Tuesday 27 November 2007

Not “I”

Rough Draft:

This "review" is mostly by way of an experiment. Following Saturday’s post on the understanding of "signs" it seems to fit rather well. Following my trip to Munich, I realised that I saw way too much mainstream theatre at the expense of interesting experimental work. Fuelled in part by this new impetus to open my mind a bit and in part by the need to research my latest Guardian Blog piece; rather than catch-up with the Bush’s latest offering, I headed off to The Place in Euston to watch some Lithuanian Contemporary Dance made by acclaimed practitioner Lora Juodkaitė.

To say I have a fairly minimal grounding in contemporary dance doesn't begin to cover the state of my ignorance. That said, in many ways the boundaries between "dance" and "theatre" have never been thinner. While groups like Frantic Assembly and DV8 play in theatres, Rambert and Pina Bausch seem to stick to dance venues like Sadler’s Wells, and yet international companies, such as are found at Aurora Nova - St Stephens, Edinburgh, are quite happily dealt with by theatre critics during festival time.

If most contemporary dance is even half as exciting, accomplished and realised as this, I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in performance and the possible future of theatre to expand their normal venue circuit, and look beyond the Theatre section of Time Out (I realise this sounds terribly pompous and that many of Postcards’ readers already do so - much of this is an admonitory note to self, really).

There were two pieces presented: Trimatrix. Three movements and Salamandra’s Dream. Picture. In the first, three dancers in turn lay down strips of white tape under tightly focused corridors of light barely wider than the strips themselves and proceed to perform an acrobatic series of moves to a live soundtrack created by percussionist Tomas Dobrovolskis, who switches between a series of objects using a delay pedal to create elaborate drum loops. As the piece progresses, further strips are laid until they join to create a triangle. The turn-taking disintegrates and the three dancers’ previous isolation is broken, while the percussion reaches an almost industrial intensity, with sheets of paper being cracked into the microphone to create drum machine-like effects.

The second piece is even more impressive. While Trimatrix felt as if it could be quite safely be filed under dance, Salamandra’s Dream. Picture is altogether more "theatrical". In four movements Juodkaitė proceeds to do more with the human body than I would have thought possible. In the first section, backlit by a single dim light, she creates shapes with her body that I would have thought impossible - one looking like a substantial boulder dropped onto a still twitching mess of arms and legs, another like one of the Figures at the base of Francis Bacon's Crucifixion - all linked by tortuous crawling on bandy legs and elbows. The second section sees the dancer spinning for minutes at a time, arms variously flailing, pinioned and seemingly suspended - it is dizzying and hypnotic to watch.

The third part consists of Juodkaitė responding to a soundtrack of amplified clock ticking and/or dripping with a developing sequence of staccato movements, apparently triggered by one another, and by the soundtrack. Even simply as a display of breathtaking physical discipline, it is quite astonishing. There is none of the physical uncertainty that marks out a lot of British Physical Theatre here. Every movement is perfect, deliberate, technically difficult and totally controlled. Backward rolls are executed at an angle, in slow motion, and with the utmost precision.

It is the final section of Salamandra which is most theatrical. Juodkaitė rolls herself into length of paper, so that she is totally bound from head to foot in a paper cylinder. She then gradually tries to free herself again, like the titular salamander shedding a skin. The playing area of the stage is surrounded by what appear to be several similar papery cast-off cocoons. The loss of the identifiable human form in this final section peculiarly deepens the pathos of the action. Watching a paper tube struggling with its contents is a strange way to spend a Friday night, but the effect - the necessary concentration and the image itself, combined with the heady amplified soundtrack of rhythmic crunching paper noises - is near-hallucinogenic. It took me a good fifteen minutes to half an hour after leaving the space to get back to normal.

I suppose the real problems start here. When writing about theatre I have ten-odd years of theatre-going, reading and conversations with actors, directors and critics on which to draw. It short, I know where I am with theatre. Similarly, I kind of know, almost instinctually, at least what a normal review is meant to do. I know the sort of analysis that is appropriate well enough to experiment occasionally with the form. Watching Trimatrix and Salamandra I had no such safety nets. That is why the above is so description heavy. I might have a tendency to get bogged down in description anyway - that deft two lines of set, costume and effects common to the 350-word British standard has always struck me as woefully inadequate if there is anything interesting to explore. And there of course isn't room to explore more, unless it is at the expense of plot details, what the writing’s like, how the direction “serves the text”, how the actors are doing, plus comment on and maybe argument with “the play’s thesis” - or similar. None of this is intended to sound dismissive of the 350-word British theatre review, by the way. It is a real skill to successfully negotiate how to satisfactorily make them communicate and illuminate. And by and large, given the form, our critics do a remarkable job.

So, firstly I should probably seek out some other reviews of contemporary dance to see how it is dealt with by others. But there's still the issue of "expertise", and of having any useful points of reference. I am unable to - as the West End Whingers laughingly put it - locate the piece in the wider discourse. At least not in the discourse of its own form, which is surely part of the point for a critic. Especially since here I would be happy to stick my neck out and suggest that Lora Juodkaitė isn't really concerned with The State of the Nation or making big points about philosophy or politics. But if it was, I simply wouldn't have the mental furniture to deal with it.

Lithuanian theatre during the Soviet occupation developed a secret language of signs and ways of criticising the Russians, while the critics developed a similarly secret way of approvingly describing such comments. On Friday night at The Place I felt as clueless as a cultural attaché from the Kremlin. This provides a useful illustration of what I was talking about in my last piece - in short, that I'm groping toward a feeling that Britain is peculiarly fixated by a need to locate The Meaning, even in work where such an approach might not necessarily be the most helpful.

Let’s set up some sort of assessment criteria: without a doubt, this was accomplished work - the physical skill on display was incredible. There is no doubt in my mind that the piece was worthy of "serious" consideration. It was clear that definite decisions had been made by the musician/percussionist, choreographer, director and dancers. We’re not dealing here with people flinging down something wilfully opaque - cobbled together from half-understood theory, with little discernable talent or value on display - in front of an audience and then blaming them for their incomprehension. But nevertheless, I didn’t have the tools to unpack it. Now, that could simply be down to my lack of familiarity with contemporary dance and how to "read" it. I enjoyed - was enthralled by - the performance, so it’s not an issue of this putative opacity getting in the way of appreciation, but even so, I still have this unshakeable (perhaps very English) feeling that I want to "know" if I'm "getting it right".

But it's not just contemporary dance. To throw some random top-of-head examples up, I probably feel similarly about Chris Goode's Longwave, JH Prynn’s Poetry, Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures and, say, Schnitke’s Violin Concerto. All of which I love. And all of which I know I don't fully understand. In the case of Longwave, having written a review which Chris was very generous about, I was more than a little disconcerted when Shuttleworth came out from seeing the piece a month later in Edinburgh and asked if the drawings of the birds on the walls of the shed in which the two men in the piece live were connected to the message “It is worse than I had feared” via an Edward Lear poem. They were. I hadn't picked up on that at all. In the ensuing conversation, Chris ran through a lot of the other “hidden” references contained in the piece. So there was obviously a whole world of meaning that I hadn't even begun to comprehend when I watched the piece. I had loved it, but totally failed to pick up a vast majority of its subtlety. Did that invalidate me as a critic? Shouldn't critics, if anyone, be the ones to spot this sort of thing? Okay, Shuttleworth is a critic and he did. But does that mean the rest of us should go home? This, I guess, is where my newfound anxiety about “comprehension” lies.

In Munich we talked a lot about subjectivity. And I suppose at the time I was mildly nervous of the concept when taken to its natural, potentially AA Gill, conclusion. Yes, of course all criticism is subjective - but that subjectivity is carefully not foregrounded much of the time. After all, do readers really need to know about the bad week, money worries, emotional turmoil and lousy transport that have informed my viewing of the play (for better or for worse, for the play - sometimes I'm pretty sure it is possible to like a play more than it deserves, simply because it took your mind off everything else and there wasn’t anything especially wrong with it). As a result, one can kind of ignore that fact that one is sticking one’s neck out and making judgements for money. One relies on the sense that even though it is “only my opinion”, it is an opinion that you believe to be right, and would firmly and stoutly stand by if challenged. Taken further, one relies on believing in how right you are. At the same time, I am ever conscious of Robert Hewison’s age-old advice to “avoid egotism” - not to use “I” in reviews: “You've signed the review; of course it's you who thinks it. Just say ‘it is’.”

But in the end we return to the idea of “expertise”. It’s an idea that gets a fair amount of bad press these days. Not least, ironically, from the blogsophere, where some critics make a positive virtue of their “amateur” status. That said, the best of these (West End Whingers, View From The Stalls) absolutely do display a very real sense of knowing what they are talking about. Much though the Whingers won’t thank me for it, surely it is their ability to wear their considerable knowledge as lightly as they do that makes their reviews as credible as they are funny. After all, unless they had seen and written up Punchdrunk’s Faustus, they would never have been able to construct this masterpiece of a Red Death review, for example. It’s obvious they know whereof they speak. Meanwhile, over at View From the Stalls, consider the opening sentence from this review of Hidden: “We’d seen this group of RSAMD students in The Winters Tale and Women Beware Women earlier in the year and a few of them had already cropped up in other professional productions, but I was keen to see them tackle a contemporary piece.” Pure credential flourishing. I know what I’m talking about, it says. Which is very different to merely proclaiming an opinion. It suggests that the opinion will probably be worth something, because you have seen something else, which gives one’s ideas a bit more depth. On the other hand, one can see lots of examples of a thing, and simply not like it. Or can one’s taste start to suffer Stockholm Syndrome?

In the mean time, I need a crash course in Contemporary Dance appreciation. All pointers gratefully received.


Tom Wateracre said...

Coming soon on "PFTG":

"Waves", Reconsidered!

Ott Karulin said...

Sorry, I just could not resist to comment as there are many things to say (as the piece itself is rather long - again). Here it goes:

a. You have demolished my belief that London theater scene is something extraordinary. Thank you. Reading your and other blogs I realize that I have been right preferring international festivals for a week in London.

b. Your insecurity in experiencing dance performance is just plain cute and the emotion you wrote to this article probably one of the most honest in this blog. But remember how confused you felt seeing your first theater performances and just ten years later you claim to know where you stand in it. That gives hope. And I join you in that insecurity.

c. As for noticing the signs. Yes, a critic should be able to do that. But sometimes we fail. Watching a performance more than once and doing some homework helps to prevent that, of course, but never entirely and that should not always be a sign of wrong choice of occupation: there are more than one possibilities to experience and understand a performance and not all signs need to be decoded all the time. Though it would help. At least that is how I was taught at school.

d. As someone who has always had as much space to write about theater as one needed, I find it rather refreshing to write very short reviews and plan to do just that in my blog. It forces me to say only the most important and to make decisions - things you tend to avoid when there is no length restriction.

I will shut up now.

Alison Croggon said...

Sorry, stuffed the link.

Heh. We have some very excellent contemporary choregraphers in Melbourne (Lucy Guerin, qwhom I'm seeing tonight, and Gideon Obarzanek) and I am fascinated by what they're doing, and am trying to educate myself. But I too feel quite at sea with dance: I know very little about its traditions and history and conventions. I tend to write about them as theatre. I figure the only way to learn how to write about it is to keep going.

On the other hand, I've never been ashamed of being ignorant. The important thing is to pay attention. Or so I reckon. You might be interested in this essay I wrote about Prynne.

Andrew Field said...

I have to echo ott karulin,

A beautifully humble, honest piece Andrew.

I came to theatre late - when we first met at NSDF in 2003 I had read fewer plays than I had fingers and seen fewer even less. I came to this alien medium with, as Alison's header always reminds me, a 'monstrous hunger' - devouring everything I heard about. Reading reviews in the paper and sitting in the theatre department of James Thin in Edinburgh reading the play afterwards. In part I think this was a hunger to know theatre; to know what I was talking about, essentially. But fundamentally it was a desire to understand.

However, I often found this a futile and depressing way of going. The real revalation was not reaching some point of (excuse the pun) critical mass, where suddenly my opinions became valid - where I had learnt the language. It was the point at which I had read enough that I had the confidence to trust my own judgement. As much trusting myself to like something that others don't as trusting myself to dislike something that others admired.

For this there isn't any necessary frame of reference, the important thing is having a frame of reference. Reading a book, or a theorist, or watching a film or listening to a song has always been as important as another piece of theatre. I think you saw my recent article suggesting that perhaps the best frame of reference for theatre is one which comes to it through a need rather than experience. I think the same can be true in criticism.

And as regards missing signs, that's absolutely your prerogative. A piece of theatre is not communication in the limited sense suggested by the idea of an audience reading the artist through translating his signs. Theatre is a dialogue, a conflict, a romance, a challenge. The audience always brings as much to it as the artist, finding their own signs and their own meanings.

This isn't rampant subjectivity. It's the kind of informed dialogue that the world should be built upon.

Anonymous said...

Do salamanders shed their skin, then? Well I never.

Anonymous said...

go and see henri oguike when they next go to london: 12-13th march at the queen elizabeth hall. i'm not just saying that because my friend is in the company and i know him, he is really worth catching: http://www.henrioguikedance.co.uk/

i'm awfully glad you've ventured into the world of dance, andrew. and yes, it is difficult to write about, particularly with contemporary. you could say the difference between reviewing ballet and avant-garde contemporary is similar to the difference between previously performed scripted plays and new devised work (there is plenty of repertoired contemporary, so i'm trying to be careful with my wording here) and yet you manage to discuss divised work, so why not this?

i think it's just one of those things that takes time to get 'into' and obviously watching it in bucketloads helps.

i know it's more mainstream than you like, but you know who to ask for free roh (standing) tickets don't you?

Anonymous said...

Since you asked for pointers for “understanding” contemporary dance here are some. I would like to remind the performance “The Tip of the Tongue” by Plasma – Project 8 (Switzerland). Especially the very beginning when little robot brought the sigh saying “Relax, there is nothing to understand”. In my opinion it is very often the case when we talk about contemporary dance. Of course choreographers usually have in mind what they want to say, but it is not always things that could be verbalized without difficulties (in a way that’s way they create dance not theatre performances). Things that are said here are more relevant to so called “pure” dance. But there is physical dance, dance theatre, etc. The thing is that words “contemporary dance” cover huge range of forms and styles, that sometimes can be called theatre, sometimes even opera. Yes it is quite hard to comprehend or decode dance performances with “theatrical” mind. I am not just saying that, I was there few years ago. When I started my communication with this form of art my teacher told me: “you will learn to understand it only by watching”. Now, after 4 years I can say that she was perfectly right; it is the best way to understand it.

Oscar said...

La TEMPESTAD, Arts Magazine

I want to get in touch with you, by e-mail or msn. I work as an editor for a mexican art magazine and we are looking for someone to write a review on Needcompany´s Deconstruction.
My Info:
Oscar Benassini