Thursday, February 12, 2004

Shall we dance? 

If one set of squiggles on paper – words – can have unfathomable power over us, so too can squiggles of another kind – musical notation. As a musician, I often wonder at the magic that turns patterns of dots and lines into such aural beauty. How just a few marks on paper translate into something that touches the very soul.

I heard again yesterday a piece of music I hadn’t heard for quite a while – Sir Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. In most concertos, it is a solo instrument that is set against a full orchestra, in what may be at various times a battle of wits, a power struggle, a debate, a dialogue, a duet. This concerto follows the same principle, except that rather than there being a soloist, here it is two string orchestras that face each other on equal terms.

Ever since I first heard this piece, I’ve visualised it in terms of a dance; a ballet with just two performers, male and female. Which is a little odd, as I’ve never been to a ballet, and I don’t dance, can’t dance and never have danced – ever. But it is perhaps the most sensuously beautiful piece of music I know.

Hearing it again yesterday, the pictures of the dancers seemed even clearer in my mind, so, as much as an exercise as for any other reason, I thought I’d try and capture that never-seen choreography in words. Unsurprisingly, the results don’t do justice to the mental images. Flat and colourless. Ah well, it was worth a try…

Picture a stage; plain black backdrop, a soft white light fills the centre, two simply dressed dancers face each other, several feet apart.

Mistrust and uncertainty lend their movements a touch of the wildness and unpredictability of caged animals; never still, adrenalin fuelled hyperactivity. Ever wary of each other, their taught, angular, nervous motion betrays the tension between them. Constantly circling each other, testing, probing; never too close – that would be too risky. Bodies tense, they face each other like two knife-fighters – mock aggression only; all display and bravado. A quick stabbing motion, then an equally quick withdrawal – no attempt to harm, but testing each other out.

Now the testing finds a new form, less physical, more ritual: a display; strutting and posturing, but still the tension underlies everything. Movements are exaggerated, elaborate and showy – yet they begin to mirror each other, and an element of more coordinated interplay enters the dance; a series of questions and answers as the dancers watch each other in a new, more attentive way.

It is later. Safety is, for the moment, accepted – up to a point. The visual, physical testing of earlier has given way to a mutual emotional exploration. They move in slow, sinuous, graceful curves, intertwining yet hardly touching – occasionally brushing together, seemingly accidentally; a caressing motion yet without contact. Circling slowly, they come face to face: hands raised, fingertips touch for a moment, then draw away again. Arms stretched forward, one in turn reaches to the other, but their tentative advances are neither accepted nor rebuffed, just held in check by eyes averted. Again they circle, tenderly, sensuously, lithe and supple like swaying saplings in a gentle breeze, in a new synchronism as their understanding each of the other grows. Now they touch deliberately for the first time, face to face, eye to eye – a gesture of acceptance and trust. Then, still facing each other, they draw apart in an elegant and formal bow.

Energy returns, and graceful speed, but flowing now in smooth controlled power, a far cry from the nervous interplay earlier. Understanding each other, the dancers are no longer separate; an invisible but powerful bond ties them together, even when apart. Can they break it? What would it take – this much? No, the bond holds, its strength sufficient. Circling again they meet face to face; turn away and half circle only to face each other again; and again the movement is repeated – all paths lead back to each other. They try out this new togetherness in new ways; a moment of formality; a moment of delicate precision; each rejoices in the skills of the other.

And as unity strengthens, the dance becomes more energetic, almost frenzied. For a moment they find freedom from the turbulence in complete unison, like for like, but cannot yet sustain it; the synchronism breaks down and they become two again, returning to the flowing, separate, but complementary patterns of formality. But the rising energy still boils below; the two become more ever more alive, more passionate, blossoming in a climax where they are both two and one; individual yet indivisible from the whole, complementing each other in perfection.

So would I ever make a choreographer? I don’t think I’ll pack in the day job just yet…

Back to current posts