Tonight, I had the pleasure of viewing a new work by Amber Funk Barton's company The Response. Risk is a piece that "is an observation of how young people act...", an idea that could have spawned something as painful as an exploration of post-adolescent angst or a movement-only rendition of The OC. Thankfully, due to the skill of the choreographer and dancers, coupled with a healthy sense of humour, Risk is a thoroughly entertaining, often inspiring, and sometimes moving work of art.
A month ago I saw another dance piece that did not elicit such praise. In fact, viewing the solo work WhaT,? choreographed by Jennifer Mascall and performed by Ron Stewart, compelled me to come up with a new rule: no more talking dancers. I should probably have known by the pretentious way in which the title is spelled that the work was going to be tiresome. But my primary complaint had to do with the fact that the show's story was narrated by Stewart. There are two problems with this. First, he is not an actor and a monologue of any length that is performed for an audience requires acting skill. Second, speaking takes up a lot of the breath needed to dance effectively so the choreography could not match his skill.
Tonight's show proved the wisdom of my rule; the "story" in Risk was clear and engaging without words. Part of the reason we go to dance is because dancers speak a language most of us do not. Why compromise that ability in order to use the same communication tool we can all access?
(In response to the outcry of dancers who insist they have the right to speak, let me offer this: my prejudice works both ways. Although it is flirting with sacrilege to confess it, during the wildly successful show The Overcoat I found myself wondering how much better that wordless, movement-based piece could have been with dancers instead of actors. Some can do both, I know. Most cannot.)
But for those theatre artists who can't dance, there's nothing quite so inspiring as a great contemporary dance work. The ways in which the performers move teach us about the body's physical potential as well as its capacity to carry meaning. It's a great antidote to Western acting theories' emphasis on psychological realism. Truthful acting requires complete commitment, mentally, emotionally, physically. Observing talented dancers apply the same standards to their work reveals the common goals of both arts and encourages us to learn from each other. And it helps us to remember the importance of the actor's body.
In the introduction to her fabulous book The Body Speaks, Lorna Marshall states:
The body is the direct point of connection between our inner self and the outer world, not merely a transportation or communication device...In a sense, it is the sole mediator of human experience. It is our body that climbs the mountain, whispers in another's ear, trembles with excitement, notices the light change, grips the bag, tenses with fear, laughs with delight. It is our body that actually lives our life.
Theatre artists must understand this better than any others because ours is the most incarnational of the arts. If we are to portray human stories we must understand the human body.
So if you love theatre, go see a dance performance.