Of late, the idea of ‘ridiculous dancing’ has been getting under my skin. The subject has been brought to my attention both explicitly and indirectly through a string of encounters. A triple whammy of reading choreographer Michael Kliën’s Propositions: To Dance Differently (1), seeing a performance of Jacket Dance (2) by Dan Watson and doing a workshop with dance artist Yair Barelli (3) has produced a kind of commotion within me. This is my entry point for FRINGE: pondering the stuff that gets left on the sidelines, or left behind, or that we haven’t made it to yet, perhaps. Stuff we might dismiss as ‘ridiculous’ that may have more to it than meets the eye.
London-based Dan Watson and Paris-based Yair Barelli do not know one another but they have a vague yet specific interest in ridiculous dancing in common. With a desire to get to grips with their individual reasons for this, I decided to get in touch and ask them both what they were.
My interest in ridiculous dancing is a vague attempt at naming something that probably has more to do with what you’re referring to as ‘fringe’ – who’s to say what is ridiculous or what is not? Surely it’s about how you frame what you are doing? It seemed an appropriate labelling device, especially as it suggests that there is room for not being so serious with what we are doing.
I genuinely enjoy watching people who feel compelled to express themselves in the moment: these spontaneous little personal dances that have nothing to do with rightness or composition and everything to do with humanity and physicalising internal states, whether that be a reaction to music or the moment itself. It’s these things that are the fodder of YouTube. But I’m not interested in laughing at people or their unusual ways of moving (although if a move is funny, it’s funny), it’s more about the joy of it. You can see the person more than the movement. The movement is a vehicle to see the humanity. That, for me, is the core of everything I want to do in dance. It can be the most minimal, abstract work but it all comes down to: where is the human in this?
I’m also coming from a place of reacting against my experience of homogenised (gay) masculinity and issues of desire and acceptability. This is probably tied into the very British trait of valuing the appearance of ‘keeping it together’. Of containing the self. Of ‘coolness’ and ‘sexiness’. But I’m not going down the route of queerness or of alternative drag, which seems to be a popular reaction to this.
So let’s fall apart, let’s not worry about communicating clearly. Let’s not try and be cool or sexy. In fact, let’s try to go the opposite way a little.
I’m also not totally convinced about making more ‘phrases’. Why that movement with that movement? What can that possibly say? I’m curious about what happens if we accept overloading – not deciding – finding indirect ways of choreographing; a looseness that I think leads to other ways of performing and viewing dance.
In the types of ridiculous dancing that we were looking at in Jacket Dance a lot of it was to do with joy: kids dancing to their favourite music, drunk old men dancing for each others’ enjoyment, comedians – both alternative and more traditional – provoking laughter in their audiences. I really like this kind of joy and it’s something that I want to see more of in dance performances. I think it’s very relatable. It’s not that I want Jacket Dance to be a laugh a minute joke dance. But I do want it to be joyful.
FWW: Can you articulate what your strategy was in using the idea of ridiculous dancing in your workshop?
YB: I try to create a feeling of confidence when I’m teaching: confidence between people dancing alone ‘with themselves’ in front of others and those observing others dancing. Maybe it is a strategy to propose ridiculous dancing – something we normally try automatically to avoid – as a task. No one wants to be ridiculous and this limits the movement potential and behaviour of the body a lot. While trying intentionally to dance ridiculously, we are exploring something we do not do habitually.
What is it about the essence of ridiculous dancing that you find so desirable to engineer and behold?
The essence might be this confidence in the sensation and in the inner intention to follow the sensation, without being so occupied (as we are the very most of the time) with an exterior judgment, or observation that we believe is a judgment.
The word ‘ridiculous’ refers to a judgment that we have on our own way of dancing, or on other people’s way of dancing. When we try a ridiculous dance we execute our projection of what is ridiculous. It is an interpretation of the term ridiculous. We are exercising a paradox between our attempt to dance ridiculously and the ongoing automatic impulse we have to avoid being ridiculous.
I understand that your approach is linked to an impression that there is a lot of censorship that goes on within dance. Is this so?
Yes, and not only in dance – all the time. This censorship is important and necessary for most social functioning. In our nature we are violent, sexual, infantile etc… Censoring is a kind of control, an important one when we deal with others. But in dance, art etc. there is another possibility; these are frames that allow us to do whatever. Trying to do that, we realise it is not that easy, we realise that we are somehow directed by dance/art education.
These lines of dance enquiry raise some burning questions for me: What happens when I dance? What is happening to dance? How are we thinking of dance? What strange rules and codes are dance makers abiding by and breaking?
It appears to me that the notion of ridiculous dancing is a term in currency. Watson describes it as “a labelling device”. It is a corker of a label. Evocative and playful, it is a misnomer of sorts, in that it carries – or perhaps disguises – a big issue, not a daft one.
For me, the frame of ridiculous dancing offers a portal, a paradigm shift. Be ridiculous. Be a total fool. It’s an invitation, an entreaty, a dare, a challenge, a bearing all, warts and all deliverance.
The incitement to ditch so-called ‘elegant’, ‘musical’ and ‘good’ movement, qualities that might be thought of as touchstones of Western concert dance, is humbling and glorious and lets all the other kinds of dance in. This movement isn’t about snuffing out existing dances, it’s about celebrating all dances. May no form be subjugated or expelled! As Frank Bock puts it in his introduction to Kliën’s Propositions: To Dance Differently, “what takes place here in dance requires a shift, a broadening out, beyond spectacle.” American choreographer Liz Lerman talks about hiking the horizontal (4) – toppling hierarchical thinking – and dissolving the philosophical demarcation of high dance and low dance, art and life, in order to dance on a plane.
Encapsulated in Kliën’s first proposition (of ten) is the assurance that we instinctually know more than we give ourselves credit for:
1. …Dance as we really know it…
Everyone has a sense of how to dance. This is a call for dance as it is first encountered, neither told nor taught, for the spirited suspension of normative life, untouched by rationality. This Dance knows nothing of acquired knowledge. Simultaneously specific and universal, Dance wraps itself around all living, to dispel life of all its assumptions, inadequate cognitive frames and prevailing truths. Proposition: To Not Know
Kliën’s sixth proposition speaks to the significance and potency of releasing dance from a utilitarian role within “performing arts” contexts:
6. …sailing past the stones of dead builders…
In its institutional arrangements dance has always been dependent on the meta-message: This Is Dance. Whatever it does, however it moves or stops, it constitutes itself that way. Such Dance has to perform and dramatize itself to be Dance. Breaking these unspoken agreements, abandoning the act of signification, to dance anonymously in silence, is the true subversive act of our times. Proposition: It Dancing Itself
This rocks the hell out of my dance boat. Recently, unaccompanied, silent dancing has been nosing its way out of the woodwork at opportune moments: train platform shuffles, dog-walking scats, ‘jancing’ sessions. It is so hard not to feel self-conscious, but I find the more I practice, the higher my threshold for not feeling embarrassed.
Watson’s response to “the disappearance of dance” in experimental performance was the desire to make something that “danced too much”. His attraction to excess was also common and pertinent to the explorations in Barelli’s workshop. In the past, I have been dismissive of the gratuitous deployment of affective, emotive songs to short-circuit me into dancing this way or that. Barelli tested this sentiment in the extreme across a week saturated in pop. Watson utilised music in a similar fashion in his own making process, playing “music we loved and music we hated” to inspire himself and his collaborators. There’s nothing like bringing passion into a room to coax people out of their shells.
In his workshop, Barelli asked participants to grapple with real life: the intrinsic relationship between movement and one’s emotional attitude towards that movement. At first, the task of doing a ridiculous dance felt forced and icky, like reluctantly tipping actions out of a dark cupboard seldom opened; I felt stiff, mystified, insecure. But my feelings about the task transformed over the days that we worked on it; by the end of the week the improvised movement I was doing during the task was much more lucid and forthright. My feelings hovered over another semantic field altogether: empowered, mischievous, frank, wanton – all borne out of a wicked aspiration to be embarrassing.
It got me thinking about dance’s infinite variety, all the good stuff on reserve ready to bubble to the surface when obstructive acquired preoccupations with looking good, in a conventional sense, are abandoned. Toss taboos about, get your pelvis and bum involved! An intriguing part of the enjoyment I got out of this investigation was a swivelling of sense of self, my revelry in the multiple personalities I found myself embodying and perhaps had forgotten I was capable of. Outlandish, cross, dippy, sassy, zealous, meek…
Watson emphasises that his piece, Jacket Dance, is a far cry from cool stock mockery or commentary. Indeed, it appears to be more about getting down to the base exhilaration of moving out of desire rather than purpose. In the duet the performers, ‘possessed’ by their dancing jackets, sweat like there’s no tomorrow and move through dances that let humour and rigour, and lightness and vulnerability both in and out, in turn.
For me, these spectacles, exercises and propositions have irresistible emancipatory flair. They are transgressive tools for shedding dances danced out of obligation or long-held or projected ‘musts’. Ridiculous dancing is a window into an alternative. As a permissive movement, it feels urgent and necessary and scary but ever so welcome. I am lovestruck, full of: “where has this thing been all along?” I find myself pining retrospectively for something I am now convinced has been lacking. I want to loose my head and get out of my depth with all of you.
1. Propositions: To Dance Differently by Michael Kliën (2012) was posted on the BELLYBLOG on 16 August 2013.
2. I first saw Dan Watson’s Jacket Dance at Chisenhale Dance Space’s Dance and the Homemade showcase in April 2013.
3. Yair Barelli led a performance workshop at Chisenhale Dance Space over one week in May 2013.
4. Lerman, Liz. Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer. Middletown: Wesleyan, 2011. Print.
5. ‘Jancing’, jogging and dancing simultaneously, is a word I heard coined by London-based actor Pippa Wildwood.
Yair Barelli was born in 1981 in Jerusalem. Following his studies psychology and linguistics, he worked with several choreographers in Israel. In 2008 he moved to France where he currently lives. He works for various artists and choreographers: Emmanuelle Huynh, Christophe Le Goff, Tino Sehgal, Marlène Monteiro Freitas and Christian Rizzo. His works have been shown at several venues and events in France, Germany, England and Israel. Currently he performs his solo Ce ConTexte and collaborates with the visual artist Neal Beggs and with the collective åbäke, He is regularly invited to teach in dance and art programs such as the CNDC Angers, The Place in London and the Haute École d’Art et Design in Geneva.
Based in Greece and Ireland, Michael Kliën is currently working as an independent artist. In 2013 Michael is focusing on the development of numerous cultural and educational ventures in Europe, including Parliament, a new choreographic work for citizens and R.I.C.E., a cultural initiative on Hydra, Greece. As Head of Choreographic Research at the recently founded Institute of Social Choreography (Frankfurt) he continues researching on aesthetics and governance.
Dan Watson has performed for a variety of artists including Nigel Charnock, Stan Won’t Dance and StopGAP Dance. He has created a few works for StopGAP and himself including two solo projects: Semi Detached and Precariously, besides the duet Jacket Dance.
Illustrations by Phoebe Collings-James.
This article was originally published in BELLYFLOP’s FRINGE Publication, an one-off print edition distributed as part of BELLYFLOP FRINGE at Dance Umbrella 2013.