wild ideas

In my various roles as choreographer, video-maker, teacher (what Cat Harrison calls a “slashie” as in dancer slash maker slash …) I seek collaborations.

Collaboration places me in situations that are difficult, playful, unique and filled with potential. It is a reminder that my ideas are not necessarily worth more than another’s and challenges me to reflect on how I can make engaging and complex projects.

Recently, I happened across a video from 1999 in which employees of IDEO are given a week to build a better shopping cart. The programme is rather long-winded but the critical concerns of IDEO in working together are:

  • One Conversation at a time
  • Stay focused on topic
  • Encourage wild ideas
  • Defer judgement
  • Build on the ideas of others

Although the focus of IDEO is on designing new (or improved) objects, I find these guidelines are useful and meaningful in the (choreographic) studio. In dance, choreographers have a tendency to avoid owning up to influence — something that, for example, film makers haves no concerns about — and yet we are always building on the ideas of others. It is better to be aware of what these ideas are and who has worked with them previously, rather than make a song and dance about the desire for originality. 

Deferring judgement challenges intuitive responses and invites a more timely system of responding to ideas. This is not to say that working intuitively is not useful (or wrong), just that there is plenty of time for intuition to do it’s work. In other words, it doesn’t have to be the first (and often only) response. I see this time and time again with students who are working in groups when their first response (intuitively) is to dislike the idea of a colleague. This builds resistance to that idea (and how other subsequent permutations of it might be powerful indeed), and also the potential for ill-will in the group.

I’ve been working in the studio lately with the remarkable Colin Poole and although it hasn’t been simple or easy, we’ve worked hard to stay on topic, have singular conversations, and encouraged our fair share of wild ideas. Can’t wait to show it a bit in September.

(ABC News Nightline, 13 July 1999)

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Delusion, choreography and dramaturgy

I am a choreographer and I understand this work to involve developing imaginative and playful questions of how to represent ideas through embodied actions and dance. These ideas take various forms and are constructed (or emerge) in multiple ways. Sometimes they are wonderfully clear, other times less so, but the ideas always involve a kind of grappling with possibilities, actions, images, sounds and offers. The ‘game’ of choreography feels like a tremendous privilege — it is difficult, rewarding, fun, complex, tangible and elusive.

The difficulty I encounter most often — as viewer, maker, dancer and teacher — is one that might be thought of as a kind of delusion. Creating any object, activity, performance or choreography inevitably involves an encounter with desire. We want things to happen in particular ways, and often we want these to be experienced by others in equally particular ways (this includes people working solely in improvisation). Dance’s preoccupation with the word intention points to this desire to create art works that in some ways reflect the things we are attempting to express. The ‘delusion’ occurs when I replace what is actually happening in the studio or on the stage with what I imagine (or want) to be happening.

Recently an ex-student of ‘mine’ suggested my mantra is, “What is there?”

I think this is an important question for choreographers to constantly test themselves against. The capacity to project our desires on choreographic movement (in particular) is strong indeed, and it requires robust self-esteem to become aware of the disparity between what one wants to see (hear, feel etc) and what is actually going on as work, ideas and images are being developed.

This is why I tend to work with people who assume some form of dramaturgical role. Although the dramaturge was historically responsible for ensuring the context and frames for scripts and settings were accurate, in dance, dramaturges have increasingly been given responsibility for tracking the possibilities for meaning in performance work.

My approach has been to ask a dramaturge to check in with what I want to be going on (or am imagining is going on) and what is actually going on. Of course, I am writing of reality and imagination as if they are a binary, but the reality (!) is much less clear and it is within ambiguity that the possibility for rich, complex, chaotic, simple and affecting choreography is made possible. And yet the question “What is there?” — and the practice of addressing this question — remains fundamental to how I understand my relationship to movement, audience, meaning and art.

on humour

On Saturday night I watched the final evening of the finals of the Place Prize in London. There were four performances – Begin to Begin by Eva Recacha, It Needs Horses by Raquel Meseguer and Ben Duke (Lost Dog), Cameo by Riccardo Buscarini and Antonio de la Fe Guedes, and Fidelity by Freddie Opuku-Addaie and Frauke Requardt. I’d seen one of the works previously – It Needs Horses – on the semi-final night in September 2010 (the same night that my project Desire Lines was presented). I’ve thought (and talked) a lot about It Needs Horses since that time, and particularly since Saturday. The work has had a hard time from many reviewers (“the work I admired least” – Judith Mackrell, ” thought all 3 pieces that did not win #placeprize were a lot better than the winner” – Sanjoy Roy via twitter), but I very much enjoyed the demands it placed on me as an audience member.

What follows is not a review as such, but more a ‘wondering’ about that work, its humour and also the extent to which I think it succeeded and failed. It is also the work that I cared about the most as I was watching. This care, I suspect, has more to do with my interests as an artist than the relative quality of the four works in the finals.

It Needs Horses is, I believe, about power between men and women, and touches on themes of autonomy and identity. The setting is a circus ring in which the two bedraggled protagonists – played eloquently and passionately by Chris Evans and Anna Finkel – appear to be down and out. But this framing – of the stunts humans will pull for a dollar or two – is simply a means by which Raquel Meseguer and Ben Duke are able to make possible what appear to be their central concerns.

The narrative of It Needs Horses is a familiar one (made more familiar by the circus setting – we know how these places function, they have a rich history of family, or close living and of tough circumstances) and is in four parts: 1) in which the man works his routines regardless of the woman (kicking and pretend masturbating her); 2) she then ‘awakens’ (and this is where the work was increasingly difficult to watch) and we are presented with images of an autonomous woman, prepared to kick, frotter, and climax whilst he, blankly, tolerates her; 3) he flexes his power and ‘tames’ her (complete with live foley sounds of whip cracks) as she gallops around the edge of the circus ring and we get to see a few stag leaps; and 4) her redemption is, quite simply, to leave the circus ring, and the work ends with him writhing in terror. But terror of what? Solitude? Loss? They say that more women are happy out of relationships whilst men tend to be happy in them.

The audience found this work funny and it has an accessible appeal evident by Lost Dog winning their place in the final courtesy of the highest audience vote in September last year, and then winning 9 of the 10 audience votes during the finals series.

But what are we laughing at?

I recently heard Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells talk about how he understands and works with humour in performance. His interest is in creating texts (or performances) that are ‘activated’ by an audience – when an audience laughs at what is on stage they ‘activate’ the text. Etchell’s spoke of how his desire is to then cause a problem for the audience that, because they initiated the laughter, makes them complicit in the problem.

This is where Lost Dog’s It Needs Horses is weakest. My concern as I listened to the audience on Saturday night was that I was not convinced that we understood ourselves as part of this problem of power, desire, and autonomy; that the laughter was able to keep us at arm’s length from the problem that Lost Dog and these two fine performers had generated. But who is responsible for this lack of complicity? Is it about the cultural attitudes of an audience or is something absent from the form-content of the work that enables us to laugh, but not be implicated?

As I watched Chris Evans scream his final scream after Anna Finkel’s exit from the circus ring, what I saw was a man who had exerted his power and lost. Although the victim – Anna’s character – finally expressed her autonomy by stepping outside of him, It Needs Horses remained his narrative, marked by her eventual absence. The significant question in my mind is the extent to which we as an audience identify with – and see ourselves in – this man’s world, his privilege, his ugliness, his capacity for violence.

Lost Dog deservedly won £25k on Saturday night, as well as £9k worth of audience votes over ten nights. Given this £34k worth of winnings, it was rather ungraciousness to hear Ben Duke have a go at critics who, after all, are responding to Lost Dog’s work in much the same way I am responding here – filtered by aesthetic biases, desire to see and experience particular kinds of work, and divergent histories. Even more strange, and given my concerns about the work above, was for Raquel Meseguer’s presence during the prize-giving to be expressed by her silence. We only heard the voice of the man.

European Spring / Antipodean Autumn

Dear All

Some brief news about some things I’m involved in over the coming months …

1. Colin, Simon & I

Colin Poole and I are currently finishing three weeks choreographic development in the studio at The Place. The work deals with, rather broadly, ways of relating, and in some respects builds on (and forgets) our first collaboration together in the summer of 2009. We have some more time in the studio over the summer as part of Choreodrome at The Place, and then will hope to share it around a bit. There’s an out of date blog at http://colin-simon.tumblr.com. Fictional DogShelf Theatre Company (Bob Whalley and Lee Miller) joined us for a day as provocateurs, and will also help in the summer when Chris Bannerman also comes on board as an ‘outside eye’.


2. Dance Technology and Circulations of the Social Version 2.0

This week I fly to Boston to be part of Dance Technology and Circulations of the Social Version 2.0. It’s convened by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Harmony Bench, and involves a small(ish) group of people – some of whom met at Yale in October 2009 – discussing ideas and visions of dance’s various relationships with technology. It’s free and open to the public so if you are in the area and keen (yes, David Corbet, I’m talking to you) we’ll be at  MIT Media Lab, 6th Floor, 25 Carleton Street, Cambridge, MA 02142. I’m presenting a paper called Dancing with myself, oh oh oh, which has some thoughts about dancing on and beside screens, friendship, solitude and Billy Idol.


3. Spruiking Look and Look Again

Dance films are normally presented in series as part of evening length collections. This is almost entirely for practical purposes, but it is impossible as a filmmaker to predict the ways in which the rhythm or dynamic of the evening influences the way in which your work is experienced. Look and Look Again is a gentle effort to begin to manipulate an evening of short-films by having two films presented non-consecutively. These films are silent, have no credits and are ripped from the Inert films developed with Cormac Lally, David Corbet, Scott Mitchell and Shannon Bott. I’ve started sending them to screendance festivals …

4. 67

This is a new film project, currently in planning and testing. 67 seconds, 67 years, a lifetime, and a brief dance. More soon.

5. Solo Performance Commissioning Project with Deborah Hay

In late August I travel to Findhorn, Scotland to participate in Deborah Hay’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and have long been inspired by artists such as Ros Warby, Rachel Krische, Atlanta Eke and Joe Moran who have worked with Deborah. Part of the commissioning involves each artist gathering the fee from within their community, and I’ve got the support of 61 friends, family, and organisations who have each contributed. There are some details at skellis.net/spcp. The work is made over 10 days at Findhorn, then rehearsed for (at least) three months before I’ll première it in London early in 2012.


6. Roehampton Dance Festival 2011

Roehampton University Dance has a week-long festival 16 – 21 May 2011. It’s a wonderful collection of work, workshops and sharings and will be a highlight of the Department’s year. Head to roehampton.ac.uk/dance2011 for details.

That’s it for now.

Just a reminder, you can’t respond directly to this email. If you’d like to drop me a line, try se@skellis.net. Also, if you’d like to subscribe to this newsletter, go to http://bit.ly/skellis_subscribe.

All the very best, Simon

Twitter: @simonkellis
Blog: http://skellis.posterous.com