Ever since I first joined Facebook back in 2009, I’ve been sent memes – defined by Collins Dictionary as ‘humorous images, videos or pieces of text that spread very quickly on the internet, often being changed by different users’ – by my non-dance friends. From photographs of squirrels in dramatic positions captioned ‘people will stop asking you questions if you start answering back in interpretive dance’, to images of sharp-suited businessmen answering the question ‘how would you describe yourself?’ with ‘…verbally, but I’ve also prepared a dance’ – all of them treated dance in a way that I found naive. They seemed to be created by ‘muggles’ who thought of dance as an artform in which people spend their days pretending to be trees – laughing at, rather than with a form they knew little about. As any member of the dance community knows, the industry is more complex and crazy than non-dancers imagine… and has way better meme fodder than any dancing squirrel I’ve seen.
Cue @somatic_based_content_only, the contemporary dance meme outlet I – and clearly many others – have been waiting for. Publishing its first ever post on Instagram at the beginning of February 2021, the account adapts existing mainstream meme templates – such as the Drake Hotline Bling and Kermit the Frog memes – and recontextualises them for a contemporary dance audience. Tapping niche experiences and knowledge, the posts make fun of dancers, choreographers, teachers and institutions alike, recasting Bernie Sanders as an improvisation teacher asking you to ‘once again to connect from your sacrums,’ and adapting the popular ‘they don’t even know’ meme to show a man at a party annoyed that his friends don’t realise that ‘Beyoncé stole most of her choreography for Countdown from Anne Teresa de Keersmaker and later said she was inspired.’ Oof, I related hard to the latter meme, having passionately shared this fact at many social gatherings.
Having accrued around 4000 followers after only one month of operation, @somatic_based_content_only’s audience now tops 9.8K. ‘I was pretty shocked,’ says ‘Mr Felden Krisis’ (as the account’s founder is known) via email. ‘This was supposed to be a brief-lived anonymous account that I could turn to when there was a really important application I wanted to put off finishing for as long as possible.’
While Krisis (as I shall call them) credits popular early followers such as @biscuitballerina for attracting the account’s audience, there was also a wider context. ‘The current restrictions due to the global pandemic have a lot to do with why it’s gained attention… memes can offer a collective release.’ The emergence of humorous content in a sector that can take itself very seriously also suggests many dancers were excited to break free from their earnest performance faces and laugh at some of their industry’s quirks.
‘I don’t want to throw everyone under the bus for being singularly unfunny,’ says Krisis. ‘But I guess we all have experienced working with someone who has worked for a “very important choreographer” and who talks in very hushed tones about when they first received the gospel of Ohad / Pina / Bill / Merce / Steve / Jiří / Mats’ (that’s Naharin, Bausch, Forsythe, Cunningham, Paxton, Kylián and Ek to you non-dance people). ‘Especially if these “prophets” are dead there’s this suggestion that “their presence is here with us right now” or “they appeared to me last night like the Virgin Mary on a cheese sandwich”. I think it’s good to try and temper down all that reverence.’
The coronavirus crisis has also revealed some of the ‘glaring failures’ of the dance industry’s current systems, and some of Krisis’s memes act as a form of biting institutional critique. Though presented in a comical context – a meme depicting a stressed, sweating superhero struggling to choose between pressing one of two buttons, both labelled ‘hiring a white male choreographer,’ for example – they are not merely laughing matters.
‘It’s not exactly a joke that almost no major European dance company has ever employed a female-identifying BiPOC choreographer. I mean, really not at all,’ they say. While Krisis believes ‘a meme can be an indictment,’ they stress that memes are not the same as direct action. ‘They often have a pretty strong nihilistic undercurrent. But at the same time, they have a kind of “I thought it, and you said it” mentality. Memes provide a way for people to share ideas amongst each other without them having to articulate those ideas for themselves.’
Using meme culture to criticise institutions, systems and practices is currently more prominent in the field of visual art than contemporary dance. Many accounts, such as @artreviewpower100, @jerrygogosian, and @freeze_magazine (an allusion to leading art magazine Frieze) publish daily memes satirising artists, curators, collectors, fairs and institutions alike.
‘Memes are relatable by nature and they can be a great vehicle to build bridges between different communities, spread information and share common experiences,’ says @freeze_magazine’s founder via email, whose identity remained anonymous until they were revealed as Turkish artist Cem A in a recent article by The New York Times. ‘The contrast between the glamour and the precarity of the art world is probably one of the biggest issues we are facing today. Even if the art market bounces back, somehow the working conditions in the sector still get worse,’ Cem A adds. ‘Openly criticising people in the art world is hard. Hopefully, memes help to normalise open and valid criticism.’
The dance world has also had its fair share of problems for years, and it’s surprising that critical meme accounts haven’t taken off here in the way they have in visual arts. ‘There is this very misinformed idea that dancers are “not good at technology” or “digital stuff”,’ says Krisis. ‘Most freelancers edit their own showreels, build their own websites, and successfully manage multiple social media accounts.’ Perhaps, they suggest, there is an easier progression from static visuals to bite-sized meme production than there is for dance, an inherently time-based medium. ‘I also think there is often the feeling that our world is small. How many people are going to understand a meme about Yvonne Rainer? Or, if I make a meme poking fun at a certain choreographer or a trend in the dance world, is it somehow going to hurt my chances in this already precarious field?’