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Those of you who tuned into Thursday’s #DanceChat may have been a bit confused when I brought up site-specific work. Here’s a better explanation of the genre.

Site-specific dance is defined as a performance that has been designed to exist in a certain place outside of the proscenium stage. Born out of the Happenings of the late sixties, this form of dance was earliest explored by postmodernists like Trisha Brown. Brown’s work took place on rooftops, vertical walls and floating rafts in a variety of public spaces.

A shot from Mark Dendy's site-specific work in the Durham Performing Arts Center, Summer 2009

I first encountered site-specific work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (my alma mater). In the UI Department of Dance, second-year MFA students are required to create site-specific pieces; this means that no location on campus is safe from a dance invasion. During my years in Champaign-Urbana, performances were held at a library, in a men’s bathroom, in a local park and in an elevator, to name a few. As a senior, I was lucky enough to have a site-specific piece performed in my front yard.

In 2009, UI Professor Jennifer Monson produced a project based on the Mahomet Aquifer that featured free performances at outdoor sites in Champaign-Urbana, Mahomet and Havana, Ill. Monson became interested in the aquifer as a site to draw connections between scientific and political relationships to natural resources; she was also interested in exploring the cultural frameworks that shape the public’s perception and relationship to such resources. Check out a video of the project here.

For artists making work outside of academia, the site-specific genre holds two main points of appeal. First and foremost, the medium is a good way to avoid the high costs of renting spaces for both rehearsal and performance, in addition to the high costs of hiring a lighting designer. Producing a performance in a public space also attracts an audience that is not accustomed to viewing dance, which is a great way for emerging artists to generate buzz about their work.

Another shot from Mark Dendy's site-specific work at DPAC, Summer 2009

So what makes a space appealing to a choreographer? It depends on what he or she is investigating. A space may hold appeal based on what it symbolizes. For example, a park evokes images of playfulness and friendly interaction while a bar has a grimier, uninhibited atmosphere. In many cases, a choreographer will select a performance space based on its architecture. Elements like ramps, staircases, ledges and ladders expand the potential movement vocabulary within a piece tenfold. Natural landscape such as hills, trees and depressions allow choreographers to alter the angle at which the piece is viewed by the audience.

In creating a piece of site-specific choreography, an artist must be hyperaware of audience perspective. It is imperative to consider where the audience will be placed with regard to the dancers because the presence of people will drastically alter the performance space. If the audience is allowed to wander in and among dancers, participants in the piece must practice dodging bodies before the date of the show. If the audience is in the center of the performance space, viewers will not be able to take in everything at one time. In this case, a choreographer must design his or her piece in a 360 degree spectrum, with moments of interest occurring in every direction.

A site-specific work by UI Dance MFA Alumna Angeline Holmes, performed in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Undergraduate Library courtyard.

So what separates the good from the bad in a genre with so few boundaries? It depends on what you find to be visually appealing. Personally, I prefer site-specific work that alters the body’s natural relationship to gravity, as locations like hills and valleys allow dancers to find a new relationship to weight and momentum.

What kind of site-specific work do you like? Leave me a comment and let me know!

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