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Death to definitions

June 2, 2013

While I was in Delhi in April, one of the city’s papers asked me to write a guest column. It was published last week and, as the paper is not available outside Delhi, it seems reasonable to share the column here. It is particularly appropriate today, as I recover from the extraordinary journey of making ‘Frankenstein’ with a wonderful group of first year students at Huddersfield University (UK), and as I prepare to start two weeks creative development with a small number of members of DUENDE,Image I wonder what it is that I actually make…

This is the column:

At the end of a recent workshop I ran at Gati Dance Forum, the participants shared some work with an invited audience. One audience member asked if the way I trained performers applied to theatre as well as to dance. It started me thinking about definitions.

When I started working as an artist – recently graduated in the late 1980s – I worked in theatre. I was definitely a theatre worker. It was a specific type of theatre – experimental, highly-physical, a little confrontational – but it was definitely theatre.

For a while after that I worked as a story-teller. Story-telling was close enough to theatre for me not to worry about definitions. 

A few years later I began to perform improvisations. They would include a lot of movement, much of it abstract and non-narrative. They also included words, so still I didn’t worry about definitions. It was a type of ‘improvised theatre’ I created.

Then things started to get complicated. In 2007 I was invited to teach my approach to physical ensemble performance (an approach I call Self-With-Others) at the Ballet Academy in Stockholm (a dance conservatory rather than a simple ballet school). More and more dancers started coming to my workshops. More dance organisations employed me. Theatre companies continued to employ me. Musicians started coming to my workshops. I was employed to work in music schools. Writers and painters turned up. I was invited to join an avant-garde rock group to celebrate the work of Frank Zappa.

Was this still theatre? Am I an actor and director? Or am I a choreographer, a dancer, an improvisor?

I lost touch with definitions. What is theatre? Is it different to dance? What is dance? If people sing, does it become a musical? Do definitions matter? Do they even mean anything any more?

I suspect not.

Now, I call myself a performer. A director of performance. A trainer of performers. That is enough of a definition to be going on with.

I have just returned to the UK from an eight week trip to India, organised by The Arshinagar Project. While in India I taught traditional performers in Tamil-Nadu, actors in Karnataka, a professional-level improvisation workshop in Bangalore, dancers at the Gati Dance Forum in Delhi. I ran two residential workshops where ensembles of Indian and International performers discovered ways to work together, found common languages, found ensemble and, in doing so, seemed to laugh in the face of art-form definitions.

When I presented an improvised performance at Ninasam in rural Karnataka, the director of the school talked of my work inhabiting ‘ a grey area that is neither dance not theatre’. I like that – it is a kind of anti-definition.

The second residency I ran – ‘Macbeth in the Mountains’ – illustrates clearly how definitions have really lost their meaning.

There were twelve of us – eleven performers and me, exploring ‘Macbeth’ in a remote valley in the Himalayan foothills in Uttrakhand. It was an absolutely basic environment – an encounter between performers, landscape and text. Swedish choreographer/dancer Elina Elestrand worked alongside me.  Our objective was to make ensemble and, through ensemble, to perform fragments of ‘Macbeth’. 

My approach to training ensemble is inclusive – what emerges within an ensemble is directly related to what each individual brings in. I don’t impose a style or a particular ‘language’ – every ensemble is a little different – its unique combination of individual skills evolves into a unique shared language of performance. 

The mixture of individuals who comprised the ‘Macbeth in the Mountains’ ensemble was complex. We were from Australia, India, UK, Sweden, the Netherlands. We were classically trained actors, clowns, dancers, improvisors as well as performers versed in a number of traditional Indian forms. One of the company proved to be an excellent acrobatics tutor. Some were highly trained, some untrained, some technically skilled (in dance, voice, acrobatics, Kalaripayattu among others)  others less skilled, less trained, more instinctive. Our journey involved finding ways of making performance together that were not hampered by definitions of what theatre (or dance) should or should not be. We needed to respond to and use whatever each individual offered.

Without ‘aesthetic’ touchstones, how was I – the director – to guide and judge what we were making? What were my criteria for deciding what we should include and what omit as potential performance material began to develop?

In many ways it is quite simple and goes to the heart of why I have willingly – indeed passionately – lost interest in definitions. As I watched work evolve, as I gave shape to what would become our final performance, my simple criteria was this – ‘Is it alive?’ Is that text alive? That movement? That relationship? Is this ensemble passionately, attentively alive in front of me? If not, the performance is without heart.

This is not a lack of respect for the technical skills performers learn within the art forms in which they train. I am passionate about the importance of skill – dance technique, vocal skills, articulation of text, the ability to respond instinctively to impulse. But I am equally passionate that skills need to be placed in the service of live performance, not live performance constructed to demonstrate skills. We need to master and transcend technical skill. We need to transcend definitions.P1020606

I can’t define what we made in that valley in Uttrakhand. We made a performance that only our particular group at that particular time and place could have created. We performed it as the sun set and the wind strengthened, to a small group of farmers from the valley. They seemed to enjoy it – certainly enough to laugh and share food with us afterwards and, when a few days later we left, to farewell us as honoured visitors. A few days later we performed the same piece at Zorba the Buddha in Delhi. A big audience again seemed to enjoy it – some enthusiastic, some more reserved. One woman told me she wanted to jump up and join in. A father told me his kids had been fascinated. Probably some did not like it. That’s fine – nothing can (or should try to) please everyone. 

 Was it theatre? Dance? Music? Should we care…..?

 If there is a politics to my aesthetic eclecticism it is this: in a world dominated by mass media, controlled by those who own mass media, frequently enforcing separation and ‘virtual’ relationship, I want to reclaim the shared space. I want performers to be in intimate, open, passionate, honest relationship with one another and with their audience. I want audiences and performers to know that, as the lights dim at the end of a show, they have traveled a real journey together, through a shared space. I want communion based on a dedication of a performer’s entire being to the act of performance – her voice, her body, her mind, her imagination. I want communitas by any means necessary, because, in the face of the drive towards alienation, I want us to inhabit shared space.

 Definitions that limit the languages a performer can use, that limit the expressive capacity of performers by making some things appropriate and some inappropriate, that suggest the purity of an art form is more important than the quality of the live experience, are hinderances to the creation of the shared experience of live performance.

At the end of the performance of ‘Macbeth in the Mountains’ in Delhi, the cast left slowly and with a very human power. There was silence. Then the sounds of the frogs from the nearby pond began to fill the space. From the darkness beyond the space, the performers stood in silence and looked back at the audience. In that moment there existed the only definition of what I do that has any real meaning: it had been a shared experience. For the short span of this event, we had lived, shared, learned, laughed, perhaps even – dare I say it – loved each other a little. We had been in relationship.  

 This definition I can taste. Other definitions are just words.



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