More than 40 years ago, the great American dance critic Edwin Denby wrote that “Ballet is the one form of theater where nobody speaks a foolish word all evening--nobody on the stage at least.” Today, however, dance is no longer speechless and, even when the words aren’t foolish, they often provoke questions about creative intention and theatrical effect.
In the last year, Los Angeles has seen its share of talk-oriented dance, from the prescient Joffrey Ballet revival of Frederick Ashton’s “A Wedding Bouquet” with its cryptic Gertrude Stein verses (“Therese, I am older than a boat.”), to Valery Panov’s “The Three Sisters,” with its crude spoken captions (“I’ll kill him!”) explaining the Chekhovian episodes.
Pina Bausch’s “1980" featured an anthology of choreo-text techniques: rhythmic accompaniment (the chant of “I’m tired” punctuating frantic activity); “Chorus Line"-style personal interrogation (Q: “What are you afraid of?” A: “Madness and death.”); ironic commentary (Mechthild Grossmann’s cri de coeur , “Fantastic!”).
On visits to other Los Angeles stages, Tim Miller used texts to personalize major social issues in “Postwar” and “Democracy in America.” Deborah Slater’s “Out of Disguise” dramatized the pressures facing contemporary women by juxtaposing rigorous movement tasks with oral histories. Kei Takei’s “Light, Part 20" ended with dancers uttering pseudo-nostalgic descriptions of a performance that took place moments earlier (“Sure I remember it . . . an incredible turning point in her career.”).
Los Angeles-based choreographers have not remained silent. We’ve experienced screams of protest (“Reaganomics!”) in a Lula Washington work, poetic self-aggrandizement (“Mobile is my skin”) from Kai Ganado and lots of library-bound dance from Ronnie Brosterman, Sarah Elgart, Gilberte Meunier, Heidi Ashley and others.
Coming up: “The Amazon, the Mekong, the Missouri and the Nile,” with choreography by Mary Jane Eisenberg and text by Jacki Apple, to premiere a month from now on the “Dance Park” series at the John Anson Ford Theatre.
The increasing use of the spoken word in post-modern dance became the subject of a panel discussion at the recent Dance Critics Assn. (DCA) conference at the Theatre of the Riverside Church here.
As the DCA panel’s co-moderator Effie Mihopoulos pointed out, the trend represents a return to ancient traditions--she cited the classic Greek drama and the Japanese Noh theater with their danced speech-song passages as examples. What’s new is the way text and dance often supply simultaneous-but-different tracks of information.
Questions from Mihopoulos and co-moderator Barry Laine clarified links between the three choreographers on the panel--chiefly in their use of texts to add new kinds of rhythm, social commentary and autobiographical perspective to dance, though each tended to emphasize one of these elements.
To panelist Jane Comfort--a dancer/choreographer who appeared in Los Angeles on the “Explorations” series two years ago--the meaning of her texts is secondary. “I arrange language in rhythmic blocks,” she said. “Meaning certainly is there, but I write it (the text) as music.”
With syncopated speech, Comfort can both formally manipulate words and break down what she sees as the unnatural trust we place in them. “I’m horrified by advertising and the power of language in our lives,” she declared, explaining that some of her text-oriented work “is about distrust of language and a society defined by it.”
Beyond the use of spoken texts, Comfort shares with a number of her peers (including, on the Los Angeles scene, L. Martina Young) an interest in Ameslan, the sign language of the deaf, as a tool for exhanced expressivity: movement construed as speech.
Panelist Blondell Cummings--who danced on the “Explorations” series in April--belongs to this school. Her documentary character portraits incorporate sign language, colloquial gesture, dance movement and spoken or sung texts. “I’m interested in defining a character and using whatever I need, " she explained. “Words are another way of moving.”
Cummings spoke about how texts permit her to add specific political and social references to dances “to give a character a place in time.” She develops those texts from improvisation, collaboration with writers--and from quasi-anthropological field studies as well: “I like to do personal interviews and edit that material and use it in my work,” she said.
Stressing the importance of improvisation in speech and movement, panelist Stephanie Skura revealed that verbalizing all her thoughts while performing helped liberate her creatively by eliminating an internal censor. “When you use words and speak what’s on your mind, everything seems to come together,” she concluded.
For Skura, the nonliteral juxtaposition of text and movement in her frequently autobiographical pieces directly conveys the “fragmentation and interruption” of human perception. “That’s how the mind works,” she insisted, “especially in New York where we’re so used to being bombarded internally and externally. I don’t want to pretend life is simpler than it is.”
As post-modern dance develops from its austere movement-only phase into a period of elaborate multi-media collaborations, it seems increasingly unnatural to deny choreographers a voice. However, some of the excerpts from works by Comfort, Cummings and Skura performed at the DCA convention showed how easily the movement impulse can atrophy and talk can become a crutch.
When verbal rhythms provide the sole structural device propelling a work to its climax (Comfort), or movement exists only as a gestural ostinato in a display of vocal acting (Cummings), or vanishes entirely except for a video-screen sideshow to a feat of antic textual deconstruction (Skura), where are the inherent rhythmic and expressive qualities of dance?
“I often go to dance concerts and ask ‘Why aren’t they talking?’ “Comfort remarked. Clever, but until she and many others in the choreo-text crowd deeply consider this question--its meaning rather than its rhythm--their brand of dance is likely to remain just whistling in the dark.