JM: Talk to me a little about your approach within the Punchdrunk aesthetic.
MD: I’m really interested in the dancers’ ability to feel the space, touch spaces textures surfaces, temperatures. I’m really interested in partner based work, weight and the weight of another body in space. So structures and levels allow the individual dancer to experience their own weight in a different way. In a way, it allows them to be more than human.
JM: To become like architecture?
MD: Not to become like architecture, to use the architecture as a springboard for different possibilities; to jump to fall to crash to bang to impact, to place themselves within an already existing physical context. I think just being interested in the cinematic and in the possibilities for framing that a space offers, a physical framing and narrative remain. My work is all about stories and all about narratives. You might receive these in a non-linear way but the narratives are there. So the visual frame and the psychology of space it, the visual frame really affects the body and the choreographic decisions you make as a choreographer.
JM: Does the space allow access to something
sensual that exists with the psychology of the characters narratives?
MD: In Sleep No More the performer playing Macbeth was having real difficulties accessing the psychology of Macbeth before he kills Duncan. He just couldn’t get it in the rehearsal studio. But as soon as he discovered this room, with spikes all over the walls he was instantly able to find something that opened that up for him. The spikes, and the claustrophobic dimensions of the space, allowed him to unlock what he should be feeling and communicating at that time. So the space offers up more possibilities for the performer to interpret their role beyond the immediate and beyond the studio. It offers both physical and psychological dimensions. Moving in a room with spikes automatically creates a metaphorical sense of his state and the emotional depth of the character.
JM: So the performers find the psychology through the environment?
MD: Thinking about Faust that space was an empty warehouse - as a found space it offered potential atmosphere but big empty spaces aren’t always exciting, experientially or choreographically. So Felix designs lots of mini sets within the space to make it more poetic. In terms of the psychology of the narratives, the space does help you solve the conundrums actually. In Faust, just after Faust has killed Valentine, he’s in a real state and the next scene we had set for him was his hell – an epic scene, choreographically epic. I had a conversation with Dan regarding this, his wilderness scene and he said, ‘to get me ready for my damnation I need something to happen to me, I need some process or some movement language so that I can arrive in this broken down state’, but he couldn’t find anywhere in the space for that to happen. Also we went back to the text and I gave him that text, his story, and I said learn it because I didn’t feel it was a physical response that we should start from. So just playing in his story he found a place under the staircase in his hell and he found the place to perform the text and then the text became really physical because of the space it was in under the dark stairwell. When the audience came in to the equation it became bigger. So that element grew organically – grew really gradually through a process. The performer had to find the place to be at the point – it was a wholly sensuous interpretation for him. It was a very different process. He already had the language he just had to find a place to let the textual language speak through movement. Which is interesting because there’s hardly any speech in the show.
JM: Can you tell me why you and Felix
choose to pare down the speech within your productions?
MD: Felix’ main objective was to challenge and to change the nature of the audience e experience. This took him out of traditional theatre, and led him to place the emphasis on the space, on the relationship with the audience, and the transformation of that space. His concept became about space and form rather than content. He felt dissatisfied by the way that the dialogue worked in spaces. He felt that it killed the magic and mystery of the event, that the images that he created were more evocative than the words. So that’s why he sought out a choreographer to work with because he felt that physical language would work better. And then we made a wordless Macbeth. Words are popping in a little bit more now but it’s quite tough to find where they are in [Faust]. I’d say that there are a lot of ‘words’ that happen in the process because you use words to get to the final product. For me the text exists in the unseen words, it exists in the relationship and the exchange and the situations that the texts create. I think that’s what’s really powerful for me. Looking at Shakespeare, for example, the characters are so rich and the situations are so clear so that it’s actually really easy to strip it down to its essence.
JM: What is it that most excites you
as a choreographer about the Punchdrunk approach to creating work?
MD: One of the most driving things that I’m particularly inspired by in dance and physical language in this context is the play with proximity. The proximity of the audience to the performers I find really exciting, that’s at the heart of it. Felix’ ethos is that installation speaks, the space speaks and each installation should have a quality and a ambience without the performers. The space should invite you to interact with it without the performers. So in Faust you can open drawers and read letters and so on. Also, and this is especially true of Faust, how do you communicate some of the more complex academic ideas within the text via movement language? How do you clarify the detail of quantum physics? Obviously it’s there within the text if you want to use those words but what Felix has done is translate that to the space. That makes the complexity of what’s available in the words more apparent. You can see the equations and touch the experiments….I suppose my main point in relation to proximity – one of the things that I’ve brought to the work in terms of my own choreographic style – is that there’s no concession to the physicality of the choreography in relation to the audiences proximity to it. And that’s a challenge; audiences have to become part of the choreography, they have to engage with a kinetic level in order to survive. It becomes quite Darwinian. If you’re not responding on a physical level then it’s less of an experience. You have to develop your physical intuition. You see it in audiences, you see audiences who are not aware of their physical body, who aren’t aware and then you see audiences who are really on it.
JM: So they develop an instinctive sense?
MD: Yeah. And for the performers it makes each event each performance equally as challenging because each night has to be played as a game in relation to the audience’s participation in that game. I’ve seen the dancers becoming really skilled in changing the movement language in response to other bodies and other bodies in space. Faust is the most challenging in that respect because there are more audiences. [The audience] become part of the spatial composition. The other thing is that sense of the potential excitement of that experience for the audience; to really feel a body moving in front of you, behind you and around you. I think that’s really exciting. It’s something we’ve developed more in Faust. We’ve created some individual one to one movement pieces which really play with an individual member of the audience. We’ve consciously created moments where a performer places a particular member of the audience in a space, where they experience a mini private performance which creates direct physical engagement.
JM: I know that you examine and discuss Punchdrunk’s work with your own students. Recently, in talking about the individual experiences of my students who went to see Faust one in particular became frustrated about not having analytical tools that clarified her experience. Can you finish off by sharing your response to critical analysis of your work?
MD: I think it would be interesting to
develop a language that reflects the immediacy of the experience. I’m
interested in works that describe and aren’t necessarily academic
structures, language that’s spontaneous and descriptive and inventive;
language that evokes. It would be interesting to know if it brings up
memories or associations or stories for themselves. If they feel that
there’s ownership to go on their own trip, create their own narrative
and to find a way to communicate that. I think sympathetic analysis
can always open the work up to an extent. Dialogue is really important
– especially with this work because the interpretations are multiple,
with this work there are so many possibilities that if people can articulate
their individual experience and acknowledge the differences of experience
that they have. And it’s important to document that about Punchdrunk
as I think that’s what makes it unique. There’s something very individual
to Felix’ concept about ownership and putting the audience first.
I’d want them to articulate it from a very individual point of view
and to really be able to interrogate what they learnt about themselves
through this process, through the journey of the space, the journey
of the building and to question how open they were to the experience.
Punchdrunk’s latest event is The
Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre, London. September
2007 onwards. See the above link for details.
Maxine Doyle is Associate Director and
choreographer for Punchdrunk.
Josephine set up the Physical Theatre Programme at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham and has recently joined the academic team at Brunel University. She has co-edited Performance and Technology: Practices of Virtual Embodiment and Interactivity (2006) with Susan Broadhurst and is in the process of writing (Syn)aesthetics – Towards a Definition of Visceral Performance. Her current practice is concerned with the playful encounters that exist between the body, text, space and technologies. Josephine is Sub-Editor for Body, Space & Technology.