Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Footnote to Incomplete Essay: My transformation from music fan to dance fan

The transition of my enthusiasm from music to theatre came, perhaps, in part, as a consequence of two remarkable gigs that I saw in the 1990s: Swans, touring on the back of their Love of Life album and The Young Gods around the time of TV Sky. Both bands conjured a mixture of furious violence and triumphant ecstasy, invoking a shamanistic mysticism (Swans' Michael Gira manipulates a theological vocabulary while The Young Gods embrace a lyrical paganism) that transformed the rock gig from a tired ritual into a celebration of life and community.

Against this, the business-as-usual of most rock'n'roll appeared tired and predictable: bands playing their hits to a group of fans who would sing along, or younger groups searching for an audience in half-empty basements, lacked the raw energy and the musical confidence Gira and Frans Treichler embodied. Memories of Michael Clark's collaboration with The Fall, and the appearance of a company I believe to have been DV8 dancing to Swans on London's South Bank, hinted that there were more interesting ways to experience the thrill of art transmitting beauty and meaning. I still attended gigs - although it was not until I discovered the Glasgow bands on the fringes of the city's visual art scenes that I recaptured the excitement - but even major events like Radiohead's big tent tour felt like shams.

I can date the exact moment when "contemporary dance" replaced rock music as my favourite art: Les Ballets C de la B, Tramway, performing VSPRS. Admittedly, the live band - an amalgam of gypsy and jazz musicians belting out a psychedelic adaptation of Verdi's Vespers - lent the choreography a recognisable rock'n'roll energy, but the terrifying movements of the dancers, the intensity of Alain Platel's intentions and the cast, drawn from the worlds of classical ballet, acrobatics and more difficult to define areas (my subsequent art crush Iona Kewney, who would later develop her own work that followed a similar rough beauty, was a visual artist who had found herself dancing in an attempt to capture her wild muse) did more than illustrate this heretical re-imagination of the seminal religious composition.

I followed the dancers into a trance. In under two hours, Platel fused music and movement - and a stunning, ragged, set - into a contemplation of both the dangers and pleasures of religious ecstasy. Reviewing the critical commentary of the time, it's clear that Les Ballets C de la B were controversial. There is a contempt for their style - they have been mocked as circus performers. But for me, the performance was a revelation: both of dance's ability to represent altered states (and provoke them), and the potential for theatre to be more dramatic, more vital and more vigorous than the supposedly primal energies unleashed by rock'n'roll.

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