Jacky Lansley: Choreographies

Posted: September 22nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Book | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jacky Lansley: Choreographies

Jacky Lansley, Choreographies, published by Intellect Books (2017)

Jacky Lansley, Choreographies (cover photo: Hugo Glendinning, collage Emily Dann)

Jacky Lansley’s long career began as a dancer in the Royal Ballet before her fertile imagination and radical mind led her to enroll in what was then called the London School of Contemporary Dance in 1971. On the surface that transition sounds like a simple linear progression but consider it again in the light of what it involved. To become a dancer in the Royal Ballet requires a body that has the potential to master the classical form, extraordinary talent and years of strict discipline. Lansley would have danced there in the final years of Sir Frederick Ashton’s artistic directorship before Kenneth MacMillan was appointed to replace him in 1970. For Lansley to transfer from this rarified atmosphere of classical tradition to what she calls ‘a space for dance to explore and interact with…interdisciplinary influences’ must have taken a huge leap of faith and a willingness to embrace the unknown. She doesn’t touch on the reasons for this life-changing decision — Choreographies is about the motivations behind her work rather than behind the author — but she found at LSCD artists like Sally Potter, Diana Davies and Dennis Greenwood for whom she felt a close affinity. It was here she could begin to explore contemporary issues like feminism, racism and homophobia through a fresh, multi-disciplinary approach to choreography that could be expressed outside the traditional framework — as when she and Potter transposed a classical entrance from the wings to meet in the middle of a loch in full evening dress and flippers in Lochgilphead (1974). As I read about this and other early works like Park Cafeteria (1975), Death and the Maiden (1975), Rabies (1976) and Mounting (1977) with enticing photographs, I kept on wishing I had seen them.

The subtitle of Choreographies is ‘Tracing the Materials of an Ephemeral Art Form’. Lansley looks back on her vast material archive with the archaeologist’s eye but she is also the subject of their excavation. It’s a delicate place to put oneself but her focus is collective, on the people with whom she worked and on the creative inputs they derived from visual arts, performance art and, in the case of The Impersonators (1982), an interest in music hall. Her rational parsing of her works provides an insight into their layers of meaning and metaphor, and her deconstructions of classical ballets — Giselle in I Giselle (1980), Petrouchka in L’Autre (1997) and Firebird in Les Diables (1998-9) — in the light of contemporary cultural politics relates to Walter Benjamin’s ideas about literary translation. Wherever possible she has included interviews with her former collaborators, and the chapter notes are as far-reaching and informative as the text itself. These inside perspectives remind us of the important contribution of choreography to the realm of ideas and to an understanding of the body as a thinking instrument.

For Lansley choreography is the art form ‘which most profoundly links the mind and the body’ and for the last 40 years she has been guided by the clash of values that drove her away from the ‘narcissistic, virtuosic and dramatic view of performance’ to the ‘radical community’ at LSCD where she and her colleagues could, in differentiation to key dance makers in the US, nurture ‘artistic, conceptual and theatrical strategies’. Looking back, it is clear her intuition led her to being in the right place at the right time; she now makes her own place and time at her Dancer’s Research Studio in Haggerston which has provided the context for some of her more recent works like Holding Space (2004), View from the Shore (2007), Guests Research (2010) and Guest Suites (2012). Her working period between LSCD and today is a huge swathe of British dance history in which she has continually evolved as a choreographer: she was a founding member of Richard Alston’s first company, Strider; she formed Limited Dance Company with Sally Potter (joined later by Rose English), and co-founded X6 Dance Space with Mary Prestidge, Maedée Duprès, Emilyn Claid and Fergus Early. The key aim of X6 was ‘to view and explore dance within its wider social context’ and to be responsible ‘for encouraging cross art form collaboration and creating spaces for the development of interdisciplinary performance and somatic training.’ It is symbolic that the wooden floor in X6’s original studio space in Butler’s Wharf is now the underpinning of the performance studio at Chisenhale Dance Studios that Lansley also co-founded. But while Lansley’s narrative inevitably weaves through a history of dance in the UK, it is the history of her works in this 40-year period that is the true subject of her book.

Choreographies also reads as a theoretical underpinning or an approach to the art of choreography that is still relevant today; too much choreography is made and played rather than written and read. As an extension of this metaphor of the literature of choreography, Lansley has also been keen to foster a critical response to the work in which she participated, facilitating a dialogue between new dance and the public in the form of New Dance Review that X6 Dance Space launched and fostered for its eleven-year existence.

I have dipped into my dog-eared copy of Choreographies on numerous journeys; fortunately its variegated format of text, photographs (many by Hugo Glendinning), choreographic notes, scores and reviews supports this time-lapse form of perusal. It also suggests it is not a book to be read and left to brood on a shelf but should be consulted regularly like a chiropractor. Reminding us that there can be no critical engagement with an art form that does not provoke a critical dialogue, Lansley’s voice makes an eloquent case for a written choreography that can be expressed and read as a counterpoint to the readily accessible product of a gradual shift to social conservatism. Choreographies is a timely call to arms that recognises choreography, in the words of critic and dance historian Laurence Louppe, as one of the most important artistic phenomena of our time.