Artist Jeffrey Gordon Baker writes: Even before my adopted son Jack came to live with me two years ago, aged four, I’d had the opportunity to see and write about dance shows for children; and since then I have often taken him with me as my junior reviewer and ostensible test subject. Alongside these children’s shows, I also have an abiding interest in experimental performance, dance in particular, having researched and written about contemporary choreography, as well as practising it on occasion myself. And it has become clear that these two sides of my dance appreciation, far from being poles apart, are actually very close indeed.
SOME CONCEPTUAL CHOREOGRAPHERS AND DANCE THEATRE PRACTITIONERS SEEM TO BE SEEKING A FRESHNESS OF THOUGHT AND IMAGE, AND A KIND OF BARE-BONES HONESTY THAT COMES NATURALLY TO CHILDREN; SOME ACTUALLY LOOK TO CHILDREN OR TO THE CHILDLIKE FOR INSPIRATION.
There is a lot of overlap in the concerns of experimental dance work and the more interesting choreography for children: participation, repetition, silliness, absurdity, presence, playfulness. Some conceptual choreographers and dance theatre practitioners seem to be seeking a freshness of thought and image, and a kind of bare-bones honesty that comes naturally to children; some actually look to children or to the childlike for inspiration. What flows in those crosscurrents? And how can dance, with its focus on the body and its inherent abstraction in movement, bring us closer to those aspects of being human that are intrinsic to childhood?
Is it dance?
The one question that progressive dance artists have both asked and provoked more than any other is: what is dance? Their work has often deliberately both queried and expanded the definition of their art. From the post-minimalist performances of the Judson Church to Pina Bausch’s pervasively influential Tanztheater and the postmodern conceptualists of later generations – all have situated themselves within the world of dance while interrogating its definition, nature and purpose to the point that audiences, critics and even the artists themselves have found themselves asking: but is it dance?!
Children don’t ask such easy questions. They are generally not as concerned as adults with categories of experience. Rather, they are absorbed (or not…) by the experience itself. Nevertheless, they constantly and implicitly question the nature and purpose of the world. For children, every experience is embodied. So for them, as with many dance experimentalists, every experience can be dance – it’s just that the experience counts far more than the classification. What qualities of that experience might appeal to children?
REPETITION IS A STAPLE TROPE OF LIFE WITH CHILDREN.
Early on in our relationship, when Jack was just four years old and had never been to a theatre, we went to see Sally Cookson’s BOING! at Sadler’s Wells. I really wanted him to like it. And he did – so much so that we went to see it a second time. And he asked to go again after that. A few months later, we saw another Sally Cookson show, Cinderella: A Fairy Tale at the Unicorn Theatre, an amazing update of the story choreographed by Joêl Daniel who, along with Wilkie Branson, had choreographed and performed in BOING! And at the end of that performance, Jack refused to get out of his seat, demanding to see it again that very minute, as though the whole thing could be replayed instantly like a DVD.
Repetition is a staple trope of life with children. Anyone who has ever read a story to a child who enjoyed it will have been asked to read it again, and again… and again. As I watched Jack veritably shrieking with delight at the bounding antics of Daniel and Branson in BOING! as they played two brothers energetically anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus on the night before Christmas, I noticed how Cookson and company used repetition both as a narrative device and, ingeniously, as a way to engage her young audience by viscerally harnessing the fluid focus of children’s ever-present attention.
The show consists of a series of scenes representing the various self-sabotaged attempts of the boys to get to bed. Each of these begins with the same musical mantra – “If you want Santa Claus to come, you have to go to sleep!” – followed by a ritual of bedtime preparation, soon to be mischievously upended again by another battery of bouncy activity. This cyclic form first draws children into the story through identification with the characters. Then it pops the story like a balloon, with sudden movements and surprising noises (at one point, Branson and Daniel even boing their teddies playfully on the heads of the kids in the front row) that bring the children back to an experience of their own bodies. The narrative of the piece is about this looping between story and sensation, and the choreography is made of those loops too.
IT STRUCK ME THAT TANZTHEATER IS A WHOLE LOT LIKE CHILDREN’S DANCE THEATRE.
Watching BOING! I was put in mind of both the form and the content of Pina Bausch’s work, in which a series of vaudevillian “acts” are paraded before us, often involving repetitions of silly, clownish actions: hair-brushing, kissing, shovelling dirt around, blowing bubbles, wading through water or flowers. My kid could watch someone trip over his trousers and fall down probably 20 times in a row, and still think it was funny. That’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in Bausch. She uses lush engagements with materials and repetitious clownish fumbles to indicate something deep about human relationships and existence. Kids seem to enjoy that stuff as a way of understanding human fundamentals as well, excited as they are by bursts of colour and movement, and by how genuinely funny it is to have body. It struck me that Tanztheater is a whole lot like children’s dance theatre, and has undoubtedly been an influence on it.
Content and form
FOR PRE-VERBAL CHILDREN, SENSATION IS EVERYTHING; THEY ARE LEARNING, LITERALLY IN THESE EARLY YEARS, TO MAKE SENSE OF THE WORLD.
Avant-gardists are trying to discover something new in the interaction of content and form. Children are something new, and everything is a discovery. One main similarity between the best dance for kids and the best experimental work is the collapsing of content and form. Everybody knows the clichéd scene of the little kid who opens up the box with the toy inside only to end up playing for hours with the box and bubble wrap it came in. Children are fans of the visceral, tactile, interactive and sensuous. Simplistically put, what a dance piece contains – what it is about – can be likened to the expensive toy, all wrapped up in its packaging of movement, music and visuals. Young children simply don’t see the differences between these, and contemporary dance makers often experiment with ways of dissolving them.
Take, for example, Shiny by Liz Clark and Oksana Tyminska of Turned On Its Head Dance Company – a dance for very young children (aged from 6 months) which delves into the playful chaos that characterises a lot of postmodern contemporary dance practice. Clark and Tyminska interactively introduce texture and colour, allowing children to join in their play with flowing fabrics and crinkly, sparkly paper. They even stack up, open and peer excitedly into boxes, gleefully referencing children’s fascination with them. Raining confetti showers down upon an audience, many of who are not old enough to walk yet, they play peek-a-boo with their props and invite toddlers to tumble and crawl across the shimmering surfaces of their performance space. Inevitably some babies even taste the materials.
Shiny uses music, along with simple visual and aural scenographic effects, to create an embracing performance. Meaning is subsumed into overall impact for the newest of audiences, for whom the explication of narrative is still beside the point. This is a clever approach. For pre-verbal children, sensation is everything; they are learning, literally in these early years, to make sense of the world. Although they may not specifically reference child development, many contemporary choreographers use dance theatre to invoke a version of this primordial state. When text is used in their work it is often as a facilitator of sensation rather than in service to the plot; it is just another element in the collage of media and materials which we are invited to make sense of for ourselves.
By way of contrast, look at the traditional story ballet. Early last year Jack and I attended My First Ballet: Coppélia, a production by English National Ballet and the English National Ballet School, choreographed by George Williamson. We were impressed by the technical skill of the enthusiastic student dancers who were given the opportunity to perform roles in this classic work, adapted here for a young audience. (Jack’s precise observation was: “How can she turn round and round like that on her tippy toes?” The narrator, in the person of the Dr Coppélius character himself, voiced a simultaneous blow-by-blow translation of each balletic gesture and dance-insinuated plot point. This approach casts dance as a language with one-to-one correspondence between movement and meaning – the form re-presents the narrative content – and implies that children “get it” only once they are given the coordinates for deciphering its code. It assumes that didactic explication of the ballet format is the key to appreciation, and that while it’s possible to be astonished by the technical skill, to properly love it you have to learn what it means.
Entertainment vs social relevance
The interplay between narrative meaning and dance highlights not only the rebellion of contemporary dance artists against the strictures of the traditional story ballet, but also a tension in how they make work that is relevant and/or entertaining for children.
SHOULD DANCE MAKERS TRY TO SPEAK TO WHAT THEY PRESUME TO BE CHILDREN’S PREOCCUPATIONS, THEIR FEARS AND WORRIES, ADDRESSING THE TOPICS THEY THINK ARE OF INTEREST TO THEM?
ally Marie, recipient of one of the 2015 Company of Angels Choreography for Children Awards, is simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by storytelling. Captivated by narrative arc, she admits it can be hard to overcome its allure; so in her CfC commission I Am 8 she tried instead to focus on dance theatre’s ability to create moments of illumination. The work is smattered with madcap silly-kid wiggles and wackiness that had my own kid gut-laughing throughout, with text drawn from her conversations with primary schoolers used generously to invoke the ambivalent experience of middle childhood. A scene where a little girl “breaks up” with her teddy bear – “Now that I’m 8 we’ll be seeing less of each other” – was cleverly cute and poignant, and had adults and older children sighing in recognition.
Should dance makers try to speak to what they presume to be children’s preoccupations, their fears and worries, addressing the topics they think are of interest to them? Or should they try to delight and entertain kids into an appreciation of dance? Sally Marie tried to do both, and struck a good balance.
The difference between these two approaches was illustrated more discretely by the recipients of the 2013 Choreography for Children award. Bethany Harrison and Eleni Edipidi’s Duck Man was a dreamily surreal family album with quirky costumes and characters, and a bubbly score, a contrast to the institutional lighting, red plastic chairs, and secondary-school bullying depicted in Imogen Knight’s OMG, about the social pressures of pre-adolescence – the implicit assumption being that older children would be drawn more to thematic content and the little ones to colourful, playful formal qualities.
The anarchy of being
INSTEAD OF A “MESSAGE”, IT OFFERS A “SENSATION OF THE WORLD”
Every parent knows, however, that you can never quite tell what will appeal to children, or what they will make of something. I’m no sentimentalist who would have you believe that children see through to the “truth” of things, but Sally Marie’s assertion that children can make sense out of a lot of changes feels right, and implies that kids don’t necessarily need to be handed a story in order to find one. Children are able and innocently willing to create meanings for things, even when they are not yet equipped (or corrupted) with the adult sophistication to intuit the intentions behind them. The audience response to Wayne McGregor’s piece FAR, part of the Dance Umbrella 2014 Triple Bill for ages 8–12, was an interesting example of this
The version of FAR McGregor presented at Dance Umbrella was not made for kids, but was rather an abridgement of one of his slick and sexy, high-octane works for a mainstream audience. I was intrigued by the challenge that McGregor’s piece put to the kids – unabashedly “adult” work for a juvenile crowd. The audience comments during the Q&A session were telling: Jack reported candidly that he could see the dancers’ bottoms; another child said that the piece felt “violent, but in a good way” and still another said that it looked like the boy dancers were “doing something to the girls, getting the girls.” Even though technical prowess and athletic aestheticism were obviously on display, the kids didn’t react with astonishment as such, but read flesh and violence into the scene: they saw a human story.
THIS IS LESS ABOUT WHAT CHILDREN LIKE THAN WHAT THEY ARE LIKE.
That unpredictability of response is itself telling. For if experimental dance could be said to have any intention, it might be to eschew the appearance of missive intent itself. Instead of a “message”, it offers a “sensation of the world” that can be interpreted in any number of ways, or simply experienced aesthetically. Similarly, the cultural critic Judith Halberstam (The Queer Art of Failure, 2011) has characterised children “not as pre-adults figuring the future but as anarchic beings who partake in strange and inconsistent temporal logics.” This is less a statement about what children like than what they are like, what they are open to experiencing by virtue of their “anarchic” state of being.
Which brings me, finally, to Olivier Dubois’ Tragédie. When I saw it at Sadler’s Wells in May 2014, the first thought I had was wishing I had been able to bring Jack. The piece was remarkable not only because the 18-member cast was naked the whole time, but for the length of time we were allowed simply to regard them as such (the whirly-gig boobs and willies would have given Jack a giggle, and I suspect Dubois wouldn’t have minded) as well as for the regressive quality to the orgiastic chaos of its second half. The latter reminded me of nothing so much as the grounded, knee-bending bounce into a sequence of hops, leading into hysterical ecstatic jumps that Jack often dances in the transitional moments of nudity between taking off his day clothes and getting into pyjamas.
I had always considered Jack’s pre-bedtime frolic a dance, a most entertaining dance at that, but after seeing it struck me as primal but still with some sort of purpose. Perhaps a meaningless purpose, a chaotic celebration of the body as a way to bridge the chasm between the conformational demands of waking life and the dreamy oblivion of sleep. But that, I suppose, is just my interpretation, part of my typically grown-up search for meaning where children would just enjoy the moment. My kid would get that.
Jeffrey Gordon Baker is an artist, writer and social worker; he writes about dance for londondance.com, and is researching a PhD at the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London