Dallas — Art is always already becoming something new and unique. Its nature is to be constantly evolving, but how can that be possible in an environment in which originality and innovation seems few and a far between? Maybe part of the distance between our understanding of what is “new” and “fresh” is a misinterpretation of how art can be defined, or simply, maybe our rejection of innovation comes from the fact that work is defined at all. Take for example the concept of “dance theatre.” The most universal definition of the term as stated by Norbert Servos in the International Diction of Modern Dance is, “the union of genuine dance and theatrical methods of stage performance, creating a new, unique dance form…which, in contrast to classical ballet, distinguishes itself through an intended reference to reality.”
But dance theatre can also refer to “a performance form that combines dance, speaking, singing and chanting, conventional theater and the use of props, set, and costumes in one amalgam. It is performed by trained dancers. Usually there is no narrative plot; instead, specific situations, fears, and human conflicts are presented. Audiences are stimulated to follow a train of thought or to reflect on what the…piece express,” says Roland Langer in Dance Magazine. Or dance theatre simply could just be a genre that is focused on human experience and emotions.
Attempting to categorize an intangible concept such as dance theatre makes creating it a difficult task. How can a work be “defined” as dance theatre when there is no definite definition? That’s the point, it can’t and it absolutely can. The fact that the dance theatre has remained an ambiguous term in the otherwise rigidly structured art of dance allows for choreographers, directors, and creators to continually add to the lexicon and history of the craft. Providing a platform for artists to create their own definition and carve out their own niche in the contemporary creative community.
Nevertheless—and equally, luckily—we can trace the beginnings of dance theatre to a particular place and time: 1920s Germany. The work produced reflected the sociopolitical climate from which it was born and the idea that would become central to modern artistry—the human experience. The impetus of this movement was inherently political, and deeply rooted in an emerging German identity. It was during this tumultuous transitory period in German culture that dance theatre evolved, when its scope became self-authored as a universalized style, later evidenced by its lasting effect on American and British modern dance.
Credited as being the founder of dance theatre, Pina Bausch moved the concept forward with her seminal works of dance and theatre beginning in the 1970s. She combined overt theatrical elements with full-body movements and intense physicality, while also maintaining a purity of “natural movement,” how the body organically chose to move and react. The best example is her Rite of Spring. Referencing the story of Persephone and taking Nijinsky’s 1913 original production in a contemporary context, Bausch upped the stakes, the violence, and the sexuality, with her interpretation. She covered the stage in mud, as a visual reminder of our primitive nature; her dancers were barely clothed to allow their musculature and humanity show through; the narrative was clear and direct—a sacrifice was to occur, and nothing would stop man’s true, violent nature from coming forth, as we are biologically programmed to behave in a certain manner. Much like her predecessor Nijinsky, Bausch’s work shocked. Because here, we saw “real people” dancing, real situations. She lifted the safety of the fourth wall, calling forth a kind of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt; thus, creating a secondary layer within the performance that pulls the viewer into the action and into a critical and analytical frame of mind.
Continuing to lay the foundation for dance theatre is Lloyd Newson and his company DV8 in London and Mark Dendy in New York. Sidra Bell is also playing within some of these conceptual concepts, but more successfully, and currently her place in the dance world, and the theatrical world, is choreographer Crystal Pite, who will be bringing her dance company, Kidd Pivot, to Dallas this coming weekend making their Texas debut (April 21 and 22 at the Dallas City Performance Hall, presented by TITAS). Pite formed Kidd Pivot in 2002, and immediately began incorporating an interdisciplinary and deconstructive approaching to dance. She kept things simple: the work was about the process; it was about human connections and thoughts; her costume and set designs were simple and utilitarian in their effect to enhancing the performance. But what came about as a motif was the use of puppetry and masks.
A design element that would become integral in her work, and inherently pulls from a historical theatrical background. It first appeared in Double Story, an early work for Kidd Pivot, and reemerged in Second Person, a piece she created in 2007 for Netherlands Dans Theater. Inspired by Irish, Scottish, and English folk songs, the choreography included 24 dancers, some who operated stick puppets and a large wooden marionette. The puppets served as observers of the dancers—a meta-theatrical audience member that exist both on and off the stage—calling forth a similar Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt as Bausch.
Pite continued her work with puppets and the force they have as mirror on society in 2009’s Dark Matters. This work explored the capabilities of unseen external forces on the body and mind through the traditional narrative paradigm of man versus monster. In Dark Matters, a man creates a marionette (the monster) to do his bidding, but eventually, as is true in the monster narrative, the puppet turns on its creator, destroying him with scissors. She followed this up with an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Tempest Replica (2011), and her current production with Jonathon Young of the Electric Company Theatre, Betroffenheit (2015), explores the theme of addiction and PTSD through an extremely theatrical lens, quite possible, her most theatrical production thus far. These works firmly place her within the developing definition of dance theatre as is defined in this article.
Historically, dance and theatre have had a symbiotic relationship, once that became more fully established in the 20th Century. Marked by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the birth of abstract expressionism, postmodernism, and minimalism, a cultural explosion was blossoming throughout many urban centers across the United States and much of Europe. The movement was political, aesthetic, and personal, and held the human condition in high esteem. Artists began to examine our place in the world through the lens of realism and naturalism, in effect, rejecting the structure of virtuosic technique that was a cornerstone of modernism for internal decisions, structures, rules or problems. Whatever was created from this internal process became the work. As stated in Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition, “Whatever movement occurred while working on these problems became the art.” Even before Bogart and Landau made this claim, Rudolph Van Laban was implementing this idea in his dance and movement practices.
Laban, one of the founding practitioners of modern dance, worked to place an emphasis on the emotional effect of the performance on the spectator by creating a form that included dance, theatre, singing, props, sets, and costumes in the hops of achieving a creation that embraced humankind. As a movement theorist, a choreographer, and a dancer, he had unique insight into all aspects of performance which allowed him an insider perspective into categorizing human movement. He developed four main categories: direction, weight, speed, and flow. Within those four categories were 8 subsections: direct or indirect direction, heavy or light weight, quick or sustained speed, and bound or free flow. Laban then combined these parts to create The Eight Efforts: wring, press, flick, dab, glide, float, punch, and slash.
The Eight Efforts are used often to assist actors who might find it difficult to move outside of their own bodies. They allow actors the chance and opportunity to experience and explore different ways of moving their bodies in ways that can become specific to the character they are playing through observational work, text work, emotional work, and costuming. In the end, The Eight Efforts help actors create a toolbox of movement from which they can pull from when playing different characters throughout the course of their careers.
Theatre-maker and theorist Jerzy Grotowski was also implementing similar concepts into his practices. Grotowski was interested in archetypes—movements, sounds, and situations basic to the human condition. He would utilize the actor’s organic quality of movements to supplement and guide the rehearsal process, and ultimately, the final performance. His actors were extremely physically skilled. They developed a technique of movement which allowed them to control every move they made. It is our bodies that express everything about us. He gave actors physical skills to fully expressing their imaginations and their personalities. He also believed in true contact between human beings, and what could be discovered in those physical moments between actors.
Anne Bogart, prolific theatre and opera director, created one of the most widely utilized and taught theatrical methods of movement, Viewpoints. Pulling from aspects of Laban’s and Grotowski’s work, but calling postmodern dance its greatest influence, Viewpoints is an improvisational, ensemble-building technique based on Mary Overlie’s Six Viewpoints of Dance. Overlie was a founding teacher at New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing, founder of Danspace at St. Mark’s Church, and Movement Research, a dance cooperative. For her, the six viewpoints are space, shape, time, emotion, movement, and story, and each of these concepts create a volume of dialogue—a dialogue that is natural to humans. Utilizing these viewpoints helps the actor/performer become aware of them, and eventually integrate them on a psychological, emotional, and performative level.
Bogart expanded upon Overlie’s six viewpoints and added her own nine physical Viewpoints: spatial relationship, kinesthetic response, shape, gesture, repetition, architecture, tempo, duration, and topography; and Vocal Viewpoints: pitch, dynamic, acceleration/deceleration, silence, and timbre. These Viewpoints help to create an opportunity for the actor/performer to discover visceral and dynamic moments of theatre by opening up the space for spontaneous interactions between a group of performers and for allowing play to enter into both the rehearsal and performance process.
Is there a benefit to combining dance and theatre? To expanding both the education of the dancer and the actor through a cross-disciplinary approach? That has been a longstanding question, and best answered by Overlie. In an interview with Ellen Orenstein with the Theatre Communications Group, when asked if there was a way that Stanislavsky and Viewpoints can meet, Overlie was succinct and clear:
“Oh, absolutely. It’s thrilling. Look at the world of dance: The dancer who has studied ballet, and then Graham, and then contact improvisation, is one mighty interesting person. It used to be thought in the dance world that you couldn’t do that—that they were muscularly, psychologically, alignment-wise, in complete opposition to each other. But that line of thinking belongs to those who are making fortresses around something, for defense and superiority. It turned out to be breathtakingly not true. And I think it is the same with Stanislavsky and the Viewpoints—of course, it’s a better actor who has studied both.”
I don’t like conclusions. Train yourself. Know your history. Someone has asked the questions you are asking, so you should probably ask them better.
» Danielle Georgiou is a dance educator, critic and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) and is a working dancer and performance artist. Her column Sixth Position appears on the third Sunday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
Previous columns are:
- February 2014: Cash Choreography
- March 2014: Make the Fringe Your Future
- April 2014: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
- May 2014: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
- June 2014: Persevering Through Movement
- July 2014: Sharing in Success
- August 2014: To the Barre
- September 2014: Method Act
- October 2014: Fear of Flying
- December 2014: The Editor Dance
- January 2015: Community Relations
- February 2015: The Fabric of Movement
- March 2015: State of the Dance
- April 2015: The Dance Mom Complex
- May 2015: Who Wants to Date a Dancer?
- June 2015: Figuring How Men Fit In
- August 2015: Creative Economy
- September 2015: Dancing to Learn
- October 2015: Whose Idea Is It Anyway?
- December 2015: '15 Going on '16
- January 2016: In Memoriam
- Februrary 2016: The Politics of Dancing
- March 2016: No column