A Feeling for Practice
Dance Umbrella, London
2008, 90 mins
Music and the Choreographer: Richard Alston and Charlotte Vincent
Everyone knows there is a fundamental link between choreography and music, but how do choreographers choose their music, and what part does it play in developing a new piece of work?
The relationship can be straightforward or complex, the sound score can be pre-existing, devised, commissioned – or even non-existent. There are as many ways as there are choreographers and dances, but one thing is certain: the soundscape of any production is an integral and vital part of the artist’s vision for the work.
Following the sell-out success of Dance Umbrella’s 2007 talk with Shobana Jeyasingh and Siobhan Davies, A Feeling for Practice returns with music and choreography as its focus.
Richard Alston and Charlotte Vincent reveal something of their very different working methods and give insights into their own individual relationships with music and movement.
Facilitated by Dick McCaw, with performers from Richard Alston Dance Company and Vincent Dance Theatre.
Saturday 4 October 2008
Written by Charlotte Vincent, read by Dick McCaw
With Performers Janusz Orlik and Patrycja Kujawska
I will try to keep my words as succinct as I can, and hopefully let the performers’ demonstrations do some of the talking.
Vincent Dance Theatre produces originally devised dance theatre work that has an international outlook and challenges conventional values in dance. The company mostly produces full-length live works. This work has a reputation for being raw, passionate, humorous, emotionally bold and physically demanding. I try to challenges conventional expectations of what dance can be, jamming together bold physicality with theatricality, live and originally composed music and visually striking scenography to find a language that moves and surprises audiences with its emotional, physical and visual impact.
We are a diverse company with an international cultural outlook and, working as an ensemble, we place great emphasis on the process of devising. The personal contributions and individual skills of the collaborators involved, married with my conceptual vision and choreographic structuring, make each piece what it is.
Much of VDT’s work springs from bringing an unusual mix of people together and nurturing their individual imaginations, skills and abilities. VDT’s core collaborators, including Patrycja and Janusz, exemplify the kind of independent actors, dancers and musicians who work with individual intelligence in dance. They can multi-task and are multi-skilled. Improvisation is the basis for all of our processes… I never think of a performer as acting but as doing. I read something once that said ‘Acting seems dangerously close to pretending whereas doing is less likely to be false’. This is a mantra we can share.
When thinking about my choreographic relationship with music for this Dance Umbrella event, two key thoughts kept floating to the surface. Firstly, how Baroque music has consistently featured in my work (a classical form that I’m sure many people wouldn’t necessarily ‘associate’ with the kind of dance theatre work I make), and secondly how I no longer distinguish the act of making choreography from the act of making music in the devising of new work. I think what I do these days is gather a group of practitioners together who cover all the bases – theatre, song, music, dance, writing and performance – and hope that I can steer a path through a devising process that may encompass all or some of these forms in one work. It’s a case with each show of finding an appropriate language to say what you are trying to say.
As I’m sure you will have seen from Richard’s demonstration, Music is one of the most powerful starting points for making work and in terms of choreographic presentation, there are 4 basic conventional positions we can move through:
Movement and Music
Movement and Silence
Music and Stillness
Stillness and Silence
Vincent Dance Theatre makes layered dance theatre work that often traps performers on stage from the start to the finish of the show. Initial questions I like to ask as we start to make new work may also include:
Do we use pre-recorded music or do we create it live?
If it is pre-recorded, where is the music coming from? Who has turned it on? Should the sound technician’s role be made explicit as he turns the music off and on? Is he part of this fictional world or a functional outsider?
If pre-recorded music is played through a PA system, should an audience be able to ‘read’ its’ source as they would if it were a live sound? Do we usually even question these choices in dance?
If it is live music, is it mic’d (and therefore directorially ‘set up’ already as an expectation) or played acoustically (in which case it can read as a choice made more spontaneously by a performer in the moment)?
Should music and sound only ever appear to be coming from onstage, turned on or played by one of the performers? Should performers either have to explicitly ask for the music or otherwise create sound themselves via an onstage device (a radio, a musical instrument, a loop station, their own bodies, a pair of flamenco shoes or whatever).
Can we use text as rhythm?
Depending on the work I am making, are we interested in music or sound?
Can live accompaniment sit naturally with pre-recorded music if we need to understand the source of sound?
Can we see something build musically in front of our eyes using onstage music technology?
Our more recent work makes explicit the ‘contract’ between audience and performer by pulling down the 4th wall and using direct address. There is a rule that nothing happens unless the performers make it happen. The performers appear to be the authors of their own destiny within the work. In this context they have to create their own sound – there is no ‘off off’ where a hidden technician can do it for them.
I would like to take you through a range of these uses of music, all of which are variations of fragments from past work by Vincent Dance Theatre.
I have long been interested in the contrapunctal, agitated and invigorating complexities of Baroque music and have used much Baroque music in my work to date. The term baroque was applied to music of the 17th and early 18th century, and today the term baroque has come to refer to a very clearly definable type or genre of music which originated, around 1600 and came to fruition between 1700 and 1750. Baroque music rather loftily expresses the fundamental order of the universe and is always exuberant, lively and tuneful. Some of it just makes you want to move from the inside.
In Punch Drunk, a show I made to celebrate 10 years of making work in 2004, six performers move like ghosts through a disused theatre. Slipping in and out of half-remembered acts, they piece together the tatters of a show long since past its prime. Punch Drunk is an expose of the blood, sweat and tears that lie behind risqué routines, acrobatic feats and clever turns, a journey into the world of vaudeville and burlesque, set against a backdrop of decaying theatrical grandeur.
Punch Drunk is a piece about acts and the act of performance. It’s a piece about six performers who are stuck in a theatre they cannot leave. They revel in big dance numbers, colourful costumes and physically demanding acts. They are climbing up the walls, beating each other up, getting in each other’s way, messing up their acts, bickering incessantly, stealing each other’s limelight and weeping quietly in the wings. Punch Drunk questions what dance audiences think they want. Big pleasing dance numbers are set against moving portraits of loneliness, conflict and dysfunction. The audience is constantly undercut. The so–called glitz and glamour of the theatre are seen to be paper thin in this work. The well-rehearsed and veneer gives way to more melancholic and personal truths as the work progresses. The performers in Punch Drunk are not sure if anyone is watching them any more. As in all of our devised work, the personas you see on stage are intimate and exaggerated extensions of the performers who make and perform the work. What you see are extensions of the cast. They take you into the dark recesses of their lives. The work makes explicit the terrible egos, vulnerabilities, vanities and failures of the dancers and actors, revealing stuff that the audience is not meant to see. The performers keep going through the chaos and loneliness of it all, through gritted teeth and painted on smiles, refusing to quit, Punch Drunk was made with our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks. It is a dark and humorous commentary on the way we choose to live our lives.
Janusz’s role in this production is as a stalwart dancer who hides a cross dressing secret. This is an example of us using pre-recorded music knowingly to demonstrate a kind of throw away attitude to the conventional relationship between music and movement, one which the rest the show thwarts, but, as an obvious dance number, I thought might be a good place to start.
JANUSZ DEMONSTRATES BACH SOLO FROM PUNCH DRUNK
Baroque music featured again in our 2005 production Broken Chords, with Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and Johann Sebastian Bach both making an appearance. I wanted to explore the agile music of Biber, not as accompaniment, but as integral to the action of the work. Biber’s violin sonatas, and especially a passacaglia for solo violin written in 1681, were strong conceptual starting points. This is confident music that balances emotional, spiritual and intellectual interests. It is exuberant, invigorating and uplifting in style, full of broken chords and brilliant runs. With an emphasis on polyphonic and harmonic treatments of the violin, on counterpoint (a theatrical device used all the time in our own work) there is a grave severity about the music, a barbaric beauty that I love. Initially Broken Chords was a new departure for the company, a starting point being the exploration of a more formal approach to making work to existing pieces of music, setting our playful, de-constructivist approach against Biber’s rich and oscillating structures and sounds.
Broken Chords has western contemporary dance jammed up against German Baroque music, English text, Spanish song, a flamenco dance solo, a gun fight, an eastern European influenced soundtrack, a cello played like a guitar and a bit of ballet thrown in for good measure.
With Broken Chords I particularly wanted to create something that would stretch and challenge Patrycja, who plays violin, performs and dances. She had been a tragic-comic and larger than life diva in Punch Drunk but is a musician and performer of huge versatility and seriousness, and I wanted to see and hear her play in a different way in Broken Chords.
The way we work often has something to do with pushing our technical skills as performers whilst not pointing out that we have these skills in the first place. It was an interesting and terrifying prospect for Patrycja to revisit her past as a classically trained violinist in order to play Biber’s nine minute solo Passagalia by heart. I enjoy her virtuosity in this scene, but it is framed within the piece to set a mood and do an atmospheric job. It introduces sadness and complexity within the first nine minutes of the show after her slow and heavy entrance into the space. There is no directorial finger pointing at her saying ‘look how good she is a this’. Her performance of this passage of music is unexpectedly passionate and beautifully understated. As with the dancing in our work, which requires a lot of technical skill, showing off the skill is not the motivation for the performance. Technical skill is inherently needed but matter-of–factly placed within our work. If anything, we draw attention to the limitations of the musical and physical forms we work with, and in so doing reveal how difficult it is to ‘speak’ through abstracted forms.
Set on a stage with only a huge chandelier hanging overhead and lines and lines of wooden chairs filling the space, seven performers enter the space as Patrycja plays Biber’s Passagalia. The movement is slow, fragile and deadly serious, undercutting any romantic expectations of grandeur, elegance and harmony that the notion of baroque music might have raised in an audience.
Broken Chords is interested in vulnerability as well as virtuosity, weakness as well as strength. The title alludes to bodies and spirits (as well as chords) being broken, no longer in working condition, not honoured or fulfilled, destroyed or badly hurt by grief or misfortune, split apart by separation.
PATRYCJA PLAYS 3-MIN PASSAGALIA SECTION FROM BROKEN CHORDS
I work with performers who want to be challenged out of their individual comfort zones. The style the company has developed is often called raw, but behind this rawness exists a vast pool of talent and understated skill. As Leo Sykes, a director of a company of musical clowns called Circo Teatro Udi Grudi in Brazil says
‘Improvisation is the basis for all of our processes… I never think of a performer as acting but as doing. Acting seems dangerously close to pretending whereas doing is less likely to be false.’
As I mentioned before, Broken Chords was a new departure for the company, a starting point being the exploration of a more formal approach to making work to existing pieces of music, setting our playful, de-constructivist approach against Biber’s rich and oscillating structures and sounds. As the work progressed we used less found sound and more music composed from inside the working process.
I had invited Romanian cellist/performer Alex Catona to join the company to make Broken Chords, knowing that I wanted the music to be integrated within the work rather than sitting on the sidelines as an accompaniment. I wanted to give Patrycja a musical playmate to work with to push the musical aspects of the work. Alex is a composer in his own right and as we developed the work, musical ideas grew alongside the dance. Being deeply involved in the devising process, his awareness of what was needed in each scene was felt and acute. He had not been employed as a composer but got drunk one weekend and wrote 5 pieces of music for the show. He offered them to the process and they all seemed to fit instinctively and closely with the ideas we’d been pursuing together in the space and became the musical bedrock of the work. I liked his compositions very much and his contribution offered an opportunity for me to make a major discovery about how I had been working musically until this point. I think that perhaps if you are working with a composer who remains on the outside of a work it is harder to grasp the context and internal feeling of the piece for which you are composing, harder to have the emotional connection, theatrical insight and subtlety of understanding of what is going into forming each scene. When scenes are presented to a composer out of context on his weekly visits to the studio, (which is how I had been working until then) the process seems less organic and it relies on a different instinctive response than if you are composing work from within the piece, from inside the working process.
This next section written by Alex follows the Passagalia near the beginning of Broken Chords where 140 chairs are jumped over, danced around and finally knocked flying with quite some effort from the 8 performers involved. I invite you to close your eyes (as we don’t have 8 performers here) and listen.
PATRYCJA PLAYS TO BROKEN CHORDS CHURCH MUSIC THEN PLAYS ACOUSTICALLY FOR 1 MINUTE ONCE FADED OUT
Making the music from inside the work was something I was keen to continue exploring in the next piece of work I made, a brief encounter for Dance Umbrella in 2006, performed here at The Purcell Room.
Test Run is a powerhouse solo performance by Janusz with rich, multi-layered music played live and fed through loop stations by two violinists Patrycja and Matt Howden. A gentle, intimate solo gives way to an unexpected, aggressive and intricate trio, shaped by the physical and musical interventions of the two musicians who share the space. Test Run becomes a complex, highly structured trio – a game of perseverance and persistence, exposing the huge personal demands placed on one dancer to avoid public meltdown and to keep control of the stage. Test Run investigates how live music can be integrated with movement and, pushing dancer Janusz Orlik to his physical limits, and asks the question ‘does the dance lead the music or the music lead the dance?’
Throughout the piece musicians conjure the dance from Janusz and at times Janusz pushes the violins into places they would not otherwise go. This is the first section from the show where, after a comic start and in the absence of anything else to do, Janusz responds to Patrycja’s breathy musical offerings.
PATRYCJA AND JANUSZ DEMONSTRATE BREATHY ASCENT FROM TEST RUN
Janusz initially seems to be a marionette controlled by the strings of Patrycja and Matt’s vocal and musical sounds, but the roles switch and he takes physical revenge on his musical tormentors. Later in the work the tables are turned and Janusz starts to conduct the musicians. Although we only have one present here today, this next section will give you an idea of how a dancer can insist the musician follows him for once. Through a series of conducting gestures, Janusz tries to regain control of the sound. Test Run pushes the technical capability of body and the music. The work pushes the violin beyond the memories of what is already in the musicians fingers and the dancers muscles.
PATRYCJA AND JANUSZ DEMONSTRATE CONDUCTING SECTION FROM TEST RUN
As the work reaches a climax the musicians (or for our purposes today just Patrycja) are unstoppably drawn into the heart of the action as a violin duet becomes a violin duel with a dancer. We have tried to investigate how to dance and play at the same time, how to truly integrate the musician and the dancer, the music and the dance.
PATRYCJA AND JANUSZ DUET WHILST PATRYCJA PLAYS ALONG WITH LOOP
On a final and completely different note, most recently I have been working with influential performer Liz Aggiss on equal terms and with a lightness of touch to explore unknown strategies to create a dance to be both seen and heard. Originally called RADIO PLAY and now renamed DOUBLE VISION the research process behind this new duet was a determination to focus our choreographic intelligence on sound.
Despite our differing aesthetic and physical practice, and despite being a female double act with a combined age of 96, what binds Liz and myself is the search for an appropriate language with which make new work. Double Vision sits somewhere between live art, dance and a female Morecombe and Wise doing a bit of Samuel Beckett badly. However much of what we do in this work is rhythmically influenced by Mozart’s Aria The Queen of the Night from his opera The Magic Flute.
But that’s another story.
Thanks for listening and watching this afternoon.