Dance artists Gillie Kleiman and Karen Lambæk write about how they worked with another form of solo public speaking in their choreography.
In 2012 we made a diptych of dance performances working with comedy as a starting point. The first of these works, Double Act, began with the stand-up comic in mind.
We had initially been interested in the range of physical presences within this particular realm of solo public speaking, and, after some initial trials, enjoyed and saw value in attending to the kinds of address this mode of performance employs. We spent days – nay, weeks – learning precisely the movements and timings of stand-up comics from around the world. We stood in front of our laptops and punished ourselves, desperately trying to grasp the physical logics of another’s speech, always-almost getting it almost-exact.
When we each had a bunch of material we tried to do the very conventional next-step of composing it. We had had in mind a kind of courtly dance, a baroque micro-spectacle inspired, in the main, by the frighteningly balletic movement and theatricality of Russell Brand.
It was rubbish.
Like, really really bad.
It was embarrassing.
We were also running out of time.
We made two big decisions that gave us a route out.
One of the things that was horrible about it was how dead the stand-ups’ actions became once the delicate counterpoint between voice and action was silenced. The neat pauses and fluttering gesticulations simply lost their resonance when not coupled with the words of their originator. We decided to take advantage of our period of YouTube-fronted movement research and build strings of actions that were strongly influenced by the actions of specific stand-up comedians, but were organised according to a new, dancerly, sensibility.
We also decided on a particular spatiality and temporality that defined our relationship: inspired by the image our graphic designer produced, we would both do exactly the same dance at the same time, but mirrored along a line through the centre of the stage, downstage to upstage. Gillie dances on stage left and starts the dance with her right hand. Karen dances on stage right, beginning with her left.
These two decisions allowed us to make a dance. It is not a dance that asks to be understood in other ways; in earlier versions there was a sense of mimicry that always belied the dance as an extension of a will to communicate through words, a kind of censored speech. Part of this is to do with how very hard the dance is to do, keeping us busy and away from any urge to express, whatever that means. It’s a tactic that has been used many times in the history of performance. In our case, we are executing detailed movement sequences, parts of which repeat several times with multiple variations, with specific, artificial rhythms whose paces change instantly. We are attempting to do this at exactly the same time as the other one. We maintain, most of the time, a stand-up’s frontal gaze which means we don’t look directly at each other often gaze (though, like a stand-up, this moves around on occasion, through design or humanness).
Through this we obviously make mistakes. We are OK with that. We weren’t at the beginning, but we realised that a certain looseness or liveness brings back some of the things in which we were interested in the beginning. This, together with the mirrored spatial configuration, invokes some kind of courtly or folk dance.
There is a sense in which this dance has the same quality as a stand-up performance: it is both constructed and true. It is honest enough to know that it is a performance, carefully designed to unfold there and then for the audience, with all the skill and self-deprecation that that demands.
Gillie Kleiman and Karen Lambæk are dance artists.