A good friend of mine regularly comments, “Dancers shouldn’t talk on stage.” She’s not speaking from a perspective of classicality, but rather one of propriety – as a virtuoso intermedia theatre artist, she suffers from a well-placed – and well-supported – position of “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it.”
Legitimate Bodies Dance Company’s performances Softly Spoken and Mollie and Charlie both feature dancers talking. Watching it, my friend’s judgment chimes more than once in my head. But somehow it works – for the most part, anyway.
Dancers (these dancers in this piece, the tradition of work that they follow) use voice and text much differently than the standard theatrical application – no “character”, no “situation”, little dramatic/aesthetic attention given to the delivery, just the dancer him/herself, talking to you or each other from the “setting” of the stage.
And my friend’s right – when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong – bland, insipid, tactlessly blunt, lost in the characterlessness of the remarkably hard-to-understand SELF. But when it works…
Softly Spoken knows itself well. Performer Cristina Goletti provides running commentary, ostensibly to the audience but sometimes more to herself, of her fragmented dancing. She talks about what she’s doing, and why, and in doing so she turns the piece inside out, she lays bare sides of the artistic instinct and process that we as artists usually carefully smooth over before we bring a work to an audience. From the lack of clarity to the lack of grandiose meanings – “yeah, I don’t know why I’m doing this either” – to the occasional lack of focus – “You’re not supposed to look at my underwear right here…” – that we experience from both sides of a performance, the work carries an honesty that is refreshing and very humorous in its relative lack of depth.
Goletti’s shy Italian accent provide a sweetness to the proceedings that stop the deconstruction from falling apart, and her undeniable virtuosity in dance lend the work important credibility. And as she lays out what’s about to go down on the stage, you realize (I do, at least) that there’s a comfort in knowing what’s to come that makes the experience of the how that much more compelling.
Where Softly Spoken thrives on this anti-theatrical use of voice, Mollie and Charlie struggles with cogency and coherence. The shift from monolog to dialog remove the audience from the performance, and performers Mollie Wolf and Charlie Dando trade in Goletti’s spontaneity and tongue-in-cheek humor for a calcified sobriety that no longer serves as a dynamic platform for the ‘meaning’ of the work.
Wolf and Dando, both undergrads at CU-Boulder, shine in the work as excellent dancers, bringing an ease, exuberance, and clarity to the work that their speaking doesn’t deliver. They share the stage beautifully, and the act of playing themselves succeeds in movement and physical presence. They ask each other endless questions – “What are you most scared of? Do you like me? Where are you from?” – too broad, too generic to contribute meaningfully to the work; but the great value of live performance lies in our choices of what requires our attention, and good dancing can carry us through.