17 August 2009

I danced for the scribes and the Pharisees

During a lull in the Ukulele Hooley yesterday, Tadhg and I had a brief conversation on the relative merits of interpretive dance. We both have friends who are dancers and he had recently been to a group performance and was amazed by how good some of the individual pieces were. I on the other hand, have been to far too many pieces, and not once have I been amazed or surprised by how bad it all has been. It's just not an artform that I can seem to appreciate on any level beyond sadly acknowledging just how fitter than I am, or will ever be, the dancers are. I just don't see the point of it all.

The talk then turned to other performances I have no time for (it was a reasonably long lull), and I found myself (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) dismissing theatre almost in its entirety. The reason for this is two fold. To begin with I know quite a few stage actors, and almost all of them are tragically and stereotypically narcissistic and self-obsessed; while watching them or their colleagues on stage I find it impossible to separate the actor from the role, and thus I sit uncomfortably in my seat for the duration of the play thinking about how it has been ruined by the actors, who are all arrogant sods.

Which brings us to my second criticism, that beyond the relative strength or skills of any given actor, the medium itself is unfortunately dependent upon on the presence of actors. For me they are a barrier between the writer and myself, preventing the accurate transmission of the playwright's intent by imposing their own interpretations upon it. They are middlemen who pollute a meme with their presence, attempting to shift focus away from the writer and their ideas, and on to themselves.

As you can see I am a bundle of laughs to see a play with.

When I read, or view a sculpture or painting, go to a concert or listen to a CD, or even, lord forbid, endure contemporary or interpretative dance, I feel as if there is a sense of communication between the artist and me. By it's nature it is a one-way process, but the interpretation of the artist's intent lies entirely with me, whether I grasp their intent or instead am inspired to create a meaning purely for myself, at least the communication between us has been pure. However introducing a middleman into the equation corrupts this communication, as the actor's own interpretations distort and distract the message transmission.

Of course the counter to this is that the medium itself allows for this distortion, that the playwright creates their work on the assumption that it will be performed, and that the very nature of performance will transform their work into something other than what they intended.

While rationally I am aware of this, I can't seem to accept it enough to suspend my sense of disbelief. I just cannot see the wood, for the trees are all annoying me too much.

Of course the written word itself is not always the purest form of communication, particularity when the writing is obtuse. I am currently working my way through a the works of a number of French Situationalists, post-modernists and other ne'er do-wells infused with the spirit of '68, and it is pretty tough going at times. To begin with I am working with translations, so already an element of distortion creeps in, but then to compound it all the original writing was often never intended to be accessible. The ego of the author has wrapped the ideas in so many verbal bows and ribbons in an attempt to display just how clever they are, that getting through to the message inside is so frustrating that like a child at Christmas I'm often tempted to give up and play with the shiny paper and string instead. Much more interesting.

While reading a few criticisms of Debord and the Situationist International I came across this amazing pot-calling-the-kettle-black quote from Chomsky:
"Quite regularly, "my eyes glaze over" when I read polysyllabic discourse on the themes of poststructuralism and postmodernism; what I understand is largely truism or error, but that is only a fraction of the total word count. True, there are lots of other things I don't understand: the articles in the current issues of math and physics journals, for example. But there is a difference. In the latter case, I know how to get to understand them, and have done so, in cases of particular interest to me; and I also know that people in these fields can explain the contents to me at my level, so that I can gain what (partial) understanding I may want. In contrast, no one seems to be able to explain to me why the latest post-this-and-that is (for the most part) other than truism, error, or gibberish, and I do not know how to proceed. Perhaps the explanation lies in some personal inadequacy, like tone-deafness. Or there may be other reasons. The question is not strictly relevant here, and I won't pursue it."
So if even the words themselves of an author can corrupt and pollute their message, if language itself is a barrier to true understanding, what then is the only true form of communication?

The answer, it would seem, is dance.


Anyway, the festival was great, highlight of the day was Gus and Fin with a stomping version of Rawhide. You can get a taste of it here in a much more subdued version. Congrats to all involved, what a great day!

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At 9:53 pm, Anonymous Steve said...


At 11:40 am, Blogger Sarah said...

While I agree with much of what you say - I can't write off all contemporary dance. For example I saw Zero degrees at Saddlers Wells last year and it was really exceptional and breathtaking. I was totally awestruck (but them am very uncultured so that's probably easily done). It's coming back in October: http://www.sadlerswells.com/show/zero-degrees see if it changes your mind?

Same goes for theatre, my favourites may not be too high brow (can't understand too many big words in a row) but many stick in my mind with a lasting impact - War Horse (cried like a baby) and His Dark Materials (8hrs flew by, phenomenal puppetry) both at the NT, Godot with McKellen and Stewart, Stewart's MacBeth set in Stalinist Russia, Branagh in Ivanov... However, there have been many mediocre performances too (not to mention the plain weird ones!). I guess it's the variability I have issue with, rather than the genre itself. But then, I'm afraid I don't think I approach them with your level of analysis, maybe if I did they'd be disappointing for me too.

Sometimes it's nice to have a small brain, I'm easily pleased!

At 2:18 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

@Sarah - I think the main thrust of your "damning me with praise" argument is that its cool to live in London, but sucks to live in Dublin, which is possibly true.

The problem with theatre in Dublin is that is dominated by the Abbey, and the Abbey school of acting. For those unaccustomed to this particular style, a rather favorable portrayal can be seen in Blackadder III (http://tinyurl.com/o7x9sv).

And its not just the Abbey, there is something about Dublin that brings out the worst in thespian indulgences. I have been subjected to Chekhov in the Connolly theatre that made me loose the will to live, the sight of Geoffry Rush in a nappy in the Tivoli and an Italian troupe that have been amazing everywhere else in the world suddenly reduced to screaming and smearing blood on a white cell wall in a simulated torture scene in the Sam Becket, both as part of the Theatre Festival.

Yet elsewhere in Ireland theatre seems to genuinely amaze, The Very Understanding Girlfriend raves about the full production of the works of Synge done by Druid out on the Aran Islands, which alas I was unable to go to.

yet again it seems Dublin has the ability to suck the life force out of anything that it touches, and replace it with poo.


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