Dance's new direction: More talk, less action

Dancers are casting off their god-like, silent aura to speak or sing to audiences. Is this a serious development of the art form or a gimmick? Alice Jones reports

Ballet dancers should be seen and not heard. At least that's how it used to be. But something strange is happening in the world of dance. After years of intensive training, learning to express a range of emotions with only their bodies, dancers are turning their hands to a whole range of other on-stage activities. In the past two weeks, Sylvie Guillem has incorporated a kooky stand-up comedy routine into her collaboration with Akram Khan, while the Ballet Boyz brought video diaries to Sadler's Wells before taking up guitars to play the audience out with an encore of the Arctic Monkeys' (what else?) "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor".

The critical reaction to this muddying of ballet's pure waters has been mixed. While the dancing of Guillem and Khan in Sacred Monsters was lauded as "gorgeous", "fabulous" and "dazzling", in the same reviews the non-dance part of the show was slammed as "banal", "intrusive" and "vapid". The Ballet Boyz were let off a little more lightly, merely chided for the "indulgence" and "ego trip" of their added extras. "There's very little point in railing against it because it's happening," says Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of Sadler's Wells, of the changing face of ballet. "It's inevitable."

Ballet is no stranger to crossover disciplines. Beaujoyeulx's 1581 Ballet Comique de la Reine, commonly regarded as the first ballet, squeezed music, singing and spoken verse as well as dancing into its five-hour spectacle. Classical ballet was originally performed as an interlude in opera, while Frederick Ashton's 1937 A Wedding Bouquet had a chorus singing Gertrude Stein's words, later replaced by a narrator. More recently, the choreographer Will Tuckett has experimented with a narrator for The Wind in the Willows and a voiceover for The Canterville Ghost. "I think a lot of stuff can be conveyed very easily without words," says Tuckett. "But when you talk to people who don't go to dance, the thing they find hardest is that no one speaks."

But these latest shows are different, using speech not as narration, but as a self-conscious reflection on the work and even the performers themselves. For Khan, the spoken elements in Sacred Monsters are integral, part of an all-encompassing performance that recalls the physical theatre of Pina Bausch and DV8. "For me we're dancing all the way through," says Khan. "Text has a certain musicality and it also has a certain rhythm and movement. I really believe in the Indian perception of dance, music and theatre, where they are one."

The Ballet Boyz, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, use video to enhance the audience's visual experience. "We like to think of the whole show more filmically - it has a flow," explains Nunn. Since leaving the Royal Ballet to form George Piper Dances in 2000, they have made three documentaries for Channel 4 and their first show featured a live video feed to backstage. In Encore, the dancing is spliced with clips in which the dancers explain, in close-up on giant screens, their choices of works and discuss arts funding, the elitist nature of ballet and their relationships with each other. These interludes have a mainly practical function, acting as a kind of digital programme as well as providing seamless entertainment as the dancers get their breath back and change costumes and the set. "It's that or you sit in the dark for three minutes," says Nunn.

Carlos Acosta used a similar device in his gala show earlier this year when between acts he was shown warming up with his fellow dancers in his scruffiest training clothes. For the Ballet Boyz, the whizzbangery is of secondary importance to the work itself. "I don't think we could get on stage and do a monologue seriously. I'm not particularly comfortable with dancers using text in their work - I haven't seen it work just yet."

Whether it works or not, dancers are confiding in their audiences in a way that has never been seen before. The Ballet Boyz invite us to "see inside the magician's box", demystifying the creative process and presenting themselves as "normal guys", while in Sacred Monsters, Guillem chatters animatedly about how she identifies with Sally in the Peanuts cartoon and Khan admits to using coloured hair-spray to disguise his bald spot. "The text is there as a reference point to the human-ness of us," says Khan. "The classical art form is something that creates an illusion of godliness - that's the beauty and the strength of it. I've always felt that contemporary dance is about destroying that illusion and by taking away the mask you reveal the more human quality."

Revealing its human side might be a positive step towards deconstructing the elitist reputation of ballet, but is it pandering to the current obsession with celebrity? Erstwhile television stars the Ballet Boyz refer to their videos as having "the feel of a Big Brother confessional". Sacred Monsters is similarly self-referential, its title a comment on the way Khan and Guillem were "regarded as monsters" for their break with traditional forms, as well as referring to the term monstres sacrés, coined in the 19th century to refer to the hysteria inspired by old-fashioned divas of the stage.

"It's a rather worrying trend," says Jenny Gilbert, the dance critic for The Independent on Sunday. "I'm not against dancers talking in principle, but I do think it's worrying when they start thinking we're interested in them rather than their art." The cult of personality in ballet is nothing new - Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn are just two dancers whose private lives provoked frenzied speculation, but one can hardly imagine them breaking off from the pas de deux in Romeo and Juliet to point out the interesting real-life parallels to their audience.

Self-obsession aside, it's understandable that dancers such as Khan, Guillem and the Ballet Boyz, who felt stifled by the rigid conventions of classical ballet, suddenly feel the need to speak out. "These are people who are used to not speaking. I can see why they're curious to express themselves in a more standard way, having spent all those years training to express themselves with their bodies. But it is a separate skill and quite hard to bring off", agrees Zoë Anderson, the dance critic of The Independent. "It's less about disapproving of the talking than the feeling that the talking isn't good enough."

So is this the end of ballet as we know it? Talking on stage might be just the first step in the evolution of ballet, and these dancers aren't finished yet. Khan's next major project is the final duet of the trilogy (after Zero Degrees and Sacred Monsters), a "theatre piece with movement" with Juliette Binoche at the National Theatre in 2008, while Nunn is looking to produce a show starring "experienced professional classical dancers who are past their prime". Putting golden oldies back on the stage - now that's something worth talking about.

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