A response to Judith Mackrell’s review in the Guardian on 20/2/12
While I have often enjoyed Judith Mackrell’s writing on dance and appreciate that she came to review Guest Suites at the Clore Studio, in itself a supportive gesture, the review seemed intent on placing the work within a limited frame of reference. As in previous recent reviews Mackrell refers to my pioneering work in the 70s “...it’s good to see that 70s spirit is still alive...” I have no problem with this contextualising – most of the contemporary strategies we see today emerged from that radical era, which should not be forgotten. However it seems to me that here it is an attempt to marginalise the work and to suggest that ‘investigating the art form’s potential’ is not of contemporary relevance.... Having more or less grown up together in the same emergent contemporary/new dance UK scene (Mackrell actually performed in a piece of mine in the early 80s) with me as a ‘pioneering’ choreographer and she as a ‘new’ critic, I had hoped for more understanding and placing of the languages in Guest Suites. Her main critique is that it is ‘work in progress’ an approach that, in the past, had some respect and cultural meaning within performance practice - and I do agree that the climate has changed in this respect - and that is another discussion. However this is not what she is suggesting here. Here she is implying under work. As the central artist carrying through this project from inception to development over three years, I know this is mistaken. It is a very developed and layered piece - which uses strategies and disciplines that deliberately reveal its own construction. It is not hiding its processes and techniques behind a shiny over-produced surface (although the work is very detailed and precise). It is a piece which asks questions through its form and structure and through the complex relationship between the dance and music. Indeed, it did seem that the only way to work with Bach’s suites was to ask questions, using fragmentation, collage, chance and ‘poor theatre’ as formal devices. The occasional vulnerability of live performance is part of its fabric – is part of its ‘product’. Let’s not underestimate, either, the quality of performances – there were several guest moments that were the best I have seen in many years on any stage. I do like using modernist lines and shapes which are sometimes technically difficult for the dancers to achieve, but I also ask for emotional embodiment and a certain kind of inhabiting visual image which not many dancers are trained for – or it has been trained out of them. There was subtlety in the performances of our cast and a quality of what I call ‘the speaking dancer’.
Beyond this review of Guest Suites there are wider issues. I believe Mackrell, as a senior critic, has a responsibility not only towards work with high commercial production values. She has a responsibility to recognise and discuss dance as an art form - and as art it may be many things, including a shifting relationship with the notion of ‘product’. As live performance Guest Suites will continue to develop, not because it is work in progress, but because that is part of its artistic intention. Its next stop is the Chapter House at York Minster – an ancient space in the round where we will have to draw on site specific and ‘event’ disciplines to adapt the work and integrate the qualities of this beautiful interior landscape. There has to be certain malleability in the work to achieve this ambitious adaptation – but I have 35 years’ experience of approaching diverse performance spaces and I am confident that, with my outstanding company of performers, the event at York Minster will be beautiful and have meaning.
At the close of her review Mackrell writes “...the harsh truth is that in today’s climate of high production values, we’ve all got used to product.” I too am interested in product where it means making coherent work which moves, challenges and gives pleasure to audiences – which was my, and my collaborators’, aim with Guest Suites. However, Dance as an art form has many surfaces, not all smooth, and we the artists are not all here to contribute to conservative production values – we are here to make art and produce diverse products. As part of this discussion I was referred to the critic Lynn Gardner’s Blog in The Guardian ( 24/2/12) in which she asks the question “ Should theatre be fearless, not flawless?....Polished performances rule the stage and the circus ring, but human fragility is just as gripping – and more moving to watch..” I, and many others, agree.