HOW LONG IS A PIECE OF DANCE?

Paint dries, kettles boil… Sanjoy Roy on duration and endurance in contemporary choreography.

Maguy Marin, Umwelt. Photo: Didier Grappe

How long is a piece of dance? Stupid question. You might as well ask how long is a piece of string. Well here’s a thing: I once watched a dance that actually was as long as a piece of string. And the fact that it was exactly that long, no more, no less, was a reason why it drove some people berserk with boredom and outrage – at its premiere in 2004, a fight broke out when one irate man jumped on stage (he broke the choreographer’s finger; she bit him) – and why I, seeing it at Dance Umbrella the following year, was reduced to a pulp of shredded nerves, quivering before a vision of the void on which our human existence is founded.

I had better explain. The piece was Umwelt (German for “environment”), by French choreographer Maguy Marin, and it went like this. Nine reflective panels were lined up in a row. Nine performers, in singles, pairs or groups, intermittently emerged from and retreated back behind their mirror. Each sortie was the same length (around 10 seconds) and each showed a different snapshot of human activity. Some were banal (bite sandwich, wash floor); some were dramatic (kiss lover, point gun); some were surreal (drag stuffed pheasant between teeth). All were uniformly deadpan. A wind gusted continuously across the stage; an amorphous electronic noise ground on and on. That was about it. It was not exactly unchanging. You noticed, for example, the detritus of the activity gradually accumulating on stage: discarded apple cores, baby dolls, rubble. But the process remained resolutely the same throughout.

Despite the sameness, there was, I think, a turning point. When it happened varied from one person to the next. So did what it triggered. It kicked in when you noticed a piece of rope being inched with excruciating slowness across the front of the stage, and an appalling certainty dawned on you: the piece was simply going to continue until the rope ran out. And then it would stop. For those already maddened by tedium, this realisation was a special kind of torment: it brought The End into sight while simultaneously indicating just how long it would take to reach. But for me (other susceptible souls had similar experiences, if not the same) it was the moment which began to expose an awful truth: such is human existence, different people doing the same things, one thing after another marking the passage of time, until time runs out. The End.

TO GO SOFT ON THE DRIPPING-TAP TORTURE AS A CONCESSION TO AUDIENCE COMFORT WOULD NOT MERELY HAVE UNDERMINED ITS POINT, BUT BETRAYED IT

Reactions to Umwelt were not so much mixed as extreme (it really leaves no room for middle ground). There were walkouts at every performance. Some souls still shudder at the memory of it, and count critic John Percival’s one-word review (“Merde!”) as one word too many. But from where I sat, to go soft on the dripping-tap torture as a concession to audience comfort would not merely have undermined its point, but betrayed it. The unswerving focus may have reduced me to quaking like a jelly, but therein lay its power. And all this because of a dance that was as long as a piece of string.

Choreography built on repetition, accumulation, duration and endurance is certainly a high-risk strategy, however lofty its aims. A knife-edge separates engagement from exasperation, and opposite effects – cumulative surrender or mounting resistance – are produced by essentially the same means. Yet this kind of work seems to have become something of a genre, and has lately been cropping up all over the place.

It was practically a trend at the recent Aerowaves 2014 Spring Forward festival in Umeå, Sweden, a showcase for emerging choreographers from 20 countries across Europe. Among the better pieces, Michael Carter and Gala Moody, based in Spain, orbited each other like bodies caught in some cosmic forcefield – not for light-years, maybe, but it felt like eons; Hungary’s Adrienn Hod exposed four naked dancers to 40 minutes of repetitive push-me-pull-you grappling that exhausted both performers and audience; and Russia-based duo Olga Tsvetkova and Alissa Šnaider inched their way around a skewed frame for half and hour, to increasingly discombobulating loops of sound.

Jan Martens, The Dog Days Are Over. Photo: Piet Gothals

But perhaps the most intractable example was The Dog Days Are Over by Belgian Jan Martens, which set eight dancers, in shiny aerobic-class clothes, monotonously bobbing up and down in incrementally varying configurations, for 70 minutes. It’s fair to say that you really did feel the stretch, and the burn. How did he decide how long to string out the piece? “Simply,” he says. “Because the dancers could take it no longer. We established that through rehearsal.” So that’s how long The Dog Days lasted. As with all these works, the piece was not unchanging. Even exact repetition accumulates layers over time. For The Dog Days the slow-burn effect was to heighten an element of dogged competition within the punishing regime of a drill. But there was no prize, no resolution; only a build of pressure and intensity as the reward for endurance. It finished with a beam of light scanning the bodies of the performers as if to say: that’s all there is.

IF THERE WAS NO REPETITION, THERE WOULD BE NO MATERIAL TO COMPARE WITH. IT ALSO BUILDS AN INNER RHYTHM, A TRANCE.

“The actions are very stylised,” says Martens, “but not in a lyrical way. I needed an army, I needed precision, not flow.” And what does he consider the effect of repetition to be? “It gives space to see in detail, to look further, to see transformation happen. If there was no repetition, there would be no material to compare with. It also builds an inner rhythm, a trance.”

French choreographer Olivier Dubois has also pushed repetition, accumulation and monotony to extremes. The first 45 minutes of his 2012 piece Tragédie, shown at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre earlier this month, consisted of dancers walking 12 steps forward and then 12 steps back, to the unwavering beat of a drum. So, okay, they were naked too. So yes, they were visibly different from each other. So, the walks were different from each other, and the pattern of walking also varied. Still, it was a 45-minute walk. “Repetition can be seen as something the same,” says Dubois. “But it’s never the same. It always goes somewhere. But it takes time. Yes, it’s hard for the audience. You have to work, you have to think, you have to decide if you can accept the rules. You have to decide whether to stay or leave.”

People do leave, of course. And people do think, of course. Sometimes people think about something else altogether – work, life, dreams. It’s a mental escape, maybe a blessed relief. And sometimes people start thinking differently. “Repetition builds through a kind of trick of the brain,” says Dubois. “You lose the notion of time, the notion of space. It’s a kind of hypnosis.”

People, frankly, had it easy with Tragédie compared with Dubois’ earlier Révolution, from 2009. In Tragédie, the seemingly interminable walking section gave way to shorter episodes, each based on minimal movements, but each with a different dynamic. The sense of variety became palpable, accessible. In Révolution, twelve women rotated around twelve poles – just that – to the sound of Ravel’s study in monotony, the Boléro, stretched out for two and a quarter unbroken hours.

“Accumulation,” Dubois argues, “is like a microscopic focus. You point and point and point, at the same point. And then you can go inside it, because you can’t escape it. I know it’s hard for the audience, but I don’t do it as provocation. It’s not against entertainment, against convention, no. It’s for the material.”

Olivier Dubois, Révolution. Photo: Tommy Pascal

And it is indeed the material that we see, not the ideal. “I never work on how the dancers approach the movement,” says Dubois. “I give them the movement, the time the space and the dynamic – exactly the same to all of them. But how each one does it, that I don’t tell them, that I do not change. Otherwise the uniformity would be like a corps de ballet, and that is dangerous. Here, I have more than dancers – I have men and women, human beings, people.”

Guilherme Botelho’s Sideways Rain (2010) recently opened the Birmingham International Dance Festival. It’s a more accessible  piece than Révolution: only an hour long, and much easier on the ear. But the process is similar (and people still walk out). Where Révolution was about continual rotation, Sideways Rain is about continual travel. Like time itself, the dancers move in one direction only, from left to right across the stage. The moves change incrementally, but there is nothing more: crawling gives way to sliding, to rolling, to running. How did Botelho decide how long the process should be, and how to end? “You need time to assimilate the piece,” he says. “For example, you can look at a beautiful landscape and think: hey, beautiful landscape. But take more time and you can become more involved in it. You see it, you notice it.” So he simply had to use his own judgement on the length. “You have to decide how much is food for thought, but you don’t want to just overeat!”

How to end presented a problem. Botelho thought about simply bringing the curtain down on an ongoing process, the dancers still running in lines across the stage. In the end, he had the curtain close on continuation and a new beginning: some dancers carried on running, others looped back to the crawling locomotion which began the piece. “I think the end starts,” says Botelho, “when the dancers run across the stage trailing pieces of string. For the first time, there is a material trace left on stage.” I am reminded of the detritus in Marin’s Umwelt. “Instead of just the present and the future,” he continues, “there is now a past. That is the beginning of the ending.”

Guilherme Botelho/Company Alias, Sideways Rain. Photo: Jean-Yves Genoud

As with the other choreographers here, Sideways Rain doesn’t present its performers as dancers, but as beings: how they move is who they are. “I wanted them to feel that if they were rolling, it was their life, their way of being.” In fact, when making the piece, he was thinking very much about evolution, biology, life forms. “The piece does have something to do with life, and with death,” he says. “But not in a religious way. It’s more on a molecular level.”

Do these works form a genre? They certainly have their differences. Marin’s Umwelt is more existential, Botelho’s Sideways Rain more evolutionary. Dubois’ Tragédie has a sense of entrapment and escape, Martens’ The Dog Days Are Over is more dogged. Still, they have commonalities. We might hear echoes of the past in them, or trace ancestors. There is a clear connection with the American minimalism of Lucinda Childs or Laura Dean, and its most immediate European transplant, exemplified by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982). We could see a trace of Paul Taylor’s 1975 Esplanade, with its non-dance vocabulary of running, jumping and sliding, and abstract patterns of diagonals and circles. Certainly, we sense the ghost of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, also from 1975, with its massed repetitions, its ritual of exhaustion. Indeed, the Nijinsky/Stravinsky Rite of Spring (1913) looms large in the hinterland of these pieces about bodily endurance; so too does Ravel’s Boléro (1928), his strict-tempo study in sameness and accumulation.

WE BECOME MORE ACUTELY AWARE NOT OF THE PLAY OF TIME, BUT THE PASSAGE OF TIME.

But there is, I think, something distinctive about these more recent works, in the way they bring together two facets of choreography, one compositional, the other corporeal. Compositionally, they echo some of the processes of American minimalism. The works develop through continuity rather than contrast; they use loops, repetitions and accumulations to let one action shade into the next. Change is registered through sameness, not difference. But these works stretch time out further, until we become more acutely aware not of the play of time, but the passage of time.

Corporeally, they treat the body differently from the American minimalists, who more typically used cell-like dance phrases and motifs, often with systematic scores (by Philip Glass or Steve Reich, for example) that were based on recognisably musical ingredients: notes, rhythms, harmonics. In these recent pieces, the action is more elemental, less artfully styled, less “danced” – jumping, walking, running, rolling – and their scores (if they have one) are more likely to be built on sound and noise than music and notes.

FOR THE AUDIENCE, I THINK THERE ARE TWO OUTCOMES. ONE IS LIKE WATCHING A KETTLE BOIL; THE OTHER LIKE WATCHING PAINT DRY.

What effects does this produce? For the audience, I think there are two outcomes. One is like watching a kettle boil; the other like watching paint dry. Both, obviously, take time. When the work hits the spot, it feels like a kettle boiling. After simmering away for ages, something changes; there is a transformation of experience. On the compositional level, your vision expands: you stop seeing just the material elements and start sensing what connects them. It’s like becoming aware of the wood as well as the trees, the map as well as the territory. On a corporeal level, you feel the force. Simple actions repeated exhaustively can channel an almost shamanic power, like a rite of transformation, inducing a trance or an altered state of being. If, on the other hand, the work fails to achieve one or preferably both of these heightened states, your experience of it is going to be more like watching paint dry, killing time, the minutes ticking away to leave you with just a thin, flat surface.

The religious overtones I’ve used here – vision, ritual, transformation – are deliberate. For this kind of choreography to be effective, you need to surrender, be converted; to stop just seeing it and start believing it. It works through communion, not communication. It can be a mystical and mind-blowing, but it is not the cosmic consciousness or zen-like bliss-out that earlier minimalism could suggest. It is more embodied, less idealised, pointing and pointing and pointing to mortal flesh, to the continuous present. Umwelt, said Maguy Marin, was “not a question of doing the impossible” – for which we could read the ideal, the transcendent – “but of exhausting the possible”. In a 2008 interview, she elaborated on the image. “The dancers are doing some very simple, everyday movement, but it’s like the sea. When you see the sea, it looks like one thing, but if you really look at it, you can tell that there are a lot of differences in the waves. It’s always changing, but it’s the same sea. I hope Umwelt is a little like that. One wave is like one wave, but it’s not the same as the other.”

Marin’s image captures the meditative quality of these works – but also their matter-of-factness, even their godlessness. For they propose no transcendent purpose, no final resolution, no blessed relief; only the passage of time, and our existence within it. There is process, yes, there is pattern, there is time and space. The End, though, is essentially arbitrary. Like the length of a piece of string.

The literary critic Frank Kermode wrote a whole book about ends and meanings, and I think it has a bearing on these danceworks, in which we experience acutely both the passage of time and its utter indifference to our feelings about it. In The Sense of an Ending (1967), Kermode asked: why do we hear the ticking of a clock as ticktock, when every tick is the same? And answered: because we divide time into beginnings and ends. Each tick is completed by a tock. And from this simple base, he builds a whole thesis about the temporal fictions that we invent to make sense of our lives: beginning and end, question and answer, birth and death, genesis and apocalypse.

These choreographies of duration and endurance pull away from such fictions. They are founded on the continuity of time, the accumulation of minutes, the evolution of existence, the arbitrariness of ends. They can be long, but they are not epic; epics have narrative drama. If they can feel interminable, it is because they do not move towards the sense of an ending. There is no finite foundation, no rewarding dramatic arc. They are built on a more awful, a more awesome and unending truth: tick, tick, tick, tick, tick

Sanjoy Roy writes on dance for the Guardian and has contributed to other publications including the New Statesman, Dance Gazette, Dancing Times, Pulse and londondance.com. He keeps an archive of writing at sanjoyroy.net