Feature: Does it matter what you call a performance?

Friday 30 October 2015 by Lyndsey Winship

Defracto. Photo: Pierre Morel MED

Is it dance, is it circus, is it theatre? As art forms cross-fertilise, the boundaries between them erode and what we call them becomes uncertain. Lyndsey Winship introduces Currency, a new mini-season of works at The Place which defy categorisation…

For journalists, and for venues and marketeers, definition is part of the job. For artists, it can be immaterial. Even admitting that boundaries are blurring is tricky for some, “Because answering this question is already agreeing with the boundaries!” says Guillaume Martinet of French juggling group Defracto.
So nobody likes being put in a box, but labelling aside, there’s no doubt that there’s an ongoing trend for plurality and ambiguity, and you can see it in the artists performing in November’s Currency season at The Place. You have jugglers whose interest is in organising bodies (and balls) in time and space, just like a choreographer would. You have dancers delving into conceptualism like performance artists, circus performers delivering text and poets turning words into dance.

We’re not talking about anything new. Going back in history, few art forms are traditionally ‘pure’. Ballets were performed as part of courtly masques; drama, song and dance merged in pantomine; circus began as equestrian stunts with sideshows. But you could argue that the professionalism of the arts led to more segregation, as performers (and audiences, and venues) became more specialised and divided into silos.

We’ve had decades to get used to dancers speaking on stage – think Pina Bausch – or to circus performers creating stories instead of spectacle – pioneered by the cirque nouveau of the ’70s – and the controversy attached to those acts has (theoretically) dissipated. And yet it still surprises us when dancers perform in galleries, such as Boris Charmatz taking over Tate Modern or Place Prize-winner Adam Linder performing at the ICA, or when artists bring dancers into their work – see Eddie Peake’s The Forever Loop, currently at the Barbican.

The artists in the Currency season may, on paper, be a diverse bunch, but they share more in common than not. They’re independent artists making small scale works outside of large company structures; they’re interested in exploring and exposing process rather than just presenting us with a product; and they are not only showing what they can do, but asking why they might do it.

Hand-balancing specialist Natalie Reckert is one of the first contemporary circus artists to be funded in Germany, and she’s a good example of her generation: conservatoire-trained (in London, in Reckert’s case), and more in tune with the practices of contemporary dance and theatre than with the popular image of big top entertainers.

Her approach to circus isn’t so much about taking on other art forms, but finding the innate drama within the skill she already has, asking the audience to look at a traditional circus technique in a new way. “For example, in my piece, I do a handstand for as long as I can,” she says, “and for me, there is the inherent drama of the handstand, an endurance situation. The handstand has a dramaturgy in itself.” She likens the effect to Pina Bausch’s tanztheater, in the sense that there isn’t a story, as such, but “there is a narrative in terms of emotional development.”

As a viewer, what do we hope for from a performance? For the artist to conjure up a new world or create a narrative; to subvert an assumption or show us something we haven’t seen before; to make us look differently or provoke an emotional reaction; to make us laugh or smile or cry; to connect with us. The medium is not always the message, you could say.

Reckert doesn’t think that audiences are hung up on certain expectations, pointing out that with contemporary performance, a certain amount of not-knowing-what-to-expect is part of the appeal. “If you watch contemporary dance you never really know what it’s going to be like, it might be neo-classical ballet or it might contain hardly any movement at all.” For Martinet, the reasons why people come to see him doesn’t matter, just the fact that they’re there. “Eventually we’ll be face to face and that’s what’s important,” he says. “To be in front of people, that can be enough to form a human relationship and that’s the place where we love being.” “A group of people come to see another group of people do something that is important enough to spend their money on, to spend their time to come,” says Martinet. “For us [the performers] it is the same, we move from our countries and our families to come and make a show. We’re going to be in front of you, doing something with you.”

That in itself is an affirmative act, an act against passivity, a decision to abandon the speeding train of distractions, screens, sounds and devices constantly in our awareness (if only paid half-attention to). It could be seen as a transgression of sorts, even a political choice. Just as artists engage in willful rejection of the mainstream, audiences do to.

The live experience is about sharing a moment in time. But even the idea of what the ‘live’ experience is is complicated by the fact that we can increasingly watch performance online, or in live cinema relays – all the Currency shows will be streamed live on Currency TV – so what does that mean for the immediacy of the performance, the exchange of energy in the room and the artist-audience relationship?

The loss of a direct performer-viewer connection might be replaced by a global connection, through chat functions and social media, where a viewer-to-viewer conversation can take place. And then there’s the opportunity to re-watch, to ruminate and reconsider a performance that no longer has to be ephemeral – a focus that a piece of art with a depth of process and ideas will reward.

The potential for any performance to intrigue, engage, surprise or stimulate is far more fundamental than the medium, the genre or the category. Or as another Currency artist, British juggler Matt Pang, puts it: “If something’s good, it’s good.”

FREE pre-show discussion with Lyndsey Winship, Yohann Floch (director of Fresh Arts Coalition, FACE) and Ben Duke, artistic director of Lost Dog on Wed 4 Nov 5-6.30pm
Join the conversation, or tweet #currency15 @theplacelondon

Currency mini-festival runs from 4-11 November at The Place. If you can’t be there in person you can also watch the Currency TV live stream at www.theplace.org.uk/currency-2015

This article was originally posted on The Place blog

Lyndsey Winship is author of Being A Dancer and dance critic for the Evening Standard. Find her on Twitter: @lyndseywinship

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