One of the highlights of both Nottingham’s Nott Dance Festival and London’s Spring Loaded Festival was Storyboard, an hour-long duet choreographed and performed by Jonathan Lunn and Janice Garrett. Lunn is probably most widely known to dance audiences for his work with London Contemporary Dance Theatre (where he was a dancer, choreographer, and later Associate Director). He’s also received acclaim as an independent choreographer since leaving LCDT in 1992, for example for Small Acts in Modern Living, which won a Time Out Dance Award in 1993, and for his work in theatre and opera, including the National Theatre’s Pericles and the Bayerisches Staatsoper’s Xerxes. He first met Janice Garrett at LCDT in 1989, when she came over to LCDT from the States as one of the ‘advance guard’ from Dan Wagoner’s company, immediately prior to Wagoner’s own arrival to take up his directorship of LCDT (1989-92).
It was during a period of travel after Lunn had left LCDT (‘like finally leaving school,’ he says), that he met up again with Garrett in San Francisco. Garrett was by now an independent choreographer/performer based in San Francisco, and she is currently also Director of Performing Arts for the Center for Changing Systems (an organisation which aims to provide a ‘non-linear model of human communication’). The two worked together on a short duet, Someone to Talk To (1992), which was to become the kernel of Storyboard, which developed – intermittently – over the next four years.
Storyboard was premiered in San Francisco last year, and reworked for the British performances. The subject, as well as its presentation, is simple: a relationship between two people, the stuff that duets are made of. Despite its bare-bones simplicity, the cumulative effect is remarkably powerful. In part, this is because the lighting and music independently contribute as much as the choreography, so that none seems to occupy a supporting role; each medium is allowed to do what it does best – unusual, perhaps, for choreographer/performers, and possibly a lesson that Lunn learnt while working in theatre or opera.
Storyboard begins in mid-scene, as it were, with a couple already embroiled in a ‘domestic’. The stage is bare, apart from a single chair. Lunn and Garrett circle and gesticulate at each other; their waving arms, wagging fingers, and tiny power struggles (who gets to sit on the chair?) speak of the rhetorical, routine exchanges of a couple who have grown together to the point of habit: ‘That’s so typical…’ ‘Why do you always… ?’ ‘I thought perhaps for once, but oh no…’ Garrett flounces off, busies herself with fussy tidying, and sits back, raising prayerful hands above her head, a sanctimonious signal that she’s gained the moral high ground. Lunn returns, rolls on his back with legs in the air like an appeasing puppy, and Garrett relents. But moments later they’re back into their old habits, which far from merely dying hard, are clearly thriving.
The piece doesn’t develop a story or plotline as such, but scatters before us a series of episodes – it’s a ‘non-linear’ picture of human communication. Some scenes, like the opening one, are revisited several times, others passed through. Sometimes the couple are quarrelsome, at other times they work in harmony, as in one memorable image where they tentatively step forwards, fingers forming little peepholes to squint through, as if hesitantly peering into the world beyond the confines of their familiar yet irksome domestic space.
Windows, doors, walls – the shifting qualities of light within this living space begin to become a metaphor for the relationship itself: cyclical, enclosed, interior.
And it is a very domestic space. Lucy Carter’s highly effective lighting suggests different rooms, different times of day: stripes of sunlight filtered through a blind, or a dull trapezoid of 60-watt yellow cast through the frame of a half-open door. Windows, doors, walls – the shifting qualities of light within this living space begin to become a metaphor for the relationship itself: cyclical, enclosed, interior.
It’s not a dramatic relationship: there’s nothing spectacular about these episodes, no great personal crises or resolutions. Storyboard is built on the least dramatic, the most unspoken and yet the most ubiquitous of subjects – the normal, the routine, the everyday. Instead of a depth achieved by explicit characterisation or plotting, it’s achieved implicitly, through the gradual accumulation of layers, scene upon scene, some contrasting, many alike.
Yet if the squabbles seem petty (they’re about nothing much), the piece reserves judgement on the duo; instead the audience is allowed to form its own opinions. Punctuating the episodes are moments of stillness, the couple posed together or apart, bathed in shifting light – still points at the axis of their turning world. These silences are, paradoxically, the most eloquent moments, speaking volumes, emptinesses into which we pour our imaginations. Less is more – just as posed portraits in a family album are more profound, more moving than the chattering real-life docudrama of home movies.
Originally set to a commissioned score by two contemporary composers, for the British performances Storyboard was reworked to a piano recording by Glenn Could of Bach’s English Suites – a ‘long, tedious process,’ as Lunn says, with the original material chiselled and reshaped to fit the new music. Yet you’d never guess, for the Bach works astonishingly well. Written in two-part counterpoint, the musical structure is the ideal complement to the stage action: two interwoven themes meander around each other, exchange, develop, return. And the piano is the most domestic of instruments, a musical world-unto-itself, its plangent woody timbre evoking the solitude of the drawing room, of Sunday afternoon practice.
Like the sparse, legible clarity of Bach’s music which nevertheless manages to convey a surprising inner complexity, Storyboard too achieves an intensity that belies its economy of means. While Lunn and Garrett are locked into a world of their own, with its undertow of dissatisfaction, breaking free of each other only to replay their roles in familiar scenarios, Glenn Gould hums contentedly as he plays the piano, like a beneficent, stoical guardian angel. Only he, it seems, sees a larger picture: that the couple, though playing separate parts, are as yoked together as the left hand is to the right, that the smallest rituals form the unacknowledged fabric of our lives, that a routine is also a dance.