Joe, The Rhythm of Life
Rhythm is a simple tool in the creation of a dance work and provides countless possibilities in terms of movement dynamics, the structure and climax, and the relationship between dancers. Two shows immediately spring to mind when discussing rhythm, Riverdance and Stomp. Both these acclaimed productions use rhythm in different manners for entertainment. Joe, a contemporary dance work known as a ‘cult sensation’ in Canada, provides us with a third take on the use of rhythm; as a tool to make a political statement through dance.
As the pulse of movement, rhythm forms the supporting structure of the dance as a whole – a bridge binding the sound and movement together. It can be argued that all movement has rhythm, whether in the music or soundtrack, or purely in the dancer’s body. It is often implicit - it is there, but it’s not the main focus; it doesn’t directly affect the meaning or theme. Stomp, Riverdance and Joe use rhythm explicitly; the noises made by the performers are an integral part of these productions. Take away the rhythmical aspect in the movement and the idea behind the work changes dramatically.
The use of rhythm in Riverdance is inextricably linked to the two other elements of the show that made it so successful: Irish step dance and spectacle. The traditional Celtic dance form provides exoticism through diversion from the everyday grind, the idea of renaissance Ireland and the consolidation of an antiquated dance form, kept alive by the Irish spirit passed through the generations. The Celtic violin and pipe music have a lot to do with these romantic notions, playing on the contemporary view of past eras.
Step dancing relies on rhythm. In fact, the genre has a genuine claim to the origins of tap. The shoes are designed to make loud clear sounds, the concentration of the dance is almost entirely on the feet and many rhythmical patterns, both simple and complex, are used. Riverdance takes the traditional and brings it up to speed with contemporary family entertainment. Recognisably based on step dancing, other winning elements are borrowed from ballet and the chorus lines of the 1920s-40s, not to mention the good-versus-evil narrative kept in contemporary culture by endless cartoons and computer games.
The hierarchy of the performers is much like that of a classical ballet. The audience is comfortable with the traditional theatre dance pyramid of principal, soloists and corps de ballet and the simple transference of this to Riverdance helps consolidate it as a show for mainstream viewers as well as dance fanatics. Step dancing can be performed as a solo, in couples or groups. Solos within dances are taken in turns and group dances often use canons. Riverdance utilises the impact made by a long chorus-line of dancers moving together, interspersed with a canon of jumps going from one end of the line to the other while the rhythm continues bold and unafraid. This spectacle, which, without the rhythm, would have been a mere copy of a can-can, was one of the points that makes the show memorable.
Stomp was created from a completely different angle. The idea of percussion and its possibilities forms the basis of the show. Each section starts with one performer playing with the sound of a broom, matchbox or countless other props. As other performers join in the rhythm builds in complexity, each one picking up a new beat. Pedestrian movement and hip-hop sequences are linked together to punctuate the rhythms.
By dressing the performers as workmen, Stomp challenges our perception of builders, caretakers and other blue-collar workers. The use of household items for rhythm, coupled with the finely honed dance sequences subverts the notion that these people are uncultured and non-creative. Furthermore, these complex rhythms require a high degree of teamwork, sensitivity and precision – not qualities generally associated with workmen.
The second focal point of the show is in the facial expression and body language. Sideways glances, cheeky changes of position and gestures show the relationships between the performers. There is a visible hierarchy of respect on stage, just as there is at work. One man always has the wrong size prop; nobody joins in when he tries to lead a new section. One man commands the respect not only of his colleagues, but of the audience too. He claps and they copy, until they can’t keep up. The audience can easily identify with these familiar portrayals of people in a work situation, therefore making the production more accessible.
Stomp also addresses the notions of masculine and feminine behaviour. At the beginning of the show, for example, three men enter one by one and adjust their trousers and noisily clear their nasal passages in a foul manner before taking their positions. The fourth performer to enter is female, but she does just the same, receiving surprised looks from the men. This comedy becomes the core of the show alongside the thrill of the build up and possibilities of props such as newspapers and kitchen sinks.
Similarly to Stomp, Jean Pierre Perreault’s Joe has no musical accompaniment. The 32 dancers wear loud shoes, with which they stamp out the steps, running, marching and jumping without the normal quiet feet expected from contemporary dancers. Where Riverdance uses the loud footwear to produce complex rhythms for spectacular entertainment, in Joe the dancers’ boots aid the explicit political comment. Perreault does not use complex rhythms. The vocabulary is mixed between these pedestrian movements and contemporary sequences incorporating contractions, torso bends and jumps, but the use of rhythm mainly with the feet, but also with the voice is an essential support to the works themes of social conformity and the notion of the individual in society
One section features the dancers in a block marching on a square path around the stage. The even beats of their feet become a drone. Singularly, dancers break free, moving to their own rhythms, out of time with the constant military beat of the others. The beat drowns out the lone sounds of the individual as his flailing arms and torso become increasingly frantic. It seems to be the beat that causes his distress, however, it is the same relentless beat that draws him back into the block. There are very simple tools used here, for example as the marching speeds up the pressure of conformity is amplified.
Perreault’s regimented movements in Joe are visually representative, while using rhythm to highlight the conformity theme. One movement that dominates a whole section does so using steps very similar to tap dance. The dancers face stage left with their weight on one leg. The other leg brushes fwd, catching the heel on the floor as the supporting leg bends. The leg immediately brushes back, catching the ball of the foot on the floor and the sequence is finished with a toe tap behind. The resulting rhythm is an even 1, 2, 3, while the aesthetics of the leg extending forward and then bending back while the body falls and rises has the effect of a goose step on the spot. It is the rhythm that consolidates the conjured up image of soldiers marching relentlessly through captured towns.
The lack of rhythm at points in the work also contributes to its meaning. For example, one section involves the group jumping on the spot, producing loud, even beats. They run from one position to another, flocking into different groups, but like the canon in Riverdance, the beat remains. When they stop, the stage seems eerily quiet. One man walks away from the group; his single footsteps are a lonely sound in comparison with the unison jumping.
Despite being very different shows with different aims and audiences, using rhythm is not the only thing that links them. All these works have political connotations, whether serious or comical, and their uses of rhythm are important to these statements. By jazzing up the traditional music and adding some glitz to the step dancing, Ireland’s national identity is developed and consolidated through Riverdance. Stomp shows us that a group of dirty working class men and women are not always what they seem, while reflecting the work-place politics of gender and respect. The rhythm supports the comedy in the show, playing on the idea that the whole thing could fall apart or be transformed into something new if someone misses or changes their beat.
Joe’s political aspect is more complex. The rhythm works in conjunction with many other elements such as costume, set, and contemporary dance vocabulary to build the theme. The constant even beats of the footsteps, jumps and voices, particularly when the group march while another dances alone, serve to illustrate that the world carries on as a mass no matter what the individual is doing. The work also illustrates the notion of people in herds, following each other; jumping on the bandwagon. If Perreault had chosen to use music, this work would have been completely different; the notions he addressed would still be visible, but his utilisation of rhythms underline these statements.
Without the rhythms, none of these works would have the impact or critical acclaim in their separate fields of entertainment. Riverdance would have to rely heavily on the romanticism and exoticism. With a complete re-working of the show, Stomp would become an abstract comedy production, unrecognisable from its current state. Joe would still have the political connotations, but it would lack the impact and, most importantly for contemporary dance, most of its unique quality.