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Putting It Down in Words:

Dance Theatre Journal Writing On Performance Conference

by Rosella Simonari

March 31 - April 1, 2007 -- Laban, London, UK

What is the language used to talk about performance? Who writes it? For whom is it written? Where is it published? How does performance engage with writing? These and other questions were the basis of a two-day conference organised by Dance Theatre Journal in collaboration with BBCF (Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund) and ADAD (the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora). As Martin Hargreaves, editor of Dance Theatre Journal explained, the reasons that led him to organise this event were multiple and had to do with meeting the readers of his journal, raising its profile and stimulating the debate on this issue. The conference was divided into four sessions, two each day. It also offered the opportunity to see two very different performances, “Climbing with Bare Feet” by Adesola Akinleye and the UK premiere of Raimund Hoghe’s “Swan Lake, 4 Acts”.

The first session offered two parallel choices: focusing on the basis of criticism, a practical session led by Thom Shaw and Katie Phillips, or searching for sources, organised by the staff of the Laban library and archive. The second session was titled “Dance, Diversity and the Language of Criticism” and it came after “Climbing with Bare Feet”, Akinleye’s performance in the Studio Theatre. Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man”, the piece features two male dancers, Sean Graham and Daniel Baird, fighting against invisibility. They “represent the man’s mind in its fight for identity against projection”. A long piece of veiled fabric is placed along a diagonal across the space of the stage. As Akinleye explained, it embodies prejudice and symbolises a kind of barrier at the beginning of the piece. The two dancers seem unable to move beyond it. Once they do move to the other side, we see that little by little the fabric becomes a kind of prison for them, as it assumes a narrow v-shape position. The dancers often move at a low level following upside down positions. They sometimes dance fighting duets, sometimes just solo phrases. The piece also benefits from a complex set of visual effects such as the words projection on the transparent fabric at the beginning of the choreography or the video projection of the two men dancing towards the end.

After the performance a discussion was led by Alessandra Lopez y Royo from Pulse magazine in conjunction with Akinleye herself and Akosus Boakye from ADAD. Such questions as “How do we engage with African Dance in a globalised world? How important is the knowledge of the context of a work? And how do we address diversity?” were at the center of the discussion which in some instances was too much rooted in the specificity of African Dance, thus preventing the development of the debate towards other more general issues.

The late afternoon was left free for people to relax and elaborate more on the two sessions. Then the UK premiere of Raminund Hoghe’s “Swan Lake, 4 Acts” was presented at the Bonnie Bird Theatre at Laban. It was a real challenge for those used to ‘dancing dance’ and even for those who are not too used to attending performances in general. Characterised by a series of walks performed by Hoghe and a slow paced rhythm, it stages “a dream of love” through a series of memories and fragmented, subtle phrases from the adapted piece. The music is by Tchaïkovsky as conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Pierre Monteux and others. Diversity plays a fundamental role in Hoghe’s pieces and this is no exception. As a small man with what is commonly called a ‘non-normative’ body shape due to a pronounced curvature of his back, he “refuses to apologise for putting his body on stage” as Dominic Johnson has highlighted. As such,  he represents a radical break with the aesthetics of the ‘perfect’ body shape that characterises the history of dance.

He recalls the example of another non-normative body, that of Dixie FunLee Shulman who as a robust dancer, has created works such as “The Thinnest Woman Wins”, which challenge the criteria  of beauty in Western Society. Hoghe often turns his back to the audience so that it must confront his divergence,and isolation from the other dancers who perform little arm movements reminiscent of “Swan Lake”. He enters into physical contact with Lorenzo De Brabandere; they exchange t-shirts and recurrently stand facing one another. One of the most intense moments occurs when they put one arm on the other’s shoulder: It is intimate and tender. The climax of the piece takes place towards the end when Hoghe completely undresses himself and lies on the stage floor back center. In keeping with what Hoghe’s himself has indicated, some saw the influence of Franko B in his dramatic gesture. The naked body becomes a kind of surface, a canvas, in Franko B’s words, where pain, love and loss are articulated together with a sense of vulnerability. In Hoghe, vulnerability is paired with a tenderness and eroticism that especially emerge in his movement dynamic with Lorenzo De Brabandere.

The next morning, the participants to the conference had the chance to talk with Hoghe, who explained some of his ideas and methodologies during the fourth session, titled “Texts in Performance”. Hoghe is interested in “the memory of the dancers’ body” and that is why he asked his dancers to trace the movements they remembered from the classic version of “Swan Lake”. This is mainly made evident by Ornella Ballestra, the only woman in the work and a ballet trained dancer, who also performs a phrase en pointe. During his research on “Swan Lake”, he watched a very old Russian movie of the ballet and was impressed by its freshness. Compared to it, he found all the other versions boring. Other speakers in this sessions included Wendy Houston, Rajni Shah and Simon Vincenzi, who spoke about the texts used in their performances. Houston focused on her ‘resistance to words’ and her ‘battle with gravity’, Shah on her latest work, “Mr. Quiver”, a four hours long performance where the audience is free to come and go at any time and Vincenzi talked about his experience of creating a performance for a set audience, in this case, children.

The third session, just before that one, presented yet another way to look at the issue of writing on performance, hosting a group of people from Live Art UK. Its coordinator, Emmy Minton, explained the growth and development of Live Art UK, a platform for venues and facilitators whose aim is to promote live art events. Among their initiatives there has been a writing project to stimulate the production of reviews and other written material related to live art. This session was the most spirited of them all, and questions addressing topics such as the character of mainstream publications, the boundary between criticism and academic writing and the necessity to invest in audience education for these cutting edge events were raised. As Martin Hargreaves highlighted in the afternoon plenary session, in many cases the conference trended toward performance rather than writing, leaving some of the opening questions under-considered. Among them, was the notion of dance writing as “an art form of its own”, a point underscored by Maggie Morris, Chair of the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund, who had spoken before the opening sessions on Saturday. As she said, quoting Joseph Conrad, dance writing relies on “the power of the written word to make you…see”.

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