woensdag 1 juli 2009

Leave, I was going to say leave all that - Beckett and the plotless body of dance.

Looking back at my research with Giulia Mureddu at Danslab in February of this year, when we explored possibilities for the use of text in dance with the actor Efrem Stein and the dancer Kay Patru, a few things come to mind.

Text is considered as a world apart by dancer and dancemaker alike. Although everybody uses it, people with a background in dance have the tendency to consider language and text as alien to their body and therefore alien to their trade. Text is not regarded as a means to make things happen or to make things clear, like you can do with your legs, arms, facial or other physical means of expression.
I had been thinking about the negative reputation language has in dance for some time, when I came across Wilma Siccama's dissertation on Artaud and Beckett.* In her book she describes how Beckett locates the dominance of the gaze and the voice in (self-) representation, whether this concerns his work for theatre, radio, literature or film. Beckett dislocates this power of the 'third eye', the intimidating power of the omnipresence of a third-person perspective comparable to the Panopticon, by putting what I would call reluctant or dysfunctional bodies ‘in between’.
Apart from the philosophical implications of Beckett's dramaturgy, it seemed like a good idea to use one of his short stories as a starting point to experiment for a week with an actor and a dancer, since Beckett undermines the self-evidence of presence through language in almost every line he writes.

Texts for Nothing 3 is as vast as it is short.** It holds enough subject matter for a full-length film. It reads like an opera. It is dramatic and dry, concrete and fantastic, it combines comic relief with tragic awareness, it is about life and death and the theatre of everyday life. We only worked with the first two pages and actually barely got through the first few lines.
Supposedly you should start by reading, making the text your own by asking questions, translating it and imagining what it says and what it could mean. Consequently the reader becomes a performer, dancer or not dancer. Giving in to words and sentences as if they were the arms and legs and hands of a body you don't already know, seems to me a precondition for researching the power of a text. So the first thing we asked ourselves was: where does the text enter the body and where does it come out?
Giulia and Kay found it very hard to surrender to the text, to let it enter their body and mind. Giulia would raise her hands above her head when she was talking about The Text. As the days passed Kay got more and more nervous about the assignments, even when they only included bits and pieces of the text. The words and sentences were meant to either influence the situation or to create a new one while improvising. Words remembered and sometimes uttered generated new impulses and directions in movement or, on the other hand, movements were used as an incentive to recall parts of the text.

During the last couple of years Giulia has developed a beautiful and interesting technique to include the vocal chords in the moving body. The throat and ‘the gut’ are used as point of departure for movement improvisation. Grumbling, snoring, hysterical laughter, small sighs, exuberant yawning and surprised aha’s, through association, produce vocal gestures that stay close to the body. It is just a small step from a gesture with a hand or a nostril to a similar tuned onomatopoeia from the vocal chords.
However, the use of vocal chords and speech are not the same thing. As much as Giulia's exercises not only engage the voice, but also the initiation of speech – physical gestures become vocal gestures, vocals become physical – speaking directly to someone or about something requires something more than a primary disposition. In other words, the implications of speech require you to go beyond vocal or physical gestures based on random association. This leads to an interesting dilemma for us all: do we stick to the text and return to it time and again, or do we proceed with the impulses caused by the physical and vocal associations coming from the text during the improv-process?
Moreover, how should we read a text that starts significantly with: Leave, I was going to say leave all that. Primal conflicts can be resolved with primary gestures, but complex negotiations among performers or between performers and spectators demand a certain eloquence – as every dancer knows when he stops pumping up his body or rolling with his eyes and shifts to the more subtle registers in his body, made up of sinews and nerves. Why is it so hard to let 10 words roll out of your mouth instead of moving an arm or a leg or a nostril, and see what comes from that?

Shortly after the research in Danslab a friend of Efrem, also a mime actor, suggested that perhaps speech is to dancers what singing is to actors: it brings out the private, intimate self. Suddenly, everything becomes so very personal that it is embarrassing. Breath sticks in the throat, the ground is disappearing beneath your feet. Leave, I was going to say leave all that. What matter who's speaking. There's going to be a departure, I'll be there, I won't miss it, it won't be me, I'll be here, I'll say I am far from here, it won't be me, I won't say anything, there's going to be a story, someone's going to try and tell a story – as the first lines of Texts for nothing 3 go. I thought those were rather adequate words to enter into a situation of dance and text.

Returning to Siccama's analysis, you could say that dancers have a problem with text, because they are accustomed to seek the core of their actions within themselves. When you move, your body is the centre of the world. The opposite is true of speech. You can acquire speech, make it your own, but even when you are voicing your own texts, it is still on loan: the centre is elsewhere, the third-person perspective is always there. Even when you have a text by Beckett before you, however appropriate and applicable it may seem. Appropriate because Text for Nothing 3 reads as a beautiful description of dance and the way in which the moving body counters the gaze and the voice. It would be applicable if only one could actually enter into a discourse on dance with this text coming out of the mouth of a dancer. It would move the physical appearance away from the regime of the plastic arts and make it enter into the phenomenal realm of communication and its failings, in short, into the realm of theatre.
What seemed appropriate was difficult to apply. Kay and Giulia felt so apprehensive of the effect of text that they didn't realize it could become their ally, even when coming from Beckett. Kay feared and was fascinated by the gaze, more than the voice actually, as if it was the first time he ever realized its power. For a performer with so much stage experience, this is surprising. At a certain point he refused to speak, felt powerless and degraded, a zero.

Still asking myself what caused the fear, since it was hard to discuss it during the process itself, I am lead to believe that it is the obscure quality that is typical of the exchange of gazes and voices in public, that which the Germans call unheimlich. Before the 'I' controls and the 'other' is designated as object, there is a phase when contact is being established, an unsettling moment of exchange, when what is mine and what is of the other collides in a phenomenal 'it is'. A crossing of gazes can be as intimidating or unsettling as voices in dispute. Not because the content of the exchange, but because one is momentarily forced to give up the enclosure of one's self-evident being. The intimacy of the proper body, the home of self, is broken apart.
Do dancers arm themselves with movement like actors do with gaze and voice? Efrem was very clear during the exercise about looking the audience in the eye: “I am not going to do this much longer, it is intimidating and cheap, I have no interest in that”.

In all the research we have done until now, Giulia and I worked with physical actors or mime players. Both David Eeles and Efrem Stein, and more recently Hilt de Vos, have expressed their interest in the unsettling aspects of both text and physicality. They don't arm themselves, but use text and when possible movement to enter into a situation, searching for the dynamics of change, transformation and loss. Watching and being watched, speaking and being spoken of, moving and being moved. One never goes without the other, with every gain there is a loss.
In the beginning we asked ourselves: where does the text enter the body and how does it come out? In the end the question remains: do a body seeking security (‘you will not get me out of my centre’) and a voice asking questions, bringing in dynamics of gaze and voice, third-person perspective, necessarily exclude each other?

When someone simply puts his or her body on the line, without comment, without any other intention, without entering into the (power) dynamics of gazes and voices, you could call it a plot-less body. Matter that appears in the immediacy of the moment, that has no apparent memory, that does not look ahead, enter into conflict, or strive for a certain closure.
I find it intriguing why a human being who consciously acts, who fails and reflects has so little place in (Dutch) dance tradition. Why shouldn’t a dancer be allowed to falter, besides being beautiful and strong? Giulia’s work is precisely about faltering, about failure and reflecting on failure. Kay Patru is an excellent failer, as long as it concerns movement. He catches himself in the act and is continually discovering new things. Why would a few words suddenly destroy his capacity for deconstruction? Is the use of text just new to him or is it more than that – a deeper loss, a loss of centre?

Thanks to Walter van der Star for helping me write in English.
This text was originaly published at www.danslab.nl in the Giulia Mureddu-section.

**Samuel Beckett, The Complete Short Prose of Samuel Beckett 1929-1989, edited by S. E. Gontarski, Grove Press, New York, 1995
*Wilma Siccama, Het waarnemend lichaam, Zintuiglijkheid en representatie bij Beckett en Artaud, Vantilt, Nijmegen, 2000