Stand-up Dance

Skye Reynolds in PITCH, created with Jo Fong. Photo by Lucas Kao

What is this thing called dance? Drawing on the archive, dance artist and performance maker Skye Reynolds reflects on her multi-artform practice

These days everyone is talking about their ‘practice.’ So when does an artist’s practice begin? What is the moment in which I recognise this practice as ‘mine’? 

The Oxford Dictionary describes practice as: ‘The application of an idea or method as opposed to theories relating to it; performance of an activity to acquire or maintain proficiency.’ 

Practice is dynamic – it’s a personal process opening pathways into creative thinking and action. Also, practice takes years. Mine circles around improvised dance, crossing boundaries of form into theatre, spoken word and comedy.

I began performing in Sydney in the early 1990s. Madonna was my first muse and training took place in nightclubs. Later, after a stint in a drag show and a regime of Hawkins technique with the late choreographer Janis Claxton, I joined an artist-led group performing in art galleries, clubs and mardi gras events. In 1996, full of youthful optimism and determined to be ‘a dancer’, I purchased a one-way ticket to the UK and headed for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Twenty-three festivals and countless dances later, I’m still in Edinburgh. My current practice is ‘stand-up dance’ – a way of responding to personal and world conditions through the body, text and humour. It’s an evolving process which manifests through the act of live performance. The concept crystallised several years ago during a collaboration with choreographer Jo Fong to create my first solo work, PITCH. We called it a ‘duet in the form of a solo.’ 

PITCH was about coming of (middle) age, standing up and having a voice. Alternately serious and ridiculous, it was about one woman trying, winning, failing, and planting seeds of change. How to be a woman? How to change the world?  Committed to increased visibility for female artists, Jo and I were curious about creative activism – could we make a ‘dance action’ that could inspire change-making at the personal level? Lisa Wolfe, in a review of PITCH in Total Theatre Magazine (August 2016), wrote: ‘It’s a demonstration of how to live as an artist and have an impact.’

I’m inspired by aliveness and presence in both life and performance – how to be more of, not more than, yourself. As artists, how do we resource our materials to develop creative resilience and sustainability, rather than depending on established systems? (As Jo Fong would say, we have a lot to learn from permaculture…) In Edinburgh, I co-curate a monthly performance platform, Something Smashing, where improvising dance and music artists exchange and experiment with each other’s practices, as well as catching up over a drink. It’s a non-hierarchical space with the potential for punkishess – an anti-consumerism which feels necessary in 2019. 

In 1995 – whilst I was discovering my psoas muscle and performing in Sydney Mardi Gras – Mark Cunnington, in an article called ‘The Freedom to Work’  (7-2, summer 1995) was interviewing performer/choreographer Nigel Charnock about the difficulty of mixing genres: ‘Much of [Charnock’s] most recent work has involved the interaction of text with movement (not dance) and his artistic creativity has taken him further into textual work (written by himself). And yet it would appear that his artistic output must also suffer under conditions that are not generally amenable to progressive, and in particular cross-artform, performance. He suggests that the Dance Department possesses somewhat purist values. His initial reaction to the realisation that they would not fund his next project soon turned from shock to anger, ”you try to do something new and all they do is take away the money… it’s like the Arts Council are controlling your artistic output, saying you cannot go in a new direction.”’

Whilst we might say that cross-artform performance is now considered the norm, the late Nigel Charnock’s argument still resonates when dance is programmed according to an aesthetic notion that demands that it ‘look like dance’. (What does this ‘dance’ look like?) By having conversations which are alive to intersectional values of feminism, race, gender, class and inclusion, we can locate that vitality which informs artistic practices on the edge, in threshold spaces from where new dance is emerging.

In 2001 (when the twin towers came down and I was training in capoeira in Brazil), Dorothy Max Prior celebrated Charnock’s creative juices in her review of Asylum (13-2, summer 2001):

 ‘Confession, co-dependency and coming out are tussled over and toyed with by this cast who role-play and role-reverse in a riotous orgy of song, dance and deconstructed dialogue. No corner of the subconscious is left unswept; all is laid bare then re-dressed in new boots and panties… The production toys with form and teases us into re-evaluation of our assumptions about both reality itself and theatrical representation of realities. The company describes the results as “a transgressive musical, a blend of theatre and anti-theatre”.’ 

Charnock’s queer sensibility and punk attitude, which were zeitgeist then, are equally resonant now. I’m inspired by the potential for exposure and revelation within my own work and by the simultaneous invention and deconstruction of form. Last December I reviewed my first piece for Total Theatre Magazine, Ivo Dimchev’s solo Som Faves. Choreographer, performer, and singer-songwriter Dimchev defies categorisation – whether he’s wooing Simon Cowell and the masses on Britain’s Got Talent, serenading a studio audience at Chisenhale Dance Space, recording his own music, or doing his thing at contemporary performance festivals around the world:

“When he asks if we think his work is “choreography” or “song” it’s a trick question. Whilst he’s referred to previous choreographic styles, we’ve not yet seen him “dance”.  Most put their hands up for “song” but when he counts up Dimchev decides we’ve voted for “choreography”. And why not? His work raises questions about categorising contemporary performance which deconstructs and reasserts itself; meanwhile, Dimchev is defining his own style.’

Performer and choreographer Wendy Houstoun was a close colleague of Nigel Charnock, and also brands a pseudo-autobiographical style. She’s one of a handful of female choreographers from the UK whose work has been internationally visible since the 1990s, influencing a generation of artists with her juxtaposition of comedy and politics into skilfully-worded dances. Having the chance to perform in her show Stupid Women – a creative homage to Charnock – was an electric opportunity and a trial by fire! (It was also the moment Jo Fong and I connected, leading to future collaboration and the making of PITCH).

In 1996 (the year I discovered DV-8), Houstoun’s solo work Haunted was reviewed by Mark Cunnington whilst Daunted, the second in her trilogy, was reviewed by John Daniel.

Speaking of Haunted, in a review of a mixed bill at The Place for Spring Loaded  (8–2, summer 1996) Cunnington says: ‘In her writing/devising, she possesses the ability to develop the comic into the tragic into the pathetic with great ease. Yet the comedy never becomes hysterical and the tragedy never becomes ridiculous.’

And of Daunted, John Daniel wrote: ‘Daunted was twenty minutes of “stand-up” dance – in which Houstoun stood at a microphone and told jokes that were animated with simple dance phrases. This style neatly combined text with movement and wryly sent up contemporary dance at the same time… “There was this pirouette who went into a bar…”’

Houstoun’s work continues to successfully straddle dance theatre, tragi-com, and the personal as political. And when Daniel uses the phrase ‘stand-up dance’, I’m plugged back into a source of language and style that connects with my practice today, offering perspective into the archival role as part an evolving story. 

I look up Pina Bausch in the archive – the late, great choreographer, innovator of ‘dance theatre’, and director of Tanztheater Wuppertal. In an industry dominated by male directors, here was a female leader who changed the way we experience dance. This is political – and I’m reminded of Jacinda Ahern, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand who is changing the face of world leadership. As one newspaper headlined: ‘What Happens when Women Stop Leading Like Men.’ 

Bausch is a dance role model with mythic status. As Ray Newe writes in his review of Viktor (11-1, spring 1999): 

‘Pina Bausch’s impact on contemporary theatre is undeniable. It is probable that most of the companies featured in Total Theatre owe some debt, acknowledged or otherwise, to Bausch’s work with Tanztheater Wuppertal.’

I confess that I endeavoured to restage the virginal chosen one from Bausch’s epic version of The Rite of Sping in my solo PITCH... Whenever I hear ‘Dido’s Lament’ by Purcell a portal opens into her Café Muller. Bausch’s image hangs on my living room wall as an ode to the creative female voice.

Whether it’s about gender quotas, equal programming, or increased visibility for female artists it’s a conversation that Cath James, Artistic Director of South East Dance has brought to the table in her recent article (May 2019) in Arts Professional, ‘Is It Time for Quotas?’

As we work to dismantle patriarchal structures, the patriarchy is kicking back. We are the #MeToo generation, calling out sexism in the workplace, resisting Trump, surviving Brexit. There’s plenty of work to be done.

In my current projects, I recognise that feminism is a dominant lens through which I create and expand my practice. Having recently embarked on a fresh collaboration with playwright and performer Jo Clifford (creator of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven) we find ourselves reframing gender archetypes through our personal experience of grief and desire. As we exchange respective practices in movement and text, I’m finding a new performative outlet for my writing. In a project with choreographer Khamlane Halsackda, we begin to unpack the impact of the male gaze on the female body, leading us to question our contemporary bodies as sites of resistance. And in a movement monologue directed by Susan Worsfold, we explore the intimate space of life, death and female identity, inspired by the loss of my dear friend and mentor, the late choreographer Janis Claxton.

I’m finding that ‘practice’ is much more than acquiring a skill or methodology. It’s a philosophy and a way of being in the world. It's connection, transmission, translation. My artistic practice is what I want to stand up and dance about.