Dance is dumb. That is to say, it is a wordless medium: its basis is movement, not language. Recently though, it’s seemed as if dancers can’t stop talking in performance, whether by way of preamble (Akram Khan’s piece at the Barbican’s Steve Reich evening), confession (Khan’s Sacred Monsters), drama (Maresa von Stockert’s Marjorie’s World Unhinged) or a mix of all the above with added comment and cabaret (Stan Won’t Dance’s Revelations). Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with dancers and choreographers using speech in performance. In fact, it’s a truism to say that dance is actually a ‘multimedia’ art: music, lighting, design and costumes all play their part. And we generally take that for granted. So why make an issue of words?
First, because whereas movement, music, design, lighting and costumes create impressions, words can nail down meanings. They make statements, ask questions, voice opinions. In Akram Khan’s Sacred Monsters, for example, Sylvie Guillem tells a story about her childhood, about how she identified with Sally from the cartoon series Peanuts. In so doing, she succinctly and efficiently communicates a lot of information that dance would really struggle to convey. And when she dances – and of course, she’s rather better at this – we naturally picture her hops and turns as playground skipping and childhood games, and we think of her, like Sally, as comic, serious and a little bossy all at the same time.
When we hear words with movement, we almost always interpret the movement as an illustration of the words, not the other way round
It is the combined effect of words and movement that give this meaning. But the combination isn’t equal. When we hear words with movement, we almost always interpret the movement as an illustration of the words, not the other way round. Though Guillem is a much better dancer than a speaker, we still think of her dancing as a representing her words. What would Guillem’s dancing mean without those words? Knowing the words, I can scarcely think of another possibility. Like a headline splashed across an image, the text is already imprinted in my memory. Words can fix meanings, and we in turn can fixate upon them; and movement with all its floating allusions and sensations, is in turn pinned and tagged, like a moth in a specimen case.
That’s a particular problem when label and specimen are clearly mismatched. Revelations, by Stan Won’t Dance (Liam Steel and Robert Tannion) has a lot of weighty words – war, apocalypse, death – which simply overwhelm the weak choreography. It’s as if the text is trying to impart significance to choreography that can’t take it. Yet sometimes the stabbing clarity that text can bring does work well with dance. In William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies, the opening section shows a crowd that scatters and regroups, like startled animals. In the midst of it all, a lone woman (Jone San Martin) says, “I’m looking for my son.” The words pierce the turbulent impressions of disarray like a needle, tying them to a particular person and a particular situation. They focus and pinpoint our attention, give the movement a cutting edge.
Interestingly, the second section of Three Atmospheric Studies shows how words and movement fall apart. It begins with San Martin talking to a bureaucrat, who constantly rephrases, misunderstands and mistranslates her words, to her rising frustration. Her words themselves begin to break down, distorting and merging until they become howls of anguish and rage, a searingly emotional counterpart to the blank officialese to which she has been subjected. She has become more vocal and less verbal, with the effect that her voice now seems all of a piece with her body, which she twists and contorts in agony. Actions now speak louder than words. What makes this section so powerful is how a palpably physical sensation – San Martin’s frustration – splits language apart, leaving words and text on one side, voice and body on the other.
But in the final section, the words undermine the subtlety and suggestiveness of the previous episodes. Dana Casperson, in a deliberate caricature of military double-speak, talks about surgical strikes and unintentional collateral casualties. Inevitably, we interpret the words as the meaning of the dance. But they are so specific and spelled-out that we feel as if all the earlier impressions and imagery have been channelled into one particular line. And that sense of reduction seems to have influenced the choreography too, with its almost literal representations of bodies falling from bomb blasts. The imagery and action in this section may be more violent than before, but the wilder, more wandering meanings have been tamed – so even if we agree with the message, its mode of delivery feels like propaganda. I wondered what the piece would be like with the scenes reversed, beginning with statements and representations and ending with flows and feelings, its meanings moving from closed to open. Would it tug my imagination more, would I find it finale more effective?
Regardless of what and when words are used – scriptwriting, essentially – there’s another important issue to consider: acting. It is a skill, and requires training. Few actors would dare to dance without special training, but too often the reverse is not the case. As with dance, a good speaker doesn’t show the skill involved. But an unskilled speaker stands out like someone talking a second language, stumbling over accent and enunciation. Watch performances with a range of dancer-actors – such as Revelations, or Maresa von Stockert’s Marjorie’s World Unhinged, both of which were overscripted and underacted – and you can immediately spot the difference between convincing and unconvincing speakers. Of course, this ‘second language’ comes more easily to some dancers than others; but it’s a sticking point for many productions, for even a good text is scuppered by a bad delivery.
Words are very attention-grabbing… even bad words can easily grab the limelight from good dance.
And finally, there’s another issue, to do with stagecraft. Words tend to compete with dance in a way that music or lighting don’t. Words – like video, in fact – are very attention-grabbing. Put them next to dance, and our minds zoom into them like moths round a lightbulb, attracted by their definition and directness. That means that even bad words can easily grab the limelight from good dance. Words need to be carefully paced and positioned alongside movement if the choreography is to be seen for itself. Maresa von Stockert is in fact quite skilled in this respect: in Marjorie’s World Unhinged, the words don’t often overwhelm the dance (a shame, then, that the choreography nevertheless remains underwhelming).
There are, of course, many ways that words and movement can balance or benefit each other. But such different media aren’t simply distinct while apart yet happy together, like peaches and cream, or love and marriage. I once heard a group of very different choreographers blithely agreeing that words can simply extend their palette, like adding an extra colour to a rainbow. But it’s a minefield out there on stage, and dancers and choreographers need to tread carefully. Choreographer and performer Wendy Houstoun, who has experimented with dance and speech over many years, says that words can “bully” dance (“and video can humiliate it,” she added, pithily). Her words are well spoken: dance isn’t dumb, but add speech into the mix and it can sometimes seem it.