Monday 11 August 2014

Disantiquating Antiquity

[reposted from]

It all started with a call for dancers to participate in an academic project from the University of Oxford in May 2013. The project is called Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers (ADMD) and its aim is to investigate through practice-based research what Ancient Roman Pantomime might have been like. The ancient evidence available to us is sparse and mostly textual. Ancient Roman Pantomime was a solo narrative dance form, performed with a closed mask (no declamation) to music at festivals. It recounted episodes from the Greek and Roman mythology.

The ADMD researchers were looking for dancers to participate in a workshop where each dancer was paired with a classicist. Each pair was given an excerpt from Ovid's Metamorphoses put to music by Malcolm Atkins, a list of choreographic terms (gathered from ancient sources), and three hours to draft up a danced interpretation of it in the style of Ancient Roman Pantomime. (Susie Crow reports on this initial workshop here)
I signed up and took part. It was a strange experience for me. As an academic, I have been doing ethnography of Classicists in the context of them deciphering papyri, wooden writing tablets, and such difficult to read documents. But there, I was involved as a dancer, as a subject in an ethnographic enquiry into the process of (re-)creating an ancient dance form. 
The presentation below sketches my experience of it all - as I reported upon it at the ADMD colloquium later in October 2013.

It was a bizarre and slightly split-personality experience, but also a fun one. And SusieMalcolm, and I were so intrigued by all the ideas that the May 2013 workshops had turned up that we decided to carry on this work from an artists' point of view - an artistic research-based practice if you will, as a pendent to ADMD's academic practice-based research. 

This is how Avid for Ovid was born as a group and as a performance project. It runs in collaboration with the on-going ADMD project. 

In May 2014, ADMD (with support from DANSOX) ran three fascinating daylong workshops to further their research and feed Avid for Ovid's creative process. The first workshop was a Kathak workshop, led by Anuradha Chaturvedi. Kathak seems to be, in today's landscape of varied dance forms, the dance form that resembles the most what ancient roman pantomime might have been. Its extremely precise use of rhythms, space, gaze, and gestures lends it a high-definition quality that enables and supports storytelling. The second workshop was a butoh-inspired workshop, led by Yael Karavan. That workshop was more geared towards character building, introducing us to the intricacies of body qualities (water, earth, fire, air) and how different body qualities inhabiting/propelling different body parts in combination (eg water in the knees, fire in the upper body) can help generate richly textured characters, lending them very readable yet unique traits of character. The third workshop, led by Marie-Louise Crawley, was centred around the use of the neutral mask. That workshop introduced us to the notion of the body as a tuning fork. All emotions impact the body, resonating through it like vibrations; so before entering into performance mode, and engaging in masked (e)motion, it was essential to explore the notion of the neutral body. 

As we're now ramping up to a showing of work-in-progress on 28th August 2014, it all seems to be slowly coming together; the textual ancient dance testimonies, the techniques and methods we were introduced to in the workshops, and the richness of the texts of Ovid's Metamorphoses are constantly (although not always obviously) supporting and informing each other in all of our rehearsals. At each session we seem to stumble upon something new, and the discoveries we are making range from the span of the incredible skill that ancient performers must have mastered (physical as well as technical and emotional), to questions of relevance of the greek myths to today's world and society(events, human nature, etc...) and of universality of expression of emotions.

Here are some of the more specific questions we're grappling with:
  1. How does character-switching work in narrative solo dance forms? And how do we signal a narrator? Can the dancer express two different characters simultaneously, and their interaction?
  2. What are today's equivalent of the Ancient Myths, known by all? What kind of unconscious collective knowledge can we draw upon to tell danced stories that today's audiences can relate to?
  3. For lack of precise knowledge of ancient dance technique and vocabulary, how do we negotiate our use of our own technique(s)? How much do we improvise? How much do we blend some of our own styles?
  4. Isn't an exercise in reconstruction of an ancient dance form futile? Is this an exercise in contemporary reception of the culture of Ancient Rome? And what might it say about our own society? 

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