Subject–verb: on solos and sentences

Going solo. That was one the topics up for discussion at Spring Forward’s Critical Issues panel, and with good reason: more than a third of the festival applications and more than half of the final performances were solos. The panel were asked whether that was a result of choice or expediency. The short answer, it seemed to me, was that artistic choices were made within limits set by practical (economic, logistical) expediency. But the question sparked a different line of thought in my writerly brain. For solos afford another kind of expediency: they are – I generalise, of course – easier to write about than group works. Why?

The very medium of writing lends itself to describing solos. Writing is a sequence of words, just as a solo – no matter what else it may be – is a person performing a sequence of actions. Writing is naturally narrative in form, and solos (whether narrative or not) fit the fundamental structure of one thing following another; or to put that more strongly, a protagonist doing one thing after another. Subject–verb, subject–verb: the most basic structure of a sentence cleaves close to the solo form.

A duet, in contrast, is already two sequences of action happening simultaneously. Yes, the dialogue is one of the most basic forms of writing, and we often think of duets as a kind of dialogue. Yet writing has to reconfigure a simultaneous spatial interaction as a sequential temporal one: first one person speaks, then the other. On stage, though, the two partners interact concurrently, not consecutively.

Still, the written word copes more easily with duets than with groups. Consider, for a start, the pronouns at our disposal in describing a performance. After the gendered singular (he, she), the English language offers us a paltry they to refer to every other number of people, whether that is two or twelve or twenty. And the verb that follows the pronoun? Fine if every person in the group is doing basically the same thing – lining up, running around, falling over – but anything more variegated, more inflected, and language starts to struggle. It becomes that much more difficult to say what happened.

Of course, the problem can be stimulating, lead to creative solutions. Language gets pulled away from representation and correspondence, and towards the more allusive fields of poetry and music. It must rely more on imagery, connotation, evocation, on ideas of orchestration and composition: the harmonies or dissonances of group action, flows of energy and configurations of form, visual gestalts and emotional impressions.

Such writing may be richer, but it’s also harder. Which makes me wonder: given that ideas and ways of thinking are closely connected to language, might the limitations of language itself impede the creation of group choreography? Certainly, my experience is that choreographers with a facility for group composition are rarer than those who can create solos, duets, even small groups. Of course, practical factors such as logistics and affordability have a bearing: not many choreographers ever get sustained opportunities to work with larger groups of dancers. But might it also be because group compositions are simply more difficult – less expedient – to even conceive?

Sanjoy Roy