At the risk of repeating myself

Back at Spring Forward 2014, I wrote a piece called Paint Dries, Kettles Boil, about dances that were based on repetition, potentially ad infinitum and sometimes ad nauseum. Soon after, I repeated and extended those ideas in a piece called How Long is a Piece of Dance? for London’s Dance Umbrella festival (I only regret missing the opportunity to include Igor & Moreno’s repetitive Idiot-Syncrasy, but I didn’t see that till Spring Forward 2015). Then at Spring Forward 2019, I wrote a piece called Same Difference: On Life, Death and Monotony, revisiting the same theme. And here I am, at it again for Spring Forward 2022. Why? Because repetition keeps coming back.

Of all the repetitive pieces on show, Pas de deux was the mostest. Its minimal unit of movement is barely a movement at all, more like a preparation for one. Most of the piece looks like the beginning of a supported lift that gets cut off before it’s even started, over and over again. Like a scratched record that catches nothing more than an intake of breath.

Other works made me see a clear connection between arthouse minimalism and social dance – much of which, after all, is based on the repetition of a small number of steps and sequences. Aina Alegre’s Study 4 replayed bit and pieces from Basque folk dance, and Cassiel Gaube drew on the steps of club culture in Soirée d’études. Collettivo MINE’s Esercizi per un manifesto poetico was more sporty/aerobic, made almost entirely of bouncy sidesteps, peppy as a tennis player at the baseline, though it did build up to include some strictly timed semaphore arms and cancan kicks.

And then there was Jesús Rubio Gamo’s Gran Bolero. Like Ravel’s 1928 Boléro to which it is set – minimalism avant la lettre – this work builds a kind of maximalism from its own insistent repetitiveness, using long phrases laid over an ostinato rhythm, pumping up the “volume” of its own choreography in one long crescendo.

Did I draw anything from this year’s Spring Forward that I haven’t already done before? I think yes. First, I found it helpful to think not just of repetition in general, but the particular forms it took and their effects. The scratched-record glitches of Pas de deux are a long way from the continuous crescendo of Gran Bolero. Repetition is different from, though related to, monotony; nor is it quite the same as accumulation.

Second, I thought about Covid, which had interrupted the regular recurrence of Spring Forward in 2020 and 2021, enforcing a period of suspension which engendered desires, for systemic change on the one hand, a return to normal on the other. With the return of Spring Forward in 2022, it was hard not to think about those big, basic patterns – what writer Raymond Williams once called ‘structures of feeling’. Hence Pas de deux felt like the constant nipping-in-the-bud of attempted action, repeatedly thwarting change or transformation; all we got was incremental, infinitesimal variations that stayed on the spot. This is what activism, or even just politics, must sometimes feel like. The crescendo structure, meanwhile, reminded me of emerging from lockdown – not change, but patterns of behaviour returning, repeating, and getting louder.

Sanjoy Roy