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

James Batchelor's METASYSTEMS, 2015. Photo: Anna Tweeddale

Metasystems. James Batchelor

12 February 2015. Courtyard Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre as part of Canberra Multicultural Fringe

James Batchelor began working on Metasystems in 2014 for the inaugural Keir Choreographic Award, an award dedicated to commissioning new work and promoting innovation in contemporary dance. Batchelor was a semi-finalist in the award. A longer version of Metasystems was recently performed in Canberra as part of the Canberra Multicultural Fringe, and in conjunction with ‘Pulse: reflections of the body’, an exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. I have briefly commented on Batchelor’s involvement with Pulse elsewhere. Below is an expanded version of my review of Metasystems, originally published in The Canberra Times on 14 February 2015.

James Batchelor’s Metasystems appears to be an austere work about construction and deconstruction. Four performers spread two piles of concrete bricks across the floor of the performing space. Two different kinds of bricks, both concrete, are used during the performance—regular-sized house bricks, and Besser blocks. They are arranged in meticulously laid out but changing patterns. Part of the handout as we enter the theatre is a card bearing a plan by architect Anna Tweeddale of potential arrangements. Visual artist Madeline Beckett also worked on the design of the system of stacking and unstacking the bricks.

We usually hear a deliberate thump as each brick is placed in position, although at times the performers move the bricks as silently as they can. We watch as the bricks are rearranged over the course of the performance. It all seems to be working according to a mathematical formula, although one or two minor mishaps spoilt the purity of the arrangement on opening night.

Two of the performers, James Batchelor and Amber McCartney, have a dual function. They not only assist the other two performers, Madeline Beckett and Emma Batchelor, in laying out the bricks, but there are times when they dance between and around the rows and piles of bricks. Their movements take on an expressive function, often mirroring in dance the construction and the shape and placing of the bricks. Particularly absorbing is a sequence in which the bricks are arranged into long channels—lines of single bricks placed upright on the floor. James Batchelor and McCartney squeeze themselves into the channels and worm their way down the narrow spaces from top to bottom while occasionally balancing parts of the body precariously on the top of the bricks.

Two aspects of Metasystems stand out. Firstly, inherent in this work is a powerful understanding of body time. With no music and not always even the steady thump of bricks on the floor to guide them, Batchelor and McCartney frequently dance in unison without obviously watching each other. They sense the timing of the other and rarely falter.

Secondly, the work ends in an unexpected way. Having watched some 45 minutes of walking and brick-carrying, it is something of a shock when, as the work is concluding, the dancers separate out an individual space for themselves within the final arrangement, a tightly knit square of bricks. They then snuggle down into the construction. Suddenly something personal is injected into the show, even a hint of emotion. It is the human element inhabiting the built environment and disturbing its mathematical precision.

It occurred to me only later that the earlier confrontation with the bricks, as McCartney and James Batchelor wriggled their way down those narrow spaces between the bricks, touching them occasionally and taking care not to disturb them, that this too was part of a human engagement with the built environment.

That Batchelor can surprise like this is what makes his work so worth following.

Michelle Potter, 18 February 2015

Featured image: Final scene from James Batchelor’s Metasystems. Photo: © Anna Tweeddale, 2015

James Batchelor's METASYSTEMS, 2015. Photo: Anna Tweeddale