Six months after leaving my dance career, I sat in a rehearsal room as a fresh dramaturgy intern and witnessed an actress clash dramatically with a director. He was telling her to sit on a specific chair, stage left, and she simply couldn’t imagine her character behaving that way. She couldn’t find the intention behind that action. She didn’t feel it. My dance brain felt like doing an eye-roll – ‘for God’s sake, just sit!’ – but my new dramaturg brain observed, trying to understand. In hindsight, what could have unlocked this particular rehearsal room would have been a movement director.
Since coronavirus restrictions have confined us to our homes, the eyes of eager dance enthusiasts may have wandered over to other art forms to get their fix of entertainment – Netflix, streamed online theatre, the careful choreography of political press briefings – but the attentive observer will of course notice that movement is everywhere. Movement is a huge part of human life and communication; anyone in the business of storytelling, who wants to touch people and make them react, cannot bypass the body. Watching other bodies move directly affects us in our own bodies. Mirror neurones ignite real physical responses in the audience. The power to generate kinaesthetic empathy is dance’s greatest strength and a storytelling tool that should be a no-brainer for directors to use.
The late, great Sir Ken Robinson often spoke about dance being the least respected art form, the ‘posterchild for underestimating something hugely important’. It is indeed baffling that while countless studies have shown human communication to be largely non-verbal, so many people feel uncomfortable about or avoid using their bodies. In British theatre, the word is king. The script is sacred and Shakespeare is a national treasure (and Shakespeare bothered very little with what people do on stage while they speak). Actors have voice coaches and accent coaches and learn projection, but sometimes neglect their body as a communicating tool. In opera, world-famous singers are still allowed (luckily, less and less) to walk up to the ramp and deliver their aria, a peak emotional moment within the story, completely static. This produces a disconnect between the emotion an audience hears about in words and the physical cues they observe from the body in front of them. They don’t match. We are not, after all, ‘amorphous, floating brains’ (Sir Ken again) who happen to be hosted by a body; we are creatures who experience the world as we do because we have a body – indeed, because we are bodies.
For actors, the body and physical movement can be hugely important keys towards unlocking and developing their characters, and it is tremendously interesting how their work can differ from a dancer’s. While dancers are generally used to copying and remembering a routine of steps with impressive speed, self-checking the shape of their body and their placement in the mirror, an actor’s work involves ownership, questioning, experimenting, choices and inhabiting every aspect of their character, including the movement. They need to understand and feel the intention behind an action. This approach to creating movement from the inside out and through collaborative searching and co-creating is better known in contemporary dance – but rare in other dance forms such as ballet, ballroom dancing or a big musical number.