Last week I worked with composer Toby Young and two dancer-choreographers, Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gülgeç to develop a new multi-media work from scratch. Thanks to the generosity of the Rambert company – with whom Estela and Thom previously danced – we based ourselves in a studio at Rambert’s spacious new home on the South Bank.
This was the first time that the four of us had worked together as a group. We carried equal weight as creative decision-makers, which was a first for me. As a singer I am still far more used to being handed a completed score at the end of the process, rather than encouraged to contribute to the thought and structure underpinning a piece. I found it challenging and rewarding to have to think in this way.
We had an agreed starting-point; the experience of being physically “locked in”, as described by Jean-Dominique Bauby in his memoir, The Diving-Bell & the Butterfly. We were keen to avoid literal narration or illustration; however, the immobility and the psychogical experience reported by Bauby, as well as by the rare souls who have recovered from being locked in, suggested themes around stasis, flesh, interior landscape, hallucination and memory. Memories overlap in the locked-in experience with hallucinations (constructed memories in some sense), erupting into the patient’s awareness and then abruptly vanishing. Through these ideas we also found ourselves circling back to a preliminary discussion about Camillo’s Theatre of Memory and the location of memories in physical space.
A fundamental challenge for us has been to learn to understand each others’ terms of reference and, particularly, use of metaphor in relation to the work. Our creative starting-point was the same but once we start talking about abstractions, we came up against differences in the way we exploit metaphor creatively. This has been one of the most fascinating discoveries of our work together and our learning to communicate about this directly mirrored the search for a new language at the heart of the piece itself.
For example, the idea of a cave can represent any number of things metaphorically and, in a literal sense, might have suggested a way to think about the performing area. As an impetus for devising, ‘cave’ was something around whose many associations Estela and Thom could improvise as a way of generating choregraphic material. The idea ‘cave’ therefore not only generates, but also comes to signify, a created phrase or section. The noun becomes shorthand for that whole sequence and part of the map in the dancers’ heads that enables them to memorise their material. We non-dancers realised that the cave idea is not necessarily indicative of a scenario within the piece but is part of the chain of images forming the road-map for the dance, independent of a phrase’s technical ‘grammar’, which may continue to be tweaked for greater beauty or clarity.
The question of what overall shape the piece should take emerged relatively early, not least because Toby and I agreed that we like working within some kind of musical limits. Assessing and editing the quality of our own work was straightforward enough, but critiquing our colleagues’ work was much more challenging. The sheer beauty of what they do is undeniable but how do we know how good it is? As we ‘got our eye in’ over the course of the week and began to read the structure of their choreography more clearly, we felt more confident to offer our opinion. I suspect Estela and Thom may have had a similar experience with our musical offerings.
In the end, the piece comprised four sections: Rebirth – Animal – Immoveable – New Paths. Toby also proposed the idea of the madrigal – several different lines voicing a common experience – as an analogue for different kinds of inner voices, memories and hallucinations. Having settled on this, we immediately access to a classical language of imitation, ornamentation and vocal gesture that could be mixed with a the more modern forms of Drum & Bass. Toby still roughed out ideas on the piano as we improvised, but the laptop became a key tool to source, sample and mix sounds on the spot, including a heartbeat and electronic tones suggested by the worlds being explored.
Multi-tracking my voice on the three lines of the madrigal opened up options for me to sing live with myself or to participate in the choreography. We were all keen to explore whether we could cross even partially into each others’ territory. Estela and Thom sang a bit and I danced a bit. I can confirm that it’s not easy to move so fluently!
Finally, how to finish the piece? We wanted to make a positive statement. Reports differ on the positive and negative emotions experienced by those who are locked in, but we didn’t want the experience of watching our work to leave people feeling hopeless about the subject. New Paths developed in part from Bauby’s description of “beginning to forge glorious substitute destinies for myself”. In the imagination one can experience the ecstatic freedom that is denied by the body’s actual immobility. Within the piece, this justified my move from the edge of the stage to full participation in the dance and was supported by a climactic build in the music. The rightness of this creative decision was bourne out by comments from our invited audience, with whom we discussed the piece after we had performed it.