Topic #1-The Creator’s Process

(1) The creator’s process (or, on the stage): A principal step in Dance’s direction toward Theatre occurs when the dancer speaks text; the converse in Theatre occurs when the actor moves expressively. Do these supplemental discursive acts necessarily multiply meaning? What can go wrong, or right, when the dancer speaks and the actor moves?

I don’t think we need a # of words requirement. The point right now is to get the thoughts out on the table: what we believe so far, relevant professional anecdotes. Let’s set a new deadline for this one–August 20

–Carrie and Jeffrey

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9 Responses to Topic #1-The Creator’s Process

  1. Should we put our response here in the comments? And discuss each others’ also here in the comments?

  2. Carrie Ahern says:

    Ahhh, what can go wrong when the dancer speaks and the actor moves. Oh so much can go wrong…

    I will begin with when the actor moves, since I claim movement as my field of expertise.
    I find it at best irritating and at worst downright offensive when I see an actor or director use dance or movement without enough attention and care. Sometimes it feels deeply personal:As someone who has spent countless hours in a studio investigating movement before I would DARE put it out on stage, I wonder what the hell people think they are doing! Or if I am going to have a different approach about what I put on stage and choose to improvise, it is because I have a deeply held interest in that approach steeped in years of movement expertise. I HATE when I see theater (and it is prevalent) that throws some movement in their piece because they think it is a cool bonus. It has not been earned. And the audience can feel that. Not just me.
    Training matters, expertise matters, caring deeply about something matters.

    With dancers speaking, what can go wrong–again, training and expertise in how you use your voice and words to communicate– matters– in order to not be self-conscious and wooden. Plus you have to really CARE about language and take CARE with it to use it. When you have spent most of your time caring and training in movement any use of speaking has to serve a very specific purpose, and again, not just be a post-modern, fragmented, bonus.

    *Personal diatribe: The downtown dance scene in NY is suffering from what a colleague of mine has called “anorexia”. So many dance artists are in effect starving their work of movement, as if it is far more embarrassing to dance than to sing bad karaoke or speak badly or simply put bad posturing on stage. Then, perhaps in the realization that there is a need for vulnerability, they get naked.*

  3. Carrie Ahern says:

    Ok–now, my own little dictionary.

    Words– are often more cutting, more direct, more of a reducer, great for more overtly political work, specificity about story, trauma etc., related to the power of codified meaning and sound

    Movement–more ambiguity, often inherently more poetic, related to the sense touch and seeing. A way to view space and the body more multi-dimensionally and expansively

    Sets and Props–an object, matter in a dense form. Something to hold on to. Something banal and dead–or perhaps objects are actually alive? Related most to the visual sense, but can also move into the realm of sound and touch.

  4. A few general comments, and then I’ll offer up some more specific observations from the creation process that Don and Rob and I are currently involved in.

    As Don and Rob are rather intensely focused on rehearsals right now, I’ve taken on responding to this first topic. While both have read what I have to say, I should stress that I’m speaking from my own perspective here, and not for the group as a whole.

    First, it’s interesting to me that, for the purposes of this exchange, text is presumed to be an integral element of dance-theatre. Not displeasing, to be sure, as my role in our collaboration is as wordsmith. Still, a lot of what gets called dance-theatre eschews text altogether, a legacy, perhaps, of post-dramatic devising processes that have tended to displace the centrality of scripted text and, dare I say, of classical, neo-classical, and modern dance companies wanting to appear more populist by cloaking their formalism… (Short digression: there was an interesting article in the NY Times last Sunday about the resurgence of story ballet, but story ballet and dance-theatre seem to me to be two different beasts entirely.)

    By contrast, there is very little theatre that doesn’t require some form of movement, however limited or expansive its range and level of expressiveness. Even when Beckett buries his characters up to their waists and necks, or when a monologist like Spalding Gray or Mike Daisey sits himself at a table with a glass of water. As my student, Alana Gerecke (also a dancer, and also participating in the Seattle conference in November), likes to remind me, stillness is still a form of a movement. And, moreover, always contains within it the potential for a shift in or a different kind of movement. (Further digression: our piece involves chairs—much disquisition about them and lots of movement around and with them. As Don pointed out to me at the beginning of our process, actors, when performing, don’t generally—unless for specific effect—sit back into chairs the way many of us do, but rather on the edge, always poised to leap up if need be with only the aid of their well-trained sits bones. Digression within digression: Carrie, within our piece we’re going with the premise that our chairs, as objects, are indeed alive, or at least can be made to come alive, through the conjoining of text and movement, within the space of performance.)

    Not sure, exactly, what I’m getting at here, except to say that, from the perspective of both creator and audience member, degrees of expressive movement within theatre might appear more acceptable, even natural; whereas spoken text in dance, depending on the context, can still often be quite defamiliarizing (although, as a friend said to me this past March, after the premiere here in Vancouver of Marie Chouinard’s Golden Mean, which incorporates—not very successfully, in our shared opinion—spoken text, the Pina Bausch imitators are now legion). On the one hand, this might explain both the ease and frequency with which theatre practitioners borrow from dance compositional techniques (see Anne Bogart and Tina Landau’s adaptation of Mary Overlie’s “Viewpoints”) and some lingering resistance to dance dramaturgy in professional movement contexts. On the other hand, this might also explain a bit of what Carrie is getting at in her polemic against the proliferation of bad movement in theatrical contexts: when performance genres blur, this shouldn’t be an occasion for lowering expectations (on the part of both creators and audiences), but rather for raising them, as well as serving as an opportunity for educating performers (and, again, audiences) in the demands of cross-disciplinary practice.

    To this end, and with a view to answering the question of multiplying the meaning of the actor who moves and the dancer who speaks, perhaps we can go back to that defamiliarizing metaphor and, borrowing still further from Brecht, suggest that movement is (or can be) to the actor as speech is (or can be) to the dancer: that is, a form of gestus that through its very alien—and alienating—performance reveals the one’s (dependent? complementary? supplementary?) relationship with the other.

    To get a little bit more at what I might mean by that (and, to be honest, I’m not sure I quite know yet), let me now turn to some specific examples from our collaboration, focusing mostly on what I (from my admittedly very interested and invested perspective) see as going right with our two performers.

    Those two performers, Victor Mariano and Justin Reist, are, respectively, a professionally trained actor and dancer. For our piece (which we have been workshopping since January, which has just gone into three weeks of intensive rehearsal, and which will open September 8th), we have asked each of them to, in effect, learn the other’s discipline. In so doing, it quickly became apparent that at the immediate level of technique, there were some obvious differences when Vic was moving and Justin was speaking. Vic’s leg or arm extensions might not be as fluid or graceful as Justin’s and, similarly, Justin’s line readings were not always as nuanced or dramatically inflected as Vic’s. And just as Vic had somewhat more facility committing the text to memory, so did Justin embody and reproduce the movement that much more quickly. This was to be expected, and Rob and Don have worked (at times separately, at times together) with Vic and Justin to make them both more comfortable with the movement and the words (again, separately and together). Along the way, it was interesting to notice that whereas Vic started out, in compensating for his lack of formal dance training, by making some of his movements—especially in the more complicated of Rob’s choreography—smaller and contained, Justin from the very beginning adopted an approach to his character’s text that was much more theatrical and outsized (and that often used very physical gestures to reflect this).

    These differences—which I still don’t see as wrongs, per se—were starker for me in those moments in the piece when Vic was only doing movement, and when Justin had a longer monologue. By contrast, in the partnering sections (both movement- and text-based—the script begins with quite short, and sometimes shared lines of dialogue in which the characters complete each other’s thoughts or maintain parallel and overlapping trains of thought, before devolving into alternating monologues, which are then matched by increasing solo movement phrases), the differences didn’t necessarily multiply or get thrown into starker relief, but rather, to refer back to the idea of gestus I mentioned earlier, started to complement and supplement each other in an almost dialectical way. By that I mean, Vic’s and Justin’s at times contradictory approaches to text and movement were not resolved, in these moments, by subsuming one under or elevating another over the other; rather, they have been maintained as much as possible by Rob and Don in aesthetic tension and disputational contrast, as moments for the audience to ponder and ideally debate. I see this gestic relationship between text and movement—most pronounced in our piece in those partnering sections when the boys are speaking and moving simultaneously—as a definite right of dance-theatre.

    Which is not to say that the relationship between the two can’t continue to be tinkered and experimented with. To wit: the piece began, for the longest time, with an exchange of spoken text; just the other week, we changed this, and it now opens with movement. It was the right choice, and the piece is stronger for it.

    Come see what I mean.

    Peter

    • The first part of your response, Peter, shows that we need to be clear with what we mean by dance theater and physical theater. Certainly there is much dance that is theatrical or dramatic but has no words, a form dating all the way back to Martha Graham and the other pioneers of modern dance. So what differentiates the new wave of theater in dance is the literal addition of speaking within a dance piece, not just acting or adding dramatic elements, and I think this is what Carrie & Jeffrey are speaking to. Surely in all theater, movement in general is an integral part of acting and developing character. But I would assume that the moving referred to in this question is more of what you’re doing in your work, movement that is beyond pedestrian, perhaps more abstract and expressive. But this shows that a seemingly simple question may not actually be so simple.

      I’m glad that you speak about your process here, because I think it brings up other important aspects of creating. Other questions to consider from the creative standpoint could be what are the pros and cons of collaborating with other creators, especially from different disciplines, and is it best to work with performers from differenct backgrounds or the same backgrounds when creating a fusion work.

  5. Todd Coulter says:

    I’ve done my best not to read the other responses yet. I wanted to respond from my own sensibility first, and then to go back and touch on your ideas. That said, I’m sure that what follows may not be wholly original and may echo much if what has been said already.

    Enough preamble.

    The most immediate thing that can go wrong or fail when dance and theatre come together in the same body is the body itself. If movement raises the heartbeat and shifts toward the realm of he cardiovascular, then the voice the issues from the exercising body can falter. The breath may cause the voice to shake, tremble, stutter and so on. Movement that may be more contained and anaerobic can restrict the voice in similar ways. I wonder how efficiently the body can activate the different physical and anatomical structures needed for speech and dance simultaneously without compromising one or the other.

    An easy, and important counter to this argument would be musical theatre. There, voices perform (generally) without discernible fault or compromise as the body does a time step, or holds in an awkward position (I’m thinking of the opening of American Idiot where an actor is suspended up side down in a straight jacket while singing). The choreography of Fosse/Reinking in the Chicago revival serves as a good example where the spoken/sung voice works with the physical manipulation of the body. It should be remembered that in the ‘dance break’ still occurs – as if we need to stop using our voices and give a moment for pure dance before ending the number with sung text.

    [Perhaps there was a very practical reason that Petipa and his contemporaries used physical gesture and pantomime instead of breath and voice to tell a story. Of course, this begs the question of what constitutes speech. Does speech necessitate breath and vibration? Also what constitutes dance? ] this is a bit of a digression, but I wanted to include it.

    Actors and dancers often label themselves as an actor who moves well or a dancer who can act. The triple threat is tempered. I think this self-identification and artistic hierarchy is worth discussing as a potential hazard when theatre and dance meet. When the performer consciously prioritizes how he can use his body it two things happen. Explicitly the performer limits her/his ability and opportunity. Implicit in this ranking is a sense of worth and importance. To generalize, the American actor prizes the intellect and emotion far over physical awareness or nuance (that shouldn’t read as harsh as perhaps it does). Actors in America don’t dance. The term for this kind of an actor is either the onerous ‘straight’ actor, i.e. “I only do straight plays,” or the equally offensive ‘legit’ actor.

    I am in the process of getting ready for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot with a student cast. For fear of not alienating potential actors, I do not mention the word dance or movement even. In my audition announcement I ask people to come dressed “comfortably as we’ll be moving around a bit.” I don’t anticipate any moments of formal dance, but we will be using contact improv, Laban, and physical improv as a way of creating character. I won’t tell them that until the callback though. This is what can go dreadfully wrong and cripple our work – the actor who has anxiety about dance. Do we have to trick them into dancing like we’re administering medicine that may smell funny but is really good for them?

    One last idea. The male body can go wrong as well. I find it absurdly frustrating that some notion of Strasberg emotional identification still is the ideal for so many young male actors. They want to be the raw untamed emotionally closed man’s man. When we ask them to dance or move access to that emotional center seems to be denied, or certainly compromised. This is not meant to be a comment on sexuality, but our college men are still scared to dance. I can honestly say I can think of not a single male dancer in our department of Theater and Dance.

    That’s where I’ll leave this for now.

  6. Jeffrey Frace says:

    No, I don’t think actors dancing or dancers speaking necessarily multiplies meaning, of course. I couldn’t help but read Carrie’s diatribe, but I’m trying not to respond to that or other posts just yet. I’m going to use, as a jumping-off point, my experience at a recent work-in-progress show by The TEAM. This work was not dance theatre, but it was theatre with a lot of dance in it. A multimedia work examining capitalism, productivity, westward expansion in America, and Las Vegas, this piece placed equal emphasis on its songs, it text-based scenes, and it’s expressive movement to say what it meant. (I believe there is video on the way, as well). Non-linear narrative, shifting perspectives on the story, simultaneous action and awareness of the theatrical event were also employed. Textbook postmodernism.

    Now, The TEAM are good at what they do. So all those elements were well-played. Did I necessarily get a stronger impression of the work’s interests because multiple means & discourses were employed? No. I think this could have been a play, or a dance piece, or a concert and I would have gone deeper into the material.

    I’m thinking back to a performance by Jan Lauwers and Needcompany. Classic European Dance Theatre. The show was called Morning Song. There was text and dance, and a real kitchen on stage, in which dinner was prepared over the course of the show. In one memorable moment, a dancer, mute for the whole show, was just about to speak at the goading of another performer, and was cruelly interrupted by a sudden loud blender from across the stage. That dancer’s story had been prepared by others’ text, and in a moment her body met her story met the present situation, and I feel like I received so much more meaning in that meeting than the sum of those three parts.

    I’ve had the pleasure of working with Will Bond of SITI Company several times. One time he said that speaking is the last thing you do, once you’ve exhausted all other means. That’s interesting to think about. Perhaps it doesn’t apply everywhere, but I am made to think of musical theatre, in which the best numbers come out of a need to say something that can’t be said in the scene’s dialogue.

    Perhaps the effectiveness of mixing means of expression depends greatly on the need to move from one to the other? If it’s too easy, then it’s not as valuable?

  7. Meagan says:

    *Ditto to Todd – didn’t consider the previous entries, so may be redundant

    I don’t think speaking in dance or moving in theater necessarily multiplies meaning, as it entirely depends on how the added form is used in a work. For a post-modern slant, it also depends on if the creator is attempting to convey “meaning” at all. To me, I don’t see the melding of forms as multiplying meaning, but instead as multiplying possibilities.

    Adding another means of expression enables one to do more in a work. A creator is able to say more, or say the same thing but in more ways, or say the same thing but perhaps to more people. A friend of mine, who has directed/choreographed various physical theater pieces, likens it to increasing one’s vocabulary. You can better delve into complex ideas/feelings/stories when you have more vocabulary to play with.

    Certainly I feel that this is the biggest reason to decide to mix forms in the first place, the benefit of having multiple means of expression. On a more basic level, the decision to incorporate different forms into the same work can also draw in an audience more and keep them engaged. I have found as an audience member that just as dynamic shifts in movement make a dance piece more interesting, so do shifts from dancing to acting and vice versa. The shifting itself between mediums can make a work more interesting and keep the audience invested in following the work. If used to their fullest, these shifts can also be creative devices to focus an audience’s attention on a particular element or idea.

    While these are general “right things” that can happen, there are others that are more specific to each form. I tend to see dance and movement as the more abstract means of expression, in contrast to words and speaking utilized in theatrical expression. Certainly relating to others through speech is something people do every day without thinking, while expressing solely through movement (not body language) is a stranger concept. So I think that adding text to a dance piece can make it more accessible to an audience. The abstract movement can be clarified in words so that those that are less experienced with dance can better understand and appreciate the work. Perhaps also when a dancer speaks, the audience sees the performer as a human and not just an abstract being, which can further connect the audience to the performer and the piece as a whole. Conversely, in a work of physical theater, adding movement can help abstract the idea/feeling/story being conveyed. Movement can go beyond the limitations of language, expressing more fully what can’t always be expressed in just words. Using movement with theater also draws in an audience more by adding a kinesthetic connection. The audience is able to engage on another level, just like adding a verbal element to dance, and therefore they are more connected to and invested in the performers and the work.

    Then of course, lots can go wrong also. When a dancer cannot effectively perform a theater element or an actor cannot move naturally and convincingly, it is certainly frustrating for trained audience members to watch and somewhat belittling to the added form. More importantly, though, an added element when done poorly can be distracting to the whole of the piece, look out of place entirely, and/or be completely ineffective. Such is why training and quality are so important to consider when using a variety of forms.

    Yet, I feel that I get irked more often by poor use of added dance/text than by poor performance of it. In my experience, adding another element to a work, because it expands the possibilities, actually makes the creating more difficult. There is more on the table and much more that needs to be considered and questioned through the creative process. It’s one thing to feel that utilizing a mix of forms would best suit one’s intention, but then how those separate forms are used in a work must be carefully considered. Too often I have seen unnecessary dance or text thrown in, or works that are overly complicated with expressive forms that render the message unclear, or forms that are not cohesive and do not flow together well, or dance/text that conflicts with or overpowers the other elements in a work.

    Because of these possible “wrongs,” I think creators have to be very careful with the way they handle dance and text. First one must ask oneself whether the extra element is necessary to the piece or just existing for its own sake or simply because one wants it there. Then, one must look at the combination of forms and ensure that the pieces work together in harmony, both speaking to each other and working together to build the whole. All questions regarding the use of forms – why, how, when, how much, and what are they expressing – need to be explored. Then the actual quality of execution is the final consideration. Creating or executing poorly can make added dance or text seem unnecessary, half-assed, distracting, and simply wrong. Thus, it’s so important to thoughtfully consider all parts of the process and strive to create cohesive, effective works.

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