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.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road