PUTTING IT DOWN IN WORDS:
DANCE THEATRE JOURNAL WRITING ON PERFORMANCE CONFERENCE
Laban, London, 31st March – 1st April 2007
What is the language used to talk about performance? Who writes it? Who writes it for? Where is it published? How does performance engage with writing? These and other questions were at the base of a two-days 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 for 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, either focusing on the basis of criticism, a practical session led by Thom Shaw and Katie Phillips, or on 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 following a diagonal all along the space of the stage. As Akinleye explained, it embodies prejudice and it symbolises a kind of barrier at the beginning of the piece. The two dancers seem unable to move beyond it. Once they do move on the other side we see that little by little the fabric becomes a kind of prison to them, as it is moved into 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 the discussion was led by Alessandra Lopez y Royo, from Pulse magazine in conjunction with Akinleye herself and Akosus Boakye from ADAD. Questions like 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 confront with diversity? Were at the centre 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 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 go and watch performances in general. Characterised by a series of walks performed by Hoghe and by a slow paced rhythm, it stages “a dream of love” through a series of memories and fragmented, subtle quotations 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. In that 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”, that question the category of beauty in Western society. Hoghe often turns his back to the audience who has to face his diversity, he seems isolated from the other dancers who performs little arm movements reminiscent of “Swan Lake”. He enters into physical contact with Lorenzo De Brabandere, they exchange their t-shirts and recurrently stand facing one another. One of the most intense moments occurs when they put one arm on each other’s shoulder, it is intimate and tender. The climax of the piece takes place towards the end when Hoghe completely undresses himself and lays on the stage floor back centre. As Hoghe’s himself has underlined, 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 tenderness and eroticism that emerge especially in his movement relationship with Lorenzo De Brabandere.
The morning after, 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 evident mainly through 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 talked 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 his case of 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 of 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 lively of them all and questions such as what mainstream publication is about, the boundary between criticism and academic writing or the necessity to invest in the education of an audience for these cutting edge events were raised. As Martin Hargreaves highlighted in the plenary session in the afternoon, in many cases the conference slipped towards performance rather than writing and some of the opening questions remained under-considered. Among them the notion of dance writing as “an art form of its own”, a point underlined 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”.