text, words and understanding

Skills Exchange Day 4

Using text choreographically

Today we played with a few ways in to using text in performance and as part of a creative process. In her own words, Katie Green shared a few of the reasons why she chooses to use text in her work:

  • Point of access: for me, text is one of the tools I use to offer the audience an access point in to the world of the work. As I now mainly work out of theatres in museums, galleries and heritage sites, the audience who see my work often happen upon it by accident, and may have less experience of watching dance (particularly contemporary dance). I hope that using text helps give new dance audiences confidence in their own understanding/interpretation of what they are seeing because, like a recognisable physical gesture, words are something with which they may be able to connect more immediately.
  • Orientation: I use text as part of the ‘orientation process’ for the audience at the beginning of my work; as a way of setting up the performance as an invitation; putting people at ease; giving them just enough information so that they begin to understand what might be expected of them, and then we can work from there - this doesn’t mean we can’t surprise them, but there’s a basic level of understanding, an agreement. Often in the work I make now, the performers talk before they start moving.
  • Poetry and impressionism: I sometimes use text poetically or impressionistically to contribute to building an atmosphere. To give one example, in each section of my work for caves and underground spaces, Beneath Our Feet, we have tried to replicate something about the quality of the section in the way the text is constructed/delivered. So in the ‘disappearing’ section, the text appears to disappear, and is carried away into the sound score, then when it comes back again it is amplified so that it sounds distorted and it’s still not clear where it’s coming from. Or in the section about the movement of water through rock, it extends into long lines of sung text, overlapped and layered between recorded and live sound.
  • Character: I use text as part of developing a sense of character. Because of the contexts in which I work, and the kind of promenade performance I often create (which can be like a danced version of a museum tour), the text I often use can be informative, giving a little historical information upon which we then build imaginatively

I also often use text as stimulus but then don’t use it in the final performance - it has to contribute something to the performance, or why use it?

In terms of approaches to using text, I find it most effective where text is an active partner in the creative process, i.e. we begin by exploring words and fragments composed by our writer-collaborator, poet Anna Selby, that are not in their finished state, and through the devising process we allow the writing to find its final form.

Anna is brilliant because she is so open to the process of us developing her text through physical exploration, and I am fortunate to also work with performers who are happy to/skilled at contributing to the ongoing process of reworking a piece of text.

Before Anna starts writing, I put together a brief that will include:

  • Aims for the writing - why am I using text in this piece?
  • Key themes
  • Source material I’ve identified responding to those themes - can be related pieces of text, but also music, images etc - we have a shared Google Doc to which we both add. This helps us develop a sense of the tone of the writing we are going for in the final piece
  • An idea of overall structure

Anna will then get busy writing away, and as she sends work through, I will work with the performers and dramaturg Tom Cornford to identify the crucial parts of the text to take forward, and feeding back to Anna as the shape of the writing develops. This process of selecting and refining is very important; wherever we use text it has to contribute something to the story-telling, something that we couldn’t achieve through movement alone.

Some of the questions that arose out of/things that we noticed during this session of the AEP Skills Exchange included:

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  • The time it can take to integrate text into the choreographic process; it can be a lengthy process
  • What comes first? Text or movement? Is it best when they can be created simultaneously? In performance, there is a real impact if the movement and text have been developed simultaneously, as this brings an authenticity both to the content and the delivery.
  • Text can be used impressionistically (e.g. through repetition of words and phrases) as well as literally
  • Consider the purpose of the text, and use certain kinds of text for particular kinds of movement
  • Think about the delivery of the text – the tone is really important
  • Dance as a “humanising texture” – it makes the audience aware that the dancers are real people and helps to break down the potential barrier between performer and audience