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Lucy Guerin: Can you translate Shakespeare into dance?

A scene from Macbeth at the Young Vic, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin. Photo: Tristram Kenton A scene from Macbeth at the Young Vic, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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There is a bit of a purist in me that understands choreography as the organisation of motion, form, space and time. Less successful at describing narrative and characters, it is strongest when communicating through these essential components. I recently co-directed a production of Macbeth with Carrie Cracknell at the Young Vic where we brought dance and theatre together, and following from that process, I have been invited to create a new work for Rambert titled Tomorrow, also exploring the world of Macbeth.

So what place does Shakespeare have in this approach to dance and choreography? Translating text into movement is tricky. So often the attempt to represent characters or retell stories through dance just renders them simplistic or generic. We appreciate the technical prowess and we can almost understand what’s going on, but the plot is not specific. Love, hate, sorrow, joy: language can articulate and frame these emotions with intricate nuance. But how can we be as articulate in our bodies and in the use of the elements of our art form as Shakespeare is with language? That articulation won’t have the corresponding narrative clarity, but will discuss something else altogether.

Choreographed dance has a particular set of information to offer audiences. It can build emotional and visceral textures that produce physical empathy in an audience. I have noticed that when I watch dance, whether I like the show or not, it opens a different kind of attention in my brain. Perhaps this is because I have been a dancer and some kind of synaesthesia takes place. I feel it in my body through watching it. We rarely ascribe rational meaning to every single move, so we have to allow other faculties to process the information that builds a complex and sometimes unfamiliar reading of what is happening on stage.

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” It’s beautiful. It’s the repetition in the phrase that makes our hearts ache. It renders time as a sequence of words and their stretch into the meaningless future makes us weary. So rather than dancing the meaning of the words, Shakespeare offers choreographers a meeting place in structure and the felt experience. In Macbeth, I respond to the reversals, the oppositions, the clash of reality and illusion, the presence of chaos and order and the inevitability of fate. Structure can engender emotion, through repetition, duration, speed, spatial relationships and form. It is the bigger themes and the way the construction of the language evokes emotions and psychological states that are most inspiring to me as a choreographer in Macbeth.

In dance, we don’t have to retell the story. We have to make sense, but the rules for the worlds we set up are different. Shakespeare can be a launch pad into a unique interpretation of structures, rhythms and tone and even into a discourse on dance itself.

Lucy Guerin’s Tomorrow (May 10-14) is part of Rambert’s triple bill at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

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