(This post is, actually, not really about Body Language. I do not intend to mislead you. Ok. That’s done. I begin:)
For just over two months now, I have been living in France. I do not speak French. I am learning but it is taking much longer than I planned (although it did not take very long for me to learn how to perfect the art of feeling dumb and smiling politely at incomprehensible conversation, already I am fluent in Mutely Grinning.) So it goes. The point is I’ve been thinking about language obsessively and naturally my thoughts on language end up near dance, bodies and the role of language in performance. How absent language has traditionally been from dance and what this means today. Also how language (I don’t think) can ever be truly ‘absent’ from anything. I’ve been thinking about what a nice thing dance is, to have the option to possibly transcend language, reaching and touching anyone regardless of what language they speak. Dance has always had that element of universality that has made it quite a unique thing to engage with.
Prior to moving here, the sort of dance works that interested me often involved language, a discussion, dialogue. It excited me to see the dancers talk, discuss, open their mouths and complete their presence on stage with some sort of utterance. Of course, it was all in English and I thoughtlessly and joyfully engaged with these choreographic works that included spoken word, words I could comprehend so perfectly. Now I find myself more interested in (and more appreciative of) the sort of performances that are not in English, not in French, not in any language but rather using a vocabulary relating to movement. In the same way that I find myself drawing more than writing, searching for spaces where language (which is never wholly nonexistent) operates on a sort of secondary level or is less integral to comprehending a certain experience. Anyway – for the next few posts I hope to write about language and dance and bodies. I’ll be looking at works that rely heavily on language, works that utilize physicality and can be engaged with regardless of what language you speak and other things I think slot into this sort of thought space.
The first work I’m going to write about (I suppose it is technically classified as a ‘lecture’ as opposed to a ‘dance’) is a piece by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion called Cheap Lecture. It was a commissioned work, made in 2009 and it is all in English, very much so in English. I had read this lecture/performance before watching it. (Still I read bits of it repeatedly, refer back to it, remind myself of certain sections I find particularly comforting, it’s a wonderful document. Not only referred to regularly in Burrow’s book, A Choreographer’s Handbook but one that also made its way into a really nice anthology edited by André Lepecki entitled Dance: Documents of Contemporary Art.) It is a brilliant text regarding performance, audience and what it is to make performance for an audience. It is an honest and humourous text that manages to be deeply wise when you slow down and read it carefully. However, when I began to watch the piece, when I heard the text that I’m quite familiar with being spoken, I immediately got a fright at their clear, crisp English accents. The trilling pompous sound of that familiar, tip-toed accent, bemused and self-effacing but so self-assured in a sweet and maddening way that only the English can be, I pulled away, appalled at their articulation.
Perhaps it is because for the last two months I’ve been speaking in Broken French, Very Slow English and hearing only French or Broken English with a French accent. Perhaps it is because these days language is something I am always uncertain of (did you know that when one begins to acquire a new language, one starts to lose the current one? It’s true!) Or perhaps it is simply the very odd relationship with Britain that one maintains when growing up in a left-over British colony that can explain my shock at hearing this text being spoken aloud by the men who wrote it. I’m not sure, but I was caught by surprise and found myself struggling to concentrate because they both just sounded so Very Very English. Burrows and Fargion, accompanied by piano, following a strict and impressive rhythmic score, do not ask much of the audience, they are very charming and kind and clever, it’s a lovely performance. However, I was literally bowled over at the Englishness of it, the overwhelming presence of language, of words, of sentences. It felt as though there was far more language than body on stage and I think that’s because there was.
I thought about how confining a work like this, so deeply embedded in poetry and language, so exclusively made for an English-speaking audience. But I also thought about how enabling this work is, how it manages to stretch out vastly over many preconceptions and expectations, knocking against genres, embracing poetry, body, music, theory, dance, performance, history etc. Confining and liberating at once, like language, like theory. Theory can be so stifling and frustrating but it can also allow a massive freedom of sorts that is sometimes hard to come by with practice. And of course language is one of those very special things that manages to be both absolutely necessary to survive, and positively futile. We spend the first few years of our lives completely without words and we manage, don’t we? And here I am acquiring more language, learning more words and still I cannot communicate a joke or a thought. And still – I am just fine.
I think it is a great performance although you may not enjoy it, it very politely allows itself not be enjoyed. Once I got over the shock of how deeply embedded in language the piece is, I began to enjoy it, accept it, embrace what words can offer. I realize this post itself was wordy, possibly incoherent. I’ve had the strangest day, please excuse the many references to self and possibly weak discussion of Cheap Lecture. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, if you are interested in a work likes this, in which case I would strongly suggest you read the text too. Here are first ten minutes: (Next time I shall write about a piece that has not one word in it).