To hear this episode or read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/dance
Welcome to the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, dredge language in flour, dip it in beaten egg, roll it in breadcrumbs and fry until golden brown.
Coming up in today’s show:
[CLIP: Alice Sanders: “It’s like you’ve carved this hideous statue you can’t bear to look at.”]
Prepare yourselves for that with some non-hideous etymology, sponsored by Hover.com.
Mark from North Carolina writes: “Could you cover the etymology for “werewolf”? I’ve always wondered why it’s not simply “man-wolf” or something like that.”
Mark, you are wrong to second-guess yourself, because the ‘were’ means… MAN. So it does mean ‘man-wolf’. (And wolf means ‘wolf’, just in case you were worried about that too.) ‘Wer’ was the Old English for man, and a thousandish years ago there used to be the word ‘wereman’, which didn’t mean ‘a man who at full moon turned into a man’, it was just a male person, as then, ‘man’ was a non-gender-specific term for ‘person’. A female person was ‘wifman’, and that word evolved to become ‘woman’. So if you were wondering whether the word ‘woman’ is sexist because it contains the word ‘man’, etymology says it is not - neither is ‘person’, which is from the Latin ‘persona’, a character in a play or the mask worn by a character in a play; and nor is ‘female’, which also came from Latin ‘femella’, a young woman, and around the 14th century was altered to ‘female’ because they thought the word must have something to do with men - of course women couldn't just have their own things.
So those words aren’t sexist, but ‘werewolf’ is, because shouldn’t women be able to be werewolves too? Or 'wifwolves'? Where’s the mythological creatures’ lib movement?
Werewolves, sponsored by Hover.com, who transform the process of domain-name registration from moonlit lupine agony to something smooth and painless. They’ll show you the prices for all the available domains you’re interested in, with privacy protection thrown in for no additional fee - and all the online and telephonic customer support you can eat. In other good news, you can get 10% off your first purchase by going to Hover.com and using the code ‘allusionist’ at checkout.
On with the show.
“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” said Elvis Costello. Or Frank Zappa. Or Gore Vidal. Or Laurie Anderson. Or Steve Martin. Or the comedian Martin Mull.
I think this is a problematic statement, not just because nobody can agree on who came up with it. But because dancing about architecture doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched - they’re both visual, in fact each medium could probably elegantly reflect the other. Talking about dance, however, is really difficult.
AS: I hate describing dance films.
HZ: That’s Alice Sanders.
AS: I am Alice Sanders, and I’m an audio describer.
HZ: What is an audio describer?
AS: I describe films and TV for blind and visually impaired people.
HZ: Alice’s job, in a nutshell, is to watch the film or TV programme, write a script describing what’s happening on screen, then record that to fit in around the dialogue when the piece in question is broadcast.
HZ: What’s the worst thing to do?
AS: Dance movies. Which I’ve described many of. The whole Step Up series.
HZ: How many are there…?
AS: 15? 47? A lot.
[CLIP: AS describes Step Up Revolution:
Dancers march on the spot and sink to their knees. Emily smiles in wonder. Mr Anderson looks around, heavy-browed. A guy appears to fall from one of the top containers. His arms flail as he falls, but miraculously he bounces back up and stands on the edge of the container. He and another guy proceed to plummet from the container, bounce back up, and spin.]
HZ: This is Alice’s description of a dance sequence from the fourth Step Up film, Step Up Revolution. What’s so bad about describing dance films, Alice?
AS: The point of dance is it’s a different way to communicate, that is not words. It’s a completely different medium. So to translate it back into words ends up being horrifying. I think there are two ways to do it. The first way is a list of movements - factual. “She lifts her leg, she steps to the right, she backflips.” Which sounds boring - it’s like a shopping list, it doesn’t portray a dance.
HZ: And that’s just one person; if you’ve got several people in shot -
AS: Also you’re never going to be able to describe all the manoeuvres - saying them takes much longer than it does to do them. So you have to pick your favourite moves.
The other thing you can do is describe mood and do it almost like poetry; but that sounds quite pretentious. And especially when you’re describing street dance, not ballet, it sounds ridiculous. You can say things like ‘robotically’ or ‘fluidly’ to get a feel across. But you work all day long - they take forever, because describing minutes and minutes of dance sequences takes ages - and you look at your work at the end of the day and it’s like you’ve carved this hideous statue you can’t bear to look at. And you go home very dissatisfied.
HZ: Only to come back to do the next Step Up film.
AS: I did actually threaten to leave if my boss ever gave me another dance film!
[CLIP: AS continues to describe Step Up Revolution:
The guys walk up to the side of the container and do death-defying flips and spins. The audience loves it. The container goes somersault through the air. Incensed, Trip goes over to a uniformed policeman. The cop turns robotically. He’s actually a dancer. He shoves a donut in Trip’s mouth.]
HZ: Who said “The best pictures are on the radio?”
If you can trust the movies themselves, and I’m not convinced you can, this is how dance is put into words:
[CLIP: A Chorus Line.
Auditioner: Step push step step touch kick!
Again! Step push step step strong arms!
OK, pivot step walk walk walk.
That last part is: pivot step walk walk walk.
Going to the end and five, six, seven, eight!]
SH: It’s not how I speak.
HZ: Oh, so A Chorus Line isn’t a documentary. Steven Hoggett is a choreographer and movement director. He’s worked on myriad plays, music videos, performance pieces and big Broadway and West End productions including Once and The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time.
SH: In terms of creating a piece of material now for theatre, there are lots of people who wouldn’t use that terminology. It still has absolute clarity for a lot of people, still has credibility for very pure pieces of dance; and it will be how pieces of work are made in that way. But increasingly - it’s a very interesting time to work in choreography. The lexicon is fast changing, in flux.
SH: I think because theatre is becoming a medium where you might see dance pieces in the middle of it - not just like a dream ballet mid-section; it permeates the entire piece. So the form of dance is becoming more prominent in straight theatre.
My career tends to be with people who are not trained dancers. I work with actors as well as dancers.
HZ: So they don’t have a dancer’s vocabulary. In which circumstance, how does someone like Steven, with twenty years of dance experience, communicate movements without recourse to terminology that dance laypeople won’t understand?
SH: You look at the material the piece is based on. Other times, it’s just what makes sense in the room. Yesterday - I’m here working with a company on Pinocchio and one of the best ways to describe the quality of what we were talking about, the puppet-like nature of their bodies - we called it ‘ghost-like’ or ‘donkey-like’, like one of those little wooden toys where you press the bottom and the donkey’s legs collapse.
Sometimes it’s very reductive, and it’s about looking from my position at the people in the room, who they are and what they know and what they understand. In any given circumstance, a choreographer will be looking to get the best results as fast as possible. So it’s about using language and terminology that gets right to the heart of the exercise; but also allows in some ways for them to interpret, because you want them to explore and play as individuals, rather than just jete.
HZ: So not as strict as classical ballet.
SH: No, and it doesn’t have to be. That’s the joy of it. In classical ballet, your jete is your jete and god help you if you start to mess with that.
HZ: Speaking of which, I was curious about how classical ballet choreography has been preserved for posterity - because they’ll often revive choreography from long before video or living memory could’ve recorded it. Sure, someone probably wrote down lists of arabesques and chassés and grands pliés, but is writing sufficient to convey the exact angles and degrees of movement and the intangible elements of expression?
SH: There are repetiteurs, whose job it is to uphold the sanctity of certain choreographers; who go around the world and have the last word in how that move is done, and the angle of the fingers, and the accent, and the musicality.
The documentation of it is always scrappy and poor because - there’s Labanotation -
HZ: Labanotation, invented by modern dance pioneer Rudolf Laban in the 1920s, is a system of abstract symbols for recording physical movements and their meanings
SH: but it’s very time-consuming. And in some ways, I quite like that, because it’s meant there’s always room for interpretation.
HZ: The repetiteurs could have their own agenda?
SH: They always have their own agenda!
HZ: So before video, the way to record it was to write it down and hope for the best?
SH: Yes. And even now, the way it’s recorded visually is quite poor, unless you’re smart about it.
HZ: How does it work when you’re working with people with whom you don’t share a common language?
SH: You have to invent. The strongest foundation of my career was my English background as a graduate.
HZ: Hang on, I’ve got an English degree as well, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard anybody say that English degrees are useful!
SH: It’s absolutely the bedrock for my choreographic career. I thank my lucky stars I spent many years poring over books rather than spending them in the studio learning to be a pure dancer.
HZ: How did the poring over books create the modern you?
SH: Imagination. Because you’re informing yourself with what seems like a lot. I was encouraged to use my imagination way into my twenties, while I was still studying; somebody was saying not just to read the book, but think about it. That’s what helped me in every instance of trying to communicate, of using language and words and reinvent my language every time I do a new piece, because that company is different, the task is different, the show is different. And it does require a choreographer to be responsive to a room, and to find expressions and terms and words - literal phrases - that make sense for each project.
My bugbear has been to create narrative through physicality so audience feels they’re listening to a conversation. But it happens in physical terms.
HZ: And then maybe, eventually, Alice Sanders will turn it back into words.
Thanks very much to Steven Hoggett and Alice Sanders. One of Steven’s shows is about to open in London, and when she’s not audiodescribing, Alice is a writer and performer - I’ll link to both of their work at theallusionist.org/dance.
This episode was sponsored by Squarespace.com, your one-stop shop for creating beautiful websites - maybe to go with those Hover domains you bought earlier. Thanks to Squarespace, you really don’t need to know anything about coding or web design; I don’t, and the other night I built my dad a website and it took less an hour. Go to squarespace.com and use the two week free trial to have a play around and you’ll see how easy it is; then if you want to sign up, you can have 10% off your first purchase if you use the code ‘ALLUSION’.
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Radiotopia is possible thanks to you kind listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
poetaster, noun, one who writes inferior poetry.
‘Inferior’. Way to sound extra withering, dictionary.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks very much to Eleanor McDowall and Miranda Sawyer.
You can find me at facebook and twitter slash allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org - where I’ve started adding transcripts of each episode, because someone asked if I could make the show accessible to people who are deaf or hearing-impaired. So if you do know anyone who would rather read the show than hear it, please direct them to theallusionist.org/transcripts.
And please join me again in two weeks.
Step, point and curtsy.