I’m wondering who of the creative team got paid the most for the four or so years of Monumental’s presentation. When the programme notes claim “no one artistic element of the work dominates”, one would think that Margie Medlin, the lighting, set and projection designer and Helen Mountfort, the composer, would be equal partners administratively and financially, too.
It’s funny: I doubt it. The author is quite clearly Ros Warby. It is her name on the front of the programme, her name on the Dance Umbrella and Royal Opera House websites, she who is invited to talks about the work. And that’s totally fine, because what is most at stake is the dance – after all, it is being presented in a dance festival in a famous dance (OK, and opera) organisation to an audience of people who, like me, have been to see lots of other Dance Umbrella performances. So, what is the benefit of the claim of the parts’ equality despite the apparent contradiction? Is it a tactical move to get presented beyond dance contexts? It doesn’t seem so, but I can’t imagine that it’s simply a case of wanting to thank and acknowledge the contributions of her collaborators, because that is already always done in the written credits.
It’s not easy to grapple with the politics of the partnerships. In the post-show talk, Warby describes her relationship with the film and the music as a choreographer-dancer set-up. This appears to be the construction of the performance in the moment of performing: the choreographer has given the dancers their tasks, they do their best to do them, and she is responsible for making adjustments, making connections, disrupting relations. Warby calls this “choreographing between the elements”, a live practice in which she is attentive to the film, the music, the audience, and the space in order to situate her dancing body and its activity.
It’s not improvisation.
However many times the audience might ask, it’s not improvisation.
It’s not not improvisation, though, is it? I mean, what she describes is precisely a kind of improvisatory situation that would satisfy some improv-lovers quite happily. It makes me think that improvisation might have a bit of a bad rep. Does everyone associate it with slightly smelly lentil-munchers who were really looking for dance movement therapy or something? I know it’s a cliché, but it’s one that seems to sustain, and perhaps that’s why some choreographers refrain from using the i-word. Not for Warby, though, who describes the difference as one between attentiveness to the sensual (improvisation) and the relational (a practice of performing).
I’ve heard Deborah Hay devotees, like Warby, talk about this sort of thing before. Gill Clarke, hosting the talk, continues this thread placing emphasis on the liveness, the breaking point that each moment becomes in this kind of (improvised?) performance. It seems a shame to conceive of the power of this performance in particular as deriving from the fact that every instant is a brand new one, as it overlooks the fact that it’s difficult to think of any performance in any field that is not charged with this same risk and opportunity, however ‘fixed’ it might appear. Aren’t all performances dependent on the fact that it is different every time?
Exposing some of the problematics the work provokes does not mean that I found it in any way a failure. In fact, my reception of the work echoes some of the unsolved intellectual riddles that Monumental has unlocked. Just like the almost-understandable ‘words’ Warby utters on occasions (in the piece and in the post-show talk), the moment you think you can grasp some kind of meaning it doesn’t rest, and floats off again in some other direction. Instead, I was left with a whirl of image-questions about the body, ballet, and birds. Brill.