Feature: Jane Turner

Monday 26 November 2007

Jane TurnerPhoto: Chris Frazer Smith *Choreographer Jane Turner’s career has included investigating interactive technologies
in an ICA based research project, working with fashion house Hermes, making work
inspired by gardening at Chisenhale Dance Space and choreographing – and appearing
in – sequences for the Bond film Goldeneye.*

*In her latest show she returns to a subject of abiding fascination – the allure
and power of the showgirl. TROOP is currently touring and arrives at the Southbank Centre for a performance in
the Purcell Room on Thursday 6 December.* More details

*So just what is it about the showgirl that has inspired her? Jane found time
to answer a few questions en route…*

TROOPPhoto: Chris Frazer Smith

Tell us about TROOP..

Taking the fast pace and tight structure of a revue spectacular, TROOP celebrates the theatricalised female form and the power of the dancing line.

An erotic, exotic projection evolving in time, the Showgirl is a chameleon who
adapts to fit the frame – her true identity is elusive. Each of the nine performers
in the work loosely inhabit a ‘character’ drawn out through devising, using source
material from Andrea Stuart’s excellent book Showgirls (Andrea worked as dramaturge on the project). We see these performers both ‘on’
and ‘off’ stage. En masse, they project as an impenetrable line of flesh, pattern
and vigour, dancing to the relentless rhythm of industrialised society. The line
wields power, aggression but it also binds the dancers to repetition, constriction
and exposure and this is where individual nuance comes to the fore. Their differences
of identity, desire, experience interweave with the dance and projected visuals
to create a dance theatre experience that ultimately pays tribute to the everlasting
iconic chimera that is Showgirls.

*Do you have experience of dancing as a show girl, or is it academic interest
which led you to this subject?*

On graduation my first job was as a showgirl at the Scala Ballet in Barcelona as part of a big ‘spectacle’ – jewelled bras and g strings, fishnet
tights, huge feathered headdresses and our dancing interspersed by acts that included
ice skaters, horses on stage, acrobats…. I have many vivid memories: as a dressed
dancer, you literally could feel the audience eyes disappear from you as the topless
dancers appeared … of the chickens that kept getting kicked to death as the horses
galloped on for one scene….. and of the many diverse characters I worked with:
one East German boy dancer had literally been smuggled out of the East in the
boot of a car, his gayness safer this side of the wall….. the older female dancer
who always arrived before the show fully made up – never seen without a full theatrical
face on….

'Nymphaeum'Photo: Chris Frazer Smith I didn’t stay in that world for very long. After Barcelona I lived in Germany
for a bit, then on returning to England, got a job at the Moulin Rouge, but
decided to pull out. I think I knew I was slowly inching towards being a choreographer,
towards making my own work.

What led me to research ‘her’ was being asked by long term artistic associate
Luke Dixon to run a Be a Showgirl in a Day workshop for the International Workshop Festival – which became the first of many. It was then that I started to explore her
cultural past, play with her as a choreographic construct and so on. Since then
I have choreographed quite a lot of showgirl themed work – for fashion house Hermes, for a cabaret at Hoxton Hall, and a lot for the contemporary burlesque producers, Whoopee. The last thing
for them was the fabulous Nymphaeum at the Porchester Baths, for which I choreographed 20 showgirls around a swimming pool.

*A ‘politically correct’ position on show dancing might be that it’s about the
objectification of the female body – therefore not something that a feminist has
any time for…*

Yes, indeed it is in part about the objectification of the body, just as ballet
is. But somehow a showdancer isn’t pretending not to be seen by casting her eyes
down demurely, she’s looking back at the viewer and playing with their gaze. I
very much come from a route that embraced the liberational feminist-informed ideas
that founded new, post modern dance in the 1980s and involved working with a released
body and mind. Indeed, in the New Dance heyday I kept my ‘showgirl’ past very
quiet, wanting to be taken seriously, as I was trying to get my contemporary work
shown.

But interestingly, because of the feminist-informed ways of working of post-modern
dance, i.e. using the self as subject – what has occurred is that my ‘self’, which
has all that history of showdancing (even as a teenager I was seasonally in panto
chorus), has emerged in my work. I first played clearly with representations
of the dancing female in a Chisenhale commission called Compost which was a subversive take on gardening as sexual metaphor. I have long been
playing around with ideas around the coupling of Woman as Nature. In one part
of that I was a sort of ‘Welsh bloom’ as showgirl (I am Welsh).

I do see myself as feminist in an existence which is essentially paradoxical.
Chaos theory (which I have been very enlightened by) shows that order and chaos
exist as an essential part of each other just as subject and object are – and
so whilst the audience may see the dancers as gorgeous objects, those objects
have a voice and that voice is always evolving constantly, and they have used
it in how they are represented in this piece.

It was on reading Emlyn Claid’s recent book *Yes? No? Maybe* that I was stimulated to wonder whether that fluid, released female contemporary
dancer of the postmodern dance scene is somewhat invisible. Does it just play
to the archetype of woman as demure/good/non-confrontational/de-sexed and de-armed?
I am interested in making the female dancer very visible, and in this piece I
have wanted to confront her brilliance (to dance well being such a great show
of intelligence and invention) and beauty – showgirls are confrontational, as
they are knowing in their presentation to the audience.

TROOPPhoto: Chris Frazer Smith *How long has the dancing line been a phenomenon? Has it always been exclusively
female – and homogenous?*

I presume that the dancing line is a male construct: echoing military precision,
order, showing power… My understanding is that showdancing which relies particularly
on precision, linear conformity etc., comes out of an industrialised, commercial,
urban environment…. Perhaps the charge in it is that it’s a masculine construct
created out of the female?

Are you still working out what is at the root of its appeal?

I suppose the showgirl does exist at the edge of respectability, acceptance.
Whether it’s a commercial showdancer or modern lapdancer or burlesque performer,
there is always possible risk and ruin. Showgirls do not have clear status socially,
politically, artistically – they have not had/do not have the protection through
patronage of the court (formerly) or of high art (latterly).

This is because her sexuality is an acknowledged part of her attributes as a
dancer. But she is much more than just sexy as she continues to survive in a
culture which has pretty much seen it all – flesh itself won’t do it – she is
more complex than that. Perhaps the showgirl represents something rather wonderful
common to many matriarchal belief systems: beauty, strength, the promise of eternal
life (as an icon the showgirl has never lost her allure and is continually being
reinvented), communal harmony. They all dance as one – and they smile…… So I like
to think of her as a truly glamorous figure, holder of secret magical powers.

In the last few years you’ve been working on the *science-art interface’ with scientists, artists and new interactive technologies.
Has there been an overlap with this research and your interest in the showgirl?*

It was because of my work with new technologies that TROOP was spawned actually. I was part of a digilounge workshop at essexdance with Mark and Dawn of Troika Ranch exploring the Isadora software. Through playing with it and considering its uses that I thought it
was perfect for exploring iconic/universally recognised images – hence the showgirl.
The software Isadora (which we use in TROOP) allows you to capture and reproject
manipulated live moving images… so it works on several levels. We use it to create
the kaleidoscopic images that echo Busby Berkeley’s work and to project a sense
of the evocative past of vaudeville (in part by projecting 16mm film on stage
and processing that live and back on to the dancers bodies – literally – and the
backdrop), and to create a sense of ‘excess’ by multiplying the numbers, and/or
size of dancers seen. Also, by making instant filmic projected images of the dancers/dance,
the understanding of how lasting the imprint of the iconic Showgirl has come about
is shown for real. And yes, working with emergent systems has been the foundation
of creating this new piece.

*Is the work you’re making now worlds away from the more commercial work you’ve
done – for instance choreographing the Bond film Goldeneye? What was it like to work on such a huge scale?*

My mantra is ‘Don’t look down’! Usually there’s just no time to work out how
everything works together, that comes later. Working on Goldeneye funnily enough came at a time when I was also on another commercial and was
rushing to the hospital as my Dad had just had a heart attack. I was mostly worried
if I looked terrible because I was so tired (as I’m also in the scene that I choreographed.)

I do think we are in a culture now (or perhaps its always been so) where the
commercial and the creative are much more intertwined and I am interested in that – that’s part of what TROOP is about. I like extremes and different worlds colliding,
like the way that the softness, delicacy of an individual dancer can connect into
a powerful, charged dynamic force – like commerce or dance.

*You’ve worked on a lot of high profile advertisements featuring dance. Did you
enjoy that sort of work? Is it artistically satisfying – or a means to an end?*

There’s no doubt that just being employed as a choreographer with a substantial
fee is incredibly good for your confidence as you are trying to make your own
work and carve out an existence as an artist. So while long days in studios doing
rather simple choreographies was sometimes confusing for my identity, it really
supported my own work, and gave me perspective. I was working with video/film
and new technologies from the start both commercially and in my own work.

Nowadays I rather enjoy commercial jobs as usually you deliver a lot in a very
short amount of time, and I get a real thrill from achieving the brief using your
craft – and without all the personal anxieties of making your own work.

When did your interest in dance first start?

I started as a three year old being taken to classes by a Mum who had wanted
to do it herself as a child but whose own parents couldn’t afford it. I think
like a lot of women (in dance), dance was one of the first things I did where
I felt interesting, strong feelings – the power you feel from having control over
your body, and having some expressive opportunities. I always assumed those childhood
dance classes were rather an ordinary thing, but I now see that even then there
was growing of a sense of the aesthetic from it, and I appreciate that now.

If you weren’t working in dance, what might you have done instead?

I now wonder whether something like structural physics or engineering might have
satisfied my interest in how the world works….

TROOPPhoto: Chris Frazer Smith See TROOP at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre on 6 Dec. More details/online booking

*Dancers: Jenny Atwood, Natacha Bisarre, Victoria Chiu, Roland Cox, Jessye Parke,
Anne Pidcock, Mirjam Gurtner, Jo Stobbs, Tim Taylor*

More:

www.janeturner.net

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