So last night my best half and I joined some friends to see the Cycropia Aerial Dance troupe perform at the Orton Park Festival here in madison. This is probably like the 3rd time we’ve been there to see it and this time we got really great “seats” (a blanket right on the edge of the performance area) because a friend got there two hours early and staked out a spot..
It was a beautiful performance. Importantly, it was a performance of everyone–from relatively small kids walking on stilts to some people in their 20’s or thirties and a bunch of people in between. The performers were dressed in brilliant costumes, the music was really good (I want a setlist!), and it looked like everyone was having a blast.
Oh.. and it was damn sexy–not in some garish way.. but in the fact that there were people doing amazing things with their bodies that involved having to be in physical contact with others and to require phystical strength, skill, and obviously a lot of practice.
Watching this performance, my mind wandered to the place it often does and made connections. At that moment, it clicked into place that by watching this performance I felt I was learning more about the human condition, about humans, about the possibility of beauty and meaning, than I had in nearly a decade of colloquiums that I saw in grad school.
What’s a colloquium? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a talk where some knowledgable person comes to talk to you about some information they have researched, something they are an expert on. As a grad student, I saw many different professors from prestigious places come in and give us presentations. I also saw grad students give colloquiums on their dissertation research–and I myself had to give one of them.
Most of them–my own included–were not so hot. A number of them were downright awful. That may sound harsh, but considering that I have been teaching engineering students to give presentations for the last 5 years, I have some standards for what constitutes a decent presentation–and these standards are not just my own personal ones–but are based on some relatively clear ideas that come from those studying communication.
Granting this, I can say that my average senior engineering student presenting their senior project were better than 90% of the colloquia given by the tenured professors in my grad school colloquia. I would even say that I have had good freshmen–and certainly good seniors–give presentations that were better than 98% of these colloquia..
What caused this? Well, I think it was the simple fact that such colloquia–given in the form of a presentation–were not just about information transfer, but that is how they were treated. As a presentation, these instances were also performances–whether the speaker knew it or not (some did more than others… actually grad students did better here..)–and thus the aspect of keeping the interest and attention of the audience and also spending time practicing and tightening the performative aspects of the presentation itself–were crucial elements.
But that’s something that was overlooked with astounding regularity in such colloquia. It was pretty much assumed that everyone in the audience had an infinite attention span, that they would drop everything to strain to understand whatever complicated and possibly esoteric ideas were being conveyed through a procession of words that no one had heard before, and that all the speaker had to do was say these words and their job was done.
In defense of the particular speakers–if not for the system as a whole–I can note that it is possible that none of these speakers were ever trained in how to evaluate their own presentations. As a grad student, I certainly never got any such training, and unless the faculty had taken various rhetoric or communication courses that taught these skills directly, they may never have been told how awful they were.
Again–this may explain the personal deficiencies here. On a systematic basis, however, it’s pretty atrocious.
Cycropia made this clear. It made it clear because while it may not have been attempting to convey complicated textual ideas to an elite audience–it was trying to convey conceptions of beauty, elegance, movement, flow, emotion, and meaning to such an audience–and it knew exactly how hard that is to do.
So they practiced. It was clear that they practiced.
And it was beautiful. Watching them, I grokked more of what it means to be human–to be a part of this vast conglomerate of unusually social water apes that like to climb and fly and play… to touch each other–mentally, physically, emotionally–and to smile with joy.