Strictly speaking this is not a review of From Morning, a day of dance and installation recently curated by Florence Peake, as this is not what I think about the performances, this is what the performances made me think about. The theme is Monotony.
A duet between a dancer and a cellist. The style was minimal and repetitive. The pace on the slow side, the development steady. In a situation when we are not bombarded with information, our eyes and ears are channelled to notice details; small differences and similarities. My initial curiosity in the movements and sounds – in what was performed – quickly faded and made place for who was performing and how. I became interested in how this dancer dealt with a repetitive score and asked myself the question: How should monotony be performed?
Monotony is almost synonymous to boredom and can therefore easily be dismissed. But that would be easy. In order not to dismiss or drift off to some other land, I put on my analytical glasses. Seen as so much of contemporary dance and performance deals – consciously or not, successfully or not – with the concept of monotony, I thought it would be worthwhile to pay extra attention to the execution of it.
Are there any set ingredients to make a monotonous performance work?
I know I am not the only one who has experienced the greatness of small things, a total intrigue in something mundane, overlooked, slow, minimal, unimpressive, slight, modest, faint, dragging or exiguous. However, I also know I am certainly not the only one who has experienced an overwhelming impatience, discomfort or sudden outburst of fatigue whilst the show goes on and on and on. Trying to find a general solution to what works and what doesn’t would be impossible but I’d like to use the space here to highlight a couple of the issues that came out of the performances at From Morning.
Improvisation. Should minimal movements, performed at a monotonous pace, be improvised? How does this improvisation change the perception an audience has of what is happening? Ideas that popped in my head had to do with solo-improvisation versus group-improvisation, and what it is of improvisation that an audience reads. We see decision-making, we see interaction, we see impulses, hesitation and spontaneity. However, when just one person is performing, and not performing very much in terms of activity, there is less of these elements for an audience to get drawn in to. I am inclined to feel that it is perhaps a more engaging and interesting exploration for the performer than it is for an audience. This is by no means a conclusion, it is something I have experienced in multiple situations both as performer and as audience member. A minimal improvisation can serve all sorts of purposes, of which a performed minimal improvisation is one kind.
My initial question (How should monotony be performed?) could now be targeted even narrower by asking: How should monotony be performed in an improvised performance context? Admittedly my intention is not to come to any form of conclusion here. My interest is in sharing thoughts and question-marks only to spark further questions.
Performance Context. How should an audience be invited to view/witness/experience a monotonous performance? This is relevant to any kind of art or performance, but even more so when a lot of effort is required from an audience to engage, which is often the case when a performance is addressing subtlety rather than spectacle. The performances at From Morning took place in the stunning environment of a church nave, which contributed largely to the atmosphere of the whole event. As the seating wasn’t raised for the first two pieces, there was the obvious difficulty of ‘not being able to see’. You probably think it trivial but I believe that we too easily put the issue aside and accept it as part of performances in unconventional spaces. Having clear view should be prerequisite for a performance in which there is already not much to see. And even when that is established, such as in the third piece where the audience viewed the dancers from above, it is not granted that an audience member is able to engage. Being able to appreciate the minimal, the repetitive, requires preparation on all levels and I see this preparation as part of the performance. Some of the responsibility lies with the audience themselves but a performance maker cannot expect the audience to be ready for anything no matter what.
A final question to add to my list would be: How can a performance context prepare an audience to fully appreciate and experience a monotonous performance?
‘From Morning’, works by Nikki Tomlinson with Hannah Marshall, Katye Coe, Florence Peake and Sally Dean, and Joe Moran, 27 May 2010 Christ Church Spitalfields