Monday 06/15

(Temporary) Collection of Ideas around CHOREOGRAPHY: Neil Greenberg

Cover Image:

Neil Greenberg, This, 2014. Performance: New York Live Arts, New York. Photo: Ian Douglas

In the final of seven successive perspectives from artists, choreographers, curators, dancers, and scholars on the term “choreography,” here dancer and choreographer Neil Greenberg contributes his thoughts on the topic to the Six Degrees series “(Temporary) Collection of Ideas around CHOREOGRAPHY.” Since Greenberg could not present during a daylong symposium in February initiated by the R&D Seminar’s participants, we asked him to pen a short text in which he explored choreography vis-à-vis his own work.

Here is a working definition of “choreography” that I often employ when facilitating choreographic work groups: Choreography is the set of decisions that are made that influence what the audience experiences.

This working definition has proved useful thus far, being both broad and specific enough for most cases. For instance, in this understanding of choreography there’s nothing dictating when decisions are made, allowing this to occur while performing (e.g., improvisation) as well as any time leading up to it. There’s no prescription about who makes the decisions, allowing for collaborative decision-making or input from the viewers. The decision not to make certain decisions is a choreographic choice allowed by this interpretation too.

A hole that students have sometimes poked into this working definition is rooted in the question: why include “what the audience experiences”? I can understand this objection and have genuine interest in the proposition that choreography can exist independent of its reception. To those who choose not to consider audience reception in the construction of a choreographic work, I say: go for it. Personally, though, I’m interested in the results of these decisions and how choreography is received by the viewer.

For example: I’ve talked about my recent works as “against interpretation” efforts (a là Susan Sontag), continuing my interest in a move away from representation.1 But this reading isn’t entirely accurate. It’s not that I expect or even want viewers to have no interpretations or associations around what they see onstage—this would be probably quite impossible, anyway. Rather, I’m suspicious of any imperative to produce one particular reading of an artwork, a goal I see as verging on the authoritarian and dictatorial. Instead, I’m interested in making and seeing work that allows and encourages each viewer to have multiple associations for the same dance “object,” and for different viewers to have different experiences around that same object. I’m hoping for work that somehow constructs as its inherent condition that any particular interpretation is not the only possible response.

I draw a connection here to my experience growing up as a gay child in the 1960s. There I was, a boychild who loved show tunes, Barbie dolls, and dancing around the living room. None of this was a problem for me. But it was eventually understood—interpreted—as a problem by many around me (like the kids who jeered at me in junior high school). I think that this part of my personal history contributes to my desire to see and make choreography in which the viewer might experience each movement and moment in a setting that discourages easy categorization and instead accommodates for a complex multitude of resonances. Hence lies my interest, however utopian it may be, in somehow provoking an experience of the performance moment in and of itself—in addition to, and inclusive of, any interpretations or associations summoned for, or by, the viewer.

Neil Greenberg is a choreographer, dancer, and educator, perhaps best known for his Not-About-AIDS-Dance (1994). Greenberg’s most recent project, This (2014), continues his interest in the move away from representation and toward an experience of the performance moment in and of itself. He teaches at Eugene Lang College, the New School for Liberal Arts.


In December of 2014, Greenberg premiered a new dance entitled This, made in collaboration with sound and visual artist Steve Roden and lighting designer Joe Levasseur, and featuring four dancers (Molly Lieber, Mina Nishimura, Omagbitse Omagbemi, and Connor Voss) at New York Live Arts (NYLA) in New York City. As described in the performance’s listing on NYLA’s website, the work “engage[d] with complex and idiosyncratic movement—culled from videotaped improvisations and learned verbatim—that, along with lighting and musical materials, [was]…continually recast, reconfigured and recoded.”

In line with Greenberg’s reflections above on the different decisions that go into determining what an audience will experience and a move away from representation, This also has “a related focus…new working relationships, looking at the materials onstage as performing (rather than representing) these relationships.”

Video documentation of the fifty-four-minute-long performance can be viewed here.

In a conversation just before the premiere of This with performer and performance studies scholar Biba Bell, Greenberg further engages Sontag’s text “Against Interpretation.” This is part of a larger discussion of the relationship between his choreographic practice, personal life, and role as a teacher, which are linked through his fundamental interest in dance being “not about.” Greenberg’s idea of the “not about” is elucidated in his conception of his own work as situated in contradiction to representational dimensions of dance and the medium-specific preoccupation with the interpersonal, elicited in an audience by the literal presences of bodies.

Greenberg’s discussion about this idea of the “not about” is available here on Critical Correspondence, Movement Research’s blog.

1 Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Octagon Books, 1966), 1–10.

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