In Defence of Wankery

“That was the biggest pile of wankery ever”, said a woman to her friend as they brushed past me outside Toynbee Studios. The pile she was talking about was a showing of Impermanence Dance Theatre’s work-in-progress performance of Da-Da-Darling.

It dawned on me, from what I understood of the ensuing Q&A, that Impermanence wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to calling it wankery. I, for one, love a bit of wankery on stage sometimes.1 I suppose what she meant by that, and what people always mean by the notion of intellectual masturbation, is that she felt left out of what she perceived as an act of onanistic pleasure. Her anger was very much the anger of someone feeling left out of a joke, or worse – someone feeling like they were being laughed at.

One big question that hovers above showing a dance work, especially in the UK, is the question as to how much should be explained to the audience, whether on stage or in the form of programme notes.2 In the post-show Q&A3, some members of the audience expressed their frustration at not knowing more about the work beforehand. To this writer, the lack of preambular pointers turned out to be quite a relief. Dance shouldn’t come with an instruction manual. I’m attracted to dance that requires a certain level of personal enquiry, which requires you to let go of preconceived notions. This requires patience too (a quality which my fellow pissed-off patron seemed to lack, I would argue). This is the sort of patience required by choreographers like Raimund Hoghe4, for instance, whose works sometimes take ages to hit their stride (although this is true about Impermanence in terms of its sensibility of hermetic silliness, but not so much of its pacing – it ends as intensely as it kicks off.):

Raimund Hoghe

Another big thing about Impermanence is that their work is quintessentially British. I’m not sure why that question preoccupies me at all, but my guess is that what has made British culture in other forums great – theatre, TV etc. – hasn’t been allowed to emerge on the dance scene.

Because the interesting thing about Impermanence is that, although you may find some of their humour wanky or smug in a way only contemporary art sometimes manages to achieve, there is something quite British about their work.

I’m not sure why finding “quintessentially British” work preoccupies me, especially since the notion is so hard to define. In this case for instance, how is it that something that owes such a debit to Mary Wigman or Kazuo Ohno manage to be so British? Could it be due to a mostly British cast, or at least a British-trained one (The company members all met during their training5 at Rambert Dance School)?

Kazuo Ohno:

Mary Wigman:

Perhaps it’s idiotic to be aroused my the idea of Britishness in a work, but as a dirty immigrant in the big smoke, I often think about the things that drew me to London in the first place (I moved here nine years ago), and whether this identity still exists, or whether it only ever existed in my mind. Maybe British means vast ironic quantities of spandex and glitter, maybe it has something to do with slap-stick existentialism, but there is something of the British sensibility that conveys absurdity and the pointlessness of it all that touches me and brought me to the UK in the first place. In this age of vast importing of choreographic and performing talent on the large stages6, it seems British dance is just one small facet of the exciting journey of privatisation we’re all irrevocably engaged in.7

Not that Wednesday’s showing was perfect, of course. But the flaws that were apparent in Da-Da-Darling on Wednesday night were inherent to an intelligent process: an evening thrown together with rudderless gusto was sort of the point, as the company decided to work without a clear leader, with a set of agreed upon tasks to work from. In the run up to this sharing, they also spent a week with Lea Anderson to “develop [their] methodology”. Wankery perhaps then, but organised wankery, wankery with a purpose. Controlled chaos. So problems inherent in that showing (such as space that appeared too busy at times, or a structure that could sometimes lull and lose momentum) can easily be ironed out in future. And of course, since the purpose of the evening was to show a work in progress, this piece doesn’t aim to be a review (nor does this writer claim to have any authority to wrote such a thing; the aim here is simply to respond).

If any of the above sounds somewhat on the defensive about Impermanence, perhaps it is this writer/dancer’s reaction to an environment in the UK in which we are too often pressed to produce finished products, to deliver. Making dance is bloody hard. I don’t mean this in some kind of mother goose way, trying to protect my own kind and make excuses for us all – I mean: dance is bloody hard to make. You need space, you need people willing to risk damaging themselves physically, you need time to practice on something that is entirely ephemeral (you can film a rehearsal, but you can’t edit the steps on the video). It is something that is very difficult to practice from home or on paper, unlike the work of a playwright, a composer or a writer. It is a medium that demands the scope and scale of opera and film, but is completely and consistently denied the financial and material means to achieve this (for many reasons, the greatest of which = complete indifference from the general public, more interested in the shape and form of body than in its mechanics and very soul).

Anyway. The point of this digression is simply to say that we should tolerate wankery more. We should encourage it, especially when something special appears in the form of Impermanence. May the head honchos of the dance world be warned that we want time. We don’t want to be formatted, we want to be nurtured. We want to be allowed wankery before thinking about notions of products and brands.

This showing of Da-Da-Darling was many things within the realm of wankery, and like real wankery, it was silly, glorious, crass, messy, all over the place, fun, self-satisfied, delightful, and for me at least, a form of relief.
Da-Da-Darling may be wankery, but it works if you’ll let it. The stage lives and dies by the stage, beyond programme notes, beyond theory, beyond concept8. And in the case of DDD, the structure and lack of information makes the strength of DDD and allows it to tap into something rather more universal, or, erm… impermanent.9

  1. Not in the sense you’re thinking
  2. I contend that, in the UK at least, programme notes should be dispensed with the same caution one applies in prescribing methadone to heroin addicts: as an audience, we’re not to be trusted with programme notes. Our theatre heritage means we constantly try to find meaning everywhere, and we need to learn to just sit and watch and not apply narrative to every bloody thing.
  3. Compered by the delightful Hayley Hope.
  4. If you think his work looks anything like Bausch’s this is because he worked as a dramaturge for Bausch for many years. One vastly unmentioned aspect of Bausch’s work is that it is extremely Hoghian. And indeed, Impermanence owe a debt to both of them.
  5. Don’t you hate the word “training”? It seems harmless enough for actors, but in the context of dance I can’t help but think of race horses.
  6. There are several possible explanations for this, none of which you came here to read, so here’s a quick list off the top of my head: relatively recent history of British proz arch dance scene (i.e. we haven’t had enough time to forge ourselves an identity in dance that might be called quintessentially British), quasi-nonexistent culture of folk dance, propensity for outsourcing, dance culture on other countries that, in some cases, has been exceptionally fertile and conducive to great work and led to their importation to the UK, through repertoire or as choreographers or as performers – none of which is to say that no good dance work comes out of the UK, but take a quick look at the premier Birtish contemp dance companies (Richard Alston, Rambert, Michael Clarke et al.), and you’ll quickly see where the influences came from, and in great big dollops (clue: it starts with a “C” and ends with a “unningham”). What is quintessentially British on the current dance scene is what we do best in the UK: packaging, branding marketing. Look at any of the big British dance exports and you will see that that is really the only British thing they have in common (with exceptions of course, DV8 being a big one).
  7. Also worth noting that Sadler’s Wells, for all its happy embrace of dance exotica also actively promotes and supports British talent to some extent, in case you were wondering. It’s not all death and desolation.
  8. This is true for all the great conceptualists, e.g. Fagione and Burrows or Jerome Bel for instance. As cerebral as their works may be, they live and breathe on the stage because they obey its laws, they yield to the deeper truth inherent in performing an act (dance, theatre, whatever) in front of a group of people. At their best, and in the context of showing something to a group of people, they just… work!
  9. A crassly and transparently contrived way to finish an article, but I was honestly stuck, and besides, I need to go.

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