8 October 2010

getting myself lost in translation: rosemary butcher

One of the main developments in my activities over the blog's dormant period has been a growing interest in dance. Hofesh Shechter's Political Mother remains one of the highlights of my year, along with two strikingly different performances seen in February: the intimate trio of 'With Which To Tell' at RAG, and the fascinating intricacy and breadth of Danza Contemporanea de Cuba's first visit to the UK.

I mention this because writing about dance inevitably means that I come with a theatrical rather than purely choreographic perspective to the shows. Whilst I have been expanding the range of contemporary work I have seen, and reading where I can, I am well aware that part of what excites me about dance is the thrill of being mid-discovery of it, still not sure of the vocabulary and history with which to contextualise the images and energies in performance. However I have never felt that this has been an obstacle to my enjoyment or engagement with any dance piece, as what I lack in technical understanding, I supplement with a kind of visceral experiential fascination, and a particular attention to how the shifts and shapings of a dance can tell so much about drama and performance.

With this in mind, I would like to offer a few thoughts on Rosemary Butcher's Lapped Translated Lines last Friday night, part of the Festival of Miniatures which she curated at Sadler's Wells' Lilian Baylis Studio. Butcher is celebrated as a truly unique, minimalist choreographer, and this work seems to be no different in presenting a pared-down, meditative piece of solo dance, performed by Elena Gianotti.

It was easy to see how the piece's construction related to the title: in the back corner, upstage right, were two overlapped metal structures, tracing silver lines almost like a heartbeat monitor pulled out of shape. Upstage right, a huge screen projecting an equally meditative, slow film of Gianotti performing the movements we saw live, but crucially unsynchronised and shot with extreme close-up at times, disorientating our sense of the very fixed routes which the dance was taking. Indeed, it was only in the form of this live presence that we saw the guidelines and fixed points of the piece, the straight lines on the floor which the dancer was tracing and building upon. Gianotti was something to be read: her movement seemed to make sense of and justify the presence of each element. Her dance became something between an argument and a meditation on the piece's existence.

And it is with this idea of meditation and live presence that I'd like to stay for a moment. Gianotti, and Butcher's choreography had a long applause at the end - and deservedly so because it was evident that the dancer had worked hard and that this kind of project signified a huge journey for those involved. However the audience was in no way part of this. The piece felt...esoteric, uninterested in those watching - even in the moments when Gianotti turned, painstakingly slowly to eyeball us in the dark.

Indeed, the slowness was one of the things which I found myself getting frustrated at. The piece refused to engage with any rate of change, always moving forward at the same pace: lapped rather than overlapped, stubbornly repeating structures at the same pace. I enjoyed the seeming arbitrariness of the ending - it could have happened at any point, I felt - but this was the first dance show I've seen where I have felt that terrible pang of the lonely audience member "but I don't understand it!".

I am always telling myself and others that performance, dance and theatre equally included, isn't meant to be simply 'understood'. And I believe that. Perhaps as someone with only very basic experience as a dancer, I did not fully appreciate the technical work of the piece. Yet I know that that isn't it.

My problem remains the fact that it seemed to lack...performance. I've never seen a dance piece before that wasn't also a performance. That magic thing that creates a triangle on stage, rather than a flat line between actor and director, making the audience feel like a peeping tom or unwelcome voyeur. This felt like second circle drama: the performer was working hard, and pushing through something, but connected only with the rehearsal process and offstage crew, with little concern as to what we were to do as viewers (and I heard several people in the audience echo these sentiments).

I wasn't surprised that Judith Mackrell's review for the Guardian was glowing, but I was surprised how lightly it skimmed across the surface of the piece. This was, if anything, a very intellectual and intellectualising piece of dance, in which it was difficult to see anything but the mind thinking. Like the looping film and metal sculptures, it seemed to be a lot of pre-fabricated structures being repeated and carefully measured. For all Gianotti's grace and precision, her body didn't seem alive so much as under total obeyance of her head, calculated and concentrating, with her memory slowly drawing the images and impositions around her.

I would love to hear from others who saw the show and have something to contribute - I am more than aware that my opinion of the piece will no doubt change over time, and my understanding of Butcher's practice will get deeper. None of my reaction is in any way due to feeling that it was 'bad': rather, I could understand how it was good, and clever and philosophical, but I couldn't see or feel it. I'm a simple girl: I like to see bodies moving, that's why I like theatre, it's why I like sport, it's why I like dance and debate and gesture and anthropology. But I struggled to see anything dancing, being live, thinking physically: it felt like the retracing of a thought. And perhaps in making such a statement I am eschewing the very preconceptions about dance which Butcher's work challenges.