Constellations and Influences: Douglas Dunn
January 31, 2017
What web of connections do generations of artists trace? Who are their influences? Since 2012 we have explored artistic constellations and lineages by asking each artist to share a significant artistic influence. Douglas Dunn writes in response to our prompt, My most significant artistic influence(s) is/are…Because…:
Douglas Dunn. Growing up in the hills west of Palo Alto, California without nearby playmates, he goes out to meet the animals, earth, grass, trees. In school he tries many sports, liking those that require quick shifts, dodges and deception. At Princeton University he discovers Europe, ideas and art, but the long hours of sedentary study make him restless. By chance he takes a class at the local Ballet Society. He becomes a regular, and being the only male is soon asked to perform. Headed, he believes, for an academic life, he marries, fathers, and teaches at a prep school in Connecticut. More interested, however, in subject matter than in outwitting the students’ tests of authority, he becomes disillusioned with institutional education and moves to New York City at loose ends. To pass the time he takes classes at various studios and immediately responds to Merce Cunningham’s big, extended, passionately plain moving and no talking. He is studying only for pleasure, so is surprised when Mr. Cunningham invites him into his company. During the next several years he alternates dancing Mr. Cunningham’s rigorous, set steps, with participation in Grand Union, a leaderless group that specializes in unpremeditated performance. In 1971 he begins setting work on his own and is surprised to discover stillness taking a leading role. He doesn’t have to calculate or contrive, only to find the courage to bring to life pictures that are moving through him. Years later he comes to understand these first pieces as studies of performance. They are trying to answer the question: What other than moving is he doing on stage? He has the impulse to dance in front of others, and is happy when someone he takes as authoritative leads him there. To present himself as himself, however, or as a character he himself has chosen, is another matter: he must discover the substance of his own need to stand up in front of people gathered to watch. Less movement gives him mental space to become familiar with his urges to move and to enact beings he hasn’t known were in him, including The Man Who Fears Showing Himself to Audience.
Everything that enters through the five senses, and whatever stirs in his sixth, are influences that become part of the work in ways he doesn’t analyze. All the same, he is aware of noticing some things more than others: the gaits of individuals and animals; architecture’s effect on ambiance; the individuality of trees. Rhythm and texture are everywhere: grass blowing in the wind, a rock bouncing down a mountainside, a coil of cable on the floor backstage. As for dancers to whom he pays special attention, Merce Cunningham, Kenneth King, Steve Paxton, Jean Guizerix, Edward Villella, Rudolf Nureyev, James Truitt, Barbara Roan and Sally Silvers are prominent. The people who dance in his company, though he doesn’t ask them to invent movement, bring out choreographic potentials he might not otherwise discover. Likewise, the artists and composers with whom he collaborates make the fish of his inner lake jump.
His goal in making dances is not to define an arena of taste, a style. Rather, it is to go from one constellation of intuitively understood embodiment to another; to step from one cluster, one unification of moves circumscribed by time and extent of consciousness, to another, under another sun. This progression is not a matter of progress; craft accrued from the experience of setting steps guarantees nothing, not even an easier start the next time. But the process of organizing it, deciding it’s finished, performing it, then letting the dance recede into the past, his past, stimulates psychic turnover, the way close attention to the familiar alters perceptual habit, the way travelling to the relative exoticism of another culture refreshes and reformulates vision. Seeing is what he’s after. Our lit up days . . . from what position can we best appreciate the continuous miracle of their appearances . . . or are they another form of night, a darkness we are given to know that hides things from us? For him, the probing of perception and consciousness must include the full participation of an activated body. Placement of this figure, moving or still, in space, is of greater concern than its potential psychological meanings, so wonderfully elaborated in literature. As if decisions lovingly made about the shape, rhythm and tempo of trained bodies, call it concentrated, textural consideration of their heightened potential for organized elaboration, urged on and influenced no matter how much by an un-chosen, unrealizable desire to confront and to harmonize endlessly form-changing inner and outer demons, might stimulate aesthetic feeling in one who sees the result.
During the setting of a step, a way to diminish the importance of what he likes, and what others might like or dislike, is to conjure a procedure that forces an unforeseen outcome: he can’t get away from himself, but he can try to dodge or outrun his vision-narrowing preferences. Sometimes a completed step or dance suggests, by associative similarity or difference, or by a strange, anti-associative triggering, the direction of a next step or dance: seeing a lake, one thinks of an ocean, then a mud flat, then a desert, then a spindle. If he recognizes a step’s meaning and finds it too frightening, he can always discard the move, or change it. Or stay with it to get past the fright. His project is to allow the reality he’s a part of to take him over completely, so that he’s inseparable from, thereby expressive of, the impersonal aspect of “his” nature. Then to consider whether what’s revealed is worth showing to others.