The conceit that dance has always been performed by mutes is not entirely true. Throughout history, the performing arts have rarely been “pure.” Dance, like opera and theatre, has often used other fields to complement its own medium. “Performance art”—that nebulous interdisciplinary grab bag—isn’t really a twentieth-century invention, but an extension of what has been happening on the stage since time immemorial. Indeed, the combination of speech and movement onstage can be traced back to the tragedies of ancient Greece.
Classical ballet only emerged as a separate and valid art form in the nineteenth century. The notion of “pure” dance really took off during the last century, though, when choreographers such as Balanchine (in ballet) and Cunningham (in modern dance) “liberated” dance from its role as a side dish. Each showed that the art form could be simply for and about itself.
Inevitably, the generations that followed rebelled against dance for its own sake. For the last forty years, choreographers have increasingly felt free to express just about anything and add whatever they wish—including spoken word—into a dance performance. (See New York critic Mindy Aloff’s take on this period.)
While I am all for choreographers’ prerogative to add nondance elements to their works, I can’t help siding with those who believe that dance alone has a sufficient power. Dance fans are drawn to the art not only for sheer aesthetic pleasure, but also precisely because of its ability to convey profound ideas without words—a necessary break from the clamour that bombards us 24/7 in our media-saturated culture.
I’ve been thinking about the use of spoken word in contemporary dance more than usual recently, after seeing two shows, Quarantaine and La pornographie des âmes, this past September at Montreal’s L’Agora de la Danse. There wasn’t anything especially new about these shows—which used spoken word, video imagery and other nondance elements to varying degrees—so maybe it’s simply time for me to decide just what my biases and limitations are.
My aversion to the use of spoken word in dance goes deep. As a child, one of the reasons I was drawn to the art was that it was an outlet for self-expression that didn’t require speech. So it is a curiosity to me when choreographers choose to use words. After all, dance is quite capable of expressing just about any idea under the sun without getting verbal about it. At least, that’s what I’ve always thought.
And verbal some Montreal dance indeed gets. The phenomenon of spoken word in dance is not limited to this fair city, but we have quite a chatty crew here—usually speaking in French. This presents a real problem for a dance fan like me, an expat American with only five months of French immersion courses under her educational belt. Covering dance in Montreal sometimes brings both my bias against spoken word and my difficulties with a second language to the fore.
But it was shows featuring English, not French, spoken word that confirmed my dislike for this trend: in their solo shows last year at the Festival de Nouvelle Danse, the Americans Antony Rizzi and Meg Stuart both yammered on more than they danced. Unlike my experience with local shows, in which most talk is en français (where a literal understanding is about all I can muster), with the Americans, I had absolutely no problem understanding every word spoken, and every accompanying nuance and irony besides. I was not amused, or moved, or whatever—just bored.
After Quarantaine and La pornographie des âmes, I by no means felt the irritation I experienced after the American doubleheader. For one thing, the subject matter of these September shows was far more interesting to begin with. More than that, for all Quarantaine’s different uses of spoken word (some of which were exceptionally well integrated with the choreography), it still felt like a dance show. La pornographie des âmes (The Pornography of Souls) was a different story: the piece defied categorization, and seemed more experimental theatre than dance.
If I were to liken the spirit of Montreal choreographer Dave St-Pierre’s La pornographie to anything, it would be to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. La pornographie is a satirical yet often sympathetic parade of humanity in all its foibles and horrors, imbued with the edgy energy of the fifteen young performers. Adding to the intensity of St-Pierre’s vision was the cast’s occasional nudity, which made the human condition seem all the more fragile.
Some of the segments were almost unbearable, even though there was no attempt to disguise the artifice of the set-up. In one, a woman lay naked on the floor, covered in blood and moaning pitifully. In another, we watched a bare stage while listening to what sounded like an offstage rape. At other times, the mood was lighter, like the balletic dance by a nude, obese woman that was in its absurdity at first uncomfortably funny and at last moving in its bravery.
Was it a dance show? In addition to the obvious (if thin) dance sections, you could say that all those bodies running about the stage, standing still and doing everything else in between had been “choreographed” to do so. But the truth is, I couldn’t tell you much about St-Pierre as a dancemaker, as I found he expressed his ideas about human beings more through words and tableaux than through dance itself. One impassioned pas de deux by a man and woman who seemed unable to decide if they were for or against each other whetted my appetite for more such choreographic displays. Like Oliver Twist, however, at the end I left empty-handed. Oh well. Maybe in his next show St-Pierre will serve up more choreographic meat.
Unlike La pornographie, Quarantaine is not the vision of a single choreographer, but rather conceived collaboratively by its four dancers (AnneBruce Falconer, Jane Mappin, Mathilde Monard and Carol Prieur) along with composer Charmaine LeBlanc and visual artist Alain Cadieux. Quarantaine (which means “about forty”) explores the transition between youth and old age—particularly the female experience of it—and the elusive search for peace and happiness along the way. Throughout the show, the four women dance, speak and sing as LeBlanc’s touching score plays and three screens show projections.
Most of this collaboration worked well, even seamlessly, except for a couple of English spoken-word sections. An overlong monologue toward the end of the show tried too neatly to explain that there is a capacity for happiness within us all. It was a nice story about travels through India, the kind you’d like to hear around the dinner table, but it stopped the show’s momentum dead in its tracks.
The other questionable section was a humorously delivered proposition that if men could become pregnant, the world would be a much less violent place. Ugh. The implications of this argument started me thinking—and I mean that in the worst way. Instead of being swept away by the sights and sounds of the performance, I sat there in my seat having an internal debate. It worries me when I feel like I am responding to an op-ed piece in the middle of a performance.
Yet other moments showed how successful spoken word in conjunction with movement can be. In Jane Mappin’s vignette about the way we view aging and beauty, for example, a woman faces the audience, seemingly studying herself in a mirror. She pulls back her hair, pats the skin under her chin, feels all the parts of her body, intoning with mounting anxiety “smoother, younger, happier” while using her hands to slit her throat and stab her heart, and then finally collapses to the floor.
Not once during Mappin’s performance did I stop to think about what she was “saying.” But I did think about it quite a bit afterward, about how she captured the hysterical tone underlying every fashion magazine’s chipper articles on the miracles wrought by needles and scalpels. I would suggest that her performance be required viewing for any feminist theory class; it’s guaranteed to get students talking passionately about these issues far better than could any dry academic essay. When dance has that effect, when action speaks louder than words, then a piece has truly succeeded.
Am I suggesting that choreographers not use speech or other nondance elements in their show? Of course not. Quarantaine and La pornographie both showed at times that such combinations can work splendidly.
However, we have a real need to go beyond words: we need dance, music and the other arts to express dimensions of the human experience that can’t be articulated in any verbal language. In every review, I struggle to capture dance in words, yet this very struggle confirms to me the tremendous value of this art. The sight of the human body in movement, exposed as it is onstage, is poignancy enough—so human, so visceral, that whatever a choreographer is trying to “say” can’t help but grab hold of both our hearts and minds. I wish sometimes that choreographers would remember this when they hear the siren call of words.
Postscript, November 3:
Just got back from another multimedia extravaganza: Ultima Vez’s Blush, directed and choreographed by Wim Vandekeybus with a script by Flemish author Peter Verhelst. Blush uses high-octane dancing and words to explore our secret desires, especially those that revolve around love.
Verhelst’s text is of a quality that Maisonneuve’s lit crits wouldn’t even bother to review, but Ultima Vez’s dancers passionately delivered these words to touching, sometimes searing effect, perfectly complementing the choreography and the beautiful, occasionally disturbing, video imagery.
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.