Theorising 'Brandstrup at work'
Kim Brandstrup with Susan Melrose and Steffi Sachsenmaier
Dec 2005-March 2006
|Zenaida Yanowsky in Footnote to Ashton, The Place 2005|
SM: Can we start by talking a little about the precarious life of the independent practitioner? How do you get work, and how do you start making new work, when you're not attached to a major company or institution?
KB: I often start to make a new work on the basis of a commission. It's like someone giving you something. As I get older, I enjoy more and more this sense of the project initiated outside myself. In a way, I am presented with a problem, and what I have to do is find a way to solve that problem.
SM: What do you think someone coming to you with a commission is actually looking for?
KB: I don't really know. Are you talking about what they might expect from the classical repertoire -
SM: I suppose that I am seeing your work as transcending dance genres in some senses - the classical and contemporary dance. Now, they're not going to ask you to do a community dance piece -
SM: They're going to ask you because they want something that the classical repertoire will recognise, and understand, and be pleased by -
KB: Yes, I am sure that they think about those things. But I try to keep myself fairly unaware of what they might think they want. I have to feel free in the process, without too many external demands or expectations. I try not to relate to that - it would be stifling in creative terms. They might initiate the project by saying "Do a third of the programme", or they might bring a piece of music, and say "Are you interested in choreographing this particular piece?" Rambert came for example with Songs of A Wayfarer - they thought that it would be appropriate to what they know of my work - for example musically, emotionally, and in terms of narrative. But I think that it is incredibly important not to second-guess what they or anybody else might want -
SM. Plainly they want a particular quality of work, that they know that you will produce; they have an expectation that you will produce on time, that you will work with highly trained dancers. Which means that funding has to encompass a particular rehearsal period, space and so on. Do you then start thinking about the work in terms of the dancer you want to work with?
KB: Yes. The dancers are the second 'given' when you work with an established, full-time company. First there is the music, the theme, the place in the programme, which is stipulated when you are first asked, then comes - and this is the most important - the dancers. If they don't inspire you, then you can't do it, no matter how prestigious or exciting the project might be. The music/theme can be a challenge, something you might have to fight with - because the dancers can't do that. You make the piece with them. You can make a good piece in spite of a lot of things, but never in spite of the dancers.
SM. So the new work will be a collaboration with a dancer or dancers. Do you choose the dancer on the basis of a sense of their potential, something in them that you haven't yet uncovered, or that you want to explore further?
KB: Yes, I suppose so - though I feel uncomfortable with the term 'potential, because it sounds as though I see them as incomplete, unfulfilled, and that it is my job to fill out and complete. This is very far from the actual experience. What excites me is the exact opposite: I have to see them as independent, I have to get a sense of who they are, a uniqueness that is not dependent on me or anybody else - a sense of a whole person who moves, not an instrument or a potential.
|Rehearsal, August 2005, The Anatomy of a Storyteller (premiered 2004)|
SM: Nonetheless, you have a sense of a dancer's stylistic range? Expressive capacity? In the rehearsal shot below, Gildas' face in particular, which is foregrounded because of the energy his body reveals (in terms of stylisation) - is remarkable, drawing attention to bone structure, etc, and the narrative potential revealed in that shot is hugely rich in potential. I can't overlook the narrative and dramatic potential, when I look at certain of the dancers you foreground - by dramatic I mean in very conventional 20th century narrative terms - by which I mean that what spectators seem to get is much more than we actually see. We get a great deal more than we see, in the sense of the implication of psychological complexity in the character danced. And you know, don't you, that you will work in such a way, so as to seem to "bring out" something particularly expressive from these dancers, that will look back at you. So how do you then start?
KB. This "looking back at me" is really important, probably the most important thing, in fact. I have to be under the illusion that I am not the one doing it, I am not bringing it out - it is already there, it exists independently of me.
SM. But you enable it to come forth -
KB. I do, yes.
SM. I've seen you doing this in rehearsal - this meticulous work with detail -
KB. It is not that I want to completely diminish my own role, but what drives me, what excites me is the sense that the piece emerges outside of myself. We might call it a sense of 'otherness', something 'other' than me, something more than me. The music, the theme, the running time I am given by the commissioning company belongs to this otherness, and the dancers are the ultimate other/ given. I would add, by the way, that this notion of the other doesn't really have anything to do with the Lacanian other. If anything, in Lacanian terms, it has more the realm of 'the real' .
"The 'real' emerges [in
Lacan's psychoanalytic theory] as a third
term linked to the symbolic and the imaginary:
it stands for what is neither symbolic nor
imaginary, and remains foreclosed from the
analytic experience, which is an experience of
speech. …[The real] in its 'raw'
state…may only be supposed, it is an
algebraic x. This Lacanian concept of the
'real' is not to be confused with
reality, which is perfectly knowable.
…'[T]he real is that which always
returns to the same place'. It …[is]
that before which the imaginary faltered, that
over which the symbolic stumbles, that which
is refractory, resistant. Hence the formula:
'the real is the impossible'.
…[T]he term …describe[s] that
which is lacking in the symbolic order, the
ineliminable residue of all
articulation,…which may be approached,
but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the
Translator's note, in Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, A Sheridan (trans.), Tavistock Publications, 1977
SM. But it is nonetheless a capacity for transformation, to bring forth something that is (expertly) sensed - I can't see otherwise why an artist would want to make new work in this sort of context, if it is not to see her self transformed into something not yet known to her. But plainly this sense of the unknown renews itself even when you think that you are getting somewhere -
KB. Absolutely, but how this comes about is by finding this outside of yourself (rather than finding it inside yourself). When we come together, the dancers and I, it is to make a piece. That piece for me takes its shape from them, from how they move, from who they are; for them the piece comes from what I give them, from their imagining what is inside my head. We both look for transformation outside of ourselves. They look to become something other than themselves. I look to find something that I did not prepare for, expect, something that did not come from me. I look at them and try to find out why they move the way they do; they try to second guess what is inside my head. But everything in fact is elsewhere, we are all looking in different places. This is actually what defines a creative collaboration, that all the parties come into the room with an empty place, looking for something. It is in pursuit of this otherness - to fill this gap - that creation happens. If by any chance you go into the room "full", or looking for somebody who needs filling up (i.e. the choreographer go in thinking that he or she has to bring out the potential of the dancer, that the dancer is lacking; or if the dancer walks in thinking the choreographer cannot embody her or his ideas without me - without me there is no dance - then what happens is a creative standoff and only a stale professionalism will prevail. In the creative process, when it is working, they become something other than themselves - they then start to become what I start to see -
SM: Can you give me an idea of what it is that you start to see, in your imagination, at that particular moment in making a piece?
KB. My immediate engagement with how they actually move in the space is something like "Why does he move like that - what does it mean when he moves that way?". It compels me to look for meaning, and for a kind of causal force. This meaning can be purely physical - e.g. he moves like that, becaue of his centre being too high or too low, his weight is too far forward, or back, or to the left, or to the right, because his training is in ballet or contemporary dance, or martial arts; or it might be a matter of suggestion - of modd, or emotion, or character. It is on the basis of these sorts of observations that I start making decisions. I don't audition on the basis of a sense of potential, but instead on the basis of what I see there - an inherent way of moving, which comes from them. I say "Move from there to there", but in fact it's how they do that, that counts.
SM: They are also going to do something which draws an onlooker, and holds it, in performative terms - so that spectators are bound-in to it, and want to continue to look.
|Rehearsal, August 2005, The Anatomy of a Storyteller (premiered 2004)|
KB: I would say that one aspect of performative potential lies in the fact that they can draw the gaze but not be phased by the onlooker. Their professionalism allows them to go beyond the purely physical challenge of executing difficult steps onstage with an audience watching, that keeps us complelled to watch. Of course, they are aware, with a third eye, of being watched, but if they are highly expert then they can suspend this sense of the present task and present place, and allow themselves to enter a parallel (for want of a better term) imaginary realm. This is often perceived as if they are no longer themselves, as if something else or something other takes over.
SM: Is it intuited, on the basis of an internalised dancerly expertise, which is then mapped onto the present circumstance?
KB: There are several things happening there, but the most impressive one is the simplest, which is the repetitive action that is a dance rehearsal - the movement is performed over and over again in rehearsal, until you don't even need to think about it -
SM: - and this constitutes their disciplinary expertise -
SM: So you take the discipline almost for granted -
KB: It is only when that discipline is there, and you don't need to lend any attention to it whatsoever, that you are free to imagine.
SM: A grounding in expertise, and its connection with the individual imagination. Yes. But mustn't there be endless numbers of expert dancers in the Royal Ballet tradition with whom you wouldn't want to work even though they have that expertise -
KB: Yes -
SM: Is it that they don't have that other capacity you are talking about, which is an ability to access the imaginary? Is that particular combination - that makes a lead dancer in a company - an excess or a surplus to expertise more generally? Why does Gildas Diquero's name become known? Why is Darcey Bussell's name known? I keep wondering whether there might not also be an idiosyncratic quality that makes the lead dancer or the soloist singular, above and beyond her expertise and ability to perform in terms of traditional balletic convention. There's an ability, based on expertise, to be certain about what you can do (because of its being almost habitual); but isn't there something more in the singular dancer whose signature the public recognises? He or she has something more -
KB: I call that imagination. Gildas Diquero, for example, lets himself be affected by what he does -
SM: - and he lets that be visible -
KB: Yes. Yes - absolutely. But I keep thinking that it is important to keep emphasizing that we are talking here about two different levels: the one enables the other. When you liberate yourself from the physical, through repetition - which gives you total precision - it's as if you can "ride" the movement, you sit up above it, you liberate the mind to be there right now, to see what can be done in the instant - and, yes, to engage affectively. Many performers experience this level as a kind of state that allows for improvisational freedom, in that you are able to be completely aware as to what is going on around you, and you can react and adjust to the endless little details of variation in a live performance. Either way, imaginary or hyper-real, the dancer is then free to deal with a realm beyond the self.
Elizabeth Grosz observes, of Bergson's
notion of becoming, that
"Duration is difference, the inevitable
force of differentiation and elaboration,
which is also another name for
becoming. Becoming is the operation of
self-differentiation, the elaboration of a
difference within a thing, a quality or a
system that emerges only in duration. Duration
is that which undoes as well as what makes: to
the extent that duration entails an open
future, it involves the fracturing and opening
up of the past and the present to what is
virtual in them, to what in them differs from
the actual, to what in them can bring forth
the new. Intuition is the precise method of
discernment available to philosophy in its
exploration of these durational becomings.
E. Grosz, "Bergson, Deleuze and Becoming", 2000 (my emphases)
SM: If we start from that capacity, can we think about where it comes from - and especially your own role in that. Because if Gildas works with someone else, in a new pas de deux, that capacity may be less visible, or at any rate the look of it will be different - which brings me back to the notion of what you actually enable him to do, as a choreographer. What is the im-press of your choreographic engagement with him - what you press-in onto what he produces - and how do we recognise it through what he does? It may well be that there is a particular quality in your look, which a dancer responds to, as well as an authority, which marks it -
KB: Now you're still talking about the interpersonal, and I am reluctant to discuss the creative process in these terms. I find that anything that has to do with the realm of psychology - love, authority, respect, admiration, confidence, status - is unhelpful.
SM: I think that you misunderstand me here: I am interested, in fact, in the way you work (which involves an ethics of professional practice), and its connection with the fact that certain dancers want to work with you for professional reasons. Your mode of communication with the dancers, from this perspective, is both verbal and it has something to do with your way of being (or doing) in the workshop or rehearsal space. I'm also interested in your aesthetic - which once again they want to be part of. And together these mean that they are highly attentive to your presence and your actions, in the rehearsal room. In these terms, what might otherwise seem to be personal and to have to do with the psychological, are unavoidably part of the professional. Your person, as a professional, is part of this, as is the authority you have as a professional practitioner. To speak metaphorically, there is an aura, that is perceptible in relational terms in the rehearsal process. So I would want to talk about the professional interpersonal - which each of you and them might well experience differently; and about professional enablement - in that triangle which is you, the dancer, and otherness; and about the quest for otherness that you particularly engage with in terms of your own signature -
KB: You know, the dancer and I communicate through movement, steps, duration, shapes. We don't talk about ourselves - we talk about the piece, the work, about it. This is physical, not psychological. What happens to the dancer, once he gets going onstage, belongs to him. I can intuit his otherness - and he can intuit mine. But we don't sit and talk about it. When he is out there [in the dance space] I can intuit the person he becomes, and talk about that person, and when I talk about that person, the dancer knows who that person is. But neither of us 'makes' that person.
SM: OK, but that changes nothing with regard to the aura. But let's move on: in some writing on dance, the character danced would emerge in the space between the two of you (with a further point of orientation also having its role to play), rather than from either of you. A lot of dance writers would paraphrase Deleuze1 here, in terms of "becoming", in response to what you observe. In these terms, what you expertly intuit in these performance-making conditions - especially since you place this emphasis on movement - might be identified in terms of "becoming" - the notion of something or someone desired and always about to emerge, or to be realised, but never actually there; and I suppose that this is how I am viewing some of the work of the dancers you work with. When we suddenly become aware of that possible moment, in all its rarity and brevity and intensity, then our experience of it is that 'it is happening!'2 - an intensified present moment, that disappears as quickly. So the becoming is realised, in time, as becoming and not as being - and perhaps it is at that moment that we experience a particularly sharp, but fragile frisson. What I find interesting about this notion is that it seems to work against theories of representation, which require a degree of fixity or solidification, in order for X to seem to represent Y. In the case of "il arrive", what is experienced is experienced as an absolutely present moment (hence not a re-presentation), but it is also effectively an impossible present, because it is so brief and fleeting - and as you indicate, it is movement-based. The impossible presence, as well, is not a material real, because it is perceived in relational terms - as entirely dependent upon a relation established between a perceiver and the perceived. The point I'm making here, rather rapidly, is that the perceived, here, is already layered: I perceive 'your work', at precisely the moment when I perceive what pleases me in the dancers' work. So if the perceiver conditions the perceived, and arguably projects onto the perceived, as well as vice versa, then what I perceive in your work is double. This is why a term like 'the dancer', which is neutral and anonymising, doesn't really represent what I see you looking for, on the basis of what I see that you have done - when for example you make decisions in the casting and rehearsal process. The four-part relationship - you, the dancer, the other, and the spectator - as a consequence, is an amazingly fragile assemblage (to use another Deleuzian term).
KB: Yes, yes, it is. But the otherness, in the case of my work, also starts to suggest the narrative, which is more tangible and perhaps less fragile. It gives the content or the sense of whatever is happening.
SM: What happens if the narrative is banal?
KB: What do you mean by banal?
SM: Your narratives are always little quest structures. Something to do with the possibility of love, and then loss -
KB: Something changing - yes.
SM: And then a response to that -
KB: Yes - that is banal …
SM: So when I say banal, maybe I should also say that that may actually be everything as far as dramatic narrative in dance is traditionally concerned -
KB: Yes. There isn't anything much else …
SM: And I guess that this is central to the performative, in terms of narrativity - it's this that binds spectators in to the narrative.
KB: Yes. We do want to see what happens… Perhaps you could say that we want to see what happens to the dancer/character, rather than what the next event is. The narrative is carried by the dancer.
SM: And by the music and so on. I certainly think that when I'm watching these narratives, what I want is to see how they work, and how they will end as choreography. I want to see how you will end the piece, not how the narrative will end it -
KB: How I will end it?
|Production of Hamlet at South Bank, April 2003|
SM: I am intrigued by all sorts of things, watching your Hamlet, that are not actually to do with Shakespeare's narrative. Well - they are related, but they concern where something is in the performance space itself, where someone is, when something happens, by which I mean your choices, and not those of the dramatic writer. Why that diagonal, why that particular part of the stage, and then, why that lighting, and why -
KB: Yes - apart from a title and a programme note not everybody reads; all we have at our disposal are lines, shapes, placing onstage, arms and legs, timing -
SM: Plus a notion of the choreographic quest, as distinct from the dramatic quest, or maybe of where these two meet -
SM: And I need to see you invested in that - and the other, to me, in that, is your investment, as choreographer, rather than the narrative per se…
KB: So you would say that in certain situations, it shifts from the narrative and the imaginary characters, onto the choreography - was that because in this particular context the narrative was too familiar, or -
SM: No, for me, it is always like that, I always experience that quest to know something about the choreographer. Desiring the choreographer! I'm always busy wondering "Where will he or she end it?"
KB: Is that because you know my work so well -
SM: No, I feel like this when I watch Wheeldon's work, or Lloyd Newson's work, and I've not got that degree of familiarity with their work.
KB: Somebody else once said "Oh, it was just a banal love story, but then by the end I really liked it …"
SM: I don't say "just banal" - banality might actually be part of the pleasure. I suppose I'm interested in how one can use something relatively familiar to communicate something infinitely more complex -
KB: I think that everything that you can possibly do in dance and movement is very simple. And it's really only through the choreographic detail, and through how much the performer engages in those details, that it becomes compelling to watch.
SM: It may actually be that I'm more interested in choreographic composition, than in narrative per se.
KB: But those two are mysteriously connected -
SM: Yes, those two are mysteriously connected, but composition involves all sorts of theatrical systems - lighting and use of space and use of sound - and all of those wear the mark of the choreographer's decision-making process, rather than that of the producer of the dramatic narrative, if that is what you are actually using as a starting-point. So I see you - the choreographer's artistry - in composition. Composition is yours -
KB: In the case of the pas de deux Afsked, which is an original composition, it does actually have a very simple, obvious three-part structure to it. So perhaps you note the structural device very early on, which means then that you engage in a different way with the detail of the work.
SM: No - I think that I always do that - maybe different brain areas work on different strands, and different areas become more interesting to me, which doesn't mean that I lose track of the others -
KB: OK. But you were talking about composition -
|Production of Hamlet at South Bank, April 2003|
SM: It's a very complex phenomenon that isn't covered by narrative-based choices as such, which means then, to come back to an earlier point about otherness: the otherness you attribute to the way the dancer engages with the story doesn't work as an explanation of what I'm looking for in choreographic terms. I think that I'm much more interested in the choices you make at every stage - in Hamlet, in compositional terms, it's much more choreographically interesting, to me at least, in terms of otherness, that you cast particular dancers - for example, Jo Fong as Gertrude, and Jo O'Keefe as Ophelia, and Lee Boggess as Hamlet - in particular roles, because then, in the show itself, I'm constantly looking at how you are working with each of these highly individual performers, in terms of the narrative.
|Production of Hamlet at South Bank, April 2003|
So it's as though I'm watching you juggle with a number of different frameworks or grids or set-ups ("dispositifs", in J-F. Lyotard), one of which is the dramatic narrative, and the choices you have made with it; but another of which is the singularity of these particular dancers, each of whose look, to me, when they are at work, is highly idiosyncratic - and then there are the lighting choices, and the choices specific to set and recorded sound. One of the compositional factors, which I attribute to your compositional skills and relatively-speaking very much less to Shakespeare's dramatic narrative, is the way you work individually with each of these dancers, then proceeding to orchestrate these different human sites of intense interest, of hugely detailed, individualised work. In terms of my background in performance semiotics, this is really complex because your compositional work involves a constant tension between maintaining different sites of individual focus, while equally maintaining the sense that this is a coherent "possible world", where all actions are caught up in and related to all other actions. When I say "caught up in" I mean in the sense spectators take, of causal connections - actions and consequences - but also the sense of a coherent aesthetic, which bears your signature. So even when I identify patterns which are already familiar - narrative quests, the obstacles that confront the subjects, actions taken and their endings, for example, or the complexities of dramatic characterisation, in your Hamlet, or your Hans Christian Anderson - the factors which are other, to me, are more particular to and emergent from the dancers you choose to work with, and the ways you work with them; and, of course, the ways you mark where they arrive at, in the show as event.
KB: The compositional is the kind of control of where and when you see things, when the actions unfold in time. The compositional decisions are taken from a position outside, from the position of the observer.
SM: So your individual dancer doesn't understand the overall composition, does he [or she]?
KB: No - not the effect of the composition -
SM: So the dancer will only understand her or his own way through it, as well as the sense of the different pathways of the other dancers, when they intersect at different moments -
KB: Yes. I think what they come to realise is that … their engagement in what they do is incredibly important, but it is not enough. If the piece is not structured properly, not all the commitment and dramatic focus in the world can save it. You can kill yourself emotionally, onstage, which makes it agony to watch and still does not save the work.
SM: So composition has to serve there as a control, which you exercise. And an aesthetic authority? They trust your judgement on how it will look - how they will look? Would you work with them if they didn't?
KB. Yes. No.
SM. You also establish trust - a way of working based on trust, an enabling function, a sense of discipline, a sense of respect. Old-fashioned moral values.
KB. Yes -
SM: It's quite unusual in fact to write about those apparently old-fashioned humanist values, when it comes to making contemporary work, largely because writers are more concerned with interpreting outcome than with writing about the making process; whereas I'm assuming that their operation when it comes to the actual processes of making that work are a fairly vital currency - to speak as a pragmatist…
|Hamlet rehearsal, 2003|
|Hamlet rehearsal, 2003|
SM: Wouldn't it be useful to talk about a moral engagement with otherness, as well as an ethical engagement with otherness, in the making processes, but also in your compositional choices - for example what you would expose, of that dancer -
KB: And what I would ask them to expose - yes.
SM. The relationship between a choreographer and a dancer - and an audience - is necessarily an ethical relationship, isn't it, and one that actually has an impact on the detail of choreographic choice?
KB: I suppose that I would say, in that regard, that I ask them to engage with what is inside them, through a third entity - i.e. narrative and character. I don't ask them to encounter, to go back into themselves, in order to expose something of that -
SM: But you enable them to want to show something more -
|Hamlet rehearsal, 2003|
KB: Hmm… We are getting dangerously close to the interpersonal again. Whatever they 'show", or "reveal", or "expose", I leave up to them. I am looking for them to engage in the movement. If they do so, then the movement will be "coloured" by who they are and how they feel. I never say "this is the character; this is the emotion. Express this in movement".
SM: Don't we see more of them than is under their control, precisely because your compositional control comes from the outside? And doesn't that "more…than" suppose a different sort of knowledge in you? Don't they know that you "know more", and see differently? I have talked to them in rehearsal. Different members of Arc Dance Company3 have said to me: "I don't have a clue what we're doing.", "He doesn't tell us what we're doing", "He doesn't tell me what I should be doing", but then I see that they perfectly well know what they are doing -
KB: They might put it that way, but what I think they mean is "I don't know who I am", or "I don't know why I am doing it" - i.e. in terms of who the character is supposed to be, or what the dramatic motivation is. They always know exactly what they are doing physically, where to be, when to be there, what to do and how to do it.
SM: And they trust your professional competence and your artistry -
KB: They can see each other. They obviously can't see themselves, but they can watch how things develop and work by watching their fellow dancers.
SM: And they can feel how it feels, and whether it feels right or not?
KB: Yes. They can feel the flow through and around them, and they trust that, and me. When it comes to what they give "beyond" the movement, what they bring of themselves, is a gift, something that I might want, but something that I cannot expect… It is hard for me to talk about this… You see them -
SM: Yet you have cast them on that sort of basis, don't you? Do you recognise this gift, in the process?
KB: You recognise when the dancer really connects, but I also recognise places a particular dancer doesn't want to go to.
SM: And you respect that, and they trust you to respect that -
|Rehearsal, August 2005, The Anatomy of a Storyteller (premiered 2004)|
KB: Yes. That's where your sense of the ethical comes in. They know that I am not going to make them go directly to what I want to see, or what the audience might think that they want to see. But I wanted to say, as well, that all of the interactions you are talking about are focused on an onlooker. But if both the dancers and I have to face that onlooker, and to make a painting for that onlooker, then the thing can't work for either of us - either it becomes a matter of a power struggle, or of seduction. The onlooker will always be there, and the dancers can't ignore that fact, but when they work through the choreographer, and leave that focus to the choreographer, then the richer the detail can become, and the richer the experience. If a dancer is engaged in something other, then I look at the direction of their eye-line, almost at what they are looking at in their imagination - at an imaginary space, where something imaginary is taking place. But if you only engage with that space on the same level as the dancer, then it shrinks back to a tiny little space where you see someone moving her arms and her legs, and that is not really very interesting.
SM: So to be interesting for a spectator, what is needed is a look that is multiple: we look both at the dancers and at what the dancers are looking at, and I think that we look for the choreographer. It does also seem to me that you always cast on the basis of a highly particular potential in quite singular dancers, and in part it's a visual particularity which, to come back to something you said earlier, is enabled by the disciplinary mastery. I find it interesting that both you and your dancers claim, in words, that you don't know what you're doing, whereas in fact it's plain in action that you both know perfectly well what you're doing, but you both refuse the clumsiness and perhaps the directness of words. Whereas I suspect that you select dancers on the basis of their singularity as well as their expertise and their potential, which is often an ability to make an acute facial focus available - I was going to say that this is "expressivity", but that supposes that something is 'inside' that is then pushed out, or ex-pressed, whereas you are talking about something that emerges, relationally, in the space between performers, and between performer and onlooker as well. What this means then, as far as I can tell, is that you choose highly expert dancers to work with, with a formal highly disciplined dance training, who almost by definition show more than they know they are showing. Which means that you have to know, and they have to see that you know.
|Hamlet rehearsal, 2003|
I'd go so far as to say that what you might use narrative dance for, as far as the highly trained dancer is concerned, is almost something like an acutely-realised mode of portraiture, with all of the implications of portraiture. Portraiture tends to hint at more than is actually shown - it hints at a life, rather than simply representing someone's face or torso. It works that magic in acting in the 20thC theatre and on film as well: the mechanism of portraiture is highly economical in that it enables the film-maker or the painter or the theatre director to hint at complex narratives, for an onlooker, almost by dint of showing (an onlooker) a face for a certain time of inspection. It uses quite specific compositional techniques, including the use of light and focus - for example, to hold the attention of an onlooker on the subject's eyes, or on her or his stillness, or her mouth, or on a whole face, or on a gesture - in order to cause the onlooker her or himself to fill in the details of a complex story (or stories) that the artist, then, has no need, herself, to represent. This causal power is a matter of performativity - in the sense of more or less ritualised social activities where doing something brings it into being: we learn as spectators that when certain conditions are met - such as those particular to attending a show - we are likely to be presented with the means to do something more, with what we see and hear, than we are actually shown. And that "more than", in the case of your work, is in large part narrative, involving as well this vital sense of the other: we make stories, almost on your behalf, when the detail enabled by the disciplinary mastery seems to work for us.
My sense, in compositional terms, is that because those stories tend to be dramatic, and about passions of one kind or another, and often the repression of those passions - and their displacement into something else - then first you work with dancers with the ability to bear that kind of complexity of detail (as well as the burden of the onlooker's enquiry, which you actually mediate); and then you produce the compositional details, combining elements which seem to be contradictory to each other (light and dark; clean lines and fuzzy lines; upper torso movements and work with feet on floor; stillness, quickness and slowness); and you put these contradictory elements together, establishing the regularities and recurrences that will also provide an onlooker with a sense of dramatic coherence, a sense of a thematic continuity, and a sense of occasion.
SM: Can we come back to this question of what a professional choreographic artist does, and what constitutes the professional? I am really interested in the relationship between you and the other professionals you collaborate with on a production - and what it is that enables you and them to say that it is your work.
KB: I do control the theatrical event itself, but at the same time, it is their work [in the case of each of these collaborators].
SM: But it is yours in the sense that if we take away the dancer and the choreographer, then they are not actually productive?
KB: I'm working right now with Phyllida Lloyd, but we've made it very clear upfront that this is a collaboration - this is something you fix upfront, because it mustn't become a conflict, with people protecting their own input.
|Choreographic Workshop, "Clore Upstairs", ROH, August 2005|
SM: How do you protect your own aesthetic vision when you're working collaboratively? I was interested in talking with Shobana Jeyasingh who said that she might work very intensively all week with her dancers, but only end up with five minutes that she can count on in the show. There's some kind of similarity to your connection with the dancers you work with in that she works often with dancers highly trained in an Indian classical tradition.
KB: That's where I can say that what you are calling mastery comes in. That is the way that any professional works: you accumulate masses of possibilities, and then the other looks momentarily back at you; and the problem with that emerges when you are not trained: you don't recognise it, which means that you are wasting the time of the other collaborators. I know that I have the capacity to make that operative distinction, and if I have very highly trained dancers, I can give them a great deal to do, and in those circumstances the other looks back at you very quickly, and on that basis you can develop things or take things away - and you don't need to have them repeat material over and over again. It becomes very quick, but the process is still that one, when you are working professionally. You don't need to try to plan it all, to work it out in advance, and bring it to the rehearsal context. You have all sorts of fall-back positions. But you are still waiting for 'it' to speak to you.
|Choreographic Workshop, "Clore Upstairs", ROH, August 2005|
SM: I am very interested in the case of the expert dancer who becomes a choreographer - as is the case with a number of dancers in Arc. Traditionally there haven't been courses for choreographers. Did you come through dance training?
KB: I had a good strong, late training in both ballet and contemporary dance. You have to, as a choreographer. It's inconceivable otherwise -
SM: Because .. ?
KB: You have to know how the movement is generated, where it comes from. If you haven't trained in it, you can't see that. You can't see the internal co-ordination, which means that you can't see where it comes from and where the movement is going - or the potential.
SM: That is what I can't see, when I'm sitting with you in rehearsal, and it seems that we're watching 'the same thing': I can't see what you're seeing, in multi-dimensional terms. What I'm seeing is more or less two-dimensional, whereas you are looking multi-dimensionally -
KB: This is not just the choreographer. Many dancers have this kind of eye, or they acquire it with experience. A really good rehearsal director can say: "You need to move your shoulder two centimetres further back…", and suddenly the impossible is possible.
SM: So I only see 'surface' parts of a dancer's body or bodies - which are displayed - whereas you see the rest of the body and its relationship with other bodies, and you see what is needed in terms of their internal co-ordination, that makes that possible?
SM: I don't think that there are very many Dance Studies writers who write about this multi-dimensional look, nor about what it sees and understands in a productive compositional sense, as a means of production of work. Yet this is precisely where your professional expertise as a choreographer lies. They write instead about the effects and affects of choices already made, about what they see, in the outcome of that work, which is able to elicit certain sorts of understanding, and trigger certain sorts of discursive engagement on their part.
|Choreographic Workshop, "Clore Upstairs", ROH, August 2005|
SM: So - the timing is different…they are writing after the work of the choreographer has taken place… Hence they can't see professional process - which is where you are active - but instead they see product. Some writers then try to fold product back onto an imagined process, but that is a matter of mistaking effects for causes, and what their writing sometimes reveals in that process is no more than their own limitations - or, on the other hand, what an artist like Lloyd Newson says after he has made the work, and looked back at it, like other expert spectators.
What I am interested in, as well, when I attend your rehearsals with Arc, is that you are often working with a large group of dancers - eight or more - who are active in different parts of the space, and engaged in different aspects of the dramatic narrative. You may have three centres of activity, each doing something completely different and differently focused, at any single moment -
SM: And each of those has to have its own logic - each of the dancers has to have her own logical engagement, her own understanding of what she is doing and why; and each of the clusters has to have its own logic, because at a certain moment, all of them are going to arrive in a single space -
SM: - because the narrative development and the overall way of seeing the thing require it. So tell me: how do you go about that, in the sense of the work you put in to enable it to happen? Do you work with each of the groups independently, as independent units?
|Hamlet Rehearsal, August 2003|
KB: Yes. It's like four part contrapuntal composition: each line has to have its own logic, but you have to be aware of where these independent lines intersect, that the arrival points for each group are absolutely clear. You have to know when one group is in focus, and the others in terms of the background, and vice versa.
SM: So perhaps "orchestration" is a better metaphor for what is going on there, than "narrative"?
KB: Yes -
SM: - or "narrative orchestration"? Complex composition?
SM: In the case of what I know about Shobana Jeyasingh's working practices in rehearsal, she is working intensively with the dancers on detail, but at the same time she is working on a larger compositional and often multidisciplinary plane, which none of the dancers can grasp. None of those dancers is working on orchestration, none of those dancers has an individual grasp of what's going on, or he or she might for the work of a cluster, but not the whole. None of them knows exactly what the originally-composed music score will turn out to be like, or the video projections, and so on. Whereas Jeyasingh has to be able to grasp the overall compositional potential, multi-dimensionally. In my language she is working with multi-dimensional schematics, in the sense that she is going to juggle a number of performance templates - Lyotard uses the term dispositifs, or grids, or set-ups - one of which is proper to the video one collaborator produces, another of which belongs to the music or the soundscape, another of which is specific to the basic design set-up and lighting design; and each of these has its own organising logic -
|Hamlet Rehearsal, August 2003|
KB: Yes, but I think that what is interesting is that there needs to be an internal logic for each cluster, but that doesn't have to be a narrative logic. What is important in terms of the narrative are those moments when I see or hear "something else" - which is where a spectator's eye or ear is going to go from one moment to another. So there needs to be a sequential focus - first this, and then this, and then that -
SM: So this is a kind of blocking of the action of the piece -
KB: Yes -
SM: Because what is startling for me, as someone not trained in dance, is the co-ordination in space and time, when you're working with a large number of performers, which means that there are the internal logic specific to this cluster and that cluster, but there's also the larger organisational logic that means that at a certain moment these clusters interact with incredible athletic precision, by which I mean that suddenly someone from that cluster can arrive at another cluster and be swept up in the air and be caught by them, with absolute precision - so that it looks natural. It looks like they have been calculating the whole thing as a whole, as well between the different clusters, that they will defy gravity together, and that they will all work at it in order to arrive there, at that particular moment - where something breathtaking happens, which by the way simply wouldn't often happen in dramatic theatre. In dramatic theatre the didascalies might just read "He crosses the room at speed and almost collides with the Nurse". It's unlikely to read "He crosses the room and sweeps the Nurse into the air, throwing her to another group of performers who have burst into the space, as one, from upstage left".
KB: Yes - I remember my own astonishment at orchestration when I first watched large-scale dance.
SM: Now, I'm intrigued by what they have to be able to retain, in order to do that - which expertise the neuroscientist Patrick Haggard claims, by the way, is retained in the brain, rather than in a supposedly "knowing body" (Haggard, 2004)4. And I'm intrigued by the work you have to do, to enable that to happen in such a way that it is perfectly displayed to the audience as meaningful - in terms of the dramatic fiction you are working with.
KB: I think that one thing that is interesting in the examples that you give, which are about things happening simultaneously, is that these are all things that actually happen in sequence, but at very high speed - in other words these are all things that have to do with temporality. It's about timing -
SM: - but timing also means space. You have to be right there, then, to catch her -
KB: It is totally a matter of timing and concentration: what is choreographed might appear as a random mass of activity but it has nothing to do with improvisation on the dancers' part. It's precise and athletic and it's a matter of an incredible focus and timing, because of everything else that is going on; so it's not just ten dancers doing individually different things, but also the blinding intensity of the lights, and the technical machinery flying in and out, as well as people wandering around in the wings -
SM: Whereas something different is happening in the pas de deux - there's a different inflection, but also a different focus - for the dancer as well as for the piece itself.
KB: It is very clear that the music is very important in the pas de deux.
SM: And maybe the musicality, too? Does it take the place of narrative … development?
KB: The triangular thing we started to talk about earlier is crucially important here. There is a strange balance in a dancer between what is learnt, and what a dancer is attentive to, in a particular situation, and what can be invented. It is only through a tremendous internal focus that a dancer can start inventing things, or allow himself [or herself] to be aware of external factors, if his [or her] concentration on the rhythm or the music, or the otherness is to come through.
I would add that some of the dancers in contemporary dance who attract critical response in their own name - who break away from conventional choreographic work - feel that performing is a demand on them; that they always have because of that to confront the audience, as though the audience is demanding something that the dancer doesn't want to provide, although this is exactly what they are trained to provide.
SM: Your dancers don't work the audience in that way…
KB: No. But can we work out exactly what you mean by that? Is it an acknowledgement of the audience's presence?
SM: It's more than that. It's like a frontal relationship between the dancer and the audience - a "Look at me!" combined with a You're looking at me!", from the dancer, directed at the real audience. Not that your dancers don't look out, sometimes, but they look out in a cinematic sense -
KB: Yes, because there is something imagined that, ideally, they're looking out at.
SM: Not at the audience itself, in a challenging way.
Kim Brandstrup, Susan Melrose, and Steffi Sachsenmaier
SM: The question of otherness keeps coming back in what we've been talking about. The curious thing about otherness is that we can't say what it is, because if we could, we wouldn't use that term. Yet I'm supposing that when you're looking for otherness in the making processes, you are actually looking for something that, to you, can be done in those precise circumstances. That is, the otherness is a matter of action, of some action or rather actions and interactions performed. When I say "those precise circumstances", I'm actually talking about what is available in terms of what you require that highly trained dancers can bring to that process.
SM: You have an established way of working with music, for example, and a number of established procedures for starting work on any given day -
SM: There are established patterns of instructions that you give them - a set of instructions that you give to the dancers -
KB: Yes - these are triggers -
SM: They are triggers that you use to enable them to start to give you something. I heard you use the term "improvisation", recently, about what this work consists of, and I was interested because I haven't heard you use the word before.
KB: I try not to use it -
SM: The word has too much baggage around it; maybe "devising" is better? But nonetheless, what do we call a piece of new work that Wheeldon has made for the Royal Ballet? We say he's made a new piece of work, but that's to say everything and nothing at the same time. By definition, working within these codes and conventions, you have or he has still to make something new, which works, because otherwise you're not going to get the commissions. So this is a very curious situation: the work is still highly codified, if it's with Royal Ballet dancers; you know pretty much the parameters that apply; but at the same time, for a new piece, you don't know what you are going to end up with, because it will depend quite specifically on what the dancers give you, and what you give back. You want them to surprise you, and they want you to enable them to surprise themselves -
SM: At the same time, what they do will enable something else to seem to appear, which will be your work, or a major ingredient in your work -
SM: I remember that you said earlier that you will recognise that "something else" when it looks back at you, but that what you recognise is an otherness. You then went on to say that the use of narrative enabled that otherness to emerge -
KB: No, that's not quite it. The narrative is actually a function of how I see. If I watch them, as an audience might do, I can make choices on the basis of what I think that "something" I see might represent, in narrative terms. I don't ever give them the character -
SM: No, but you have some story-telling parameters that you share with them -
KB: We were talking about this earlier: the story-telling is another layering of the given. If the dancer is here, at that particular place, in the space, with this particular music, then the inevitability of what he or she is doing next comes out of those points -
SM: It is an inevitability -
KB: It becomes an inevitability when those layers intersect.
|Hamlet, Queen Elizabeth Hall|
SM: The layers is an important notion, then, these dispositifs that I was talking about earlier, which you juggle, as choreographer.
KB: Yes. The narrativity is another layer. If he is standing there, and the music is doing something quite particular at that moment, and if for me he is Hamlet, then the actions that follow will be inevitable.
SM: Does he know this? I mean, does he know what he might do, and that it is inevitable?
KB: He doesn't.
SM: To what extent are they familiar already with, do they need to be familiar with the dramatic structure?
KB: Hardly at all.
SM: You don't want them to be?
KB: In the beginning it's better if they are not.
SM: OK. So in the beginning, when you talk about the inevitability, of what will come next if he is at a particular point, when the music does something specific, and given what the other dancers have just done or might do, and how these different elements might seem to intersect for an onlooker, where does that inevitability come from? And who participates in it as inevitable? Does he know that it's inevitable?
KB: No, it's me. It's purely from my point of view; it's what I see that, again, eliminates choice. For me, there's no choice. If this is what we've been working up to, if this is what is given, then there's no choice. If this is the otherness happening at that split second, then I have no choice. It has to be this.
|Hamlet rehearsal, 2003|
SM: And it is the otherness that you see at that split second?
KB: Yes - but it is an otherness in terms of the given. It is the first slash on the canvas.
SM: So, if you are a painter, then this is the first stroke on the painting that you need to keep.
KB: Yes, and this is the first decision. This is the division of the space, this is OK, this is how things will proceed.
SS: Does this really come from you? Didn't you say earlier that you find this otherness in the dancer?
KB: I do. I mean - you keep talking about what "I do", and my trick that I want to put on myself, and also on the dancers, is that nobody is actually doing it.
SM: "It" happens?
KB: Yes. There is something interesting about the otherness, I think, which is that what we meet to do, when we're going to make a piece, is something that doesn't exist. This is hugely important. The dancers think that I have something already in my head - which of course to some extent I have. But I look for something in them, in what they do, and we both sort of double-guess each other, and in the process of trying to think what this otherness might be, we together start to make something.
SS: So the dancer makes available a certain given - that's what you mean by the given?
SM: I don't think that the dancer gives it -
KB: No - it happens.
SM: It's a third person thing, in grammatical terms. It has the status of - an object of choreographic desire? That the dancer and the choreographer participate in, without being its subject - or its object? So it has to be relational: it needs Brandstrup, and the dancer, and maybe the music, and then it might appear - and in professional terms, as far as your work is concerned, it has eventually to appear.
SM: But the dancer doesn't see it appear? Unless he or she is watching you, and might notice that it has appeared to you?
KB: The dancer knows that it happens, because he or she is at work at that particular moment, and that becomes a given for him, but it is actually the effect of what I see -
SM: Are you sure of that, that the dancer has that moment of realisation as well?
KB: That that particular moment will be in the piece? No. Because sometimes I might take it away. But it remains the case that this is what we are working with -
|Hamlet rehearsal, August 2003|
SM: I was looking back at what you said earlier, which was something along the lines that it was only because they have that degree of mastery that they can forget the mastery, and I actually started to look differently back at my memory of rehearsals, and I started to look differently at the store of visual material that I retain from those, and I wondered whether I'd been noticing the wrong things, and whether there were not other things that you would have seen, as choreographer, that I almost hadn't known to look for, but which maybe I'd seen, without so to speak paying them due attention at the time. When I looked again at what I could recall, I started to see fleeting moments of strangeness instead of the athletic mastery I'd been looking at before - which was largely a matter of how they moved through space, and marked it out, and seemed to defy gravity, and so on, and I started instead to see, or to see as well, something more fragile or vulnerable, which might not constitute either a moment of dance, or a moment of narrative, as such, but instead these were curious qualities framed by those other grids or frameworks.
KB: And would you spontaneously see that fragility or vulnerability as specific to the named dancer or what a particular dancer might do -
SM: No, because I see them as athletic and they make the action, so it has to come from something else. What I have started to see is more like the flash of something between the dancers, that one could argue isn't owned by any one of them - so it might be that I can see Lee/Hamlet eyeing Ophelia obliquely but unmistakably because she has moved rapidly across his field of vision…a tiny detail connecting them in a way that the narrative itself causes me to psychologise…
Under the heading of "Action and the
Human Body in the Role", Sharon Carnicke
points out that "another aspect of
[Stanislavski's] System, physical actions,
[was] more suited to the [Soviet] mind set
[than was the work on affective recall, so
widely taken up in the US]. For Stanislavsky,
…emotion, as the message of dramatic
art, and action, as the medium, together
represent an unbroken link in the chain of his
ideas. Stanislavsky takes Tolstoy's
definition of art - 'feeling' conveyed
through 'recognizable external signs'
- and translates it for the actor into
'the life of the human spirit of the role
transmitted through external artistic
form', or…experiencing expressed
through behaviour. …[A]ction becomes the
specific theatrical language by which
affective material is communicated, and the
System, its grammar. …
'Altogther' [Stanislaski has written],
'our art is the art of
action…'[…] He accepts
'drama' as 'doing'. He rejects
the usual Russian word to describe what the
actor does on stage, igrat'
('to act', literally 'to
play'), replacing it with
deistvovat' ('to behave',
'to take action')…"
(S. Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998, pp.147-149)
KB: Yes. I think that we might need to talk about the later Stanislavski in terms of these layers of experience - for both the dancers and the spectators. There seem to be a number of layers of perception, one of which has to do with performance mastery, and another of which has to do with the actions which contribute to the sense of narrative. It is important to stress actions, once again, because of the danger of ending up talking, as we did earlier, about what is conventionally understood as expressivity on the part of the dancers.
SM: Because they are not expressing something supposedly "in them", but instead they do something, which a spectator will interpret as "expressive", even though it is im-pressed, by your look, onto their actions? Hence the interest in Stanislavski's method of physical action as the source of emotion?
SM: It is relational which means that it can't be pinned down in any single area; it emerges in the space between the quite particular dancers, at any given moment? Hence the discovery process for you in the pas de deux, of working with two dancers who haven't worked together before, and with a piece of music not yet explored in choreographic terms?
SM: I was thinking about performativity and the fact that Peggy Phelan talks about performativity and photographic portraiture5. Her suggestion in the early 1990s was that the subject of photographic portraiture becomes something like an actor, under the photographer's gaze. By actor I would suppose that she means in twentieth century terms, which means able to produce the visible "traits" which will be used by an onlooker as evidence of a wholly imagined psychological interiority - i.e. triggered in the onlooker her or himself. (This is what I have talked about elsewhere in terms of hypotyposis6 - where the artist provides (no more than) a vivid trace, and thereby triggers in the onlooker the attempt to fill that out, in such a way however that the onlooker is almost convinced that what she has herself completed, in terms specific to her, was actually given by the artist.) In the terms you introduced earlier, the photographic subject is perceived to be layered in terms of surface and depth; and aspects of surface are used in significant part as though they were evidence of or symptomatic of that which cannot otherwise be seen - because it is interior to the subject portrayed. So the expert photographer captures these traits or traces, and foregrounds them in the shot, so that the sense to the onlooker is that what is conveyed are traces of a life. The onlooker then looks longer than she needs to in terms of informational content - she is looking for traces of a life instead of "just lines of a face" - and this "looking longer" itself is theatrical. The subject of photographic portraiture is theatricalised, and performative.
KB: Someone interprets these as "traces of a life" - because they don't actually need to be there in terms of who the dancer is -
|Rehearsal, August 2005, The Anatomy of a Storyteller (premiered 2004)|
SM: Yes. I mentioned earlier looking for a long time at some of your rehearsal shots caught by the photographer, and at the narrative potential of the faces of some of your dancers caught in a moment, even though I had no idea what was being explored at that moment.
KB: Yes, but I absolutely don't want there to be any sense that I am an analyst who has the capacity to see or show who these dancers "really are" -
SM: No, but that's why I come back to the sense of the performative power of these faces of performers: their faces in performance trigger narrative potential in the onlooker, and have nothing at all to do with stories about who the performer "really is". In terms of narrative potential, it doesn't necessarily matter what the narrative will turn out to be - it might be Shakespeare's dramatic narratives, or Hans Christian Anderson's stories. What is important is that these dancers provide narrative potential which the dance itself renders performative, able to trigger input from an onlooker which is vital to the narrative itself. If this can be triggered by the choreographer, he or she has no need then to represent it, and in the most effective of cases, the shared productivity which emerges binds the spectator-Actor in, to the task of story-making.
KB: Yes. But I need to come back to the sense that there is something in the dancers that I recognise, but it's me doing this, not them -
SM: But the potential is there, for the onlooker to activate -
KB: Yes. And that's where things get messy: it might well have elements of what the dancers "look like", but it is also a matter of their focus in performing what they are engaged in, their ability to compel you to imagine on their behalf -
|Rehearsal, August 2005, The Anatomy of a Storyteller (premiered 2004)|
SM: It's productive then, on the part of the spectator, and not immanent to the dancer. To come back to your notion of otherness, this potential is a matter of complexity, of "complexifying" what a spectator senses "is there" -
KB: When I say otherness, I suppose I mean that all of the performers' energy isn't engaged in the execution of the performance task, it doesn't take all of that energy. The highly experienced dancer has the freedom of letting something else happen, and that then triggers something in the onlooker. The better the dancer, the quicker that happens, in the devising process, and the quicker I can make that decision. They have to take possession of the material, and perform it as if it is theirs.
SM: The notion of the other is wonderful, because it suggests that there is something rich and complex that we can't verbalise -
KB: Yes -
SM: - and that it appeals precisely because we can't -
KB: My original idea of otherness, comes from the fact that it is something that transcends the interpersonal, between me as choreographer, and them as dancers. I am trying to get away from the sense that they are dancing for me, or to please me, or that I might want them to realise my idea -
SM: Yes, of course -
KB: That relationship is not the basis for -
SM: But otherness quite precisely can't be accessed voluntarily by an individual, on the basis of a will to do it. In Lacanian theory isn't there an absolute bar to an individual's access to her own unconscious - although obviously this didn't seem to apply to Strasberg's work in method acting and ego-psychology in the Actors' Studio. In the European sense, an engagement with otherness might be triggered, when something really resonant seems to suddenly appear in the creative process, but it will surprise you, and you may not even identify it when it emerges - although you may have a sense that something is working there that collides productively with the dramatic material you are investigating.
KB: Yes. It others your conscious self -
SM: Yes. But I am supposing that as a professional, you are able professionally to select who and what you will work with, in order to engage, pretty systematically, the possibility that something will emerge, in the production time allowed by a commission.
Now, this is rather peculiar: you don't know what it will be, but you know that you are looking for the possibility that "it will happen", and that in a sense it will "happen you", because if it doesn't then you won't be satisfied with the work, and it may well be then that the critical response is more modulated.
|Rehearsal, August 2005, The Anatomy of a Storyteller (premiered 2004)|
But what is also interesting to me in terms of professional choreographic practice, is that that "something" may but also may not happen, or it may happen to a degree but not persuasively as far as audiences and critics are concerned. But more generally I am supposing that pretty consistently you are able to engage the circumstances within which something might emerge. The critical responses of arts journalists repeatedly say nothing whatsoever about what this otherness is, but it is entirely clear in their writing when one or another of them has experienced a sense of it, of something powerful, that they like. They tend to lapse into abstraction, into adjectival qualifiers (like 'powerful', or 'passionate'), and into more or less commonplace metaphor. And listening to some of them after the show, it's clear that some people judge you on the basis of an ability to produce 'something', when it works for them, but they cannot actually say what that something is, even though they recognise it when it is there - and also recognise it when it is not, and blame you for that. And this brings me right back to something in terms of where we started and what your choreography is described as: the term "narrative dance" completely fails, to me, to convey this sense of the power of otherness in the work you produce.
KB: Yes. You're right.
SM: In addition, you are not participating, in your work, in any of the easy and recently fashionable accounts of otherness - the post-colonial, or the gender-challenging material, or cutting-edge interrogations of the subject and identity, or the sort of work DV8 has produced, with an explicitly discursive orientation -
SM: Each of them is useful to critics, because they can put a discursive label to it. For example, Jeyasingh's work is always characterised as 'intercultural', before it is ever looked at as "British contemporary dance"; and as an apparent exponent of "intercultural dance", her work is readily discursivised in those terms, which means that it is predicated in terms of those discourses, before anyone really looks attentively of whatever she is doing that is challenging in terms of contemporary British dance composition.
SM: So in your case my sense is that as soon as your work is predicated in terms of narrative dance, it is positioned as such, and it tends then to be that narrativity which is foregrounded, which means that the artistry in compositional terms, and the musicality of the work, and the movement itself, which you say is absolutely key to the work, both the way it emerges, and the way you understand it - these all tend to become secondary for spectators, to a narrativity - which I would say has, from the point of view of dance composition, the mind-numbing capacity to be summed up in relatively few words. Can we come back at this point to Stanislavski (see Carnicke, above)- whose work with actors by the way tends to be calculated in terms of dramatic narrative, which means that in his work the repeated stopping of movement, so that energy invested is interrupted, is what gives character and story -
"Another way of putting it is that
positionality is an emergent quality of
movement. The distinction between stasis and
movement that replaces the opposition between
literal and figurative from [the Bergsonian]
perspective is not a logical binarism. It
follows the modes by which realities pass into
each other.The kinds of distinction suggested
here pertain to continuities under qualitative
transformation. They are directly processual
(and derivatively signifying and
Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, Duke University Press, 2002.
KB: Yes, it's the later Stanislavski, the method of physical action -
SM: Is this tradition interesting to you because of his stress on physicality as central to the work of characterisation?
KB: I think that it is because of my training. American contemporary dance training ran totally parallel with the use of Stanislavski in the US -
SM: Through which practitioners?
KB: A whole generation of dance trainers, around the time of the development of the Group Theatre, before the Actors Studio - Michael Chekhov and Stella Adler, for example. The people who were close to Stanislavski's method in the 1920s and 1930s.
SM: There are obviously very strong connections with your own work from the point of view of physicality and positioning and the break that allows us to make meaning 'in depth' from surface perceptions, from movements in considerable detail which spectators see and use to trigger complexities. This is a fascinating field that we have been encouraged to take for granted - the idea that we see more than we see, and that the actor is doing more than he or she does. The 'more than' here is everything that we can't actually see, such as psychological state, that is nonetheless vital to the development of a fictional world driven by needs and urges and motivation, which means that the director or choreographer has nonetheless to try to control spectators' imagining. Even in devised performance, for example, there is still a systematic quest for little stories about human complexity, triggered by performer actions, but not otherwise represented onstage. There is still a search for complexity, for the sense that an 'other world' exists, beneath or behind what we actually see in the performance, but that also has a causal relationship to what we see.
KB: Yes - but I need to say as well that it is important that we don't try to name the otherness, that we allow it to remain other. The dancers do try to guess what I'm looking for in the process of invention. I look at them, and I see something in them, and in fact I also tend to see it as having its source 'in them' - but I'm wrong. What propels us is the fact that we are both in pursuit of something -
SM: This makes me think of Massumi, and his notion of "qualitative transformation", which I'm supposing professional artists understand because they want to take the thing further, or somewhere different from where they've previously got to in making work - they need to feel that there's a 'journey', or a sense of personal growth or testing. Do the dancers have a sense of what they are engaged in, in that regard, once you start to crystallise material which will go into the show?
KB: I think that they do. But I was thinking that in the process, in fact, you also give yourself to each other -
KB: I say, and it is true, that I get it from what they do; and they will say that they do what I want -
SM: But they will also say "Kim gets something special 'out of me'" -
|Production of Hamlet at South Bank, April 2003|
KB: Yes. But that will be afterwards, after it's finished -
SM: And after other people have told them that it's good -
KB: If I went into the room thinking that I was the one doing the whole thing, or if they came in thinking "We're the ones actually doing the work", then it would be simply untrue -
SM: I can't imagine why anyone would want to be a dancer, an artist, in those circumstances. When people talk about vulnerability, for example, they actually want to work with someone who respects it -
KB: Yes. But on the other hand there are a number of places - big ballet companies, for example - where that simply can't happen for all of the dancers, and it's tough -
SM: And some of them choose to work with you instead, on that sort of basis -
SM: Otherness, to come back to it, is sensed by you - I am using this term deliberately …
KB: Certainly it doesn't come from me - it is something in them, or in it, that I respond to -
SM: - but which looks back at you - that formulation is clear?
SM: In compositional terms, you have a number of compositional grids operating simultaneously - the dancers have to get from here to there, and you have music that you are working on, which you have discussed with the composer in those sorts of terms: it has to last 15 minutes or 14 minutes, and it too will get from here to there, so to speak; and then a design which has its dynamic aspect. So there are a number of parameters you are working with, and each of these has its own internal logic, and organisation -
SM: And then, because you're working with a narrative - you've got the larger lines of composition worked out. Can those change? KB. Yes.
SM: Even with Hamlet?
KB: Yes. Well… some scores you can't change, but -
SM: Because to you it is a score?
KB: With Hamlet the score already existed, because I did a first version ten years ago.
SM: How do you put that score together - is it in advance or -
KB: No, that happened as I was choreographing, at the last moment -
SM: Do you notate it, or do you remember it?
KB: I get the music in bits, from the composer - I get three minutes, and then that's what I work with. In the first case, everything was up for grabs, but with the second version -
SM: But the way you work with Hamlet as a dramatic narrative, that is given in advance ?
KB: The dramatic events or -
SM: I suppose that this is the crux of it: you are interpreting the sequence of dramatic events, for choreographic purposes; you are highly selective. I remember when Ariane Mnouchkine staged Shakespeare's Richard II, as what might be called 'movement-based theatre': she translated the text herself, and she bracketed all of the clauses that weren't material action-based - so she would bracket speech which we'd interpret as thought, or reflection, or even some verbal exchanges if they weren't centred on a material action, for the precise reason that she staged it to a kabuki drum beat, which privileged physical action, and especially the footbeat on the wooden floor. But she perfectly retained the dramatic sequence and the rest of the language. Whereas plainly you don't have language… In the case of your Hamlet, I sometimes think of the work of the narratologist Greimas, who would work with something like a dramatic narrative but without focusing on character -
SM: Greimas was more interested7 in what he called actants, which I suppose might be identified as 'forces', in a narrative, rather than characters. So something that might be identified as 'atmospheric' would be a matter of the impact of one or more actants, if it was significant in terms of state of fictional being and the dynamic of the narrative. An actant is a thematic force that can transcend characters - it might be the actant 'fear', that a cluster of characters might mediate, or the actant 'despair', and one would speak in compositional of actantially-focused activity, rather more than conventional character-focus. And the lighting and the music at any compositional point might contribute to the actantial focus - it could seem to be darker, or slower, or more melodic, or more staccato -
KB: Yes. In fact, you can't do the narrative in dance, you can do the interactions of the narrative - in your terms, between narrative forces, although you do also obviously keep the relationship between dancer and character . How you set that up in sequence, will determine how a spectator will engage with it, by supposing for example that something must have happened between the two elements in that sequence - it's like cinema: the narrative is constructed sequentially in such a way that a spectator sees it as causal -
SM: So the choreographic composition is actually a meta-narrative, in compositional terms, it also functions as a choreographic commentary on the dramatic narrative -
KB: Yes. But it also sets up its own internal situation, so on that situational basis, then what's happening dramatically should be clear -
SM: How does a spectator know who is dancing Hamlet, if she is not already aware of the dramatic tradition? I was looking with a group of students of literature at the video of your Hamlet at the RFH, and I was asking them how they knew that one dancer was Hamlet. They knew what they knew but they thought that because they were not familiar with the codes of dance, then they couldn't say how they knew, but I was able to show them that in the simplest of semiotic terms, they knew that Lee was playing Hamlet firstly because he was very consistently present in the scenes, secondly because the spatial organisation tended to centre itself on him, third because other dancers consistently directed attention to him, and fourth because he tended to be solitary, in the space, whereas the other performances tended to be group-based.
SM: But I'd still like to remain with this question of composition and narrativity, because of the degree of selectivity that you impose with regard to the Shakespearean drama - and then secondly I'm interested to emphasise the question of actional detail, which I didn't really mention earlier. I suppose that what I mean here is that the complexity of the work I see onstage isn't actually costume-based, or casting-based, both of which give relatively static or at least stable visual 'sites' for a spectator's look to identify and return to. But instead it is based on minute actional detail, and my sense here is that it is the spectator's perception of actional regularities, which signal what is 'going on' dramatically. Regularities are emergent, rather than fixed, and I would describe them as details which a perceiver clusters together, as meaningful, in terms of the task at hand. The detail is detail of action and interaction, foregrounded in the performance space, hence for a spectator, and in this sense, costuming or a given dancer's appearance supports that dynamic detail, and not vice versa.
KB: Yes. It is where interaction meets sequence.
SM: What makes a sequence, in compositional terms?
KB: It's the equivalent of an aria in opera. It is a lyrical elaboration of a moment, or a line that you unfold. And you set these - interaction and sequence - next to one another. There is the reoccurrence, that gives character, and there is progression, and we perceive different modes of emotion, and we start to construct a narrative - but it is really a matter of a simple situation of single lines, which then achieve an emotional tension between them - and they may last one minute, or three minutes -
SM: I am interested that you focus on modes of emotion. So could I say that your compositional activity focuses on emotion, or on the means for spectators to perceive emotion -
KB: This is in the end what is going on. It gives me the focus on mood -
SM: If one were to say that "loss" were a thematic focus -
SM: Then I can say very easily that "Loss is the thematic focus of Brandstrup's work", but what I'd want to add here is that "loss" is an abstraction, and an abstraction is fairly difficult to talk about in material terms, if we're talking about decision-making in compositional terms… How does the dancers' work represent "loss" actantially? Whereas when you put the music into the work with the dancers, and you add the spatial set-up and the lighting, then it is relatively easy to say that decisions taken as to the combination of these will tend to direct spectators to a particular thematic engagement. But what I'm interested in is how complex this is, in terms of the way you make decisions, and in terms of the ways you calibrate all of the different elements at work.
|Production of Hamlet at South Bank, April 2003|
KB: Loss is a good example, as negation would be. It's obviously much easier to establish the thematic line with words. Without words, all you can do is set up the structure, that repeats three times, and by the third time, somebody is no longer where he is supposed to be (because he has already been there twice). Then a spectator can say to herself that something did not happen. Because you can't perform not happening -
SM: So you have to use presence in order to enable us to perceive absence -
KB: Yes. That's what you do in terms of sequence, in terms of structure.
SM: So when you use the Schubert adagio for strings, for example, there is already a thematic focus, which guides -
KB: In terms of the minor key -
SM: Yes, and the funereal pace, and the repetition…So the complexity involved to create what I'd call a "sense of loss", is enormous, because you actually have to construct it, and then to modulate it over an extended period of time, working with what are really "resistant materialities"8 - so that all of these different process threads work together. The music, and the lighting, and the timing and pacing, and the grouping, the lighting, the design, and at a micro-level the gestuality, and the changing detail of facial focus -
KB: Yes. A particular performer has a potential, in these terms, but everything then is detail of movement, and repetition, and then non-repetition - then you can say that the structure works because the particular performer invests as she does, and without her the structure would not mean anything.
SM: So you tap into this potentiality -
KB: You are right that it is the composition that makes it work, but it is also the engagement of a particular dancer. Both are vital for this kind of emotional impact to happen.
SM: Yes. Now, can we come back to the question of otherness: what is the relationship between this compositional mastery, this compositional complexity and detail, and the question of otherness?
KB: Composition is my language - that is what I do. I see in the moment of a particular dancer doing something, that it needs a particular sequence of actions, if it is to mean something -
SM: Do you see the moment, and bring the other compositional elements to it, to situate it and then heighten it? Because if you are working with a composer on a new piece, you can't actually organise it in that way - you can't actually determine what the composer will do, in that way -
KB: If I have my own composer, I can.
SM: So the composer would come into the rehearsal and the two of you might identify a particular quality -
SM: - that the composer understands musically?
SM: Does the composer work with the detail he sees, or does he work with his perception of your sense of what you see?
KB: You should talk to the composer. In the case of Ian Deardon, he found working with me in the early days a nightmare - I was - I should try to be diplomatic. I had such a strong sense of how the thing should be, in the early 1990s, and it was torture for him. I hope that he has forgiven me, but it was torture.
SM: Because …?
KB: I could feel what it should be, but I could not articulate it in musical terms. I learned a lot from working with him. Can I come back to something: I was thinking about the otherness, and what I said earlier was that I enjoy more and more working with things that are imposed on me - like the Mahler score. You have to just solve it. Whereas when I was working on Hamlet, if I had 15 seconds too much of a particular mood, then I would make him - it was hysterical. I would give him hell. I would prefer now not to have to control it like that. Hamlet now could exist in a completely different way, if I can allow myself to think like that. The worst thing you can do is struggle with everything on the basis of something you've got fixed in your head.
SM: How do you know that it is 15 seconds too much? Is this something you sense - or…
KB: I wanted to say that in language - in language you can retain things, because they are there, and you can go back to them. Something happens in Act IV, because such and such happened in Act I, which means that the causal sequence is very clear, there is the possibility of establishing an abstract causality, but in dance and music you can't retain anything for very long, which means really that the dance and the music have to work back-to-back, because viewers can't retain - they can retain something like a bodyshape, but they can't retain anything for much longer than the few seconds that happened immediately before. So the inevitability that I feel is that if that happened, just there - and this is the question of those 15 seconds too much - then there is only so much that I can do. I think that this is important: it is at this level that the thing makes sense, when you are sitting and watching it -
SM: If making that sort of sense is important. I mean that some choreographers are working with much greater abstraction -
KB: What feels right for the dancers, for me, has to do with that sort of inevitability -
SM: I suppose that even with your Hamlet, what interested me was that I didn't know what would come next -
KB: - except that you accept what comes next in terms of a narrative sequence and in terms of -
SM: - and in terms of an aesthetic coherence. Yes. That is true. I was aware that I was fitting what happened into a narrative framework, which pre-existed what I saw, whereas I wouldn't be able to do that with Shobana Jeyasingh's work in narrative terms, but I would in terms of aesthetic coherence. In your Hamlet I was nonetheless often charmed by the invention - I mean that I knew where I was in terms of the narrative sequence, but the invention often charmed me. The drowning scene with Ophelia, for example.
KB: But that still has a physical and musical logic.
|Theme and Inversion at The Place, 2005|
SM: Yes, there is a logic of shapes, and a logic of uses of space, and a logic of focus -
KB: So let's talk about a logic of sequence and of cause and effect, at a micro- level -
SM: Which I suppose I would not call narrative as such, although maybe this is the way narrativity is constituted micro-logically
SS: When you make your choreographic choices, however, it is you who invent. So the point here is that even if I know the narrative, I wouldn't be able to make those choices, even if I can recognise them - but I have also seen you in rehearsal with a prewritten movement sequence that you give to the dancers.
KB: Yes, but I only give them something to make them move. I give them shapes, but only to make them move -
SM: So they don't end up performing that sequence as such -
KB: They could do. They could - but what is being shaped is how they do it. As long as they are in pursuit of that movement, it doesn't really matter where it comes from.
SS: Sometimes you give technical instructions as to a movement experience. But I suppose that it is actually the movement quality that matters - colouring or quality, and I suppose that that was what was shared with the dancers. But in choreographic terms, isn't what is important the question of what happens where, and what comes next in terms of movement?
KB: There is a delicate question here with regard to the interaction between what a body does, and what the sense of the movement is. It is not a matter of where the arm goes, but how you get there - the little thing that happens before, and what comes next, and how.
|Theme and Inversion at The Place, 2005|
SM: In the piece for The Place, with Gildas and Nathalie, did you give them a sense of the thematics?
KB: No, not at all. In that piece there was a shift because Nathalie was so powerful as a dancer.
SM: In that piece, wasn't it vital that she did this and then that, that it was she who initiated an action, and so on?
KB: What was important was not what she did with her leg, but how she did it. If she had been on her knees, then it might have been a movement with her arm and not -
SM: Doesn't the one enable the other?
KB: Yes, but what is important is the timing, and the colouring. These are the most powerful. Even though one might think that one is watching the body. The invention is elsewhere. You can't invent the body, you can only invent how it does something -
SM: And with these highly trained dancers, you have said that you take a certain bodily mastery as given - you can't invent that, either - but this is what you engage with, to get what you want as choreographer -
SM: Although you say that what the actual movement choice is, is unimportant, I suppose that what I am saying is that the one enables the other, and to come back to something I said much earlier, isn't it then the highly singular quality of a named dancer, like Gildas or Jo Fong, that accessing these codes and conventions enables you to highlight or "colour"? To come back to that second piece at The Place, what would you say if I said that when I left the theatre, I heard someone say "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl gets boy back…". In other words that person reduced what he saw to the most banal and reductive narrative account, and said nothing at all about the colour and the quality of the dancers' work? Does that destroy the piece, for you, if it can be reduced to a narrative sequence?
|Theme and Inversion at The Place, 2005|
KB: It certainly destroys that person's experience of it.
SM: Does that worry you? I suppose that I'm asking because narrative itself, to the extent that it is known in advance as a convention, as a set of codes, seems to allow that sort of reductiveness. Whereas what I enjoy in the work is an inventiveness which seems to me to emerge almost in spite of the narrative. You know that certain terms are very fashionable in dance writing - terms like "liminality", and "edginess" - and I suppose that I was wondering whether the use of narrativity meant that some people may tend to see that, instead of the edginess, because for some people the narrative means that they don't have to work hard at all, when it comes to saying what they've seen and experienced.
SM: Whereas in the case of that same piece, I suppose that I was looking at it as a mode of portraiture, in the terms I mentioned above - strongly etched traces of a life or lives. This seems to me to mean that I was putting the narrative elements, and even the elements of characterisation as "the boy" and "the girl", into second place. Which makes me come back to that question: why is what you do called narrative dance?
SM: Can we come back slightly differently now that we have begun to clarify certain key issues relating to your practice and the ways it is perceived: one of the main issues in writing about your work would seem to be that we all use metaphors to talk about the work, some of them in a performance-expert technical register, whereas others are registers specific to dance commentary - and that tends to mean from the perspective of spectating. Clearly this can be unhelpful when what one is actually interested in is professional expertise and performance-making processes, and what it means is that we have a whole array of terms which we apparently share, but which in fact mean different things, depending on whether an expert practitioner or a spectator uses them. That's my first point, relating to these dialogues. But I was wondering in addition whether we could look at your work overall, in recent years, firstly from the point of view of what you would say is driving it - in the sense that art-making seems to be driven by an intense curiosity about something. Secondly, in terms of what we might see as your artistic signature. And third I wanted to look briefly with you at the notion of research in the university, in order to think about the case for arguing that your creative/professional work can be understood as a research activity in itself, once we relocate it in a context of enquiry in the university.
Preparation work for
Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005
I'm supposing that in your case there's a passionate enquiry, first because you are clearly driven to make new work, in professional terms, but also in the sense that across the different commissions you get, you are pursuing a coherent enquiry. In those terms the different pieces of work can be viewed as different 'folds' of that same enquiry. You seem to be looking for something, in the work. I don't mean this in a psychoanalytic sense, where we'd be using the work to try to reveal something about you as a person - although it's probably appropriate to say that as distinct from some other professions, the person of the practitioner tends to be invested as such in the choreographic work. (What's much more interesting to me is the question of how the person and personal are invested in the professional.) And I'm not very interested in the notion that the work might be 'really about' something that needs someone else to reveal - although there are elements that recur across the work, that seem to me to contribute to whatever the profession and the critics see as your choreographic signature. In those sorts of terms, can we identify work procedures and strategies that you use consistently, because they enable you to explore something that interests you; and can we say that there are dancers and artistic collaborators whose work consistently interests you, that you choose to work with? And can we also say that there are thematic focuses that regularly emerge out of the material you choose?
KB: Yes. But to come back to a question you asked earlier, about the potential I sense in the dancers I choose to work with, I wanted to add that there are three, maybe four elements that I look for and recognise in dancers I want to work with. I cast on the basis of something I have seen in them. And then I work with the given -
SM: - but in incredibly complex detail, and very differently in the case of Jo Fong and Jo O'Keefe9 -
KB: - and I am working with timing. I am working then with a hypothesis: if that person is in that space, at that particular moment, and with that particular music, then this is how it is going to work. But none of these can actually be determined outside of that space and that moment. But I want to try to identify what it is I see, what this potential might be. There are three things: I see an inherent co-ordination in the approach by a particular dancer; I see a particular kind of pulse that underpins how they move; and I can see - in terms of a sense of music and phrasing - I can see where the attack is, what the trajectory will be.
SM: And you will know it in all of its singularity, in a particular dancer, but not in another trained in exactly the same tradition, when you see it.
Zenaida Yanowsky in preparation,
Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005
SM: You know, this is terrifying, for the analytic mind, because of the stress on a combination of factors which is absolutely singular and almost accidental - certainly contingent: philosophers want to try to deal with this, but they can't really, because in their case, where they are professional philosophers, most of their tools are actually already in place. Some of them want to write about the accidental, but they don't actually have the means to deal with it, unless they are talking about an insight apparently emerging suddenly in an unusual, situation - in the bath, for example - or if they are talking about what is called noetic creativity10, which is where some kind of certainty that seems suddenly to emerge from a nowhere of rational thought.
KB: Yes. But in terms of what I want to discover with them: I was thinking that there is something that I don't want from them. I do have to feel that the work exists, apart from me. The pleasure that drives me is the discovery of something other than myself. As soon as I try to deliver something that is expected by someone else, that takes away, for me, from the pleasure. All of the elements that you have identified are there, but my process is always driven by the urge to find something that I don't expect. Otherwise it can't retain my interest -
SM: Good, that's helpful. When we come back however to the complex question of who and what you choose to work with and how, on the one hand, and then its thematic focus, and the ways it might be interpreted, on the other, am I right in thinking that you would prefer to separate these two, as though the first concerns you professionally and the second doesn't?
KB: I suddenly thought of a quote - I think it was Picasso - along the lines of "I don't search, I find". It is that balance all of the time. When an otherness presents itself, it comes at me. I don't look for it. This is why it is so hard for me to say what it is that I'm after in the sense of a quest. I'd have to pull myself so far out of the making process, to be able to say what that was -
SM: Yes. But spectators who know your work see connections, don't they? Do you think that what we see as a connection is a matter of a consistent working method, or could we also see a thematic consistency?
KB: Yes. But again, I want it to surprise me, to come to me -
SM: OK, but let me pursue this: on the basis of the work I've seen, and my knowledge of the fact that you don't stop making new work, that every new piece represents a new way of looking for something, or testing something, which remains relatively stable, I'm supposing that you don't ever actually find what you're looking for, because every new piece turns out to have an element of professional and possibly creative compromise to it - perhaps because there's not enough time, or you're not satisfied with certain aspects; or at the very least, that it doesn't exhaust the enquiry itself that you then keep coming back to. I am arguing that this is not specific to your work, but to the work of artists more generally who can be said to be researchers - other examples are Rosemary Butcher and Shobana Jeyasingh. It's on the basis of this sort of compromise that you have made two Hamlets, for example - and what is interesting to me here is the fact that certain writers looking at research in the sciences actually tend to argue now that this not finding, or this compromise, or this non-actualisation of the thing looked for, in the new work realised, is actually standard to research itself.11
|Preparation for Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005|
SM: When you do start again, you seem to want to 'push things further', or 'look at something again' - you may change one dancer, for example, to see what difference that makes. I'm wondering then whether we can say that there is an ongoing quest structure that can be identified by a critic across the different pieces, without actually attempting to word what that quest is?
SM: And whatever is driving that quest causes you to set up those conditions again, in a new piece, but in a pretty consistent way, that enable you to continue that enquiry -because the enquiry itself transcends the particular commissions, which means that the research and development for a particular commission isn't actually the research in these particular terms. You are looking for something that transcends the short-term objective, and carries on -
KB: I hear you, but I wonder if it isn't only in psychoanalytic terms that we can take this further -
|Preparation for Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005|
SM: I don't think so. What I'm actually trying to get at is the notion that this is a stabilised procedure or strategy for making new work, that spectators then recognise as 'your work'. I tend to think that identifying it as 'your work' means more than recognising in it a conventional way of working. And secondly, I would argue that the work is also a research activity, in a fairly conventional sense, rather more than it is a means of trying to identify something like 'what Kim Brandstrup is really looking for'.
Let me try this another way: would you agree that there is a recognisable Brandstrup aesthetic, a recognisable Brandstrup signature? That some spectators look out for, in the press, and on which basis they make sure that they don't miss your new work. What would that recognisable signature consist of?
KB: When some people have seen the choreographic workshops I run, for example this summer at the Royal Opera House, they have tended to say that they can see my signature on the students' work - but I wasn't sure whether that was said in positive or negative terms. I tend to feel that they are all so different, but that the one thing I do insist on is that they are absolutely clear in their timing -
|Zenaida Yanowsky in Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005|
SM: When you say 'clear', you mean …?
KB: Precise. Precision in timing.
SM: You know, this is why I keep coming back to schematics, and to the notion of the dispositif, or set-up - that you juggle a number of these, as a choreographer, and you bring them into certain sorts of intersections, in the work, but I might need to add that you also enable your dancers to project through these particular sorts of energies. The question that follows, for me, is a question about the schematic and the energetic, and the thematic. I'm wondering if what I take to be the thematic focus of your work as a distinctive choreographic practice, doesn't emerge out of the systematically-controlled precision of the high-energy dancers' work - it is a matter of consistently high-energy, precise movements, precisely interrupted -
Brian Massumi observes, of movement, that when
it "comes to a stop in the [narrative]
target, it will have undergone a qualitative
change. … [That movement] is still the
same thing by definition, but in a different
way, qualitatively changed by the passing
event….[On this basis] signification or
"Cultural laws of positioning and
ideology [from this perspective] are accurate
in a certain sphere (where the tendency to
arrest dominates). …The issue is to
demarcate their sphere of applicability - when
the "ground" upon which they operate
is continuously moving….The Bergsonian
revolution turns the world on its head.
Position no longer comes first, with movement
a problematic second. It is second to movement
and derived from it. It is retro movement,
movement residue….The problem is to
explain the wonder that there can be stasis
given the primacy of process.
B. Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, Duke University Press, 2002:7-8
KB: You see these as movements interrupted - ?
SM: 'Articulated' is better. There is a clarity of articulation, which it is then very easy to thematise, if other factors come into play. The precision of the interruption, and the energy of the movement, leading up to the interruption and following on from it, means that if you add in a number of other factors, including a narrative framework, and if there is this very strong focus on face, on faciality, then -
KB: But in the process of my helping these dancers make new work, the emergence of the thematic is the least important thing.
SM: OK. Then maybe I can say that your reticence in the production process, with regard to thematics, combined with this quest for precision, is very characteristic of your work! At the level of performance-making itself, your approach systematically avoids certain sorts of thematic presuppositions and over-determinations -
SM: On the question of energy-invested articulation or interruption, and knowing and not-knowing, I've watched you at work - you are of course aware that there would once have been a feminist objection to the cut that articulates, as though it is the Master stroke, with the pen or the knife, the patriarchal cut practised upon the body's fluid movement, and secondly what could be seen as a withholding of knowledge from the dancers -
KB: You know, flow can happen anywhere with mastery - it doesn't have to be organic.
SM: Your expert dancers achieve flow in precisely the terms you set out earlier.
KB: Yes. But you know, I keep thinking about what might be hardest for some spectators or readers to realise, which is what actually is the material we are working with. It is movement. It is not 'bodies', or gender, or -
SM: It is movement articulated -
KB: You must articulate, because otherwise all you have is endless movement. You have to cut, always. The question is where you cut, and when you cut. But you can't make work without the cut, because otherwise you end up with [one-ness] - Whereas with the cut there is three [units] and then there's five -
SM: The cut gives you the narrative units. You then compose, on the basis of the movement, and the cut which marks it. Is there a thematic focus that emerges quite precisely out of the precision of the movement and the cut? A thematics of loss? Desire comes from the interruption, the break, the anticipation of the break, the return after the break, with certain sorts of changes we see as consequential -
KB: That would be to give too much emphasis to one decision, to one set of tools, which is division - otherwise there is only flux -
SM: There is a recurring interest, isn't there, in the break, the cut - in the two pieces at The Place, in December 2005, which are completely different, in both there was a sense of something disrupted, fragmented -
KB: Any dance does that - it couldn't exist without that articulation -
SM: In the solo, you cause the dancer to interrupt the flow of 'her own' movement, and it gives the sense of the self as disrupted, as fragmented. Is there a thematics of loss, in Hamlet?
KB: Yes. But first, any dance does this, and second, this is psychoanalytic -
SM: No. Because I'm not saying something like 'What is your problem with loss?' I'm not saying 'What is Brandstrup's problem with loss?'. Instead I'm saying that there is a recurrent thematics of loss, a regularity, a pattern identifiable across the work; and that you use expertly-mastered energies and movement precision in such a way that this is heightened -
KB: Yes, you're right, of course you are right, I know that you are right, but isn't this to put too much emphasis on thematics - I'm not sure that it is bound so tightly to compositional decisions -
SM: The thematic is part of the spectator experience of the work - part of the way critics and others view the work. How can I avoid this "arrest", this sense of "stop operations", in Massumi's terms (see above), when what you do is to fold a number of elements over each other, and then mark them, by a co-ordinated pause across that fold? In your Hans Christian Anderson, for example, the gestuality, the interactions, the look, the use of the Schubert adagio (String Quintet in C), the refrain: these all figure loss, in actantial terms -
KB: I always find loss. That is what I see. That is when it is right for me.
|Preparation for Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005|
SM: But I want to say it again here: psychoanalysing the practitioner is not what is interesting. Predicating the person and the personality or the imagined psyche of the practitioner is not what is at stake. What I'm actually interested in a set of choreographic procedures that you consistently return to, as a professional practitioner, that are widely associated with your signature as an artist. The facts suggest that you articulate and build these up in layers, and then mark their intersection in time, with the narrative cut, and this enables you consistently to highlight certain sorts of thematic potential. I am arguing that this recurring procedure is key both to others' notion of your signature as expert practitioner, and second to your own investment in a research enquiry, as a researcher in the sense understood by the university -
KB: The important thing in aesthetic terms is that there is enough variation across the different pieces, so that it is not repetitive -
SM: It's probably the opposite for people who like the work: the new piece enables them to see how you are looking differently at a thematic as well as a procedural and aesthetic consistency -
KB: But I am in pursuit of - something shifts a little each time, because I discover something more about it; but as to the thematics, you are right, there is a consistency -
SM: One of the ways research is currently being understood and evaluated is in terms of rigour, which supposes an ongoing and systematically pursued enquiry. The work as we've been discussing it is rigorous in those terms, in its systematic return to particular sets of processes; a particular aesthetic, with new dancers and/or companies, to see what will emerge, that is qualitatively transformed (or not). So it is a matter of speculative research, as the AHRC currently understands it. There is a stabilised work process, which experiments with the same sorts of ingredients, to reveal difference, in a set of outcomes that are interlinked -
SM: The point about the work I've seen you do as a teacher and as a choreographer, is that there is repeatedly an issue of energetic investment, precision, clarity, expertise, and maybe what is important to say at this point is that the present interrogation that I am putting to you, this dialogue, is one aspect of that work that you have produced. We are co-authoring here as an aspect of your professional-creative research project. We are trying to unfold one aspect of it, and this dialogue could not take place except in those terms. To come back to your choreographic teaching, it is worth saying that the tools you give the choreographers-in-training are similarly a means for them to explore something, which some of them are likely in turn to pass on through pedagogic practice. These are potentially research tools, disseminated through pedagogic practices, not very different in fact from the research tools we introduce in the research context in the university. It's not widely acknowledged there that we are actually trying to enable trainee-researchers to 'make something' themselves, in turn, that we will want to be able to identify, eventually, as original and significant.
To come back to your work, one can see a way of working which itself involves an ongoing enquiry - if that is what interests us. The way of working is a mode of enquiry that consistently unfolds things, in order to arrive at greater complexity.
|Preparation for Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005|
SM: What happens, in terms of that enquiry, when you are working with a specific company - like Rambert?
KB: With Rambert, there is a language -
SM: What does that metaphor mean?
KB: The physical co-ordination and the groundedness of the Rambert dancers, there is a particular range that they can engage in comfortably - which is not to say that ballet dancers can't do that, because they can, but I have to demonstrate more, at the beginning, with ballet dancers -
SM: Is the difference here one that applies between ballet and contemporary dance?
KB: Only in the case of classically-trained ballet dancers - the Rambert are contemporary dancers with a strong ballet background, but contemporary trained -
SM: Which means - ?
KB: Physically it means a different sense of centre, they are more grounded, are closer to the ground, and it also means that there is - I also find that dynamically, the classically-trained dancer has a certain musical understanding, a strong musical sense, inherent in the way that every exercise is counted out in fours and threes, every day -
SM: In the most recent summer school, to slightly change the focus, you were working explicitly with music and musicality - analytically -
KB: By which you mean…?
SM: That you were enabling them to look for organising principles in the music itself which would enable them to identify similar organising principles in the work they were composing -
KB: Yes. If that happens at the same time, then the structuring power of the music is so enormous that the choreographic composition can't avoid it. Historically, from the 1970s - especially from Merce Cunningham - there was the idea that the music and the choreographic work should be able to stand completely separately from each other, without one illustrating or being subordinate to the other, which was fine with a Cage score, which is very open and airy, but with - I probably shouldn't say this, but you always dance to music, the music is always there first, and it would be naïve -
|Preparation for Footnote to Ashton at The Place, 2005|
SM: With Rambert as well - ?
KB: Yes. As a company, yes, but those dancers will have done physical techniques and training exercises that do not tie things so closely with the music - in the process of learning something.
SM: On that question of music, I was very interested in watching you work with a dancer to demonstrate how you might begin to make a piece. You gave him nine beats, and it seemed that what he did depended on his own sense of musicality -
KB: When I work with a dancer, I tend to give him the pulse, and the length of the phrase - but I only give him the absolute minimum of the music as well, in order for contrapuntal effect to occur, because if you give the full score it can be too overwhelming for the dancer.
SM: So when we look then at this notion of movement and the cut or the interruption, and you resist, quite properly, my attempts to linking the cut to thematic questions -
KB: I wanted to say earlier: there is no interruption or cut in the music - the music, the pulse, the pause - you always understand the stop in relation to what keeps moving.
SM: So it doesn't match language at all, in any unitary sense - these two can't be mapped easily onto each other -
KB: You mean when language stops, it stops -
SM: Yes, well, no. What I mean is that meaning itself, in a speech situation, may seem to be carried between two fragments of an utterance, but there is no linguistic medium as such doing that 'carrying between'. It requires something external to language - possibly called extralinguistic or contextual features - to permit that continuity; whereas in the cut or break in dance, the dancer so to speak is still dancing - and the music and musicality are carrying forward, and they mark a break but they don't stop -
KB: I think in music you create a lot of different-sized patterns, one rhythmical unit that is then repeated over eight bars and then shifts, or a phrase unit that goes over 16 bars, or a movement that lasts 164 bars - they are little clusters -
SM: You remember my mentioning the observation that since Kant there has been a separation between aesthesis and signification, with Humanities courses in the university tending to focus on the second (on the production or communication of meaning to the detriment of an engagement with aesthetics12. If we are to look at how you set about as choreographer to heal that separation -
KB: Yes -
SM: - then can we say that your mode of operation as a choreographer in making work is more akin to the operation of the composer in music, than it is like that of the writer of narratives -
KB: Yes, absolutely -
SM: - and the thematic focus, when it emerges, is more akin to the emergence of thematics in music, without which what's more it could not emerge -
KB: It is made out of time and movement, not of words and emotions -
SM: - and this suggests, to me, that your ongoing quest, as a researcher, is musical, rather more than it is a concern with signification -
KB: It is only at the very end that these things become important.
SM: So can I say that each of your choreographic works turns on a research activity focused on music, or on the productive interface between highly specific instances of music and dance? In a sense you are exploring music anew with each new commission or project you take on, but it is an instance of applied research, whose outcome is actually the new piece of work itself. When Rambert gives you the Mahler, and a production time, and you have a particular group of dancers, a company ethos and sets of expectations -
KB: In this case, the Mahler to me is a given, and I start taking it apart, and poking at it -
SM: - from an expert-choreographic perspective, with those particular dancers in mind, and to see what it gives you, and what it allows you to do, I am arguing that you are actually researching the music in the workshop and the rehearsal -
SM: - and you are researching it in terms as well of your own quest, your own recurring questions, your own signature, and how to transform that in qualitative terms, how to push something further -
KB: Yes. Yes.
SM: It's only when we begin to talk about it in these sorts of ways that it seems to me that we can come back to this question of the detail of your choreographic composition, and your aesthetic, and your signature. Because as soon as critics identify your work instead as narrative dance, then it becomes terribly easy for others to reduce the complexities and the challenges of what you do to a relatively banal narrative formula. We're trained to do that all the way through our schooling. And once we've done that, everyone who has lived through the assault on narrativity and mainstream performance institutions is able to take your work in those terms - which means that there is no attempt then to actually engage with what you do in terms of choreographic composition and its musicality. Yet at the very same time, Rambert commissions you to work with Mahler, and the very very brief reviews are hugely complimentary. But the challenge of your aesthetic otherwise is left out of the reviewer's equation. Yet your signature isn't the narrative - which belongs, besides, to one or another of the authors your work also explores; it's an enquiry into a range of interfaces, which you set up and activate -
SM: Whereas if we say that you are an advanced researcher into choreographic composition, driven by creative and professional imperatives, and exploring some of the major traditions of classical and originally-composed music, and drawing on, for example, the digital design work of the Brothers Quay, then that's a rather different account of what you're doing as a practitioner. The choreographic composition has a strongly visual aesthetic, with both painterly and filmic qualities, and we could talk about it in terms of choreographic portraiture, but once again, these sorts of ways of seeing the work aren't generally entertained by certain influential reviewers, because you are judged wrongly to be working in a conservative way with a conservative medium. We need to say so.
1 Becoming (as distinct from being) is a notion formulated by Henri Bergson, whose work strongly informs that of Gilles Deleuze.
2 reference to Lyotard's sublime
4 B. Calvo-Merino, D.E. Glaser, J. Grezes, R.E. Passingham and P. Haggard, "Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers" in Cerebral Cortex, Oxford University Press, 2004
5 P. Phelan, Unmarked: the politics of performance, London & New York: Routledge 1993, pp.34-7.
6 In one notorious account of symbolic or schematic hypotyposis, de Man describes it in terms of a figuration, "which makes present, to the senses, something which is out of their reach, not just because it does not happen to be there but because it consists, in whole or in part, of elements too abstract for sensory representation" (On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks, University of Chicago Press, 1979).
7 A. J. Greimas, Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. See also his The Semiotics of Passions, 1993 (Les Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1991)
8 Hayles How we Became Posthuman [REF?]
9 Jo Fong and Jo O'Keefe are two members of Arc Dance Company, Brandstrup's company forced to disband in 2005 because of a lack of financial support for the company itself.
10 see Rosenthal for noetic creativity (link to expert intuition in Bergson?)
11 K. Knorr Cetina, "Objectual Relations", in Schatzki et al (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, Routledge 2001
12 see for example P Osborne, Philosophy in Cultural Theory, Routledge 2000
Web design John Robinson
With thanks to Susan Melrose
Last updated 29th August 2011