Where Was The Dance In That Dance?

A scene from Vsprs by Les Ballets C de la B at Sadler's Wells in 2006. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Katie is an award-winning arts journalist specialising in dance and physical theatre
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I was watching Alain Platel's Vsprs on Sky Arts earlier this week. It's such the most utterly weird dance you will ever see, to the point that many people would question whether it really is dance at all. It's full of crazy people indelicately shovelling bread into their mouths, taking their clothes off in a fit of silent protest, a little blunt footed contortionist getting lost inside her own trousers (basically, me trying to get dressed in the morning) or shouting out random statements about Spider Man and Don Quixote – and in this, his most controversial work to date, a scene of dancers masturbating for about 10 minutes.

For all that it was slightly uncomfortable viewing when I saw this live at Sadler's Wells in 2006, I must admit I slightly loved the fact that the balletomanes in the audience were practically choking on their cashews and blushing furiously for the duration – it made the rebel in me gleeful. But their snorts of “this isn't dance! I didn't see a single pas de bourre!” shouldn't be taken lightly. Do they have a point when they opine that many contemporary choreographers have removed themselves so far from the notion of dance in a traditional sense, that the remaining performance qualities should perhaps be considered as something else altogether?

[pullquote]Well trained dancers monkeying up scaffolding, or hooning around the stage on one roller boot wearing nothing but their grundies struck a chord in me that's been chiming ever since.[/pullquote]

When I was 15 someone recommended I watch Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's Smoke at Christmas time and I was genuinely horrified. In those days I was ensconced in the genteel world of Coppelia and Sleeping Beauty; Giselle and The Nutcracker. Watching this incredible ballerina plod around in deep plie pendulum fashion, rubbing her bum with small, brisk circular motions, shouting in gibberish and running up and down the walls... It was incomprehensible to me. [I should temper these artistically blasphemous words with letting you know that following a SOCRATES scholarship to the Danshogskolan in Stockholm, Mats Ek is now one of my favourite choreographers and Spiegel Im Spiegel one of my favourite pieces of music] – but at the time, I was so used to the rigid steps of the danse d'ecole that the aberration of balletic form blew my tiny mind.

And then came my baptism of fire - I saw Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Tempus Fugit for Les Ballets C de la B


And I started to get it. The abstraction of something pure; the stripping right back to find something more meaningful; the roots of the movement grounded in a recognisable place but the intention as paramount. The anarchy of well trained dancers monkeying up scaffolding, or hooning around the stage on one roller boot wearing nothing but their grundies struck a chord in me that's been chiming ever since.

I have a friend, Ross McCormack, who dances in C de la B, so I asked him what he'd say to those left wondering where the dance in the dance performance was. Or those who reckon they could do it too – I've often heard people leaving the auditorium of more contemporary shows saying “I could totally do that! You don't need to be a dancer to pretend you have tourette's and get stuck inside your own trousers for two hours.” He told me: “Anyone can do that? Great! Give me a look.” And I think he's right to challenge. Apart from the physical stamina you need to keep moving, even in the most abstract of ways, for hours on end – it also takes a great deal of courage. For the choreographer who believes so strongly in an idea, that he allows it to germinate and spread into a company of dancers who are brave enough to take that movement material and make it their own, put their personal stamp on it, then get up in front of hundreds of people to carry it out with 100% dedication, is no mean feat. Ross also spoke about taking the root of movement, and the physical energy of an idea and translating it in a way that will mean something to someone: “For us the movement becomes hugely influenced by material we source and watch, then it goes through another sieve of development, via discussion. I think its very important to note that nothing seems to be emulated through this medium, it's about the energy and adaptations of the desires witnessed, if that makes sense.”

Clear as mud?

I'm seeing Rosemary Butcher's new piece After Kaprow – The Silent Room + Book Of Journeys later this week at The Place. She's another choreographer notorious for dance in which there isn't much dance – at least in the traditional sense. Like Alain Platel, or Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, she doesn't dictate movement or precise steps, but rather concentrates on the grey matter in between. I worked on the first ever Place Prize back in 2004 when Rosemary's piece Hidden Voices came in closely behind Rafael Bonachela's E2 7SD – in which a dancer in red ran onto the stage and essentially hopped from front foot to back foot for the duration of the piece. It sounds monotonous, ridiculous even, that this could keep anyone awake, let alone on their seat and interested in what was going on, but at the time she drew comparisons from beating hearts to subterranean rhythms and converted the staunchest of non-believers into the uber-contemporealm.

I asked Eddie Nixon, Artistic Director of The Place, if he could shed any light on the situation and he explained: “If you expect to come and see 'steps' you recognise, that probably won't happen because that's not what this kind of work, her (Rosemary's) tradition, is driven by. Both the words 'contemporary' and 'dance' mean different things to different people. I see plenty of “dance” in performances at The Place. But I also see lots of other incredible elements too – the medium is the message, and different artists communicate with different styles. The interesting thing is what you don’t expect, isn't it?”

Defining the concept of what modern dance is will never be easy, and I could sit around discussing it until the cows come merrily home – indeed, I look forward to doing so. But whether for communication or aesthetic pleasure, or both, I feel lucky to see and judge for myself, the work of myriad choreographers in today's rich cultural landscape. Long may it (and this conversation) continue.

Let me know what you think on Twitter @katiecolombus – now there's a challenge, summarising what modern dance really is in 140 characters! Perhaps I'll even throw in a dance-flavoured prize for the best entry.