What I Think When I Think About Dancing: A first attempt
A review by Angela McDonald Booth of an AC Arts 3rd Year dance students’ performance with direction and choreography by Paul Gazzola.
It’s just as well I’m not dancing professionally anymore. I have terrible ball skills. This preview evening for the 3rd year dance students at AC Arts began with a reworking of the 2004 piece PROJECT – a work that uses games and play as a means to discuss the choreographic process. As we picked our way across the performance space to our seats, we underwent a transformation from audience to sporting crowd as two teams of dancers competed in familiar tournaments with balls, hacky sacks as well as their physicality alone. Culminating in a very entertaining hybrid display of sporting skill and team work that warmed up dancers and audience alike, this game more importantly asks questions about the nature of performance and choreography.
PROJECT sets the scene for what is to be a very questioning and personal journey about challenging form and what constitutes dance making, entitled What I Think When I Think About Dancing: A First Attempt, directed by inter-disciplinary artist Paul Gazzola.
As straightforward as it sounds, the work asked these third year students to examine what they thought when they thought about dancing. Gazzola then shaped the resulting workshop material into a performance consisting of several sections. As some of the dancers themselves admitted, there were disagreements with the subject matter and some trouble accepting that the results of the workshop process were really examples of choreography at all. To some, there simply wasn’t enough dancing. But that was the point. Gazzola, with his background in confronting convention when it comes to performance art and dance, has given these young dancers a gift in this opportunity to discuss, explore, and yes, even disagree with the many forms and expectations of dance.
It started simply enough. A lone figure peels layers and layers of clothing from her body, stripping herself bare to scrutiny and self consciousness. She then proceeds to re-dress, in mismatched and confused ways, asking of the audience “What do you think of this?” at the completion of each ensemble. One could go deeper in this analysis, but keeping in mind the premise of the task, and the fact that I am looking at this from a dancers perspective, all I could do was smile. As a dancer, the practice of layering clothing and arranging garments in seemingly ridiculous ways on the body is common. We would cut collars out of t-shirts, tucking the flapping remnants into our leotard straps, cut the crotches and feet out of tights and wore them as tops. We mangled socks and hacked at shoes. We wore woollen layers on our hips and thighs but left our midriffs bare. Nothing was spared a dancer’s special treatment. It was a combination of function and fashion, and very reassuring for me to see that it was still a notable enough habit to pay homage to.
This fairly lighthearted look at what some may think when they think about dancing, soon turned to pain and, surprisingly for me, tears. Seated in a line up of chairs, each dancer was dressed up, reminiscent of dance hall days; waiting their turn to tell the audience, in literal terms, what they thought when they thought about dancing. Initially the answers were simple, expected. How right it feels to be on stage, the pride family feels about seeing them dance, how bad they are at pirouettes, or the memories of idolising pop stars and famous dancers. Funny, touching stuff. Then came “I think about double standards”; “I think about never being good enough”; “I think about pretending not to be in pain” and “I think about how I’ve spent the last 14 years of my life dancing and I’m really not sure I belong”. Suddenly these were nine of my own friends, and this was my story. One by one they shared their ideas and thoughts about beauty and security, dedication and perfectionism, body image, clothes and mirrors. With each new admission, more tears and with each new, raw and painfully familiar statement, a greater realisation in myself that I had some work to do.
This section, clearly a highlight for me, eventually dissolved into further explorations of each dancer’s thoughts about the title. Though I carried those sharp feelings with me throughout, I did see so many other splendid and warming reminders of my days in the study of my former profession. We had a lecturer who loved to share her maxim “When you are resting you are working”. An entire section on laying down, and waiting (another favoured pastime of most artists and performers) reminded me of how much time we would spend, flat on our backs, resting, recovering, waiting for something to click, just trying to regroup. We lay in class, we lay in the corridor, in the yard, in the cafeteria. We didn’t care who saw us or whose way we may have been in, only what our bodies needed.
This scene held dual meaning for me. These nine dancers who have presumably been through years of study and labour together walked as a group through the space, some falling, some recovering, some waiting and eventually dancing in unison. Again a reminder of the uncommon bond one has when they share physical space and the intimacy of movement with other human beings in this way. Some fall, some recover, and some never will. Some fall behind, while it is another’s time in the sun, direction and purpose changes. And always working. Always waiting.
There is a lot in here. This work goes against my usual insistence that dance shouldn’t cater to a dance exclusive audience. It could very easily, but it still works and can be joyfully experienced by all. Go with someone who has toiled and sacrificed, who has loved and lost, and who has regret but not remorse. This is a more important work for these dancers than they probably realise now. The future holds that some will burn brightly, some will be unable to sustain the energy they once had for this calling, others will change their minds, or find new paths to tread. For all of them, this adventure, this funny, revealing, difficult and often heartbreaking journey should be counted among the finest of their achievements. It is a unique and privileged occupation. I thank the dancers for making me cry, but can I ask they come and turn the floodgates off now please?
What I Think When I Think About Dancing runs at AC Arts
until this Saturday night, June 23rd 2012.
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All photographs by Sofia Calado: sofiacaladophotography.