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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2014

The Rise of Dance Theatre

Wednesday, August 27, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Rotimi Agbabiaka

A thrilling duet is underway in a Berkeley rehearsal space. Two performers match each other move for move, as arms entwine in tenuous embraces, bodies recoil from violent contact and intermittent screams punctuate the accompanying music. A visitor to the room might understandably wonder what modern dance piece is being rehearsed.

Daisuke Tsuji and Erika Chong Shuch, the performers in question, are actually rehearsing an upcoming production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at California Shakespeare Theater. Under Shana Cooper's direction, they are using techniques traditionally associated with dance to deepen their connection to the play's truths.

"I want to see what happens if you take language away and try to express essential truths using a physical and visual language." Cooper says about her approach to rehearsing Shakespeare.

Cooper is one of many contemporary theatre artists who are producing work that blurs the line between dance and theatre. This approach dates back to the 1970s, when pioneering German choreographer Pina Bausch encouraged her dancers to use language and everyday gestures in their performance. Bausch called her new form "Tanztheater," or "dance theatre." Since then, it has gained quite a following.

Yolande Snaithe in Scared Shirtless, 1988.
Photo: Chris Nash
"When I saw Pina Bausch in 1982 it completely blew my mind," says Yolande Snaithe, a dance theatre artist recruited by UC San Diego to develop its six-year-old MFA Dance Theatre program. "There was spectacle, audience interaction, talking, extraordinary worlds on stage."

Snaithe's career began in her native Britain in the 1980s where a desire to combine her interests in visual art and dance led her to Dartington College, a theatre school that offered dance training. In her work, the movement usually came first, but it was accompanied by a sense of narrative, and involved close collaboration with musicians, designers and filmmakers to create genre-spanning pieces. Over long rehearsal periods, Snaithe would use visual art, costume design, and music inspired by the sounds of the body to create pieces that, as she describes it, "removed layer after layer in order to reveal something unexpected." Snaithe has continued this work in a variety of collaborations and commissions, including one from Stanley Kubrick to choreograph
Eyes Wide Shut, his final film.

The tendency to defy categorization and cross boundaries is a defining characteristic of work that falls under the aegis of dance theatre. The artists attracted to such work share a yearning to defy the limits of any one genre.

"For me the primary lens is: does that feel truthful?" says Erika Chong Shuch, a Bay Area performance maker whose work spans the worlds of dance and theatre. "My work has always been with dancers, actors, musicians—artists from different disciplines. And to make work that draws from all these distinct traditions, the fun thing is to feel a sense of nimbleness. That in one moment I can be looking at the work completely through the lens of [physical] composition, and then, for the next 22 seconds, I can look at it through the lens of acting."

This nimbleness and fluidity can make the genre difficult to define, however.

Joe Estlack and Megan Trout in Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun, 2013. Photo: Pak Han  
"I do wonder if the obsession with defining [dance theatre] has to do with the fact that by its nature it defies language," says Mark Jackson, a Bay Area director whose work often incorporates stylized movement. "I'm more interested in answering the question by getting actors and dancers in the room together and seeing what happens."

Directors like Jackson use dance in their theatre productions because it adds new dimensions to the work. It also allows for greater collaboration with the actors. In Jackson's work, the physicality is dictated by the unique movement vocabulary of each performer. His 2013 production of the play, Bonnie and Clyde, used a variety of physical styles to tell the story of the fabled outlaws.

"The movement really depends on who is in the room," Jackson says. "In [Bonnie and Clyde], I had Megan Trout, who has a background in ballet and acrobatics; Joe Estlack, who has the most brilliant Michael Jackson moves and [choreographer] Kimberly Dooley, who could really help us with the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers numbers."

This democratic approach to creating work is another hallmark of dance theatre. Unlike in musical theatre, a theatre genre that also uses dance, dance theatre directors don't necessarily impose a particular dance style or preordained choreography on the performers. Instead, the physicality comes out of collaboration in the rehearsal studio and is usually rooted in pedestrian and everyday gestures.

"I don't have formal dance training so I can't tell someone a French term and have them just bust out a move," says Jackson. "I usually give them a prompt or question and they do a movement based on what they know."

Matthias Bossi and ensemble in a 2008 version of
The Lucky One. Photo: Evan Bissell
This kind of exploration requires a lot of time in the rehearsal studio—something that's increasingly difficult to come by, due to the budget concerns of many theatre companies. Today, the standard rehearsal time for a play is about three and a half weeks; Jackson produced Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players, which routinely gives its productions five to six weeks of rehearsal. This tradition makes Shotgun an attractive place to stage work that transcends genre. Next summer, the company will produce The Lucky One, a new performance work by Erika Chong Shuch and Michelle Carter that aims to use original music, dance, narrative and text.

Concerns about how to produce dance theatre given the commercial pressure on theatre makers and limits on rehearsal time have instructors like Snaithe grappling with how to best prepare their students for real-world careers. She and her colleagues are finding that, as government funding and foundation grants for the arts continue to be cut, dance theatre practitioners need to be adept at both promoting their work and using smaller budgets and self-generated funds.

"More and more the choreographers who want to work in this cutting-edge way are having to be very resourceful to raise money for their work" says Snaithe. "There's an interesting generation of young artists who are making work with no money or doing things like Kickstarter."

There is also concern that work that is difficult to categorize is harder to sell to an audience. But some artists challenge that thinking.

"People need to get creative about how they market the work," says Jackson.

According to him and Shuch, dance theatre will find its audience because its emphasis on visual and physical expression speak more directly to our contemporary aesthetic. MTV and the Internet have made us very receptive to the visual image and the use of montage. And the success of companies like Kneehigh Theatre, the genre-blending British company that has had two hit runs at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, shows that this kind of work can succeed commercially.

"People like to watch people move," Jackson says. "And half of the kitchen-sink plays aren't selling out anyway, so why not mix it up?"


Rotimi Agbabiaka is a San Francisco-based actor, teacher, director and writer. He's performed at Cal Shakes, Theatreworks and Beach Blanket Babylon and written an award-winning solo play called Homeless. He is currently a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.