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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Botched job?
Animated, Summer 2000. 'What a mysterious unsubstantial business it is, writing poetry. After one finishes a poem which seems to work one says Ha Ha now I'll write another because I know how to do it but it, is not so. There is the silence before one just as difficult to disturb significantly as before. What one has learned is inadequate against the new silence presented.' (1) Niki Gladstone watches rehearsals of Rosemary Butcher's SCAN
Watching rehearsals I witness a moment of fraught hiatus when the dancers disagree on how to move the process forwards. One of the dancers, Jonathan Burrows, has come into the piece only within the last month and is working with Fin Walker, who has been involved in the project for 18 months. Burrows suggests that he needs more time to work through his material independently before layering it in a duet, whereas Walker remembers that she moved her material on by processing it in duet improvisations. Burrows argues that he as yet lacks the depth of physical immersion in SCAN's ideas and it would be dangerous to push the process on whilst he does not feel fully engaged. Just at this impasse, a third dancer, Henry Montes, arrives from a different rehearsal full of energy to begin work. Butcher, looking strained, turns to me saying that she is worried that she will lose 'it' all if she is not careful.

I come back to the studio 30 minutes later, bringing resuscitating coffees, and find that the rehearsal is again dynamic and focused. Shifts from block to productivity probably occur day in, day out as choreographers and dancers negotiate how to think and work forwards creatively. Indeed, Burrows, Walker and Butcher are all experienced with one another's working methods, having collaborated extensively over many years, choreographing or performing. In fact they have received critical recognition for this, most recently, Burrows and Butcher as recipients of Arts Council of England Fellowships and Walker as winner of the 1999 Jerwood Prize for Choreography. The poet Peter Riley's observation 'You cannot plan a poem beyond its periphery,' (2) ruefully points out a creative dilemma - a dilemma all the more extreme for a choreographer since the way beyond the periphery cannot be found in isolation, but collaboratively in rehearsal. Watching Butcher's rehearsals for SCAN, I was fascinated not so much by insights into the work, but by how confusion, bartering and botching all had a function in the intricate layering and complexity of the piece as eventually performed.

When directors are interviewed, they often speak articulately and cogently of the contexts, models and approaches which they bring to their work (3). Observing rehearsals for SCAN, I was more struck by the precariousness of the process. Peter Brook commented in The Empty Space that 'the appalling difficulty of making theatre must be accepted.(4) In a way, this article responds to how Butcher and her collaborators seemed to have accepted 'the difficulty of making theatre', although the making did not appear any the less difficult for that acceptance.

The difficulty and confusion of making might be something witnessed by me rather than experienced by the collaborators. However, even after the first performances, Butcher said that "much of the piece is unaccountable to me. I do not know how I made those decisions, although they seemed absolutely right at the time. Like any piece, it is made up of a lot of mistakes and the decisions you forced because you could not get to where you wanted by any other means. The notion of a purity of making is mistaken." Montes, by contrast, told me that the process had not felt confused to him as a dancer because Butcher was always absolutely clear about her ideas. If, for example, a certain instruction did not make sense to a dancer, she would work with them to find an equivalent which did, so that for Montes, 'flushing' became 'vertical cleaning'. "What does make Butcher's process difficult for a dancer", he added wryly, "is of never knowing the outcome until the last minute. The piece finally takes on its form perhaps hours before the first performance."

Much of the difficulty of making theatre could be logistical; of finding sufficient, substantial rehearsal time in an appropriate space with all the performers. In SCAN's rehearsals, the more appalling - and fascinating - difficulty seemed to lie in trying to hold onto a sense of what the work was so far and of what was emerging. When I say that Butcher and her collaborators accepted the difficulty of making theatre, I think that the acceptance was of not knowing how or what they were making, whilst demanding of themselves a rigorous, directed process. Each time one begins to choreograph in this situation, the success of previous works must be irrelevant. WS Graham noted of poetry: 'There is the silence before one just as difficult to disturb significantly as before. What one has learned is inadequate against the new silence presented.' (5)

One aspect of this was how Butcher could not be sure of what she was making until after it was found, if at all. She might say, for example, that she had begun to realise that increasingly she was looking for things which did not stop, or for material that had a sense of surfaces, or of contact with the stomach. Her recognition of the importance of these things arose out of existing material yet then would inform how that material was further processed. Other elements, though, such as cradling, holding the knees or 'table-top lifts', were each at times recognised as important, but then dropped out of the diction Butcher used for talking about the piece. Were they red herrings, elements discarded as no longer key to her understanding of what she was bringing about? Traces of them remain visible in the performed work, heterogeneous threads that pull at the things which she continued to identify as important. When I asked her about this, she said: "I allowed some things to be as there were enough of the things that I wanted. If I wanted to keep a second instant, for example, I had to keep the first, even though I might not be able to account for why it was there. I was constantly questioning whether something should go or stay, but the fact of keeping it moving was more important than where it moved."

Choreography seemed more and more to double back on itself in convolutions, to be the opposite of a forward-directed process. At one point, for example Butcher said that she saw she had reached the end of the piece, without knowing how to reach the beginning. Another time, she observed perplexed that she had two pieces, one a trio and the other quartet. A few weeks before the performance, that quartet, choreographed to be viewed front on, became a piece viewed close-up on four sides. Butcher seemed often bothered by her sketchy and contradictory knowledge of the piece. For example she said that the ideas of suspension 'wading' which emerged through improvisations, came to refer both to the idea of trying to stay afloat by treading water, and to a body being grounded, activated by another than active in itself.

Watching a piece as complex and disorientating as SCAN being threaded together, it seemed to me inevitable that the choreographer would not yet know what she was making. Butcher herself said that this uncertainty was choreographically beside the point: ?I did not know what I had. The question was rather of whether I could sustain it." Yet, here was the nub of a second creative difficulty: if the choreographer could not know what she was making, then neither could the dancers. For 'it' to be sustained, the dancers had to know something of what it was that they were trying to sustain. Until the physical logic was rehearsed and known explicitly, material appeared vulnerable to erosion and re-finding a moment emerged out of improvisation was often near impossible. Even part-set material was volatile: for example, Walker's movement during a series of lifts had a frayed, wicker-work pliancy one day, and a brittle, compacted energy the next. Montes spoke of the sense of frustration of having remembered movement material without being to recall where it came from. Knowing what the movement was, at the practical level of what ideas had generated it, remained crucial to him in holding onto its essence in performance: 'At certain moments. I will be thinking to myself, this is moving a bone, this covering".

In SCAN then, it became crucial that the dancers had a clear sense of their material, since Butcher seemed to be working with the sensorial states that the dancers made present by moving with this degree of physical insight. However, a third potential difficulty making SCAN arose: the four dance began rehearsals at different times and so experienced different levels of choreographic input. Burrows commented on the discomfort of trying to create movement material within pre-existing structures that are sensed but not fully grasped. Montes remarked, by contrast, that returning to the earliest improvisation ideas, to integrate a new dancer, helped the other dancers by reinvigorating their sense of what they were doing. Walker mentioned how in the earliest rehearsals, ideas such as 'treading water' were discovered through improvisation. Butcher would know something to be a significant idea only when she saw it appear in movement. By the point at which Burrows began rehearsing, ideas such as 'flushing' were visibly present in the other dancers' movement and so choreographic information was immediately available to him. Butcher agreed, saying that by coming later to the process, Burrows' movement decisions came straight out of ideas that were already filtered into specific instructions, and so his movement could have the precision that she was seeking.

However, remembering what those initial instructions had been was less than straightforward. Butcher's instructions were given to nudge into visible existence something already hinted at in a dancer's movement. Hence, the sense of an instruction might come to depend on physical memories from one improvisation. The terms, 'wading' and 'flushing', for example, gained specific resonances that were closed-off from a dancer who joined the process later. Some ideas began to enmesh so that, for example, 'moving bones' and 'presenting bones' meant two distinct things to one dancer, but not to another. Not only did this cause practical confusions over how to identify and name material, but the collaborators had to try to unpick the mesh of instructions within improvisation to arrive at the point from which 'flushing' or 'wading' took on their particular senses to the new dancer.

Prompted by Brook's assertion that the difficulty of making theatre must be accepted,' (6) I have written of three difficulties that I noticed in the rehearsals for SCAN: the choreographer not knowing what she was making, but needing the dancers to know, each of whom had different levels of immersion in the process and thus knowledge of what they were making. A week before the performance, there was a moment when Butcher and the dancers seemed to make that. acceptance willingly. Butcher commented that she felt that the way they were falling was too compact and that she wanted to see something more splayed out. Suddenly, each performer was discussing their lack of conviction in the falling sequences. What might have been another blocked, fraught moment was vibrant and excited. Out of their scepticism they seemed to discover the lynch pin to the work, shifting it away from a crafted contained state into one that was more vulnerable, wild and - finally - unknown.

Niki Gladstone, graduate assistant, Laban Centre London; 1999 recipient Chris de Marigny Writers Award and independent dance artist. Niki Pollard (nee Gladstone) died in November 2010 following her courageous years of living with breast cancer. As a testimony to her great spirit and love of dance Niki was still dancing with her friends the week before she died.

1 & 5 Graham,WS, Aimed at Nobody: Poems from Notebooks, Faber, 1993 2 Riley, Peter, The Creative Moment of the Poem, Poets on Writing, 1970-91, ed. Denise Riley, Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1992
3 For example, ed. Mary Luckhurst & Gabriella Giannachi, On Directing, Faber and Faber, London, 1999
4 & 6 Brook, Peter, The Empty Space, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001