Exploring the use of Speech or Text in Dance Performance

Karin Barber’s journal article, Text and Performance in Africa, is a significant starting point for investigating the use of dialogue or texts to influence and enhance performance, whether it is dance, physical theatre or visual art. Barber’s notion that in the moment words are uttered, it captures a prominent instance in the performance.

The text is a permanent artefact, hand written or printed, while the performance is the unique, never-to-be-repeated realisation of the text, a realisation that ‘brings the text to life’ but which is itself doomed to die on the breath in which it is uttered.

This particular aspect of the performance could be the most memorable as the audience leaves the theatre and it is a unique experience for those individuals. Various performances and perceptions of eclectic writers can develop a performance and how it gets produced from narrative texts, most specifically prose, drama and poetry.

There have been many Physical Theatre companies who have introduced speech into their choreography to express emotions and within a narrative context. An example of this would be DV8 and their production of Strange Fish, choreographed by Lloyd Newson. Newson created DV8 in 1986. He focuses on the fields of contemporary dance and theatre performance, most notably physical theatre. His pieces are based around cultural and sociological contexts such as sexuality, religion and the economy. He felt that the narrative pieces he created would appear aesthetically pleasing on film and he has worked with filmmakers including David Hinton and Clara von Gool. Newson’s work is original as he did not wish to reinterpret ballets or plays. Most recently he has been looking more into the relationship between interview-based texts and movement.

His performance of Strange Fish looks into the themes of love, segregation and fear of isolation. The use of language enhances the personas of the characters and allows the audience to understand the complex situation on stage or how the performers are feeling. Nigel Charnock’s section of the piece with him speaking gibberish, adds to the comic value of the choreography. However, the deeper the audience delve into this section of the piece, the more they become aware of the isolation of Charnock’s character and the need he has to be touched affectionately. The chosen choreography and his manner of speech heighten this concept. The dialogue emphasizes his struggle almost to the point of his madness. Much of what he speaks of is connected with intimacy and comfort; it is at that point he tries to hug the other dancers who almost reject his character because he is perceived differently to them. The use of voice is also apparent at intervals throughout the piece with one of the performer’s singing. It sounds almost operatic, ghostly and unnerving for the audience to take in, yet it adds another level to the performance as the sound is a backdrop for the happenings on the stage at the time.

Newson also created another piece for DV8 called The Cost of Living. This piece, like the fore mentioned, combines dance with theatre and dialogue. To an audience member the themes within this piece explore economic decline and the struggle to make a living through references to the issues caused by lack of tourism once the summer holiday season is over and people are left unemployed. Additionally the dialogue creates links to religion. The main protagonist questions whether God exists which then heightens the struggle of the performer because he is seeking help from a higher power due to his current financial situation. The language was also part of working with performers with disabilities and explores how they are perceived by society. In one section of the piece the disabled dancer is being filmed by a spectator, while the spectator asks him unfair questions about him and his body. For an audience member it is an uncomfortable scene to watch as you can’t stop the bullying that is going on in the scene and it opens the eyes of the audience to the repulsive behaviour of some human beings and the way they treat people with disabilities.

"Cost Of Living" Trailer

In an article written by Philipa Rothfield, Points of Contact she discusses the model of language and linguistics within dance and other art forms from a structuralism and post-structuralism concept. Furthermore she creates a connection between language and the body. The article suggests that she argues that viewing dance from a linguistic perspective allows an audience to find more meaning and connect that with modern societal and cultural views. A physical theatre company that seems to follow a similar idea is Frantic Assembly. Similarly to DV8 they create pieces based around every day scenarios and humanity struggles such as love and loss among other themes. The company was formed by the artistic director Scott Graham along with Steven Hoggett and Vicki Middleton in 1994.

In a piece called Lovesong, which was written by Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron lady) and choreographed by Graham and Hoggett, it is formed from cross disciplines by combining theatre actors and dance. Actors including Edward Bennett and Sian Phillips are part of the cast and using Morgan’s writing portray two couples, old and young and it explores the past present and future of a man and a woman from their 20’s to mid-60’s, the conflicts that arise and how their love overcomes boundaries. Frantic assembly also work with the words of William Shakespeare’s play Othello. The performance is set in a bar, a modern setting for Shakespeare’s 17th century words. Again the words enhance the storytelling of the performance as it is paired with the dance movement and heightens the emotive and dramatic nature of the characters. The modern context in which it is set would appeal to the audience that watches it as its part of their culture and the costume, set and body language are an expression of 21st century attitudes and styles.

Lloyd Newson's The Cost of Living
Lloyd Newson’s The Cost of Living

Other companies, similar to Frantic Assembly, practise the language of Shakespeare to create and expand the level of performing dance. Choreographer, Rennie Harris, combined the words of Romeo and Juliet with rap and urban dance in his piece Rome and Jewels, choreographed for his company Puremovent which was founded in 1992. Lorenzo ‘Rennie’ Harris is a teacher and choreographer who specialize in urban dance using influence from his African American background and incorporating past traditions into his work. The dialogue spoken in Rome and Jewels, by the dancers, assisted in telling the story as well as applying it to movement. This then opened up a different perception of the audience whose knowledge of the story and characters is altered. Juliet or Jewels is not a female dancer or character but a spectre and the cast is all male hip hop dancers.

Urban dance has become a popular part of western dance culture. It has been considered to be a form of traditional folk dance as it was performed in an open space such as streets and not in a studio background. Various styles of urban dance such as hip hop were created in the 1970’s in the USA within African- American and Latino societies. Harris’ choreography would be influential for dancers in the field of this type of performance because of the tradition and cultural influence from their background. It would also be more engaging for a younger audience due to its commercial recognition through television, film and everyday social contexts. This includes shows such as Britain’s Got Talent or films like Street Dance 3D. Incorporating the 16th century language of Shakespeare with this current trend in modern dance allows the performers and audience to gain a sense of history yet remaining in tune with the current performing styles.

Shakespeare’s influence has also been used by Candoco Dance Company in their piece Imperfect Storm based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The aim of the piece was to combine movement with text and meaning with humour. The choreographer, Wendy Houstoun, has a well-known dance background with company DV8 and was a performer in the fore mentioned performance of Strange Fish. Housten commented on her piece “At first I didn’t even want it to be apparent that we understood it was from a play, but just using the stage directions from a play.” (Houston 2010) The choreography was created from various improvisations influenced by the stage directions of the play. Housten wanted to work with different verbal ideas, such as the different levels of a storm could be displayed as different stages of emotion. One of the performers, Annie Hanauer, opens the piece with an introduction explaining what the piece is about, incorporating humour into the mix. She comments in an interview that speaking the introduction at each performance becomes more difficult as she has to keep it fresh and honest as if it is the first time she has ever said it. This links back to Barber’s idea in her journal article about the words dying on the breath when spoken.

The stories created by Shakespeare and other writers are influential within performance art and there are many dance performances that are based on stories such as fairy-tales, Greek myths and nursery rhymes. Classical ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Swan Lake are based on fairy-tales by authors including The Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. The original stories are much darker than the stories perceived on the stage as it has to appeal to the audience that watches it as many of them are young children. For example the original Cinderella story included concepts of amputating limbs and having eyes pecked out, which is considered entirely unsuitable for an audience and its not the only fairy story that has an assortment of taboo themes.

However many of the romantic ballets were created in the era of the Romantic Movement, where such themes were not included in artistic culture. Ballet grew alongside the popularity of art, literature and theatre. Interestingly these ballets portrayed women as more fragile beings, because of the way they moved and also what they wore which were mainly pastel colours. This held a strong influence in audience perception.

In the late 19th and early 20th century the Women’s Suffrage Movement began to take hold in society. The outcome identified womankind in a reformed light and has influenced the equilibrium that exists in the modern world of work and social status. In modern contemporary ballet, choreographers like Matthew Bourne have a unique take of the ballet stories and puts them into a different historical context, such as Cinderella in the Blitz of Paris, Swan Lake with men as the swans, and Sleeping Beauty with vampires. As contemporary dance has become vastly more popular since it was introduced in the early 20th century, this portrayal of traditional stories appeals to the audiences of the 21st century and there seems to be more egalitarianism between male and female dancers. The males appear more graceful, particularly in Swan Lake and the women are perceived in a more masculine light as they often lift the men and are not seen as the vulnerable and sylph like women from the 19th and early 20th century classical ballets.

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake
Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake

Another choreographer who used dialogue as a method of connecting with the audience was Pina Bausch. Bausch was trained at the Folkwang School in Essen under the guidance of Kurt Jooss, who was a follower of pre and post-war modern dance. As Bausch was surrounded by other art forms at school such as painting, opera and photography, it became an influential part of her choreographic work with Tanztheatre Wuppertal, where Bausch was appointed director of dance in 1973.

Her choreographic piece called Komm tanz mit mir, which translates as Come and Dance with me, incorporates speech that taps into the emotions of the dancers and also the audience. Bausch wanted to cross disciplines and combine dance and theatre together. The idea was that the ‘dancer speaks, actor dances’ (Servos, 2008). Bausch viewed this as a way of exploring a different type of power and actuality. The piece itself looks into the theme of power and about who rules who. The staging made it appear like a winter backdrop and Bausch incorporated a German children’s nursery rhyme, to contrast with the cold hearted nature of the piece.

Another way in which dialogue was used expressively was when the argument between two protagonists ensued. The woman would begin by flirting with the man singing the rhyme ‘Come and dance with me’. Interestingly, the manner in which she speaks the rhyme changes, ranging from tender to childish begging to demanding, stubborn and then ends with shrieking and screaming. The man remains calm and indifferent throughout which heightens the concepts of power and who is in charge, making a stereotypical notion that woman are more emotional than men and therefore more vulnerable. The moment when the dancers connect with the audience directly is the end of the performance. The audience is dismissed with the dare: ‘Come and dance with me’. This phrase is a recurring motif throughout the piece and likewise with the quote from Barber, the words have a lasting impact with the individuals that hear it uttered.

Contrastingly, Bausch has been noted to reject the concept of literary narrative by suggesting that dance itself can narrate via the sheer physical presence of the dancing body and that the body can express what words cannot. However the choreography must help tell the story either through the dance movement a gesture or a mime. This concept from Norbert Servos’ book Pina Bausch Dance Theatre then links back to what Rothfield mentioned in her journal article about transferring language onto the dancing body and finding meaning from it.

There is however a choreographer that managed to create a dance piece with no text and no meaning behind it; it was just pure movement that had no story behind it. Yvonne Rainer’s choreography for Trio A was created from Rainer’s No Manifesto. There was no links to sexuality, style, or emotion and yet it was choreography, it was dance and it was a performance. This piece of work contradicts the idea that text and speech influences a dance performance and opens up a wider perspective of performance as a whole, such as walking from one end of a street to another could be considered choreography, yet there is no textual meaning behind it and nothing is said. It is just pedestrian movement. From an existentialist experience we are in a way, dancing through life and we choreograph our own bodies to do everyday tasks. It reminds me of something Shakespeare wrote in his play As You Like It “All the worlds a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. (Shakespeare, 1599)

The classical ballet Swan Lake
The classical ballet Swan Lake

Speech and text intensifies aspects of performance culture by its connection with societal issues, such as economics, religion, emotional entanglements, tradition and explores literature, song and other texts. Mostly an audience would merely absorb the movement and the aesthetics without focusing on how the piece was derived and constructed. However words have a powerful influence over the art form of dance as well as theatre or music. However sometimes an audience doesn’t need to hear the words to know that there is a story behind it and dance performance collects no meaning or inspiration for speech or writing.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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MA Professional Writing Graduate ~ Cornwall based ~ My interests lie within literature, film and travel.

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  1. Suellen Chamberlin

    I recently watched Strange Fish in college as i am studying performing arts in college. As we are currently devising our own physical theatre pieces to be performed publically. This i have to say was absolutely amazing. The whole production is an amazing piece of art. Absolutely incredible!

    • It is incredible! Physical theatre is so much fun to create, best of luck with it all and thank you for reading my article, it’s much appreciated!

  2. Thank you for the read. There hasn’t been enough studies on Dance performance online.

  3. This article will come in handy for my thesis.

  4. Promthanius

    Hi, Katy!
    I’m a professional belly dancer and I really liked this article. It’s interesting to me because I’m one of those artistic types who doesn’t like to mix genres. I see ballet as silent and to be interpreted by the viewer. Rather the opposite of musical theatre like Broadway. I love watching Disney’s “Fantasia” even to this day because it is all silence and moving pictures; the interpretation is entirely up to me. It allows my imagination to create. However, you make a great point about hip hop and Shakespeare. I see no reason why we shouldn’t modernize a little and bring the awesome old stuff up to our new generations. With words and dance and music, the authors message could come through clearly without the reader projecting something else. I like this idea and you clearly have done a lot of research. Well written!

    • Thank you so much, I’m glad you liked it! Your perception about silent dance is really fascinating, I never used to like mixing genres but since being at university, the abstract stuff kind of rubbed off on me a bit! Also I’m obsessed with reading and thought i’d write about my two favourite things. Once again I really appreciate the feedback!

  5. Helen Parshall

    I’ve been a Shakespeare fanatic for years, but have never seen anything where dance is incorporated before. I’m going to have to check that out! Excellent piece- there needs to be a lot more studies of dance like yours. It’s such a beautiful art.

  6. KimSw

    If you haven’t already, you should look into Joe Goode’s work (he has a company in San Francisco). I think his work ties into your interests.

  7. DV8’s LOVELY! Amazing!!! i love dv8! i wish i could see more (but in my country we can only see it by film and arts)

  8. Angele Goodson

    Great writeup!

  9. Chau Box

    Strange Fish is a masterpiece.

  10. Riviera Handley
    Riviera De TyTy

    I participated in a movement-text workshop last week. It was a surreal experience, and somewhat therapeutic, too.

    • Riviera Handley
      Riviera De TyTy

      Perhaps movement-speech is a more correct term to use, here!

  11. Joanofarc

    Great article! I recently saw a performance by Alexandra Beller & co. called “Give Up, or A Bird Lying on its Back” http://www.alexandrabellerdances.org/gallery_giveup.php#gallery and the text was used as a blatant critique on conceptual art and the esoteric art world in general, and thinking back, I can’t really recall much of the movement because the words stole my attention. I suppose the crux of the matter is how the viewer is to be primarily influenced, and what can say more, in the end? What we say or what we show?

  12. Bradley Ellis

    This is a great article and has been a doorway in researching a project I would like to tackle with my theatre company. Would it be possible to touch base with you, so that I can ask specific questions pertaining to this topic.

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