There are two things you should know about me.
One: I went into the arts to support artists.
Two: I don’t like it when people get terms wrong. Especially when they are about the arts.
So when I learned that the Artist Commissioning Program, the new initiative I was hired to run, has been erroneously requesting choreographers to produce a “dance notation,” I cringed.
Dancers, choreographers, I need not explain. But for the rest of us, I’ve learned that dance notation is like Latin: it existed, and it continues to exist, but hardly anyone reads it, and one definitely doesn’t publish new works in it. An obscure, vestigial limb of academia, hardly any contemporary choreographers use dance notation, and even if they did, the likelihood their dancers could read it is pretty slim.
To me, this wasn’t just a small mistake, but a painful, glaring omission, an embarrassing artistic faux pas. As an artist service organization, Queens Council on the Arts exists to serve artists (among the arts orgs & the public). To me, it felt like an English Tutor failing to notice their comma splice, or a Chinese restaurant that can’t make dumplings. This is what we do. In a world where artists are systemically underappreciated and undercompensated, who are we if not the one of the few organizations that can get the language right?
It’s not just a term. Language is a part of respect; it’s how we communicate relative importance. Calling someone by the wrong name or the wrong pronoun sends a clear message that obtaining the right identity doesn’t matter, or at least doesn’t matter as much as all the other things that can occupy our time. And this idea of empowerment through language isn’t new to this program, either: we chose the term “world premiere” for the final project presentations because it carries a certain cultural attaché, a validity we want associated with our artists and our borough.
I will say this: one thing that being part of the Queens Council on the Arts team has helped me realize me is that, sometimes, it’s okay to not have all the answers, especially if you’re creating a new program. Sometimes it makes sense to ask artists for answers, a thing I think we don’t do often enough as a cultural sector or as a society.
So, dancers, choreographers—we come to you seeking answers. Tell us: how do you document your work? When you’re gone, and you want your dances—your unique combination of movement—to live on, what are the tools you’d need to provide to ensure that happens?
Is it a video? Some sketches? A very detailed list of instructions? Some combination of the above? Teach us your language. Help an artist service organization better understand its artists.
You may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with an example of a choreographic project and how you documented it by September 28. A selection of choreographers’ answers, including insight into their documentation process and artistic practice, will be profiled here in a follow-up post next month on October 3.
Artist Commissioning Program Coordinator