As part of FRINGE, BELLYFLOP asked people from various backgrounds who have not contributed to BELLYFLOP before if they would be interested in responding to FRINGE on first-time, voluntary basis as a cheeky, luxurious embellishment to our festival. People have been generous. Here is Robbie Ellen’s response to Jacket Dance by Dan Watson, presented at The Place on Saturday 12 October.
In a dance studio, as part of a small modern dance festival, Dan Watson and Matthew Winston’s performance made its principle material and resource a kind of untrained dancing. It brought in to this environment of trained dance, dance from another environment, with a less articulated but still not absent sets of norms and objectives. That environment seemed to me to be weekend clubs, bars, pubs, etc., playing largely pop or rock music. In that environment forms of dance are not one of the directed means of socialising and coming together. Instead it is the lack of shared movement and bodily rhythm in dance that reigns. Those who do dance are not there working at being the collective authors of their own movement – creating their own cultural forms and means of physical communication – they are strangers in this sense, in constant struggle with pervasive and dominating forms of dance that they, as if spontaneously, reproduce: the gendered and erotic dictates of mostly pop music video. Think, in contrast, of ‘Juke’ or ‘Footwork’ dancing in Chicago at the moment and some relief might be thrown on the specificity of the kind of dance and environment Watson and Winston drew on. This isn’t to say that Juke dancing is not also in constant struggle with dominating representations of dance from pop music video, but that Juke is a collective dance form both constantly influenced by and able in parts to reject those dictates of how to dance: what to be and what to want in dance. The environment taken up by Jacket Dance finds those dancing, coping in their own distance from movements they make, following their detailed knowledge of mass culture. I’ve felt this before and see it a lot. Dance is a supplement to a bar playing generic and undisputed classics.
From this environment Watson and Winston took a type: the male ‘straight’ ‘bachelor.’ The scare quotes could jitter on into the distance, but for the useful clarity in this stereotype, I’ll stick with them. This isn’t to say that married, gay men cannot or do not dance like this, but that a kind of (at least straight-acting) man on the pull, is best known for this kind of dancing. The two dancers took this kind of ‘lay’ dancing as both a mode of movement and as an impersonation. In the detail of their reproduction of this dancing were the jerks and thrusts, twists and poses, and too the performance of the anxieties consequent to risking and often failing this bravado. The ambiguity between this type of dance expressed as a set of movements and as an impersonation was registered most keenly in their facial expressions. As the performance began with each taking turns at this erratic and showy dance, their faces remained unaffected. Their expressionless faces could be both those of dancers following movements, and as part of the impersonation of this type of male, who keeps a dead-pan look on his face to appear unaffected by all the hard-work he is doing pretending to be Justin Timberlake. It remained hard to tell when their expressions were those of dancers and when they were those of the characters they were impersonating.
It was just this ambiguity that differentiated it from a comedy sketch. If the performance were a ‘sketch,’ the crux and logic of the piece would surely have been only too obvious. Its audience that night would have been prompted to find the type that was being impersonated solely laughable. A comedy sketch in the realm of ‘observational humour’: can’t we all laugh at how ridiculous a certain straight male looks when they try to dance. This mode would then perhaps inevitably reach its comedic climax with the play between the two male characters as both competitive and homo-social. Set in the scene of the club, they don’t want to dance by themselves, and, increasingly dancing closely together, the sketch would finish itself off with a dull joke about their physical and rhythmic bravado being directed at one another. Real BBC stuff.
Thankfully, this dance confirmed none of this predictable and dull humour. It held on to its social material (untrained, disjointed male dancing in clubs), brought out a physical, almost slap-stick comedy of this kind of dancing, and moved and played about with it in the realm of trained, contemporary dance. That is because its discipline remained dance, into which character type was played with, rather than observational comedy being its discipline, in which a character type is out dancing. How did it maintain this unresolved relation between sketch comedy and dance?
The joke never slid into a simple reproduction of embarrassing male dancing because this awkward and untrained dancing began – as the piece developed – to be formalised. The flinging limbs and hips were regularised with planned stops and starts and choreographed routines were performed by each simultaneously. The material of untrained stumbles, lurches, staggers and leaps were extended and exaggerated by these trained bodies. In these ways the character type continued to be held onto without being confined to a sketch, as it was thrown about and suspended in exhausting and intricate dance. So when, towards the end, their two bodies did meet – by jumping up and down and crashing into each other – the erotic tie between them was really confusing and engaging. It didn’t confirm a joke about this type of dancer, because this crescendo of hectic involvement was furthest away from the dancers as playing characters.
It still remains unclear to me if there was one intention or motive in particular structuring the dance, but there didn’t need to be. The dance felt like a work in progress in the best sense: working things out; finding out what using this type and kind of dancing can bring, and what it demands. It tested out physical embarrassment of playing with dancing badly; rhythmic tensions between incompetency and grace, bungling and skill; but one aspect of it that intrigued me was its representation of the cultural oppression of the potentially sexually oppressive. This is risky business. The risk was handled in large part by representing this dancing as funny, as ridiculous, and exaggerating its movements, but this enabled the dance to also be a kind of study of distances between a certain straight male and his own body whilst dancing in clubs; the mechanical adoption of strict gendered movements and poses, the pressured and flailing copy of gendered competency and power. The dance did make great fun of, and did want to present, this male body undergoing the jerks and shocks of sanctioned rhythmical expression, taking on the sexual prowess of how this male ‘is to’ dance, continuing always to maintain comportment, and, now and then, discovering other means of dancing that might not be dictated in this way: a physical register of estrangement.
Written by Robbie Ellen, who lives in London, is 27 years old and likes to go dancing.
Dancers: Dan Watson & Matthew Winston
Created by: Dan Watson in collaboration with Rachael Mossom & Matthew Winston