Writing Dancing

The art of writing about dance has been on my mind for a while just recently—more so than usual that is. Several recent occurrences have sparked off my current bout of thinking. First, a colleague in New Zealand sent me an email in which she asked if I had read Zadie Smith’s article Dance lessons for writers, first published in The Guardian in 2016. I hadn’t read it, but it sounded interesting so I quickly got myself a copy. Then, Canberra-based dancer and writer, Emma Batchelor, gave a talk at the recent BOLD Festival in which she discussed the Smith article—one of those strange co-incidences that happen occasionally. Not long after, I read that Clement Crisp, renowned English dance writer and critic, had died.

The Zadie Smith article included six short analyses, or comparisons really, of the dancing styles of well-known figures, which Smith puts side by side: Fred Astaire/Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson/Prince, Rudolf Nureyev/Mikhail Baryshnikov and others. But it was Smith’s opening section that was the strongest element in the article. She based her opening comments around a remark addressed to dancers by Martha Graham:

There is a vitality, a life force, and energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

Smith asked what an art of words could take from the art that needs none. She mentioned the ideas of position, attitude, rhythm and style. It’s a terrific quote by Graham and an interesting concept by Smith of writers learning from what dance offers. Problem is that Smith didn’t really pick up in her following comments/analyses the ideas she found apparent in Graham’s paragraph. At least she didn’t in my mind!

Then along came Emma Batchelor! In her paper, Batchelor posed slightly rearranged subtitles following on from Smith’s Dance lessons for writers. She discussed for example Writing lessons learned from dance and Writing lessons for dancers. Ultimately she wrote:

The dance work I most respond to has an intellectual rigour. The thought process behind movement, the development of an idea. An understanding of what you want to convey and how.

Legibility. How legible is an idea, a movement.
Experimentation and play. Testing.
Literality. Opening or closing down space for interpretation.
Striving for a sense of ease, making the complicated look effortless.

Batchelor then examined a particular work by choreographer Chloe Chignell, Poems and other emergencies, which Batchelor believed demonstrated some of the ideas set out in her talk. While watching Chignell’s work, Batchelor realised she wanted to write about it and concluded, ‘Could the movement exist without words? The words without the movement? They were entwined.’

It was a thrill to hear Batchelor speak on this topic and her comments made clear to me that, while Smith had a terrific opening paragraph or two, she didn’t really develop, as I mentioned earlier, the thoughts she had presented in the comments that followed.

As for Clement Crisp (1931-2022), his writing over many decades has been remarkable and his death is a major loss to the dance world. But I lost much of my admiration for his work when he began to use the offensive word ‘Eurotrash’ for works that did not appeal to him. (He was not the only critic to use the word, I hasten to add). I prefer to stand by the words of American writer Marcia Siegel. I reviewed a collection of her writing entitled Mirrors and Scrims and the quote below is from that review:

[She says], ‘I see myself as both a demystifyer and a validator, sometimes an interpreter, but not a judge.’ She fearlessly carries through with this stance. In an analysis of the position of the much-admired critic Arlene Croce (as understood from her reviews), Siegel writes:

‘I think a critic has to take even mavericks and crackpots at their word. In not doing so, Arlene Croce places herself above the artists. She implies she knows better than they do what’s right for dance. To my mind, that’s the one thing a critic isn’t allowed.’

There is much to think about, across many areas, as we who write about dance pursue our work.

The review of Mirrors and Scrims is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2022

Featured image (overwritten): Jareen Wee in Liz Lea’s The Point. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski

Dean Cross, Caitlin MacKenzie and Gemma Dawkins in 'Walking and Falling', 2015. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. November 2015

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2015

The Canberra Critics’ Circle annual awards ceremony took place on 23 November and, in a special moment for dance in the Canberra region, Elizabeth Dalman was named ACT Artist of the Year. A well deserved award in a year when Dalman, currently teaching in Taiwan, worked extraordinarily hard to bring attention to the diverse history of Australian Dance Theatre, which celebrated fifty years of creativity in 2015.

Elizabeth Dalman in Taiwan, 2014. Photo: Chen, Yi-shu
Elizabeth Dalman in Taiwan, 2014. Photo: © Chen, Yi-shu

Among the Circle’s general awards, which go to innovative activities in the performing and visual arts, and literature, two dance awards were given for 2015. Dalman received an award for her works Fortuity and L, both of which highlighted the range of her choreography dating from her time as director of Australian Dance Theatre to her recent work for her Mirramu Dance Company. Ruth Osborne, director of QL2 Dance, received an award for her work Walking and Falling, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery and made in conjunction with its World War I exhibition All that Fall.

Caitlin MacKenzie and Gemma Dawkins in 'Walking and falling', 2015. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Caitlin MacKenzie and Gemma Dawkins in a moment from Ruth Osborne’s Walking and falling, 2015. Photo: © Lorna Sim
  • Keir Choreographic Award 2016

Eight emerging (and not so emerging) choreographers have been selected as finalists in the 2016 Keir Choreographic Award. Two have strong Canberra connections: James Batchelor and Chloe Chignell. Canberra audiences will remember their joint show earlier this year, when Batchelor showed Metasystems and Chignell Post Phase. The two have worked together frequently over the past few years with Chignell often appearing in works choreographed by Batchelor.

The other finalists are Sarah Aiken, also a finalist in the first Keir Award in 2014, along with Ghenoa Gela, Martin Hansen, Alice Heyward, Rebecca Jensen and Paea Leach. The eight finalists will each show a work, commissioned by the Keir Foundation, in Melbourne at Dancehouse in April 2016. Four works will then be selected by a jury and shown in Sydney at Carriageworks in May 2016, where the winner will be chosen.

  • Bodenwieser Ballet

Shona Dunlop MacTavish, former dancer with the Bodenwieser Ballet, recently visited Sydney from her home in New Zealand and, to celebrate the occasion, some of her Bodenwieser colleagues gathered in Sydney for a special get together. The image below shows Eileen Kramer (left) now 101 and Shona Dunlop MacTavish now 96. In the background they can be seen in a photograph in which they are dancing in Gertrud Bodenwieser’s Blue Danube, one of their best known roles.

Shona Dunlop MacTavish and Eileen Kramer, Sydney 2015. Photo: Barbara Cuckson
Shona Dunlop MacTavish (right) and Eileen Kramer, Sydney 2015. Photo: © Barbara Cuckson

Oral history interviews with Shona Dunlop MacTavish and Eileen Kramer are available online. Follow the links to the National Library of Australia’s online oral history site: Shona Dunlop MacTavish; Eileen Kramer.

  • Ian Templeman (1938–2015); Glenys McIver (1949–2015)

I was saddened to hear of the deaths in November of two former colleagues from the National Library of Australia, Ian Templeman and Glenys McIver. While perhaps not widely known in the dance community, both made a significant contribution to the growth of my career as a dance writer, historian and curator. Glenys appointed me as the Esso Research Fellow in the Performing Arts at the National Library in 1988. Among my many activities in that position, I began recording oral history interviews for the Library, which I continue to do now some 25 years later.

Ian was appointed Assistant Director General Public Programs at the National Library in 1990 and proceeded to expand the Library’s publishing program. This involved establishing the monthly magazine National Library of Australia News (now renamed The National Library of Australia Magazine and published quarterly), and the quarterly journal Voices (now no longer active). He encouraged my dance writing for both publications and was responsible for commissioning my book A Passion for Dance (now out of print), which consisted of a series of edited oral history interviews with some of Australia’s foremost choreographers.

Both Glenys and Ian made significant other contributions to my career. I will always be grateful for their mentorship.

  •  Dance rattles (tied around the ankles during performance) from Bondé, New Caledonia
Dance rattles

Michelle Potter, 29 November 2015

Featured image: Dean Cross, Caitlin MacKenzie and Gemma Dawkins in a moment from Ruth Osborne’s Walking and falling, 2015. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dean Cross, Caitlin MacKenzie and Gemma Dawkins in 'Walking and Falling', 2015. Photo: © Lorna Sim
FACES publcity

FACES. A work in progress by James Batchelor

I had the pleasure recently of seeing a work in progress by James Batchelor. Called FACES, Batchelor describes it as:

…a study of humans in transforming spaces and temporary constructions. From the trenches of the First World War to modern urban utopias, the work analyses sites of rapid evolution, a fluid interface of body and space. It is a portrait of anonymous faces; soldiers, refugees, nomads, vagrants, boom dockers, train hoppers and the homeless; bodies temporarily held in the relentless passage of time.

As with other explanatory notes relating to Batchelor’s works, I had to wonder how such a statement would (or could) translate into dance. Perhaps this is part of the fascination of Batchelor’s choreography? He arouses our curiosity, without being so abstruse as to alienate us, before we even arrive at the performing space.

The first section we saw was for three dancers, Batchelor himself, Amber McCartney and Chloe Chignell. The slow, careful, even meticulous moves made by the dancers as they progressed down the length of the studio space, moving along a pathway of silver coloured cloth, was transfixing. (It reminded me a little of a show I saw in New York several years ago by Butoh-style performers Eiko and Koma where they moved down a ramp covered in leaves taking the full performance time to reach the bottom). Then we watched as Batchelor, McCartney and Chignell manipulated the cloth in various ways and eventually tied it up with string, again with meticulous accuracy, into a package that to our surprise became a kind of long, joint backpack with images of the dancers’ faces attached to it.

In the second section Chignell and McCartney were joined by eleven dancers from Canberra’s youth ensemble, Quantum Leap. The standout moments of this section for me were in the highly complex yet seemingly simple structure of the choreography as rows of dancers moved up and down the room crossing past each other in simple lines. It had the repetitive feel that one experiences with a piece of music by Philip Glass, or from the look of a grey, grid painting by Agnes Martin, both Americans working in a minimalist manner. The apparent repetition in the works of Glass and Martin repays careful listening or looking when small variations or gradations indicate that there is greater complexity in the structure of their works than first meets the eye. Bouquets to the dancers for being in control of the mathematical intricacies of this section of choreography.

It is hard to know at this stage how the work will unfold. The first section shown in this preview had clear overtones of wartime, but the second had no such obvious context for me. How will they connect? Or will they? Where will they be performed given the apparent links, including through specific funding bodies, to the centenary of the ANZAC landing in 2015 (indoors or outdoors or both)? How will the connections with Canberra’s Quantum Leap dancers develop?

But full marks to Batchelor for having the courage to show FACES in its current, early stage of development. I look forward to future showings.

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2014

Featured image: Publicity shot for FACES

FACES publcity