Dance as Theatre

I began my studies with the intent to define and compartmentalize Dance Theater. This desire led me on a wild goose chase through countless physical theater practices, a pile of reading from the floor to the roof of my apartment, as many shows as I could see while still being a full time student, and a solo performance that was more gratifying than any other performance I’ve done to date. My attempts to define this form of art haven’t stopped, yet they haven’t gotten me anywhere. The pursuit of “the definite” seems to be simply the mechanism that deepens my relationship to a style of creation that I don’t fully understand yet.

A few key areas of this goose chase demand their own detailed explanations of physical and conceptual impact. These areas include: the viewing of Plexus (a self defined physical theatre piece), the creation or choreographing of my performance solo at Work In Progress Fall 2016, and its execution or the performance itself. But before I can talk about these directly effective areas of my research it is important to describe some of the lines in the sand I have discovered along the way.

Those of us informed intimately with dance and theatre either pretend that Dance -Theatre is something cutting edge in order to bring in new audiences or dismiss it because in a macro scale the same things have been happening on stage since the dawn of entertainment. The only things that have changed are style and title. Dance has always and will always be theater, so where did the need for this new hyphenated name spring up? Singing, speaking, silence, movement, stillness, prop, staging are the categories of drama and bring together my complete and all encompassing list of narrative drivers, regardless of the narrative type. Dance theatre somewhat ironically deems any and all drivers of the show’s content and creates a sense of a “catch all” approach to drama. The “catch all” of dance theatre is essentially the same “catch all” as liberal arts university. Doing as much as one can from both the artistic side and academic side — freely interchanged with dance and theatre — in order to satisfy both halves of societal pressure, both halves of the brain’s desire in the creator(s), and synthesizing aspects of codified techniques that were formed/assigned to their respective techniques in an era obsessed with putting things in place despite the things existing independently and in relation to the boxes they resided in.

The Critical Guide to Physical Theatre perfectly encapsulated my preexisting knowledge of, and the stigma my colleagues have embraced regarding Dance-Theatre when it said, “today [the title of physical theatre] is often to be found as a strap line to identify the direction and aspiration of many young companies determined to resist the embrace of mainstream realism and naturalism.” (16 Critical) At the end of a semester of research I embrace this definition of Dance-Theatre as the most truthful and closest to the heart of what dance and physical theatre hope to be. The only thing I would add to it is that Dance theatre is a feeling not a definitive style or technique that can be listed out. Additionally, this definition inherently places the burden of characterization or categorization on the creator of the art. In other words, dance theatre is a box one puts one’s own work in not a place works are forced to from an outside voice.

My obsession with Dance Theater came from its ambiguity. Its ability to only be honestly defined ,without stretches or conceptual leaps, as a catch all category. All of the deep probing into it is only meant to bring up more questions than the genre itself can answer. Because of this, in Dance Theater the definition of a successful piece (for me) is something that can illuminate the brilliant abyss of unknown and possibility embedded in the genre. A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre (not to be confused with a Critical Guide) said art leading up to and including Dance Theatre had fundamentally changed. Art began “to claim a deeper re-presentation of life in distorted and increasingly abstract images which refracted life, as though through a broken mirror or prism, to reveal a darker truth.” (9) This repositioning of art allowed for a new form of dance to spring up, one that could not only refract life but refract the characteristics that attempt to define it, and thus we were given Dance Theatre. To call the mysteries of Dance Theatre unique and solely embedded in the dance theatre arena would be foolish though.

Etymology of the word dance is unknown, we don’t have a clear line from the beginnings of language to the beginning of dance. (Liberman) If comparing the might of mysteries, the inability to define something is undoubtedly ousted by the inability to point to the birth of something. Leading me to wonder if my interest in dance theater was ever genuine or just a new found pocket of the ultimate mystery field, dance as a whole. I know for sure that this deep dive into dance theater gave me a great opportunity to check in on how I view dance, how I create dance, and how I perform dance.

Plexus was a dance theater piece performed at BAM, defined in the program as Physical Theater, Theater, and Dance. The piece’s creator, Aurélien Bory, was described as a “French physical theater maverick”. (BAM) While the piece was visually striking throughout, I would hardly describe what was created as maverick. Wondrous and even enchanting could describe the work. As a preeminent physical theater creation I hoped to be illuminated as to what the genre was “supposed” to look like by this show. In a strange way I was, it was difficult to understand what Bory was going for. To me this was the best signifier of a dance theater piece I had seen. Nothing in the work tried too hard to fit neatly into a box, the lighting was not always supportive of the movement on stage, the actual stage itself moved, the nylon strings impeded and enhanced the overall view, each individual part of the show held matter and thus mattered. There was no singular shining aspect in retrospect that everything else was in support of, no singular all star cast member that floored everyone else. This aspect of self sufficient parts does not necessarily reflect the dance theater genre as much as it does Bory’s compositional style, due to the fact that in my own dance theater creation process I tried from chapter to chapter to single out a starring aspect of the work that everything else would be in support of.

During the choreographic process for my solo, I tried to strike a balance. At its inception balance was what I believed dance theater to be and thus what my solo should also embody. I had hoped to attain a balance of dance and theater techniques, a balance of sight and sound, a balance of spectatorship and participation, and the list goes on. What I found myself struggling with though was the degree of difficulty it takes to balance such disparate concepts, techniques, and feelings in general. I was drawn to the unbalance, not unlike hoping to watch someone (myself) fail at a skill game (dance show). 
 This unbalance led me to the unbalance of preparation being a particularly attracting mess. Some aspects of my choreography have been mulled over for months. During a reading about the life work of Stanislavski I was struck by a passage that read he would require “minimally six months” of rehearsal. (9 Benedetti) As a dancer I have never rehearsed something for that long before performance. As a millennial I can’t even fathom that amount of time to work on something. As a creator though, I realized I do spend large chunks of time like that on material as long as the term rehearsal can be used loosely.

The loose reference to rehearsal was another thing I confronted in my creation process, as a part of the preparation unbalance. Traditionally, I unbalance my performances as immense rehearsal time in studios and little time spent considering the material that is being worked on throughout my day. But when it comes to creating work, that relationship is flipped so I spend virtually no time in the studio and countless hours mulling over variables and concepts in my head, out loud, and on paper. Simultaneously, I prepare myself for the unknown of the stage. Improvising large chunks of my performance in order to sharpen decision making muscles and the pure nerve it takes to go out on a stage without knowing exactly what is going to happen next (as if having an exact plan allows that kind of knowledge).

With the performance at Works In Progress I tried to take the preparation unbalance a step further. Leaving large amounts of work to be done in the hours leading up to the performance and even some decisions being made as I walked out on stage allowed me to exercise the most extreme version of unprepared I was willing (i.e. prepared) to perform. I chose to mix my music backstage given my unwillingness to go out without a set audio chapter markers gave me the opportunity to remain uncomfortable enough, or more so unfamiliar enough, that on stage my decision making ability had to be incredible fine tuned and not simply lulled into repetition. I also decided to give a key chapter marker responsibility to one of the inexperienced stage hands, further pressing myself to the edge of failure due to “lack of control” which was just a disguise for precise control of a different kind.

Performing the work was unlike anything I have ever done before. For years I have been trying to impress upon an audience my own process of reveling who I am through dance alone; I have never felt successful. This performance though was met with a fairly widespread impression of surprise and revelation. Finally, success and it does feel sweeter than I could have imagined. In retrospect I can glean that huge influences in the performance came from readings I did in preparation. Also my own experiences of the performance mirrored almost exactly one selection in particular from my reading on comedy.

The comedia del arte was a large area of discussion in my readings, though I understand very little of it still. Regardless there was a poignant section from a correspondence of letters about the audience’s role in comedy that struck home with my own time on stage. It said,

“In one scene where I have a house-party I have been fortifying myself in an awkward situation with a glass or two of whiskey. This makes me stumble twice over the word “croquet” which I pronounce “coqret” and then “croqret”. A few moments after this incident my son asks me where the guests are — the audience knows they are playing croquet. At rehearsal this question was put in merely to bring the son into the scene, and my reply to it was considered so unimportant that the author suggested I should simply say “Still playing.” When I said this simple sentence on the first night, it got a sustained roar of laughter to everyone’s astonishment on the stage. The reason, of course, was that I was apparently avoiding saying the word “croquet” again. The audience remembered my dilemma over it and the author and actor had overlooked it.” (3 Comedia)

Though my epiphany lacked speech, when I sprayed a Lysol bottle in slow motion on stage for over a minute I failed to see the inherent humor in the situation when I played it out in my head. Where the laughter came from is unimportant but my own inability to plan it as a reaction was a priceless lesson into the creation of work in general, and more specifically into creating dance theatre work since I will be less inclined to predict responses to more ambiguous material.

Unbalance in the preparation phase of the piece ended up blossoming as unbalance within the performance itself. My clown makeup and colossally personal material struck a harmonic unbalance. Somehow the combination of the two extremes gave me in performance a sense of alertness as well as irony. The inspiration for clowning in the performance was discovered in a Movement for Actors book. It described a stage clown as one that “arrives on stage free of past history. No parents, no siblings, no psychological baggage. He lives in the present and is fed by his connection to the audience”. (103 Movement) Forming a stage persona from the moment the lights came up as one free of past seemed as unbalanced an aesthetic as possible given that the performance material I had created was entirely personal history based. Deciding to take the route of personal history was the chicken to the egg of clowning on stage, but the predecessor to performing my past is less clear. If I had to make an educated guess it would have to have come from my understanding of comedy, and how only the very true can become a funny joke. The Comedia del Arte book said, “It is only when one thoroughly understands a person that one can afford to laugh at him.” (5 Comedia) Though I am still working on understanding myself I am a firm believer that the stage can teach us more than a mirror, fortune teller, or signifcant other ever could.

My journey with Dance Theater has just begun, and that feels exciting. My journey with creation will never end, which feels more important. If I had to boil what I learned this semester into one paragraph it would be that research takes many forms. Readings can manifest as more than just more words on paper. Performances are not as ephemeral as we would like to think they are. Dance is theater. Harmonious unbalance is the most convoluted descriptor I have ever used, and it perfectly encapsulates my style of performance preparation and execution. And spraying Lysol on stage in slow motion will get a laugh.

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Annotated Bibliography

Stanislavski -

A introduction and detailed description of the Stanislavski technique for acting. A physical approach to acting, in that it took up the whole body as a state of being while in a performance space instead of the “masking” or “putting on” that preceded it. Also historical context for drama’s reformation.

“What Stanislavski wanted to provide was a method for actors to explore the play, the events as they unfold, in terms of what they would do in the various situations the author provided, using exercises and improvisations. It is active analysis on the rehearsal-room floor, as opposed to the reflective, formal analysis that takes place in the study; it first asks what happens, rather than what the dramaturgical structure is.” (XV)

“At the psychological core of the performance will always be me, but I will have to give physical form to my inner characterization. My external behavior and appearance may not be mine. Age, physique, looks will be defined by the script, including make-up and costume. “ (9)

“In terms of Stanislavski’s own practice, this meant a minimum of six months.”(9)

Benedetti, Jean. Stanislavski and the Actor. Psychological Press, 1998. Print. October 28, 2016.

Movement for Actors-

Various physical theater techniques broken down with exercises as well as a bit of background about the creator/inception. Essays of the conceptual break down of physical theater organisms (companies).

“A. He moves from dilemma to solution, ad infinity, revealing his innocence and resiliency. Which is precisely why we find him so delightful — he shows us that survival is indeed possible and that our own shortcomings often produce the next solution.” (105)

Potter, Nicole. Movement for Actors. New York, N.Y. Allworth Communications, 2002. Print. October 31, 2016.

Art of Commedie —

Taught me that the audience, even given all the time and effort and thought that goes into planning the show, is smarter in the moment than I can be in making the thing.

Seyler, Athene & Haggard, Stephen. The Craft of Comedy: An Exchange of Letters on Comedy Acting Techniques with Stephen Haggard. New York 1974. Print October 31, 2016.

Through the Body: A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre-

Exercises in physicality. Mainly focused my readings on the exercises of improve technique. School of fish task. As well an introduction to the contextualization of physical theatre’s beginning.

“They found in commedia an artifice which privileged the secular, sometimes the vulgar, but was never cheaply escapist. For the comedic callus up the tragicomic; and in its excessive laughter lie both the seeds of the absurd and the pathos of humanity.” (9) Callery, Dymphna. Through the Body A Practical Guide to Physical Theatre. New York 2014. Print. November 3, 2016.

Physical theatres: a critical introduction —

A book essentially written on my first line of inquiry, what is dance-theatre how can I define it. Too heady and date specific to actually use for my practice directly. Indirectly placed a global view of physical theater and its inception/ ties to other physical arts.

“visual theatre/performance, movement theatre, body based theatre, gestural theatre, dance dramas, dance theatre, and even modern mime” (17)

Keefe, John & Murray, Simon. Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduciton. London: Routledge, 2007. Print. November 22, 2016.

Oxford University Press Blog Anatoly Liberman —

An advanced etymological look at the word dance. Used to clarify the title of Dance Theater, but ultimately led to more confusion, admiration, and sinking deeper into the rabbit hole.

”The difficulty in reconstructing the etymon of any word for “dance” consists in that dancing is associated with various types of movement: shaking, twisting, whirling, walking around in a group, stamping, or jumping.”

http://blog.oup.com/2013/03/dance-word-origin-etymology-harlem-shake/

Liberman, Anatoly. The Harlem Shake and English etymology. Oxford University Press Blog. March 6, 2013. Web. December 12, 2016.