“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein
“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
Epigraphs are an invitation to argument. Pithy, graceful, severed from context and recontextualised – often rehashed and rerealised – by the authors of essays, books, poetry collections and blog posts, they are words that risk losing the impact of their meaning precisely because of the solid ringing of their impact. They are Big Ben’s silenced bongs, weighty with a significance that can be self-signalling and therefore totally pointless. At the beginning of this essay, they have been placed to provoke, but whether thought or ire is dependent on the discipline of the writer deploying them.
Precisely because of the hollow, echoing resonance of badly deployed text, its presence in dance theatre – a term here used to describe dance-based works employing text (or visual arts or technology etc) with no hierarchy of mediums – can be a distraction or even an undermining of the physical work. It can render researched movement mime-like, pantomimish, reduced to translation. It can talk over movement language like a boorish drunk uncle. Performers bring text into their work as a cat might bring in recently lit dynamite from the garden.
In Matthias Sperling’s ‘performance lecture’, Now That We Know, the audience are in a hypothetical future where humanity has successfully engaged its ‘hypnotic organ’ and is able to situate the mind in the body, rubbishing Cartesian dualism and apparently making the political manifestos of the new era very performatively pleasing. In this future, movement’s inclusion in all forms of the mind’s articulation is such that we expect our politicians to create a choreography that embodies their manifesto, allowing us to see the societies they promise us arcanely visualised, up for viewing.
The wonderful, confusing thing about Now That We Know is, the movement language – which apparently corresponds intimately to the solid monologue delivered by a guru-like Sperling – is quiet, folded, almost barely realised. The entire piece is a trick. Far from revealing a symbiotic relationship between delivered text and delivered movement, Sperling appears swallowed by his own words. The embodied text unbodies.
Now That We Know is interesting because it attempts to physically locate the linguistic theory that humans are born with a specific adaptation for language within our organs and within our body. Its inspiration is biological, even visceral, and aims to be felt, through Sperling’s humorous guidance, in the body. But as a performance piece, it is overarticulated. There is too much language. The body, so vital, cannot make itself heard over all the chatter. Beware, Sperling seems to warn us, language for language’s sake. Beware the essayist bearing epigraphs that promise to guide you.
At the heart of much delivered text and voiceover in dance theatre is the sense that the performer is trying to talk to you. On stage, a turn en attitude most of the audience could never hope to achieve scissors through the space. Sophisticated movement suggests and evokes. Dance communicates intuitively and instinctively; though perfectly possible to be ‘about’ something, to be translated into language and review, it is firstly delivered as a feeling.
But even the most forward-facing dance piece maintains its fourth wall: the skill of the performers and the plans of the choreographer are presented to a still audience, and even professional dancers among them must sit quietly and not cause an answering bodily ruckus or risk being thrown out. One cannot dance back at dance.
Give an audience words, though, and you offer them the possibility of conversation. Even sat still, an audience member can talk back in their heads. It’s an exciting challenge for a maker working with text, able to engage the audience on an entirely new level, conceptual dance and clearly delineated language requiring different modes of receipt as they do. It’s a game of balancing the two mediums, of ensuring one supports and does not override the other. For audience members unused to conceptual dance, such use of text can be a welcome guide to what they are watching. Conceptual is no longer pure concept; it is talking to you.
There is also a direct and radical power in articulation that can support the most abstract dance. In Julie Cunningham’s Double Bill, which is boldly exploratory of gender roles, sexuality and the limits of binary gender, Cunningham used the works of poet (and musician, novelist, playwright et al) Kate Tempest in a voiceover. Tumultuous and distinct, Tempest’s poetry also encourages a direct unassailable engagement with the subject matter. Cunningham uses poems from the collection Hold Your Own, which tell the story of Tiresias and his journey between genders and selves. There is no ignoring the narratives she wants to play with, the entrenched assumptions she seeks to uproot.
The Kate Tempest half of Double Bill feels young – both new and tentative, but also fresh – in its desire to engage the audience on such firmly articulated terms, paired with expressive, strongly figurative dance filled with narrative potential. Partnering and costuming in Double Bill is symbolically clear, with two unmistakeably cis performers and two who may blur the boundaries. Its challenge to Wittgenstein is its insistence on articulating an unarticulable and precious intuition of the personally sacred. As long as you like Kate Tempest (as long as you do, which you might not), you are granted access to a complex personal discussion about identity, and you are granted access to the space on the stage, able to talk to it, literally talk to it.
Note the avoidance of the first person in this essay. It is critical writing aspiring to the objective universal, or attempting to trick its reader into believing in the existence of an objective universal. (This does not exist.) The epigraphs probably helped. It is easily to be distracted by the big empty bongs of a really solid epigraph.
Genuine poetry, T.S. Eliot pronounced, can communicate before it is understood. I (I) watched Betroffenheit by Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young before I knew that it was about (about? inspired by? in talking therapy with?) the deaths of Young’s daughter, niece and nephew in a fire in a holiday cabin. I wasn’t watching it as a critic; I’d just bought a ticket because I liked Crystal Pite. Pite’s choreography for Betroffenheit goes from demoniac and stop-motion-esque to eerily placid and undulating depending on the state of mind on the stage. Make no mistake, that is a mind on stage. It is Sperling’s hypnotic organ, pulled out and vivisected. Betroffenheit is a form of surgery. I understood that well enough, even if I didn’t find out what I’d seen until afterwards. The work is so precise in its depiction of grief that it communicated everything I needed to feel before I understood what it was.
Much of the voiceover is Young’s own voice, overlapping, shouting at himself, talking himself up and talking himself down. It is suave, working to a scripted and complete comedy routine, when he is depicting an addict’s highs; it is multi-voiced and filled with broken, jagged, unfinished sentences as he relives, again and again, the accident. It is his own voice, inside his mind, bouncing back and forth across the confines of the stage like the confines of a skull. Betroffenheit is devastating because of the surgical surety Pite matches her choreography with Young’s thought processes. The audience are allowed to pry the casings of his head and heart open and peer in. I peered down from the balcony. I was upset.
Betroffenheit is also devastating in its use of the disappearance of voiceover, and the second half, until its heartbreaking end, is unnarrated, the stage shorn free of props, the performers of their vaudevillian costumes, the soundscape unvoiced. Somethings can be said, but must stop being repeated. Sometimes the voice has to rest and only feel. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.