If you sidelined the goal in football what would you see? A beautiful game. Forget about the objective, and you’re left with football’s aesthetic qualities: the corporeal drama of athletes in action, the appreciation of physical style and the emotional dynamics of motion. And it’s all arrayed in a spontaneous choreography of solo flights and combative duets set against a constantly shifting ensemble.
looked down upon as ‘dumb jocks’ or ‘airhead dancers’ – partly because they look better than most of the people who consider themselves clever.
Sport is just a hop, skip and jump away from dance. They are both bodily events, attracting spectators for whom the appeal is at least as visceral as it is visual. The performers – trained, rehearsed and drilled – are young and fit, with careers that shine in the brief spotlight of youth. Star players accrue fan cults, and the roles they enact can embody ideals of excellence and perfection, or become vehicles for collective desires and dreams. They can, equally, be looked down upon as ‘dumb jocks’ or ‘airhead dancers’ – partly because their medium is the body and so considered unthinking, and partly (let’s face it) because they look better than most of the people who consider themselves clever.
There are of course also many differences between dance and sport, not least their implicit associations with gender (jocks are male, airheads female). As many film studies have pointed out, whereas female bodies are commonly displayed directly for the audience (as all bodies are in dance), and often eroticised, male bodies are generally viewed indirectly, in scenes where the focus is on action or combat (as it is in sport). There is also the question of objectivity: sport generally has a defined set of regulations and standards against which performance is measured, whereas dance is constantly shifting and making up its rules. Conversely, although the rules of sport are fixed, its action is always unpredictable (that is its drama) whereas that in dance tends to be scripted.
A football fan as a boy, he later studied ballet, and it seemed natural to combine his passions into ‘footballet’
Many of these elements found their way into Jo Strømgren’s A Dance Tribute to the Art of Football (1998), an international hit on the contemporary dance circuit. A football fan as a boy, the Norwegian choreographer later studied ballet, and it seemed natural to combine his passions into ‘footballet’. This boisterous piece features affectionate send-ups of footballing stereotypes, with blokeish crotch-scratching and bullish fouls, as well as inventive choreography, sometimes violent and sometimes beautiful, which evokes fancy footwork, dreamlike slow-motion and Olympian transfiguration.
But Strømgren’s piece is an exception in the world of choreography: there are surprisingly few dances made about sport. Perhaps the shared medium of body movement is too close, so that danced representations seem simply like poor substitutes for the real thing. Sport has been influential for several choreographers, but more as a dynamic, a style or an attitude than as a subject. Siobhan Davies, for example, is a choreographer of some 30 years’ experience whose first professional piece, Relay (1972), was inspired by sport. Davies had been trained in a particular style (Graham technique), and was looking for ways to break the ingrained movement habits that training can bring. She had been laid up with an injury and was watching a lot of TV sport while recuperating. This provided the key to a lightly humorous piece portraying various sports, including hurdling, rowing and boxing.
But for Davies the longer-lasting influence of sports was not as a model for movement, but as a suggestive series of movement qualities that were not derived from a specific dance technique: a directness of intention and action, an ease of execution and an interplay with gravity and momentum. ‘What interested me,’ she remembers, ‘were movements like the extraordinary stretch along one side of the body during a tennis serve.’ This dialogue between weight and flow on the one hand, and an elongated tension in the body on the other, has remained a hallmark of her style. Sports movement also helped Davies to explore different spatial compositions – performers moving and clustering across the stage, not in clearly designed and choreographed formations, but in patterns that were organic yet structured.
Choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh also found ideas from sport extremely useful as a release from training in a codified dance style, in her case the classical Indian form Bharata Natyam. In her early works Jeyasingh had experimented with this style, stripping it back to its component forms and varying its movements. Then came Raid (1995), based on the Indian sport kabbadi, a game in which two teams of players make forays into each other’s territory. The dance is formed by analogy to the game, the ‘teams’ being two types of movement played against each other, dance and sport, each constantly advancing and retreating across the stage.
Jeyasingh used movements directly from kabbadi, but (as with Davies) the more important effect of sport was not in this piece itself, but in its influence on her style. In Raid sport provided an almost literal challenge to the centrality of Bharata Natyam in Jeyasingh’s choreography: the classical style now jostled for space with another kind of movement. As Jeyasingh says, using sport allowed her to break from the principles of classical dance: whereas classical movement is judged by its correctness, sports movement is measured by its effectiveness. Raid is far from her best piece but, in the context of her career, it does feel like a liberation – indeed she has described it as her ‘primal scream’. Her subsequent work was freer and far more idiosyncratic than previous works – faster, more variegated and more multiple in its sources (needless to say, she lost some admirers after Raid, though she gained some new ones). You’d never say that sport was a source of Jeyasingh’s choreographic choices in any of her other works; yet in Raid it helped her to find and to forge a bolder and more personal choreographic idiom, one which still includes the classical style but is no longer dominated by it.
Looking at Davies’ and Jeyasingh’s recent work you wouldn’t know – or need to know – that sport had at some point been an important influence. Conversely, in artist Daria Martin’s short film about sport, Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon (currently in post-production), you wouldn’t know that dance had formed part of its making – yet it’s there beneath the surface. Like taking the goal away from football, Martin’s film shelves the objective of the sport – achievement, excellence, winning – to focus on its aesthetic qualities: qualities of image and motion, physical style and drama, the cut and colour of costume, the form and the framing of action. In other words, many of the qualities that you would expect to find in dance.
In fact, Martin had initially envisaged the dance element to have a more defined, autonomous presence than it eventually did. She took a number of her reference points from Baron de Coubertin, the inventor of the modern pentathlon, who was also the founder of the modern Olympics – an event he had envisaged as a festival of both arts and athletics. ‘The initial idea,’ explains Martin, ‘was to overlay dance onto the sports, almost as a decorative flourish, taking inspiration from early twentieth-century ideals of fusing sport and art/dance (Bauhaus and Russian Constructivist theatre, early Olympic callisthenic dances) – and then creating a humorous fusion of the two.’
With this in mind, Martin collaborated with dancer/choreographer Henrietta Hale, and also used six dancers alongside her six athletes in the film. Yet they found that in the process of making the piece the dance became more integrated into the sport – as Davies and Jeyasingh’s ‘sport’ pieces had their most lasting and profound effect when integrated into the dance.
‘In the end,’ Martin continues, ‘we allowed the sports themselves to reveal the movements more than had initially been planned. Rather than an imposition of dance onto sport, the sports revealed their own internal logic, and Heni [Henrietta Hale] amplified that.’
So Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon is less a fusion of sport and dance than a drawing out of some of the qualities of movement in the sports themselves – revealed in a certain studiedness of composition, an eroticised focus on the body, an artfulness of movement, action and gesture, and a rhythm and sweep to the camera shots. And the focus of her filmic gaze was not on bodily achievement or prowess, as it often is for sport, but on qualities of physical presence – that is, a more explicitly dancerly focus directed towards a less explicitly dancerly subject.
Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon continues Martin’s ongoing interest in early twentieth-century Modernism. It is shot through with sidelong references to movements such as Bauhaus and De Stijl – interdisciplinary movements with ideals of unifying the arts in which Martin also found an echo of the pentathlon, with its ethos of the ‘complete’ athlete. The film portrays a group of pentathletes through scenes of their five sports – running, swimming, horse riding, shooting and fencing – each with its own distinctive external look and interior feel: the zen-like concentration of shooting, the sensuality of swimming. It is threaded with an understated narrative conveyed through low-key gestures, actions and glances; and its shots of athletes in action are intercut with scenes of training and preparation, changing gear and warming up. This structure also owes something to dance, or at least to musicals – it is reminiscent of the classic 1930s backstage musical, the sports ‘numbers’ alternating with behind-the-scenes shots of rehearsal and training. The ‘narrative’, such as it is (as slender and as suggestive as the athletes and dancers themselves), involves an experienced trainer/manager, played by veteran actress Rita Tushingham, and pairs male and female leads (pentathlete Sam Weale and dancer Lorena Randi) in a bond of both attraction and rivalry. That’s almost the same triangle that Busby Berkeley used in 42nd Street (1933).
But unlike 42nd Street, this is not a dance film but a sports film, albeit an arty and artful one. Despite using both dance and sport in her vision, Martin – like Jeyasingh and Davies – absorbed the influence of one into the aesthetics of the other, like a tributary flowing into a river. It seems that, despite their many areas in common, dance and sport don’t often connect too directly. Their most fruitful encounters are, rather, sidelong or behind the scenes, off-stage or off-track, accomplished by moving the goalposts and changing the rules – and so leading to a subtler, more suggestive interchange of qualities and ideas.