A Fine Line?

So is it theatre or dance?

This is a question I often find myself answering. Actually, to be precise, is a question I encourage my students to find an answer to for themselves. DV8Tanztheater Wuppertal, SITI and ZenZenZo are amongst the companies around the world that fall into neither one camp or another. In the West this issue with classification is perhaps more significant than here in the East where ancient theatre traditions tend to be dance based. Even more contemporary theatre movements in Asia have a more dance related aesthetic, butoh being a perfect example.



DV8 says of itself that their ‘work is about taking risks, aesthetically and physically, about breaking down the barriers between dance and theatre’. In its philosophy, SITI says that ‘The theater is a gymnasium for the soul’ and of course Butoh is also called the Dance of Darkness’. 

So what do we do when a form defies classification? Well, we call it physical theatre of course, the broadest of all definitions that is so over-used it is almost meaningless. It was therefore with great interest that I read a piece written by Katie Colombus, for The Stage entitled Let’s get physical with dance.



In it, Colombus explores her own assumptions about where the line is drawn -‘I generally belong to the art is life, movement is dance school of thought – if it’s physical then it’s dance, and theatre for the most part is always physical (unless we’re talking floating Beckett heads but this is rare in the extreme)’. She had been to see a piece by LA based company, Wilderness, called The Day Shall Declare It.

Let’s get physical with dance

I often have to answer the question “but why did they train in dance to do that? That wasn’t exactly dancing, was it?” when seeing contemporary work.

This week the roles were switched around when I went to see The Day Shall Declare It, a physical theatre piece by LA company Wilderness, choreographed by Sophie Bortolussi. I was interested to see how non-dancers would cope with choreographed movement, and how theatre with elements of movement is different from physical theatre, is different from dance.

I generally belong to the art is life, movement is dance school of thought – if it’s physical then it’s dance, and theatre for the most part is always physical (unless we’re talking floating Beckett heads but this is rare in the extreme).

The Day Shall Declare It is made up of Tennessee William scripts interspersed with choreographic interludes. The performers are not dancers, they are actors, and although some scenes look like dance phrases, there is a distinctly physical tone to the experience that is really very different from the dance work I’m used to:

More raw, less polished, not perfectly hitting steps or sequences, but committing to the physicality nonetheless.

It adds to the play an extra dimension of communication that really brings home certain points – the seductive tango of when a couple first meets in a post-depression dance hall; lifting and moving around each other in close quarters adding to the claustrophobia of their narrative, reaching upwards and outwards of their small-town banal existence; slamming against window boxes and flinging/falling face first over leather rocking chairs while quaffing bourbon in a squiffy homo-erotic party scene.

Artistic director Annie Saunders is articulate in her reasons for using physical theatre to make a point:

When the recession hit, the personal, private question of the meaning of working – “what do I want to do?” versus “what will I live on?” – seemed to become immediately, drastically public. I wanted to make a piece that explored this and looked to a similar historical moment, the Great Depression, and the extensive canon of American labour plays.

This piece is an effort to creatively conflate these period texts with a free-form theatrical model and contemporary movement score, echoing the responses of the current moment, such as Occupy Wall Street, which for me took on a powerful and spontaneous choreography of its own.

Theatre expressed through movement is rather more sophisticated than merely being mime (thank you, Barrault). Part of it is the focus on the body, the unctuous flow between narrative, physicality, storytelling and expression from actor to actor and to the audience. The best thing about it is the fact it isn’t a slave to music or time signatures or phrases, it can flow purely from the momentum of the moment.

As far back as Artaud, theatre practitioners were encouraged to have a closer experience with the actors – scripts and spoken word alone being a metaphorical barrier to the audience. Since then physical theatre has thrived under DV8, Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words, Motionhouse, Clod Ensemble and Theatre De Complicite, to name but a few, all companies fluent in both verbal and physical dexterity. Here the actors certainly have a more direct relationship with the audience, we are spoken to, moved around the space, sat by.

Part of it is how the piece has been created – often through group improvisation rather than simply reading parts. It’s an experience that brings you closer to your castmates in terms of proximity, intensity and impact. There is an excitement and chemistry that is palpable, particularly when in closer quarters to the cast (as is the case with Wilderness) – their collective energy and connection.

In essence the performance is more conceptual than a straightforward play, but it’s performed in a way that is intriguing and alluring. The integration of disciplines allows for further development of words, bodies and acting techniques. Expression and gesture can grow and when repeated the experience becomes more ritualistic, there are more layers to peel back.

The Day Shall Declare It hints at stories and alludes to events in distinct sections that don’t need to be understood in the way as linear narrative. It is more than enough to experience than to understand, as their reviews prove. Movement and speech are ultimately two instruments used for the same purpose – communication to an audience. Together, they are a powerful tool.

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