With The Place’s downstairs café closed for a private event, Joe Moran and I head around the corner to the Costa Coffee inside the Premier Inn on Euston Road. It’s a kind of non-space. It could be anywhere in the country and the décor, the menu and atmosphere would be pretty much exactly the same. Moran points out that, on tour (as he has recently been with his show Assembly), “you get very used to these. These and Travelodge.” Once we’re seated with hot drinks served in regulation mugs identical to those we might drink from in Nottingham or Manchester, the location fades away.
Moran tells me how, in bringing together the three pieces that constitute Assembly, he had to place himself in the position of the curator considering his own work from a more detached perspective. “The range of my work is quite broad because I’ve made a lot of installation work for gallery spaces but I also originally studied drama and moved gradually into more movement based work and then into dance. I had to look at the work and ask myself how it might all relate. With those three pieces, I did feel there were similar concerns. I think all of my work actually is interested in the question of: “what can dance say, today?”
It’s a familiar challenge that anyone working in a realm with the label “contemporary” has to tackle but, in the dance world, the issue has been framed as one of “exhaustion”, the notion that dance itself is an “exhausted medium”. This goes back about fifteen years to the publication of Andre Lepecki’s Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. That book was particularly concerned with what we might call conceptual dance, a movement we might locate in Europe (particularly France and Germany) and could include people like Xavier Leroy, Jérôme Bel, Meg Stuart and Boris Charmatz. At the core of this was the idea of choreography as an expanded medium that wasn’t necessarily wedded to movement. Some choreographers experimented with reducing movement to an absolute minimum or eliminating it altogether (like this), so you might have a performance that didn’t actually have any dance in it, as such.
In the trio, Obverse, Moran was more interested in the redeploying of movement than in eliminating it. What if movement wasn’t concerned with meaning? He has attempted to use a physical language that is disjointed, that resists the pull towards something coherent in shape, something that resembles narrative. The intention was that the form itself might become the container of meaning rather than the movement itself.
Meaning though is a problematic term in art because it is hard for it not to be reductive. Moran refers to Jonathan Burrows as a major influence, in particular in the questions his work asks about what we have left in the absence of a concrete meaning.
“Burrows talks about these things as material. So material only takes a particular form or appearance when placed in relation to another material, only ever in relation to something else. So the question is how we can provide a frame in which meaning can be invested?”
One of the ways this can happen is through subverting or offering alternatives to the dominant mode, Moran again refers from the influence of poetry on Burrows aesthetic theories. The dominant mode becomes invisible, like the Costa Coffee or the Premier Inn. You start to question that and you shine a light on what’s been invisible. It offers the possibility of the implication of meaning. “That’s something I find very exciting” Moran says.
He’s on a roll now about Burrows and quotes a New York Times review of the 1996 work The Stop Quartet, which said something like “we don’t know the rules but we get the game”. This is at the core of what Moran is attempting to do with his own work:
You have a sense of something going on and at some level it makes sense. You don’t know everything though. I feel like, with some work, we have too much information about the rules.
In Arrangement, a piece for six male dancers that Moran refers to as “the men’s piece”, even without the board game like set of Burrows’ piece, there’s a very palpable sense that the dancers’ are taking part in a kind of mutually understood ritual that we don’t fully understand. Unlike a lot of recent choreography for male dancers, this isn’t framed purely in terms of violence or conflict. Instead the movement is harder than delicate but lighter than force, not dissimilar to how we might physically interact with other human beings 99.9% of the time: “I am excited by full bodied physicality but I also feel that the representation of masculinity ind dance over the last ten years or so has been problematic, often narrow and limited. There are difficult sexual politics implicated in the way its represented. Often it’s misogynistic, homophobic. It’s very heteronormative. It’s also ridiculous because the “fighting” is illusory anyway. It’s a kind of posturing.”
The theatre is an excellent place for posturing, of course, because you can choose your lighting, sound and set design and you can rehearse until the chances of you falling flat on your face are at a minimum. Moran’s work however, and perhaps this is where the one time drama student in him emerges, is interested in failure. In the space between what is being attempted and what is actually happening on stage, there’s space for “lightness, humour, tenderness”.
Moran wanted to look deeper into the politics of representation and one of his primary strategies was the disruption of the body: “I wanted to complicate the male body to some degree so the dancers are arranged in such a way that it confounds how you normally see the body. That was something I wanted to investigate. To see how far I could push it. Because, within the confines of a theatricality of representation, we can’t how anything beyond representation. Obviously. The shapes the dancers created looked so weird that language started being a constricting force even when naming the sections in rehearsals. They borrowed words like MAERSK, the Russian shipping company, drawn to the sound of the word rather than anything about its meaning.”
In this confounding of expectations of representations, there’s a certain playfulness to Moran’s work. He resists the word game as “that, for me, takes it outside of the realm of choreographic practice”. It also suggests there’s something tangible that is being sought after, an achievement that might be attained. Once we, the audience, can work out the rules, there’s a lack of mystery. A game also, normally, has a clear beginning middle and end. Its rules provide it with meaning and, in this, it starts to have elements in common with narrative: “I wanted to remove climax and resolve. The piece doesn’t go anywhere. It’s about accumulation and repetition. In that sense, it is working against the theatrical mode.”
At university and in the few years that followed, Moran explains, “I was so keen to reject everything narrative based”. He explains that he felt this need to rebel and that was the form he could see to rebel against. “When I go to the theatre now though, to see something narrative based, I often really enjoy it. I saw Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People at the Barbican, which I loved. So it’s not that I reject it anymore. It’s just that I see from a different perspective now because I doesn’t feel like my language anymore.”
As we start to pack up, putting our standard issue tea cups on the standard issue plastic tray with the TV blaring in the background and the traffic of Euston Road zooming past outside, Moran quietly mentions, as if in passing, almost to himself: “I’m not telling stories”.
Joe Moran’s Arrangement is at Greenwich Dance this Saturday (15th November 2014) at 8 pm.