Dance Roads Open Process by Nicholas Minns

Dance Roads is a European Network, working in partnership with Montreal-based organisation Tangente, dedicated to supporting innovative choreographers and providing them with an opportunity to emerge on to the international stage.

It was a privilege to be able to observe the process of creation at Dance Roads Open Process (DROP) at Chapter in Cardiff for the two weeks from September 16.

The process of creation starts with the human being at the heart of the idea who then searches for some kind of form to mould the idea on to a body or bodies. The life of the dancers in the work — which is part of their interpretation — then transforms the idea further, so by the time the public sees it, a dance work has undergone the successive overlays of creator, performer, and other artistic collaborators (like composer, costume, set and lighting designers) to form a complex interplay of human communication. In addition, as you will see in these five works, the subject matter is very personal, so that the link between our own life and that of the work is barely distinct from the relationship between two people. I have found at Dance Roads that getting to know each choreographer has led me to an appreciation of their respective works, an appreciation that resides as much on the personal level as on formal aesthetics or philosophical research; the gift of dance is the opening up of our lives to receive it.

One might object that we don’t always have the option of this level of knowledge before we see a work; that a dance performance should stand on its own feet. In its final form, I would agree. But I would suggest that this personal element is an integral part of the process of creation and must be taken into account in any appreciation of the final work. It also has an impact on how we might communicate the nature of dance performances — especially contemporary dance — to the public. Program notes and post-show talks thus take on particular significance.

I would also like to talk about respect. Consider this answer from the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton on being asked to define choreography:

Choreography is my whole being, my whole life, my reason for living. I pour into it all my love, my frustrations and sometimes autobiographical details. To me in many ways it has more reality than the life that I live. I couldn’t conceive of existing unless I could do choreography.

If a choreographer invests this much of his or her life into a work, the work deserves our attention and respect whether we like it or not. Mutual respect is at the heart of our humanity. Throughout this two-week residency, I have been able to observe and learn about the lives of the choreographers and dancers in the process of creation: their way of working, the organization of their work, the fragility with which an idea is grown from a seed and its manifestation in form and rhythm. We have a lot to learn from all five of these choreographers and I am grateful to them for opening up their lives and the inspiration they have provided as a result.

In Sarah Bronsard’s case, she had performed a work called 4 Kilos in her native Montreal; her subject was the life of the cicada, its evolution from a long period of gestation to its brief, sonorous outing in the sunshine before dying. She became pregnant soon after the performance and gave birth to Adrien who is now 4 months old and is here with her. The work she is creating for Dance Roads is a sequel to 4 Kilos not in its formal structure or thought (though related) but in the light of her subsequent pathway of motherhood. The starting point of Jo Fong’s work is an exploration of the dichotomy between the performers and the audience that derives from a mind that is constantly questioning the status quo. Her earliest work was made on such a small scale that only one person could see it at a time, and there is still that intimacy in the way she works. Watching her in class each morning with Emmanuel Grivet has been another illuminating insight into her singular way of working. She is her work, and Laura Lee Greenhalg and Beth Powlesland are not only responsive to her way of working but represent different characteristics of Jo: her comical sense of the absurd and a dream-like sense of beauty.

Perhaps one can read too much into the life of a choreographer but I could not help make a connection between the serious accident that Andrea Gallo Rosso suffered as a teenager when a car hit him with the compassion that he exudes in his work and in his working process with Manolo Perazzi. Having had to challenge the frailty of his body and to stimulate its capacity to heal, he works with great patience and respect for the body and the person. He also brings into the studio five years of research in bio-medical physics: he experiments with movement until he gets the result he wants. He is also unique in the group as he is both choreographer and performer. But more than that, he filters what for me is quintessentially Italian — commedia del’arte, Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves, photographs by Richard Avedon of the street performer Zazi and I Pagliacci — into a living, contemporary form. Jasper van Luijk was an accomplished ballroom dancer who subsequently studied philosophy at university and was quickly drawn in to contemporary dance. All these elements are present in his work: his sense of the flow of movement, the philosophical exploration of withdrawal, death and mourning, and the formal use of the well-trained and responsive bodies of Jefta Tanate and Luca Cacitti to shape one movement into another. I am constantly amazed at how quickly he seizes on a solution to a choreographic problem; he knows what he wants, and I am confident he will continue to find it. Teilo Troncy studied theatre in Bordeaux before moving to Holland to train in dance. His approach to choreography is quite different from van Luijk’s; through his own developing state of curiosity, he is like a coach or a guide researching the inner states that he wants to manifest on stage, a delicate and fragile task, both for himself and his muse, Pauline Buenerd, in which he perseveres with the utmost sincerity. I found a book in Cardiff, a translation of Jean-Louis Barrault’s Réflexions sur le Théâtre and in it I came across Barrault’s definition of subjective mime, which could very well refer to Troncy’s work: ‘the study of the states of the soul translated into bodily expression. The metaphysical attitude of man in space.’

Each of these choreographers was chosen independently from five different countries, but the happy confluence of their creative approaches in Dance Roads is matched by their singular integrity.

This is also the first year that a mentor has been invited to help in the creative process and Emmanuel Grivet seems to have just the right approach to accomplish this. His work in improvisational movement has a universality that allows all the dancers to participate in morning class without contradicting any of their own individual technique. In particular his concept of centre leads in practice to a freedom of movement that enhances not only body but mind. In his mentorship of each creation he brings that freedom into the theatre so that his intervention is not invasive of any work already done, encourages a free development and yet advances the work. In short Grivet has provided the kind of supportive environment in which each of these choreographers can develop their work. Open Process describes it well even if the acronym DROP has connotations that move in the wrong direction to the creative flow.

The Dance Roads tour will take place in May 2014. For dates, please see the Dance Roads website.