In 2015 I was chosen to be a participant on South East Dance’s first-ever Producer Development Scheme. Halfway through the experience I was asked to reflect on what I’d learned or experienced up until that point. I wrote the following essay, which was featured on the South East Dance website.
Two figures exist on a bare stage, a man and a woman. Their movements are quick, darting, manic – always with the possibility of more movement, a longer phrase, something held back. Their limbs tangle. They are fighting, they are supporting one another, they are twisted in a lover’s embrace, they are struggling to be free. In moments of rest, their long bodies fold in on themselves – they crouch low to the ground, make a comedy of dumb paws and the inarticulateness of limbs, before again leaping into action. They are hares fighting in a field; they are falling in and out of love with each other. Each sparse line of text has the same darting pithiness of their movements, the same feeling of stopping just-short-of, a coiled tension that sits underneath each word.
LOST DOG, ‘Like Rabbits’ at the Almeida Theatre 2013
It’s hard to say when dance started to insinuate itself into my creative life. As someone who has made a living as an artist and producer primarily working with the power of words, the idea of a purely physical art-form has always been intimidating. In a calendar crowded with new theatre and live literature, there didn’t seem to be much time for dance. And besides, where would I start?
But dance has slyly slipped into my life. There are obvious overlaps – in the world of contemporary performance there isn’t always a great deal of stylistic difference between live art / contemporary dance / experimental theatre / performance art / dance theatre, except perhaps in how we speak about each of these things. They borrow from each other, they reflect back to one another, push each other forward and outward. And yet, there are lines drawn in the sand that can sometimes be quite hard to cross. There are paths leading out and away, paths I can’t quite see the shape of. Moving more into dance can sometimes feel like frantic reconnaissance, a series of steps into another country. There is a shared language, perhaps. But there is also the question of dialects, of vernacular.
I suppose the first time I found myself actively thinking about these overlaps was back in 2013 when I first saw an early version of Lost Dog’s ‘Like Rabbits’ as part of the now-defunct Almeida Festival. It was probably the premise that grabbed me first – an award-winning dance theatre company working with up-and-coming playwright Lucy Kirkwood to adapt a Virginia Woolf short story. The Almeida built their reputation on classic and contemporary texts, and even when they work with new playwrights it is almost always in the context of story, of strong narratives. So I was curious to see what would happen when dance artists and writers collaborated.
Maybe it’s something I should have expected, but what struck me was the absence of text. Working with two great writers (Woolf and Kirkwood) Lost Dog gives us largely a performance without words. And the words which are used, like the deployment of the dancer’s bodies, are at once a demonstration of two people struggling – to connect, to be independent, to satiate something – and an exercise in careful restraint. ‘Like Rabbits’ seems to say to us: we will show you this much, but there is so much more we will not. Our bodies and minds and words are powerful, they can leap and kick, but they are ours. You cannot know all of it.
Twenty-one performers are gathered before us – mostly standing, with and without the aid of crutches, some in wheelchairs, some solitary, some clustered in groups. Each is listening to something on headphones, but we the audience don’t know what they’re listening to. We’re not in on the secret. There is only the slightest sense of movement – a leg jitters to an unheard beat, heads nod. The performers undulate with the nervousness of someone wishing they could dance like no one is watching but unable to get away from the suspicion that everyone is. Suddenly, one performer bursts out into song.
‘I’m still standing…’
The audience begins to titter, nervously. Little ripples of laughter spread through us. Then, louder, bolder, as the performers each begin to sing – popular songs, ones we all know, ones we could all sing along to. Elton John, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson. Only phrases, but the best ones, the ones we know. No awkward verses. Just the chorus, the refrain, the hook. Now our laughter is full-throated, now it runs the risk of drowning out each of these soloists. It is a roar, it is collective, it feels revolutionary and powerful, this permission we the audience has taken to be in on the joke. And still, twenty-one performers are before us, biting back the words we don’t know, keeping those words for themselves. They don’t laugh. Each of them is trying to sing out over the rising tide of the audience’s laughter, to dance like no one is watching, to be heard.
CANDOCO DANCE COMPANY performing Jérôme Bel’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ at Sadler’s Wells 2015
Much of what we’ve done so far on the South East Dance producer development scheme is speak with each other. We recommend artists to each other, articles to each other, documentaries and websites. I leave each meeting with an ever-longer list of things to read and see and think about. The conversations move freely from our own experience as artists and producers and into wider issues.
More often then not, these conversations circle back to the precariousness of trying to make a living out this, and how as producers we want to create a space for dance artists to get on with the hard work of making. Many of the fears and concerns we return to are the same fears that exist in theatre circles – the anxiety around paying artists fairly, how the obsession with youth can crowd out older experienced artists, the ways in which touring in this country has changed irrevocably (and not always for the better), the very real possibility that the lens of mainstream arts criticism might be narrowing as interesting voices are crowded out, and how all of this is exponentially harder if you’re a woman, you’re not white, you’re disabled, you’re working class – or god help you, more than one of these things. We’ve talked about what it means to a whole sector when our most visible artists devalue these struggles.
All these overlaps, and all these shared concerns. As the three of us (and the many South East Dance staff who have joined in the conversation) have spoken, I’m often struck by the possibilities of how artists working in different fields could support each other, the power that could come from stronger alliances. But I’m also trying to be conscientious, to not let myself only see the similarities. I don’t want the big, booming sound of collectivism to drown out the individual. If I’m going to support dance artists I want to hear about the loves and struggles that are unique to artists working in this field.
There have already been some interesting surprises – the idea that dance and choreography are related concepts rather than synonymous terms, the demands touring can place on the body – which keep reminding me that this is a similar-but-not-the-same world I’m trying to enter. I am reminded again and again that there is quite a lot I don’t know and that if I’m honest I still don’t even know what I don’t know. Much of what is considered standard practice in dance still sits in the bit of my own map marked ‘here be dragons.’
I’m going to end this post with an invitation. If you’re reading this, something tells me you probably love dance, that it’s already part of your life. So I’m asking you – what starting points would you suggest for someone new to dance? Where are the points of entry? As someone working in dance, what are the interventions you’d like producers to be making? Where do you need the most support? What should I do? What should I see? What should I read? What conversations should I be having, and where?