JOHN – Choreography in physical theatre based on verbatim narrative

This essay is an exploration and reflection of how DV8 have approached physical theatre choreography based on a verbatim narrative. I feel it is important to explore choreography in detail in order to gain an understanding of how body movement in space can be used to communicate to a spectator. DV8 are known for challenging and testing new ideas, this is relevant to my practice as I am using a similar approach with the implementation of interactive digital technologies in contemporary dance.

It could be argued whether DV8 are a physical theatre or a dance company but their methodology is “…about taking risks, aesthetically and physically, about breaking down the barriers between dance and theatre and, above all, communicating ideas and feelings clearly and unpretentiously.” Their latest production, “JOHN” in 2014 was developed from interviews with over 50 men asking questions about love and sex. One of those men interview was John, which formed the narrative for the performance.

JOHN was a verbatim theatre piece that told the narrative of John’s life. The main character, John, talked to the audience about his life story beginning from his childhood through to his thirties. He had a troubled childhood “…born into a dysfunctional family. His father is sexually and physically abusive; his mother becomes an alcoholic.” As the plot progressed we learnt about his girlfriends whom he never really connected with and after a brief marriage he got sentenced to five years in prison. When he was released from prison he found comfort in gay saunas. He could feel anonymous and belonging, despite his previous heterosexual relationships.

The piece had two major sections, the first was the introduction to John leading up to his imprisonment and the second section was set in a gay sauna, which introduced other characters and their stories.

The set design complemented the narrative of the piece as it fit both major sections in the piece, the backstory of John and the gay sauna. It was a turning stage with a core structure of wooden panels. The turning stage meant that scenes could be changed on the fly through the changing of props. At any one time, part of the stage would be hidden from the audience’s view. The wooden panels suited a sauna scene, resembling the structure of an actual sauna but at the same time they were a simple enough material that allowed the audience to construct their own imaginative background to the scene.

The choreographic style of DV8 is contemporary dance mixed with physical theatre and they continued using the same style for John using contemporary dance movements along with narrative spoken by the dancers. The main dancer who portrayed John spoke throughout the whole piece telling the character’s story, to give the dancer a voice is one of DV8’s unique approaches to their work. I felt that this made the piece seem more like a traditional play as opposed to a dance

As in a more traditional contemporary dance, dancer’s gestures and movement were timed in rhythm to sound effects,music and in this case the spoken word, with the movement emphasising the emotions the characters were feeling. Signs of stress were visibly shown through gestures such as the clenching of a fist and the banging of a head on a table. Pedestrian movements were used but expanded to fit a dance performance by using repetition of movement and changing the dynamics of relationships with other dancers. For example the first time we are introduced to the sauna scene we see men in towels walking around the space continuously flowing and weaving in and out of the set design as it rotates.

The movement of the dance sometimes challenged the narrative of the scenes. Serious moments of dialog were juxtaposed with comedic slapstick style movement questioning the audience’s emotional reaction. I felt this was interesting and made the action more emotive as I didn’t know how to respond and it got me questioning what the correct way to respond is.

It would be interesting to see the piece without a narrative and in reality the first time I saw John I had a hard time hearing and following the narrative, however I still enjoyed it on a contemporary dance level as the movement vocabulary was more diverse and real in comparison to a contemporary dance which would clearly be influenced by the styles of Graham, Limon or Cunningham.

I thought that the ordinary realism in the movement of the body and relationship between performers communicated a strong narrative without having to hear the verbal speech. Would it be the same if the narrative wasn’t spoken at all and instead communicated by a video projection that interacted with the performer? John could use the digital space to portray scenes that were only spoken however the issue that arises is, could this contradict DV8’s style of leaving room open to interpretation? Instead of adding a visual paradigm to the piece through a digital space, it would make more sense to use interactive technologies as a tool to produce sound and even spoken bits of text. This idea would match DV8’s style more than a visual digital space.