Do something – but not too much. Something basic, something minimal. Like walking, or jumping, or crawling, or rocking, or quivering. Repeat. Repeat it again. Carry on repeating it, for ages. You can change the action, but avoid the use of contrast. Use continuity instead. Through cyclical repetition, let one action shade gradually into the next. So that change is registered through sameness, not difference.
In English, we have a couple of phrases to describe this kind of incremental change through repetition: watching paint dry, watching a kettle boil. They suggest extreme tedium, a maddening waste of time.
Yet choreography built on this basic template was the single most prevalent theme of the Aerowaves 2014 Spring Forward Festival. From diverse parts of Europe, we saw a range of determinedly paint-drying, kettle-boiling choreography, and performances that were not just a duration, but an endurance.
Were they time-wasting? Well, performance always takes time, and you don’t measure it by usefulness; you register it as experience. Reflecting on my own experience, I decided that the durational/endurance mode of choreography works in two ways, with different pieces favouring different modes.
The first way is cerebral. You see the logic. As the piece unfolds, your vision expands from seeing its elements to seeing the patterns that connect them. A bigger picture dawns on you. It’s like becoming aware of the wood as well as the trees, or the map as well as the territory. I felt this, to varying degrees, in the incremental loop-and-phase choreography of Simone Truong’s Is the beginning of it all, again?; in the sparse physical forcefields of Michael Carter and Gala Moody’s One Final Evolutionary Note; in the disorienting but highly systematic dislocations of Recollective’s Repose.
The second way is visceral. You feel the force. Simple actions repeated to exhaustion can channel an almost shamanic power, like a rite of transformation to bring us into an altered state of being. The religious language is deliberate. For this mode to succeed, you need to surrender, be converted; to stop just seeing the dance and start believing it. It works through communion, not communication. The interminable heavy-metal thrashings of Ramona Nagabcynski’s New (Dis)Order didn’t do it for me: I felt little more than bludgeoned into submission. But the relentless tugs, rocks and grasps of Hodworks’ Dawn increasingly heightened my senses until I felt both alert and transfixed. By all accounts (I had to miss this performance), Jan Martens’ The dog days are over, with its 70 minutes of jumping, also broke a barrier to induce a sense of awe.
Opposite effects – cumulative force, or increasing frustration – are achieved by essentially the same means
Whichever mode it favours, the durational/endurance style of choreography is a high-risk strategy even if its aims are ambitious. It’s a fine line between engagement and exasperation. Opposite effects – cumulative force, or increasing frustration – are achieved by essentially the same means. Let me make another distinction, then. The pieces that work well – whether on a cerebral or a visceral level – are like watching a kettle boil: you need time and patience, but the slow accumulation of pressure triggers a transformation of the material into a heightened state. The pieces that don’t work are like watching paint dry, time stretching inexorably on to leave you with just a thin, flat surface.
This article was the germ for a more extensive, in-depth essay called called ‘How Long is a Piece of Dance?’, written for the relaunch of the Dance Umbrella website. You can read it here.