There must be something in the water: last week, the third improvised dance show in as many weeks was presented in Montreal. Titled Chalk, it unfortunately was nowhere near as successful as the previous two, maybe partially due to its smaller number of dancers.
To my surprise, upon my exit from Tangente, a friend who frequently performs in improv comedy shows told me he enjoyed Chalk. Slightly taken aback by his differing view, I asked him how an improvisation comedy show would have been if we were to transfer the structure of Chalk upon it. His answer: “It’d be terrible.” Undoubtedly, improvised dance and improv comedy are two completely different beasts. However, comparing different forms of artistic expression can often lead to insightful discoveries. So I probed the matter further and asked him why the comedy equivalent would have been terrible: “Because there was basically no interaction between the performers.” While my friend had enjoyed the exploration of improvised dance, he had still spotted what made the show difficult for me to appreciate.
Friday’s presentation began with Lin Snelling dancing behind a blackboard. Partially hiding the body in dance inevitably grabs the audience’s attention since they are present specifically to see the body. Also, Snelling was one of the dancers in the highly successful R.A.F.T. 70 from two weeks earlier, so the expectations were high.
Anticipation was further built up with the device of the blackboard as Robert Bergner would write on the surface that was not visible to the audience. Then he would flip the blackboard to reveal the word he wrote and would continue to write on the other side. Since the words appeared to the audience right side up, it became clear that Bergner was skillfully writing upside down. The audience had to accumulate the words written but quickly erased in order to create sentences.
For some obscure reason, even though there were two live musicians on stage, there was also little interaction between music and dance. When Michael Reinhart played his guitar, the action stopped. When the dancing began again, it was Reinhart who stopped playing. Too little was made of all the possibilities available to the performers. To Reinhart and Bergner’s credit, the music was the best part of Chalk that evening.
But let’s come back to the lack of interaction. Performer Pamela Newell looked like she would rather be dancing on her own. Fellow dancer Paul Matteson had to impose his presence on Newell to create any sort of interaction. This is unfortunate because solo improvised dance has an inherent flaw: it often comes across as narcissistic.
Dance is an art where the instrument (the body) and its creation (movement) are so closely linked as to become indistinguishable. So when performers improvise dance solos, there is inevitably the impression that whatever they do is considered interesting simply by virtue that they are dancers.
But what is most often compelling in dance is not the body, but the relation between bodies. Friday evening, sadly, such a relation was clearly lacking.