Practice as difference

Eleanor Brickhill examines the studio space in dance practice

In dance, some people are beginning to talk about studio practice as if it might be different from other kinds of dance practice. And yet it’s self-evident that any dance artist would have a studio practice: that is, something that they do in a studio, some repeated, habitual exercise, or action as opposed to theory, that is part of their performance-making. But there are several ideas about studio practice which need stressing, if only to assist in separating out some kinds of work from others, and to emphasise their differences rather than similarities, if dance practice is not to be imagined as an homogenous enterprise with a uniform, singular focus or ideal.

Picture two idealised scenarios: a studio, permanently occupied by several dance practitioners who are there for several hours a day, most days, often by themselves, or playing and talking with each other, pulling old ideas apart, finding out what still interests them, rejecting some material, expanding other movement ideas, finding new ones, showing them to each other and guests, feeling out each other’s ideas.

Another scenario: an hour long, highly organised practice session following immediately after a specifically designed technique class, fitted tightly into a schedule of other back-to-back rehearsals; dancers move quickly from one choreographer to another, one dance to another. Each work might be allocated 4 or so hours a week rehearsal time, during preparation for public performance. Choreographers in this case need to know almost exactly what they want to happen in that hour; each move is described by referring to the dancers more or less common vocabularies, with small changes, different inflections here and there, a rearrangement of what is already known. Working at this speed could not be managed if each move had to be investigated first.

The first scenario adumbrates a particular notion of research, something physically-based, on-going, and different from academic or theoretical research. Here it refers to careful inquiry and critical investigation of the body, looks into meanings of action and senses of aesthetics alive and developing in a person’s body. The notion of research in the area of company-based or even independent dance, is often applied to those more or less imaginative re-arrangements of off-the-shelf steps. While this might extend known theatrical tradition, it may not necessarily challenge the wider body of dance as an artform distinct from that theatrical tradition.

Dancers in the first scenario seem to be concerned more with developing ways of working, a body of work which is fundamentally related to the actual bodies of those artists who create it, so that its performance can be engaged with on many levels; it is not a finished product, something fixed and closed, which can stand by itself apart from the artists who create it.

The idea here is one about difference: about a person dancing, whose dance is about his or her own body, whether in performance or rehearsal; or a person who is trying to be something or someone different from their ordinary selves in performance, even if they’re simply trying to be a dancer. There seem to be two quite different performers here, and an almost unbridgeable gap between them.

It takes time for students and other dancers to become aware that what they assume to be their own practice is really based on their relationship to someone else’s class technique. For pioneers like Martha Graham, the purpose of technique class was simply to help her dancers better perform her choreography, so it was firstly a choreographic tool, rather than the pseudo-religious dogma it later became. Similarly, with ballet techniques, the kind of presentation of the body and the steps by which this is accomplished form the basis of the 19th and 20th century classics. For dancers to begin to develop their practice past that kind of externally imposed discipline requires effort, insight and a will to investigate the nature of practice itself, something not as easily accomplished within the second scenario.

How might these differences manifest themselves in performance? Decades ago in Australia, theatre and dance practitioners were seeking to expand audience awareness of what theatre practice might encompass. For many years, audiences have been invited to participate in informal studio showings; we have also had performances in the round, and in site-specific, non-theatrical venues, open rehearsals, works in progress, and the like.

But it seems to me that in dance—maybe not so much in theatre—these events often have been thought of, perhaps unconsciously, as mere practice for some other more important main event—the proscenium arch performance, or something that approaches this. And so, without acknowledgment or even realisation, the work performed in these venues has been made with these grand public front-on venues in mind.

Proscenium stages are perforce also about concealment: blocking views of the performers that distract the audience from a required focus, from much of what goes on, or might go on, both on and off stage. What is shown at these events is an entirely public version of social life, a view of cultural mores and myths to which we might safely claim allegiance and derive identity.

On the other hand, in a studio space, performances occur in what can be thought of as a much more private space, inhabited as if by guests rather than an unknown public. Performances here have the aura of intimacy and invitation. This kind of space seeks to remove the one pointed, single focused, frontal view that proscenium arch stages create. By removing the formality of wings, frame and curtain, we are less subject to its frontal perspective, and have the possibility of analysing what was previously hidden. The relationship between what is hidden and what is visible becomes fluid and subject to the audiences’ discrimination. Preparation, awareness, hesitation, concentration, focus, small shifts of weight and intent all become part of the work performed.

This intimate view needn’t be relegated to the less important view. Dancers can be seen as people, peculiarly physical animals—albeit of a highly attuned and not so ordinary variety—but less other-worldly and fantasy-laden than the ones we have been asked to see previously on stage. It allows for a much more interesting view, more personal, complex, immediate, and multi-layered, which is often more accessible just because we are invited to see real human action, and to make sense of what is before us in the same way as we might regard any person’s behaviour, without needing to resort to a limited and therefore largely imaginary experience of what dancing means. The material can be open-ended, and there is room for an audience to engage with different aspects of what is happening rather than be presented a fait accompli, some singular vision, some crystallised image to swallow. In studio performance, the dancer becomes the main event.

Not only are these different kinds of perspectives possible with proscenium and studio performances, but they are also unavoidable. And I am reminded of many events where problematic spaces caused the fluidity between hidden and revealed action to be misplaced and worked against the better intentions of the creator.

For example, Angels Margarit choreographed Hilton 1109, performing it at the 1996 Adelaide Festival, for a tiny audience of 10 whom she invited into her hotel room. We saw what I interpreted as the confined ennui of a dancer on tour. But I wondered how she could have overlooked the subtext in such a loaded and codified vocabulary. Even in such an intimate setting she became a character, other than herself, as if she was using the stylised dance to protect herself from the intimate scrutiny she had actually invited. Her character appeared bland and stereotyped, without the subtle revelation of real personality.

Many of the dance performers at Sydney’s Newtown Theatre (such as those in annual Bodies seasons) have been required to ignore the potential open space available—and doubtless almost anyone would find that particular grand and cavernous auditorium challenging, and the ensuing vulnerability discomforting—and to confine their work behind what seems like an absurdly small but purpose-built proscenium stage. But when many of the works are in progress, or of an informal nature, or the ideas are in an embryonic form and need a wider, more fluid focus, the tiny but distant vista one is finally allowed shows something which can appear brittle, or incomplete, even careless, rather than something full of possibility and in the process of evolution.

There will continue to be performances which mistakenly underestimate an audience’s capacity to appreciate and engage with dances of immediacy, layered detail and open-ended ideas. And if those people are not to be continually disappointed with what they see, then more artists need to recognise where their own agendas lie, whether their focus is secretly fixed on the Opera House or the Seymour Centre, or really does require less formal venues, so that the studio space is not used merely as a practice venue for them, but can function autonomously alongside them.

Parts of this article were delivered in the MAP Symposium on dance, The Malthouse, Melbourne, July 25 – 26. Articles in response to the dance program and panel sessions will appear on the RealTime website (mid-August) and in RealTime 27 (October-November).

RealTime issue #26 Aug-Sept 1998 pg. 44

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1998