Sunday, October 26, 2008

Modern Dance Goes Commercial

The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has been plastered along the T's trains for months here in Boston. The performers are captured sliding and leaping through the space wearing Puma clothes and shoes. What I thought were new ads are actually part of Puma's "I'm Going" campaign started in 2007. The company has also performed in a television commercial for Puma (see below). But Jones' company is not the only group showcasing dance through advertisements.

Many of you have probably seen Pilobolus Dance Theater's commercials for General Motors, Toyota, Hyundai and Bloomingdale's. But what's interesting about Pilobolus is that it actually has its own creative services unit that focuses on choreographing original works for advertising, film, television and corporate and fund-raising events. The unit was founded in 1997 to support the "growing demand from the commercial world for first-rate movement services." Besides commercials, the company has created live events for corporations such as IBM and Procter & Gamble, performed in a Marilyn Manson music video and has captured movement for books, such as Twisted Yoga. But, is this new trend of modern companies entering advertising campaigns beneficial or detrimental to modern dance as a whole?

On the positive side, these ads attract unlikely audience members to view and even appreciate modern dance. Take my boyfriend, an engineer who works all day analyzing patterns created in a vacuum chamber. After seeing Pilobolus on a commercial, and then on Conan O'Brien's show in June, he's willing to see them perform in November. I didn't even mention they were coming, he found the show. Now even people who's heads are usually filled with numbers are willing to sit for two hours and enjoy a modern dance performance. Amazing.

But will the attraction of new audiences alter the movement created for performances? What you see in commercials are a lot of flexibility and many jumps. People want the "wow factor." And to new dance viewers that comes in the form of leaps and unnaturally flexible performers. But what about those subtle performances with raw emotion and no tricks? Are we going to substitute flexibility and leaps for well-crafted simplicity?

One of the most beautiful pieces I've every seen was a modern piece called "I Am Not My Little Black Dress," the last piece choreographed by the late Ed Tyler. This piece, crafted for my fellow members of the 2007 Virginia Repertory Dance Company, was comprised of simple hand and leg gestures and sustained movement, without the fluff. But it had power and poignance. More power than any leap I've ever seen. I would hate to see that kind of emotion taken away from a choreographer's vocabulary just to please new viewers.

Hopefully there can be a happy medium that transitions newcomers to regulars and integrates these more simple pieces into a repertoire, even possibly in an advertisement. Do you think that's possible?

Bill T. Jones Puma Commercial

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