Ben Duke sits at ease on a sofa below the majestic ribboned ceiling of the Siobhan Davies studios. His appearance here comes as part of Independent Dance’s annual series of talks called Crossing Borders. The series aims to challenge and question the ideas behind inter-disciplinary work, and explores the ways in which different art forms can be enriched and informed through cross-collaboration. In collaboration itself with The Place’s postgraduate course Edge, and this time also with PAL (performing arts labs), Crossing Borders brings to its platform Lost Dog co-founder and choreographer, Ben Duke. From a company renowned for its inter-disciplinary use of movement, theatre, text and live music, Duke’s seems like a perfect brain to pick to kick-start this series of talks.
Sat in front of an impressively sized audience for the first in a series, Duke begins to contemplate how the concept of crossing the disciplinary border is addressed in his own choreographic work. He talks about beginning with a story and characters, the way one would assume a theatre director would begin. However he goes on to describe how his approach to ‘story’ is not necessarily in the linear narrative sense. He speaks of expanding a single moment, and exploring the millions of possible moments that could take place within a mere couple of seconds. Almost a theatrical approach to chaos theory, Duke explains how within his work these minute moments are stretched, sometimes through the use of dance or other abstract forms, to create a sense of parallel realities. As an agent of illusion, the physicality of movement seems to emerge, dream-like and embedded through an immersive narrative as a way of generating believable frames for the dance.
To create engaging pieces of work that successfully combine dance, text, music and narrative without ending up with a spangly tits and teeth musical theatre piece requires some serious thought. It begs the age-old question, mulled over by audiences and choreographers alike, how do you make it so that the characters within a piece believably choose to dance? Duke asks ‘how do you bridge the gap between reality and an abstract reality?’. He provides us with an undesirable example of musical theatre and its harsh changes between spoken text and show-tunes (group-shudder).
The answer to this seems to hover around a certain element of subtlety. He describes a delicate balance between providing the framing devices of narrative and character for the dance in order to tie the piece together concisely and not leave the audience utterly perplexed, yet also leaving enough space for ambiguity and imagination. The level at which an audience’s emotions are directed can be controlled through the subtle marriage of text and movement. A choreographer must take control of an audience’s emotional journey through the piece if they have any hope of communicating some tangibly emotive meaning or leaving behind a form of reactive residue. Duke describes his use of layering as a way of inducing subtlety and combating the clunkyness that could arise if movement and text are put together haphazardly. By allowing an expansion of the audience’s imagination through carefully constructing this blurred connection between theatre and dance, the audience member then has the agency to interpret what they see differently. They can relate it to their own lives to make it more emotionally relevant, rather than some distant story about some removed characters that may or may not bare any social or cultural relationship to the viewer. Duke also adds here that in the building and layering of character; when developed in conjunction with text and theatre and most importantly improvisation, a feeling of immediacy can be conjured. Through the use of improvisation, characterisation and physicality can be kept alive, leading the audience to believe (but at the same time not really believe) that this series of events unfolding on stage is happening for the first time. A sensitive balance between letting the audience know that this is a performance (yes, very Brechtian) and tempting them to become emotionally involved within the story creates this two-way pull that seems to fuse the use of dance and theatre. Almost like saying – yes, audience, I know this is completely unbelievable because two people wouldn’t ever go from a very verbal confrontation to a twisty-turny-lovely-dancey phrase in normal life but, oh, don’t we wish we could... wouldn’t it make so much more sense...