As the academic term comes to a close, I have been pondering the fact that nearly all my students, no matter what grade, have recently been working in some kind of collaborative physical theatre form. We teach and use Viewpoints in a lot of our work, even if the students don’t realise it, with Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s now seminal publication, The Viewpoints Book, being a well thumbed tome on our bookshelves.
In addition, I have spent this week at an International Schools Theatre Association (ISTA) Festival in Taiwan, where the students were exploring the language of theatre. Almost all the work they created communicated through bodies in space and again it struck me that spoken narrative played a secondary role in the stories they were telling.
All this has prompted me to share this video from a TEDGlobal event. In it, choreographer Wayne McGregor demonstrates how he communicates ideas to an audience, building his work in a seemingly simple way. It revolves around the concept of physical thinking which particularly resonates with me as a theatre maker. Give the video a watch for sure, but don’t miss out on the discussion that follows in the comment section afterwards. Together they make for a great way into thinking about physical representation and storytelling on stage.
Driving home from work recently I heard an interview with Chinese-American choreographer and director Shen Wei. Sometimes late to the party, I knew I had heard the name before and with my interest piqued by the interview, which ran as a strand on the BBC World Outlook series, I went digging. Shen came to international renown as lead choreographer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In itself this says something about the man and his international standing. To be invited to return to a country which would have once banned and perhaps renounced him for taking citizenship elsewhere, is powerful statement about his talent. It wasn’t this so much that attracted my attention, but his childhood in Hunan Province. Born during the cultural revolution, his father was a director of a Chinese Opera company and he literally grew up in the theatre. This is the BBC interview
Shen went onto study Chinese Opera at The Hunan Arts School and then to perform lead roles with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company. His journey from there to his own celebrated dance company in New York, Shen Wei Dance Arts is a fascinating one and detailed in these two interviews:
Clearly never a man to stand still, Shen is now gaining credence as a visual artist too and there is a clear link between the two art forms in much of his dance, easily illustrated by his piece for the Olympics:
You can watch the same video, with an english commentary here. In another piece, Second Visit of the Empress, he brings together Chinese opera and modern western dance in a wonderful fusion of the two forms:
Before leaving China Shen was one of the founder members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and was asked back in 2000 to create a piece called Foldingwhich particularly caught my attention with its stunning imagery. Shen not only choreographed Folding but also designed the costumes, set and make-up.
Like much contemporary dance, it is hard to draw a line between dance and theatre and the excerpts above make that evident in Shen’s work. For the boy who grew up back stage, the act of making theatre would appear never to be far from the surface.
I wanted to share a short video today, an excerpt taken from a piece called Nowhere by Greek experimental theatre director, choreographer and visual artist Dimitris Papaioannou, (who incidentally was the creative director for the Athens Olympics in 2004). Nowhereis dedicated to Pina Bausch and was created to inaugurate the new main stage at the Greek National Theatre.
To quote the theatre’s website:
Nowhere is a work about the physical space of the theatrical stage. Constantly changing and defined by the men and women that inhabit it, it can be countless different places while designed to be nowhere at all.
The scene I’m sharing contains nudity, so be warned, but the reason it caught my attention will be obvious when you watch it. Simply stunning.
Known as the body mechanic system, it was used by Akram Khan in his piece Dust, part of a large work called Lest We Forget for the English National Ballet. Khan credited Papaioannou in the programme for the idea:
I have a feeling it might be making an appearance in some of my students’ work, minus the nudity I hope, given their reaction to it.
The latest piece from internationally renowned physical theatre company DV8 has just opened at the National Theatre in London, following a premier earlier in the year at the Vienna International Dance Festival. The company is almost 30 years old, yet the work they continue to produce is still be considered cutting edge. To define them precisely in terms of genre is a difficult – they work in a mixture of dance and physical theatre as well as verbatim theatre, and usually all done with a dark sense of humour. Of course over time their ‘style’ has evolved and of late has become much more speech driven. Lloyd Newson, the co-founder and leader of the company said in a recent interview:
I could never understand the discrepancy of dancers yakking away in the wings, then pretending to be mute the minute they stepped out on stage,” Newson says. “A friend and former colleague of mine, Nigel Charnock, once said: ‘Whenever I’m dancing, inside my head, I’m talking to myself the whole time’.”
The new work, eponymously entitled John, is again a verbatim piece, created using interviews conducted by Newson with more than 50 men asking them frank questions about love and sex. To quote their publicity:
One of those men was John. What emerged was a story that is both extraordinary and touching. Years of crime, drug use and struggling to survive lead John on a search where his life converges with others in an unexpected place, unknown by most. JOHN authentically depicts real-life stories, where movement and spoken word combine to create an intense, moving and poignant theatrical experience.
This is a man who has talked of dance as “the Prozac of the artforms”, for what he sees as its vacuous, anaesthetising beauty; he sums up his own approach as “if people don’t understand what’s being said physically, I’m not interested”
Yesterday, the BBC Front Row programme interviewed Newson about the creative process behind the work:
Too early for the english language reviews to be out, but Twitter has been alive with fulsome praise:
John is will be on a national tour when done in London, but is sure to be heading off across the globe soon. I do hope so, anyway.
Since writing this post, the reviews are in for John. Almost without exception, they are praiseworthy and talk fulsomely about Newson’s work. The London Evening Standard sums up the piece thus:
John is a powerful and absorbing piece full of innovative visual touches but there’s a question over the bisected nature of the narrative and the sudden switch of tone, the new cast of characters, the move into (scatological) comedy.
Yet it works because there are themes that thread all the way through: the search for something, be it escape, obliteration, sensation, intimacy or love — at whatever cost
Obviously confronting in many ways, John has clearly made an impact. There is one review however, that had me whooping with laughter. Written by Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail, a right-wing, ‘hang ’em high’ and ‘send the immigrants home’ rag published in the UK, screamed with the fabulous headline A National DISGRACE: Sleazy. Amoral. And paid for by you!I think Letts might be missing the point, don’t you?
Sometimes a trip to the theatre can be truly exhilarating, confronting and prescient. Last night I went with my friend Sara to see Political Motherby British based Israeli choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, and it was indeed all of those things – and a lot more besides. In essence, it is a piece that explores the relationship between society and state, duty and service and brutalisation by a repressive power. The staging is epic – and very loud (being issued with ear plugs by the theatre was a first for us, although they remained unused). Political Mother has had a few incarnations and we witnessed another one, with it being re-worked a little for the festival it was part of and the addition of young, local musicians, largely drummers, to an already significant cast of dancers and musicians.
It has toured significantly around the world and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to see something I had been reading about with envy – the reviews have been almost uniformly outstanding. You can see for yourself here and here.
However, it wasn’t simply the piece that was so enthralling, it was also the context in which it was being performed. The monolith of a building in which it was staged, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, was commissioned and built under British colonial rule and is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. Ten minutes walk away is the commercial district of Mong Kok, where protests for universal suffrage continue. Across Victoria Harbour from the theatre is the other site of protest, with roads closed and a growing tent city springing up. It was palpable that the irony of a governmental sponsored festival hosting Political Mother was not lost on the majority of the audience. We were left wondering what the performers thought about the timeliness of their work in Hong Kong.
Dance and politics have never been far apart. One of the founders of contemporary dance, Martha Graham was no stranger to this fact, as this short documentary shows:
I want to share an article today that was sent to me by an ex-student of mine, Clarissa Ko. Clarissa is studying at the University of San Francisco and is taking a class called Embodied Activism. Given the current political unrest and student protests here in Hong Kong, the article struck a particular note with us both. A number of gestures have been used by the protesters that are now recognisable. The crossed arms has come to represent mistrust of the Central Government in Beijing. Hands held in the air was seen after tear gas was employed against them and borrowed from the non-violent protests held in Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown. Adapted from it original “hands up, don’t shoot” meaning in Missouri, it was used here by the student protesters to indicate to the police that their intentions were entirely peaceful. Universal gesture at its most potent. The Washington Post wrote about gesture used in mass protests around the world in the last few years, and produced this info graphic:
The article I referred to at the beginning, entitled Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson, was written by Anusha Kedhar, Assistant Professor of Dance at Colorado College and makes fascinating reading. My colleague, Lou, has already used it as a way into the study of Peter Brook, the grand master of universal theatre . Published on The Feminist Wire, the piece is lengthy so I am only going to reproduce an extract here – you can read the rest at your leisure.
A Choreopolitics of Freedom: André Lepecki recently wrote about “choreopolicing” and “choreopolitics.” He defines choreopolitics as the choreography of protest, or even simply the freedom to move freely, which he claims is the ultimate expression of the political. He defines choreopolicing as the way in which “the police determines the space of circulation for protesters and ensures that everyone is in their permissible place”—imposing blockades, dispersing crowds, dragging bodies. The purpose of choreopolicing, he argues, is “to de-mobilize political action by means of implementing a certain kind of movement that prevents any formation and expression of the political.” Lepecki then asks what are the relations between political demonstrations as expressions of freedom, and police counter-moves as implementations of obedience? How do the choreopolitics of protest and the choreopolicing of the state interact?
Powerful stuff, I’m sure you’d agree. Brecht would have loved it too!
February and March is International Arts Festival time in Hong Kong which draws its repertoire from across the globe. One regular visitor every few of years is Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary and this year they will be performing Iphigenia in Tauris which is one Bausch’s earliest works from 1973.
I love this company’s work and alway take myself and my students when they are in town. Prior to their run here they have been performing in London with another piece, 1980. Their appearance in the UK has generated a number of articles that I thought would be worth sharing here. I’ll start with a comment piece by Lyn Gardner for The Guardian which says everything about the genre and why it works for me and my students, who are invariably enraptured by this style of work.
What’s it all about? In theatre, it’s sometimes best if you don’t know
As Tanztheater Wuppertal’s 1980 proves, theatre is at its most potent when it doesn’t offer answers
Somebody once asked the dancer Anna Pavlova what she meant when she was dancing. “If I could tell you that,” she replied, “I wouldn’t dance it.” Theatre’s most thrilling evenings often come cloaked in ambiguity. Too much certainty is embalming in the theatre. It leaves nobody – writer, choreographer, performers, audience – with anything left to discover. I like leaving the theatre feeling as uncertain as when I went in. After all, the world and humanity are too complex and messy to explain easily and tie up in ribbons in a couple of hours.
The performances I most distrust are the ones that tell me emphatically what to think, where the playwright inserts a speech (usually somewhere towards the conclusion so we don’t forget it) that instructs as to what exactly the previous two hours have been about. Sometimes the director does it in an essay in the programme instead. I also distrust those performances that seem simply designed to confirm everything we already know about the world and ourselves. Plays that are “about things” are often really journalism in another guise.
The stage is like the mind itself … Tanztheater Wuppertal’s 1980
The great Robert Holman once told me that one of the glorious things about writing plays was uncovering in the very act of writing the things that you didn’t know that you knew. With a very good play or an astonishing performance, that can be just as true for the audience too. In the act of listening and watching we suddenly hear a distant chime that reminds us of something we had forgotten or buried; glimpse a ghost version of ourselves; or unexpectedly discover something we didn’t know we knew or felt.
Pina Bausch’s extraordinary and unmissable 1980 – surreal, truthful, mysterious, witty, heart-breaking and painful – is like that. In some ways it is as secretive as an oyster, but it is so emotionally textured and dramaturgically open that the vast stage becomes like a massive mirror of memory, endlessly reflecting our own childhoods, our own griefs and terrifying sense of fragility, and our own ludicrous and absurd way of preening and presenting ourselves to the world in the face of our own mortality. The stage is like the mind itself, sometimes focused and at others surfing wildly. There are interesting things going on all around the edges, as in life. You never quite know where to direct your attention, or where you should look.
The choreographed space between the bodies is as eloquent as the bodies themselves, and the space between stage and audience so fully alive that it invites us to lean forward to hear those chimes and watch those ghosts walk. At the end of three-and-a-half hours, I had no idea at all what it was supposed to mean, but like a frightened child in the dark began to sense and grope towards the light and all the things it meant to me. The show, and the performers, exposed and opened themselves up and invited us to share their uncertainty. In theatre, that’s a rare, brave gift. We should take it when it’s offered.
If you are not familiar with her work (or even if you are) Sanjoy Roy wrote Pina Bausch:clip by clip dance guide for The Guardian, back in 2009, which is definitely worth a read and watch. Some of the original clips referenced in the article have been removed from YouTube, but a little search will find them posted elsewhere on the site.
Sanjoy Roy is a prolific writer an all things dance/dance theatre and his own blog Sanjoy Roy Writing On Dance etc is worth a visit on any number of practitioners. I particularly like his Step By Step Guides to famous and iconic choreographers and companies, and his one on Pina Bausch is a great digest of her work.
Tanztheater Wuppertal tour widely across the globe and I thoroughly recommend you go if they come to a theatre near you.