We have danced to music as long as we have been making music. In some African languages, the same word means both “music” and “dance”, because to have one without the other is simply unthinkable. Music and dance are natural partners. Words and music are a powerful combination, too. But what about words and dance? Some recent productions suggest that dancing to spoken word instead of music can work. But that feels, to me, like a rarity: there is a fine line between dancing a story and merely miming its action. This latter tends to use words as narration and the dancers as props, rather than storytellers.
You don’t need to speak a language to understand dance. For all that many cultures have a highly specific dance language, it arguably doesn’t matter if the dancer is French, Thai or Martian: you will be able to respond to it physically or emotionally, even if you wouldn’t be able to comprehend a word. But the moment that choreographers introduce language, all that changes. Protein Dance‘s recent show, LOL (Lots of Love), which used lonely-hearts ads as the backdrop for its dancers, fell into the trap of dancing the words rather than dancing to the words. Despite a slew of positive reviews, it left me cold: I felt that it lacked heart, despite being all about love and relationships. And much of that was to do with the use of words, which caught good dancers in weird choreographic traps – they were unable to escape the mundanity of the text, the delicacy of the movement subsumed by the saccharine narrative.
It is easy for the choreographer to become tied to the literal meanings of the words, thus losing other emotional resonances. A vocabulary of movement, gesture and response is surely different from a literal vocabulary, so mapping one straightforwardly to the other is likely to be plodding. Dancing to words can stifle creativity, in other words, and it is only in rare cases that it can help movement to blossom. Phoenix Dance‘s piece at Cambridge Arts theatre last year, which used the prologue of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie as its backing, managed to both depict the story of Laura, Amanda, Jim and Tom and to cut to the emotional heart of the play. The lack of music here gave the piece a dreamlike quality – appropriate for this “memory play” – and was highly effective. The dancers captured the heart of the story without resorting to clumsy mime.
So, it matters what the words are, just as it matters what the music is. Poorly chosen, sentimental or trite text is likely to lead to similar dance. If the words don’t work, the dance is likely to be spoiled.