Dance terrifies me. The watching of dance, the actual practice of dance, the terrifyingly slim, agile, cerebral, asymmetrically dressed people who seem to know about it, the endless technical terms you seemingly need to know to write about it. All of it. It feels HARD. And I know this is at least partly irrational (especially when I read Ka Bradley and Anna Winter’s dance reviews, which are full of life and extravagant, hilarious metaphors that help bridge the yawning psychological gap between performance and comprehension). But I still feel, like many people educated in words, feel on surer ground with theatre. Theatre, and perhaps more so theatre at the fringe, does so much more to explain itself to you – often too much, in ways that let your brain grow as soft and flabby as my un-dance-honed biceps. It doesn’t usually delve into theory or abstract concepts. Often it contains phrases which tell you exactly what the whole show is ‘about’ (the same phrases which later find their way, almost verbatim, into reviews). It doesn’t, often, let uncomfortable ambiguities sit, or offer up images which simultaneously mean about six different things at once and nothing at all.
The above preamble is my way of saying that I felt I needed to go to see Boaz Barkan’s show. The title spoke to me. And the resulting performance was as comforting and needling and complex as I’d imagine a good therapy session would be, teasing out all the difficulties of translating movement into words.
Barkan is joined on a bare stage by dancer Jorgen Callesen. If I had to speak about Callesen’s performance I would say…
He’s a tormented animal and a child at once. His eyes flick and swivel as though he’s trapped inside his own body. His limbs contort, turn inwards. There’s something painfully precise about the way his fingers extend and retract, each joint swollen with tense energy, like a moth painfully extracting its wings from a cocoon.
I can’t go on, that was like pulling teeth.
His two interpretations of Callesen’s performance are both wilfully, uninhibitedly, cathartically absurd. First, he launches into a deliberately banal take on the dancer’s every movement. He says he’s a bit old. He pokes his belly. Then, he thunks through an enjoyably crass analysis of this silent, fragile performance, explaining that the dancer’s open mouth ‘means’ that he’s telling his bougie wife that their Copenhagen neighbourhood is going downhill, that it’s time they moved to the suburbs. It’s ridiculous.
But so is the next, more cerebral, exercise in interpretation. Boaz covers poor Callesen in post-it notes that put every part of his body in the context of a reference from art or dance history. It’s a striking image, like a kind of nightmare vision of a critic at their worst. Callesen’s vibrating, painfully alive body is covered over with esoteric, dusty reference points, pinned down like Isabel Archer by her dry, scholarly stick of a husband.
The latter approach is inspired by Japanese choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata, who dwelled in a bizarre labyrinth/temple of dance called Asbestos Hall, soaked in reference points from ancient feminist woodcuts to the Marquis de Sade to French surrealism. As Boaz’s performance progresses, it focuses increasingly tightly on Hijikata, and his journey from spectacle (the pinnacle of his work involving live chickens, a tortoise, his young son, a whole chorus of kids with lunchboxes) into something quieter and more introverted.
“No to spectacle”, wrote Yvonne Rainer. In his performance, when he’s not getting sucked in by the magic of Hijikata, Boaz quotes this feminist dance pioneer, offering a rival ideal of what dance should be, one that’s pared down to its essence – and one that’s soaked in the idea of how awful it is to be an artist if all you are doing is making a spectacle. Her 1965 No Manifesto is both thrilling and slightly terrifying. It continues:
“No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.
No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator.
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.
No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved.”
What’s left? Vulnerability, suggests Boaz. And intriguingly, as Boaz elaborately describes Hijikata’s grand dance spectacle, Callesen shrinks to the ground, gently cycling his feet like a newborn baby.
I find the idea of saying “No to spectacle” austerely terrifying – as terrifying and absolute and in-the-back-of-your-mind-RIGHT as mantras like “No ethical consumption under capitalism”. Spectacle and ‘stuff’ is one of the things that makes speaking about contemporary dance (or contemporary art, for that matter) feel possible. It’s what the people want. Much easier to describe a performance that involves a live tortoise or a kids’ choir than one that turns inwards, that expresses something that words might not even exist to describe.
Trying to talk about art makes you feel vulnerable. Boaz’s lecture legitimises that fear, and that feels cathartic. The ideas and reference points he throws out are probably painfully familiar to people who’ve studied performance art and dance – but they’re put in a frame that makes them clear to newcomers, as well as newly vivid to people who’ve read them on the page. I come away feeling that it’s okay not to be good about speaking about dance. But by talking about it openly, he showed how central these questions are to the whole artform, he also gave me a hunger to try.
May I Speak About Dance is on at Summerhall until 12th August. More info here.