Afternoon Dust

Nottdance 2017: Dancing in public

A couple of weekends ago I was in Nottingham for Nottdance, a biennial festival of new dance. If I had the time I would write about everything I saw, because it was all brilliant, but things being what they are I’m going to have to focus on what were probably my favourite performances of the weekend, Rosanna Irvine’s Ah Kissing and Odori-Dawns-Dance’s Forest and Clearing.

I arrived at the crossroads between two pedestrianised shopping streets indicated on the festival website as the location for Ah Kissing, not knowing quite what was going on. It was a dry and mild Saturday afternoon, and the area was heaving with a constant stream of shoppers. For those first few minutes, everyone was potentially a performer, an audience member, or a passerby, as I tried to work out whether the dance had started yet. Then I noticed a tall gentleman striding very slowly, but with unwavering focus, down one of the streets towards the centre of the crossroads — this had to be it, the start of the performance. The man was almost in the middle by the time I realised that he was striding towards someone, who was moving with the same slow speed and focus towards him. They met in the middle and slowly moved into a passionate kiss, which they held for a very long time as shoppers streamed around them like currents of water around a protruding stone.

More couples appeared, approaching each other from opposite ends of the crossroads and meeting in the middle to kiss. None of them had the implausibly straight and disciplined posture of a professional dancer, nor were they dressed in any way out of the ordinary; if they had been walking hand-in-hand down the street, they would’ve been just another pair of Saturday shoppers. Watching them for a while, it became apparent that they were repeating three very slow held movements: kiss, look into each other’s eyes, hug. By now people were beginning to notice that something odd was going on: many stopped and stared, surprise, delight, or confusion on their faces. Two men even briefly joined in.

The beautiful stillness of it all and the outdoor public nature of the event made me think of sculpture, of Rodin’s The Kiss. Yet the three repeated gestures and the stylised slowness of the performance pointed to its choreographed nature. It was quite magical when, after about 20 minutes or so, the kissers began to depart, each couple separating and walking off in opposite directions, treading slowly and steadily until they were lost in the Saturday shopping crowd. I looked up and down the streets for them afterwards, but they had gone.

A different day, a different location: Forest and Clearing took place on Sunday on a large open square that I assume hosts Sneinton market on every day that’s not Sunday. Three performers dressed in black, with fabulously decorated bamboo boards on the backs of their legs, danced very precise, synchronised movements, apparently derived from various currents of Japanese dance. They were accompanied by the spluttering of the fountains on the edge of the square, the rumble of the skaters who had grudgingly made space for them, and their own singing voices, which were hard to hear given that they had chosen to start the performance very far away from the audience.

Just when I was tempted to get up and move closer, the reason for the large distance became clear: several more performers joined the trio, dispersing and standing stock still around them as they moved. Every so often the arrangement would change as the newcomers moved in straight lines. The black-clad dancers now resembled walkers in a forest that was constantly reconfiguring itself as they moved through it. Next, the entire group struck poses and held them for a long time, some looking like characters from Japanese ink drawings: rice pickers, courtesans, and so on. A ball appeared, and as the three in black resumed their dance, the rest played catch around them, moving constantly in a joyous blur.

I think the thing I liked most about Forest and Clearing was its porosity, its openness to its surroundings. I liked it when jets of water from the fountains spatted in time with the dancers’ stomping; when a black dog decided to join in and stole the performers’ ball; when the skaters skated round filming the performance on their phones; when the guy from the furniture shop across the road came out and stood in his doorway to watch. It reminded me somewhat of the approach taken by the Wandelweiser group of musicians for many years now, which advocates a radical sensitivity to and acceptance of the context of a performance. After a while the dance seemed to descend into a sort of open jam session, with some performers joining the trio in black with their movements, others continuing to play, and some stopping for a chat with the audience. The March sun bit, as the Romanians say, “with woollen teeth”. And it was all quite lovely and convivial.

Not too long ago, these sorts of performances in outdoor spaces involving volunteer participants would’ve been classed as ‘audience development’ or ‘outreach’, the sort of thing festivals put on to make a splash and advertise the ‘serious’ work happening in theatres and on other formal stages. In 2017, for me at least, they felt like the main event. I was struck by the capacity of these two works not only to supply a public spectacle, but to challenge, provoke, and quietly shift the meaning of what it was we were doing out in town on a weekend afternoon, out among strangers, among each other. Neither of these dances would’ve worked as well on a stage facing a seated audience (though we did try hard to act like one at Sneinton market). Out in public spaces, they were powerfully affecting in ways that very few staged performances would have the means to achieve.