MacGuffin or How  Meanings Get Lost19873 dancers33 min

I date the inception of my overarching artistic project to MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost, though I had already presented four concerts of dances.  I made MacGuffin in response to my dawning awareness that my earlier choreographic efforts had not been “understood”—and I now flag this word with quotation marks—these dances had not been understood in any way close to my expectations. My meanings were getting lost, which caused me to begin questioning this notion of meaning-making. How do you get to meaning? How do we construct meanings from the various data  we receive? What constitutes meaning - or perhaps more aptly, meaningfulness - in dance, in performance, in art, in life?

I was watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films around the time I made MacGuffin, hence my appropriation of his term, coined to describe that thing in his films that motivates the characters’ actions and advances the story, but about which the audience need understand little or nothing at all (Hitchcock said, “In crook stories it’s always the necklace and in spy stories it’s always the papers”). I read in this idea of MacGuffin an acknowledgement of a disconnect between what we think has meaning, and where meaning may really reside.

I see my questions regarding meaning as related to my attraction to the work of Merce Cunningham, in whose company I danced. Cunningham famously divorced his dances from narrative conventions, going so far as to use chance mechanisms as a disrupting strategy. However, as I read it, Cunningham was not anti-meaning. I know I had truly rich experiences watching his dances rehearsed in the studio. I also know, though, that many viewers could not find a way to appreciate what I found a very rich, and meaningful, dance experience. In some ways I can see my work as a continual search for strategies, such as my use of text, that might involve the audience in experiencing the kind of dance-values that so involved me in Cunningham’s dances.

This was the first of my dances in which I utilized projected written text, which in MacGuffin and other of my early works (Stage-Gun-Dance, Destiny Dance) functioned as a kind of burlesque of meaning-making.   

MacGuffin was divided into two main sections. First, I performed three interrelated solos, the second of which providing alternate meanings for the same movements via text projections: “The following sequence may be seen as….” answered with “a flower blooming” and then “hope.” Second, a trio that ended with we dancers tossing around an oddly wrapped package, which was explained in the program an anecdote Hitchock used to explain MacGuffin:

“About two men in a train—forgive me if you’ve heard it.  One man says, 'What's that oddly-wrapped package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a MacGuffin.' The first one asks 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the second one answers 'Well, then that's no MacGuffin!' So you see,” said Hitchcock, “a MacGuffin is nothing at all."

Premiered at The Club at La MaMa E.T.C in November, 1987.

Choreography and Text: Neil Greenberg

Performed by: Christopher Batenhorst, Neil Greenberg, Sondra Loring

Projections design: Stephanie Rudolph

Lighting: Julie Archer

Set Coordinator: Mark Tambella

Videography by Character Generators at La Mama, E.T.C. on November 21, 1987

Camera: Michael Schwartz


Jack Anderson, New York Times, 1987

Don Daniels, Ballet Review, 1988

Additional Links

Text for MacGuffin or Meanings Get Lost

Neil Greenberg
© Tom Brazil

L-R Christopher Batenhorst, Sondra Loring, Neil Greenberg
© Tom Brazil

Sondra Loring
© Erin Flynn

L-R: Sondra Loring, Neil Greenberg, Christopher Batenhorst
© Erin Flynn