Last fall, Body Cartography Project stirred up a lively conversation on the Walker Art Center Blogs after their unconventional curatorial decisions for The Choreographer's Evening. Choosing a number of non-dancers as choreographers, the company sought to challenge notions of what “dance” means and what the value is in that label.

But some responses to the program actually conveyed disgust, with one critical audience member writing : “I’d be hard-pressed to call it dance,” while another stated, “I wish there had simply been more actual dancing.” (To be fair, many other commenters appreciated the spectacle: “We are so lucky to have such an incredibly rich, diverse dance scene,” one spectator gushed, adding, “and to be surrounded by artists who are continually stretching themselves and playing with new territory.”)

The Artistic Directors of Body Cartography Project themselves, Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, don’t put much stock into the "dance" label. They're interested in work that is physically engaging and exciting, and that engages the mind through dance or movement, or whatever. BCP’s next show, Symptom, which is part of Scuba Touring Network, a traveling festival of contemporary dance performing at The Southern Theater in April, includes Otto Ramstad and his sibling, Emmett, evoking moving sculptures, and sometimes "drawing" on the floor with microphones and microphone stands. Ramstad hopes to eventually bring the show to a museum because he sees it more as a performance art piece than a traditionally staged dance piece. “It’s dance, in that it has duration,” he said. “But in a way, it’s also like a sculpture.”

For Bieringa, labels are only important when it comes to selling the work and securing funding, especially from traditional sources such as the Minnesota State Arts Board or MRAC, because those agencies have strict categories for applicants. Time and again, the Body Cartography Project has been told by granting committees, "'Well, that’s not dance’ or ‘that’s not dancey enough,' " she said.

Many institutions are too narrow-minded in their labeling of performance, she believes. In this country, she explained, dance and theater training institutions are so rigid that students are kept from exploring ideas around interdisciplinary form. In contrast, European schools more often “speak to something wider than just a traditional craft." Also in many European countries, Bieringa said, arts funding is more abundant than it is in the U.S., especially when it comes to the development of experimental work.

The internet is site-specific

With a similar disregard for labels, Skewed Visions has carved out a niche doing site-specific work, emphasizing where a performance happens to unfold. One founding member, Gulgun Kayim, agreed that the U.S. is too restrictive in how it identifies performance.

“We are interested in helping other artists work in this manner,” Kayim said. She wants to say to other artists: “Guys! You can do this in a different way!” Unfortunately, when the group went to a Site Specific Performance Symposium at CUNY in 2006, they were the only theater company from the U.S.

Its latest project, Cubicle, for instance, is an original podcast series, with short audio plays centering on the theme of work. In Over Time, artist Megan Mayer records her choreography in a darkened office building, to the tune of Moon River. Skewed Visions company members hope that listeners will tune in while they're at work. Charles Campbell, another member, said that the project is an attempt to look at the internet as a “site," like their other work, albeit less physical than, say, a warehouse.

Site-specific work is a way of meeting people halfway, Kayim explained, and of helping them to recognize art in their daily lives, even from their cubicles. But, that idea seems still too "far out" for many audience members. Kayim has described the same kind of tension with the funders and artistic gatekeepers in the U.S. that Bieringa discussed.

Few critics know how to engage in Skewed Vision's work: “If you are doing Shakespeare you have a cohort of people that know Shakespeare that you can engage in a dialogue with,” she said. “With us, there isn’t anyone to have dialogue with, and we are sick of talking to ourselves about it.”

Toward a more powerful emotional effect

My first encounter with Off-Leash Area was when I saw Maggie’s Brain several years ago. While exploring issues of mental illness, the piece alternated seamlessly between movement, text, and dance. The most engaging moment of the narrative, I thought, involved a heartbreaking duet between Jennifer Ilse and Judith Howard. The duet was a sequence of modern dance, and the emotional connection between the two dancers was so palpable that, to this day, I regard that performance as one of the most engaging pieces of theater I have ever seen. The dance element of the play was able to tap into my emotions in a way that a realistic scene never could.

To pull it off, Ilse said, it is important for interdisciplinary companies to create work that somehow amounts to something greater than the sum of its parts. “More often than not,” she said, “in interdisciplinary work, people try to mix disciplines, and it feels like it's pasted together.”

However, no matter how successful the company is artistically, they have to somehow exist as a company in the world and, like Body Cartography Project and Skewed Visions, they have had some difficulty getting people to understand what they do—and, anyway, what they do is always changing. They have had theater critics say it was dance while, at the same time, dance critics say that it wasn’t.

So every time they are reviewed, Herwig and Ilse try to talk to the writer. They also try to interact and have a dialogue with audience members. (Many of their performances take place in an intimate theater they built in the garage in their backyard. An evening at the show may include a barbeque in the backyard.) Through ongoing conversations, Off Leash has been able to provide context for audiences to better appreciate what they are doing.

Because despite all three companies reluctance to categorize their work, audiences—not just funders—rely on labels as a pathway into the work. The Walker blog hullabaloo is a good example of the need for better communication between audiences and artists. Curator Bieringa's comment is a start. She wrote:

Yes I am awe filled
it’s great to understand and question the larger context in which dance gets made and produced
and yes nature is brutal
art can be brutal too
it can also be clever
honor our dance histories and experimental practices
engage in detail
test our perception
engage in mystery
amaze us with tricks
challenge our attention
reveal the whole space
manifest difference loud and proud
we are all human
in our love of dance
dance offers us the opportunity to extend our mind beyond dualities
lets take the invitation!