Site-specific dance is something of a non-specific term, used to encompass almost any non-theatre performance that relates in some way to its location. It’s not a new concept: at the beginning of the twentieth century Isadora Duncan danced barefoot in Greek temples to evoke antiquity, in the 20s Rudolf Laban and the German Expressionists frolicked naked in the fields to liberate the body and commune with nature, and in the 60s Merce Cunningham and the Judson Church Group performed in outdoor events and happenings to dissolve the barriers between art and life.
Shared between these diverse performances are perhaps two underlying themes: the transformation and animation of a locality, and the involvement of the audience as participants rather than as spectators. Still, theatre-based artists have long since experimented with different ways of doing away with the conventional proscenium/auditorium divide; and as for transforming and animating a locality, that is the stage choreographer’s stock-in-trade. So what is actually specific about site-specific work?
In part, it is the degree to which the environment of the piece is ‘real’: landscape, buildings and objects recognised as such, rather than as setting, decor, backdrop, props. The Shunt collective’s recent “site-specific” performance of Dance Bear Dance, for example, took place in two disused railway arches in London’s Bethnal Green. Yet other than the ominous thunder of trains rumbling overhead, and a veritable coup de théâtre when the door between the two arches slid open to reveal two sets of audiences participating in parallel events, the setting was largely created by clever props and scenery.
you find out how much the spirit of the place is key to the spirit of the piece.
The final test of site-specificity, though, is in a question: would a particular work be recognisably the same if performed in a different site? Apply that criterion, and you find out how much the spirit of the place is key to the spirit of the piece. Protein Dance’s Publife, an engagingly off-the-wall work that has been touring to pubs around the country, went further in this direction: the piece only works in a boozer. Conceived by directors Luca Silvestrini and Bettina Strickler, it’s an assortment of scenes that includes flirting, fighting, karaoke, darts, stand-up comedy, stripping and much general piss-artistry. And, like the best site-specific works, we begin to see an everyday environment with fresh eyes, realising how much social ritual is pervaded by the media technology: hits by Abba and Madonna, Saturday Night Fever on the video, football on the telly. In a merging of live and recorded action, life in pubs comes to be seen as itself a kind of karaoke, pop and TV providing a pre-recorded backing and script for the characters to act out in real time, whether mimicking moves on a salsa video or sashaying to Dancing Queen.
Publife has to be adapted to each venue, but it remains fundamentally the same piece in any particular pub. Stephan Koplowitz, now something of a veteran of site-specific work, draws more specifically on each particular building. He first made his mark with Fenestrations (1987), the performers silhouetted against four tiers of windows in New York’s Grand Central Station. He’s also made two works for Dance Umbrella in London. In 1996 he animated the Natural History Museum with the slow-burn Genesis Canyon on the theme of evolution. The wondrous Babel Index (1998), in the new British Library in St Pancras, dramatised the clamour of voices held within the rigorously classified book stacks, at the same time enhancing the vertiginous open spaces of the building so that the air seemed almost liquid, surging with currents of human endeavour.
By coincidence, the British Library was also the starting point for Carolyn Deby’s recent city:skinned by her group Sirens Crossing. Where Publife and the Koplowitz pieces used location as a setting to dramatise, here place and time were the subject. city:skinned was a guided tour like no other through the hinterland of King’s Cross, an hour during which day turned into night. You follow the yellow-clad dancers, faintly luminescent like fireflies in the dusk, through a post-industrial wasteland to a derelict warehouse, along a darkened canal, and finally to the graveyard of St Pancras Church. Amidst the lowering trees, eerily aware of the dead below, you see the five dancers silhouetted against the neon glow of the distant road, wraith-like exhalations from the gravid soil.
city:skinned in fact draws on themes from local history. During the building of the nineteenth-century railway, for example, corpses in the churchyard were disinterred and moved uphill, in an operation (overseen by none other than Thomas Hardy) which left more gravestones remaining than bodies. But you didn’t need to know this for the performance to work. Like a gravestone that has lost its body, the tour evokes, without reference or portrayal, the submerged spirits and forgotten layers of history that haunt the modern city.
city:skinned is more lived experience than performance, an uncanny evocation of the unknown ghosts of the past and the hidden seams of history accumulated in the urban landscape. While Publife, Dance Bear Dance and to a lesser extent Koplowitz’s pieces still feel ‘theatrical’, based (albeit loosely) on theme, development and illusion, city:skinned shows that when you take dance out of the theatre, it is possible also to take theatre out of the dance.