Sanjoy Roy Guardian writer and dance critic of the New Statesman
You recently wrote about your experience at a dance show at Sadler’s Wells by Canada’s Dave St-Pierre company, where the performers invaded the audience, and you had your specs spat on by a naked dancer (I say “naked” but, to be accurate, he was wearing a blond wig).
I was actually sitting a couple of rows behind, and saw the incident over the shoulder of the Telegraph dance critic (the same shoulder upon which one dancer’s willy had recently nestled). I wasn’t on the receiving end of any such attention, though my nerves were already pulped by the possibility. I wonder how much our reactions to the rest of the piece – I liked it, you (and the Telegraph critic) hated it – were affected by that episode. Do you think there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed in the name of artistic expression?
Luke Jennings Observer dance critic and author
I think it’s horses for courses. Given a choice between a piece which features a hairy guy parting his butt cheeks in front of my face, gobbing on my glasses, or scrunching his schlong into my ear, and one which doesn’t, I think I’d go for the latter. But that’s just me.
I admit, though, that the gobbing thing made me lose it for a moment or two. It seemed gross, and I couldn’t see that it served any theatrical purpose. My problem with the piece as a whole was that it wanted to have its avant garde cake (and for the benefit of those who didn’t see Un Peu de Tendresse, Bordel de Merde!, a female character grinds herself to orgasm with a chocolate cake quite early in the piece) and eat it. If you look at the photos of the Dave St-Pierre piece, most of the (predominantly male) audience are sitting back with complicit grins on their faces. No one’s challenging anyone or anything.
Are there lines which shouldn’t be crossed? As a matter of principle, I’d say no, if we really are talking about artistic expression. But are we, here? Were we when (as one commenter on our theatre blog reported) some guy dropped his pants in a recent performance piece and shat on stage? I’m not so sure.
SR “… if we really are talking about artistic expression”: I think you put your finger on it there. So, to backtrack a bit to your earlier statement: given a choice between a crap piece with no naked affront and a good piece with plenty of it, I’m sure we’d both go for the good one, every time. We may disagree (and did, in this case) about what is good and why, but at least we’d be looking at the naked affront (shit, spit, whatever) within its context.
One thing that exasperated me about a lot of the media reactions to Dave St-Pierre’s piece – from the Daily Mail ban-this-filth/sue-their-pants-off reflex, for example (now that is having your cake and eating it), as well as from plenty of online commenters – was how much they seemed to get off on the affrontage, presume they needed to know nothing else about the piece, and proceed to pass ad hominem judgments on all involved. It’s clear that people value artworks differently, and that includes opinions on which lines are worth crossing within them. Now, I’m trying to think of other examples where I found the line-crossing gratuitous… over to you?
LJ It’s interesting, because after I wrote that I felt that the Dave St-Pierre dancer had crossed the line, I received an online comment from Clara Giraud, who curates at Chisenhale Dance Space. She situated the piece within the tradition of the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who believed that only by the most violent confrontation, physical or psychic, could audiences be shocked out of their complacency. Now Clara may be right in saying that this is what St-Pierre is trying to do. But Artaud was working in the early part of the 20th century, and today, in the 21st, I just don’t think Artaud’s “theatre of cruelty” is possible. We’ve seen too much; we know how the game is played.
From performance groups such as La Fura dels Baus, whose early London performances featured chainsaws, blood and raw meat, to the kitschy sculptures of Jeff Koons having sex with Ilona Staller, his porn star wife, we’ve learnt to accommodate the extreme. Nudity, blasphemy, viscera – it’s just one more art event, with our resistance to shock increasing each time the ante is upped. So, with respect to Clara, I think that path is a cul-de-sac. And actions like the spitting mere obnoxiousness. But then there’s quite a tradition of “get the critic”. The biter bit, and so on.
SR I think we’re coming at the shock issue from different angles. As you’ll know from my own review in the New Statesman, I’m not sure St-Pierre wanted simply to shock us out of complacency – I think he was more interested in flaying the skin that is the “fourth wall” in order not just to confront us with a mirror to ourselves, warts and all (OK, mainly warts) but to make us feel that we, the audience, were also them, the performers.
This fourth-wall breaching may not be new (and in any case, can be used to different ends) – but hey, it worked for me. Let’s say it was more about “tenderising” us than shocking us. Though, come to think of it, I think it would have worked as well without the spitting – so, yes, I’d guess I’d call that gratuitous. And I think I’ve just talked myself into marking a line that need not have been crossed for artistic purposes. Result!
As for being bitten, not directly. But a couple of years ago, I heard of a performance by Nigel Charnock where he railed against critics in general, then singled me out in particular, read out something I’d written and dissed it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there – wish I had been – so I can’t tell you what language was used; but from what I know of Charnock, I imagine it would have been colourful and delivered with gusto and feeling.
LJ Well, Sanjoy, I guess we are what we are, and we put our names above our opinions. Would I have cut St-Pierre more slack if his guy hadn’t behaved like such a twat? Probably, but then I’d have been reviewing a different piece. Right now, I’m looking forward to Clara Giraud’s next Chisenhale Dance event, Oh So Totally Rad. What weirdness might that hold? See you there.