernalia or props from shows, DVDs of work, and traditional “merch.” The Sherry brand is precise and irreverent and appropriates the trope of celebrity but hopes we still engage with it. Young’s POP currency comments on star worshipping, she has a bag of glittered poop for sale on her website, but I have no doubt about her ability to put money where her mouth is. Sherry’s merch reveals the value systems of POP commerce precisely because she isn’t a traditional superstar. She places herself in the center of contemporary sensations: art fairs, foodie culture and allows her audience to contemplate the value of fancy coffees or expensive art objects, all the while hoping, at the end of the day, we partake.


13 Love Songs: dot dot dot by Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler is a collaboration between two artists not at all resistant to shy away from the grand or dramatic but their works veer more avant-garde than pop. Their individual pieces are frequently concerned with identity, longing, and belonging and in their new work, they seek to explore their belief in the corrosive nature of the pop song. Houston-Jones and Wexler are interested in love and as suggested by their title, the 13 (maybe 14) pop songs that accompany their piece will only deepen the exploration of that sometimes trite, sometimes significant emotion. Pop songs are well-versed in the expression of love and there is a pop song for every facet of that emotion: falling in love, betrayal, desire, heartbreak, longing, joy. More than any other musical genre, POP capitalizes on love, but Houston-Jones and Wexler aim to take it back. Armed with weapons, personal texts, and their ability to be both vulnerable and virulent, POP won’t have much to stand on once Houston-Jones and Wexler confront it.


POP has and will continue to engage and exploit the endeavors of less publicized and less funded forms of expression but it also provides apt cultural context to creative works and especially body based forms. For as much as POP appropriates from its unnamed minions, many artists, choreographers, and performers are beginning to reflect rather than reject POP devices like drama, celebrity, and voyeurism. Instead of vehemently resisting the daily impact of POP upon our lives, dance artists are collaborating with the cultural currency inherent in POP. POP is a marketplace, and it depends upon our willingness to purchase what it produces, but artists who appropriate from POP instead of the other way around craft a space for critical thinking around a form that has been historically approved of automatically without space for theory or question.

The predictable pattern of POP is embarrassingly unremarkable. Headlines about celebrity pregnancy, weight loss, relationships, cheating, and fashion choices become as mindless as the chorus of a top POP song. “Take it, take it, baby, baby, take it, take it, love me, love me.” Artists “remixing” POP use POP products, a song, a line from a TV show, or an Internet meme to hit against other non-POP elements. In this form, POP remains an overarching reference, inside and outside the theater, gallery, or other presenting space. The mundane-ness of POP is displayed or questioned or mimed as if to make us question our constant spectatorship of such a commercialized and predictable subject.

Vastly more interesting are dance artists who appropriate from POP without parameters, making pieces that confront and question our propensity for POP obsession and worship. Pieces like Sophia Cleary’s God Bless the Group utilized a mass of youthful, vibratory bodies seeming to physically digest the excesses of the Internet and blog culture. When I saw this work at 109 Gallery earlier this year, the arranged formation of bodies was static in space but energetically pulsing to the equally repetitive score by AIDS 3D. Hyperactive and animated, yet not “going anywhere” they seemingly became a Tumblr© feed, their bodies repeating actions over and over again like gifs. Spookily similar to the quick entry into the infinite world of consumable images of fashion, food, meme, celebrity, and art on the Internet, the performers didn’t have to mimic Tyra Banks or sing a song by Eminem to tag themselves as a living archive of POP, their bodies held it all. I watched them perform and was transported into a new world of simultaneous presence and distance, glazed over by my access to excess.