If you close your eyes and listen to Handels’ music with attention you will see images. If you remain open and stand in a responsive space the music will find a way to move you. The feet may initiate, or the hands, and the rest of the body will follow. Shapes are born and transitions present themselves and as one shape segues into the next, phrases are made. The initial movements are like letters and when joined make words. The words quickly become sentences. If you are clear in advance about the rules of engagement, (simple, harmonious, musical,) the choreography created will have integrity and a style of its own.
Many of Handel’s arias are built around simple dance rhythms. They are also often built around an internal conversation - a soliloquy or a prayer to a deity, zephyr or spirit. The fact that there are only two duets in three hours of singing is not without significance. Sesto invokes the furies. Cleopatra prays to Venus. Caesar sings to the Zephyrs, Cornelia refers to the ‘God’s relenting,’ and even Achilla calls to the Gods. The presence of the unseen world in Julius Caesar is all the more important as there is a direct relationship between these unseen mythological realities and each character’s psychological disposition, either conscious or unconscious. The recits, which drive the action onwards and precede each aria, nearly always result in a character being dropped into an ocean of profound hope or fear.
Although Christian Curnyn and I have greatly reduced the amount of recit in this production, I have attempted to replace anything we have cut with an image or an action. Actions speak louder than words, and images speak a thousand words.
The dances I have made reflect the yearning of the characters to connect with the universal and express each of the characters attempt to find resolution, and end their suffering. It’s this struggle that creates the movements. I want this. I can’t have this. I will do this to get what I want. If I don’t get what I want I will do this and so on and on. Action is never without a cause and if we are not careful every action we make creates another cause. As a choreographer or director one is vulnerable to making the mistake of adding too many extra elements to what Handel has given us when in fact all that is necessary is to thoroughly excavate what is already there and simply allow its implicit power to emerge.
Sesto compares herself to a wounded vengeful serpent. Handel has written wonderful music to support this; the dance I have made reflects the music more than the theatrical image. Showing and telling is never a good thing. It would be a mistake, for example to create a figurative serpent dance. It is much more interesting to allow the fluidity and speed with which a serpent moves to influence the choreography. Adding ice cream to cream already on a slice of apple tart will smother any taste of apple. The object here is to allow the music to evoke an image and create a dance that is in empathy with that image, a dance that sits so well with the rhythm and tonicity of the music that it does not in any way interfere with it but instead allows something else to surface, something entirely itself, something entirely new. In this way when singing of a certain quality meets dancing of a certain quality a third thing is created. It is this third thing, this other thing that is of most interest to me.
I have always thought it that if singers were expected to move in the opera then the dancers should be expected to sing. On reflection this dogmatic principle is perhaps too rigid. What has become clear is that the singers must be free to entirely commit to their singing and the dancers to their dancing.
When these arias are sung clearly in a space that supports the singer, (an intelligently designed space that supports the sound being made) its implicit magic comes through with such force that on occasion its beauty is unbearable. Wherever possible I encouraged the singers to relax their faces, keep their hands free of tension and to focus on the words, usually a simple, repeated phrase expressing a need or want or desire. I have always found that the repetition in Handel’s Da Capo form creates a wonderful intensity and although the words are repeated they never seem to mean the same thing twice. Like an incantation, it is only truly transformative when the attention of the practitioner is uninterrupted - in order to tap something deeper there can be no distractions. In the world of Handel’s Julius Caesar, the aria is the mantra and its power can only truly find expression if the singer’s attention is unbroken, the shape of their body free from distortion and the space in which they stand is properly focused
In this opera all of the characters are changed by actions taken to pursue their needs. Cornelia wants vengeance for her husband’s murder, as does her daughter Sesto. Caesar wants to be united with his love, Cleopatra. Ptolemy wants to remain King of Egypt and will do want ever is necessary to achieve this. Cleopatra wants Ptolemy dead, to be queen of Egypt and in the process of attempting this, falls in love with Caesar. It is clear to me that Handel was conscious of how even the finest, most gifted and powerful people in the world are helpless when overcome by their desire. It is this desire, which is at the root of their suffering and it is through their suffering that they change either by dying, by loosing their innocence as with Sesto or by becoming wiser.
The last lines of the opera are, ‘let us all unite in love and joy,’ it is only through all the violence, vengeance, torture and murdering that the central characters can learn to see the eternal value of unity, love and joy. We suffer and suffer until finally we become still enough, quiet enough, refined enough for our eyes to open and finally understand that the idea that we are isolated is an illusion and allow ourselves to surrender to the universal power of unity, love and joy.
Michael Keegan-Dolan, October 2012
Dancing to be Reunited
To dance is to burn as you pound out a rhythm with your feet – an act of sacrifice to the supreme intelligence that bestows on us the creative gifts which is our only means to attain liberation.
We pray for wisdom to clarify our seeing, hearing and feeling so that we may slip behind the veils of delusion, overcome the illusion of separation (the root of all suffering) and draw on the creative source.
Hearing clearly what is outside and within we reduce the scope and interference of the judgmental mind. Through clear seeing we become aware of what is in front, around and inside of us. The internal world can then begin to manifest the secret myths that will guide us on our journey. Through feeling the air on the skin and the energetic currents beneath it as the limbs move in space the dancer becomes aware of all sensations from the grossest to the very finest.
The dancer whose senses are engaged like this grows ever closer to the great creator and the longer the engagement, the greater the transformation. The capacity to maintain this connection comes from training with great discipline, patience and restraint.
Dancing is the art of transformation, the integrated, rhythmic, coordinated movement of the limbs in space, the feet the engine and the hands the expression. The sides of the body create shape and as the shape of the body changes so does the space the dance inhabits. This alchemy evokes spontaneous and universal symbols and rhythms.
Through acquiring the understanding and skills necessary to consciously participate in this transformation we experience and transmit truth
We dance to be reunited with the creative core from which we came.
Michael Keegan-Dolan – July 3rd 2012
A short trailer for Rian. Video by Ben Dowden.
For more information and additional video, see the Rian production page
‘Choreographing the Unanticipated: Death, Hope and Verticality in Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s Giselle and The Rite of Spring’ is a recent essay by Aoife McGrath. It is available to download from InformaWorld.
With new work in development for Irish audiences for the first time in over two years, Fabulous Beast dance theatre company is emerging from a highly turbulent period. Its artistic director Michael Keegan-Dolan talks about his plans and work-in-progress, in which ‘there’s absolutely no difference between a gesture and a word’.
Check out this video from the Sadler’s Wells website. This is some work we did on a piece with a working title La Symphonie Imaginaire. I hope to present this work in Ireland next year with perhaps eight dancers, an empty space and a CD!
Michael Keegan-Dolan will be in residence at the Backstage Theatre in Longford during December, working on the development phase of his latest project, working title Helen + Hell, with a team of Ireland’s most talented artists drawn from the worlds of theatre, dance and music. Many of Michael’s previous productions have been inspired by the Irish Midlands, where he lives and works. We are grateful to the Backstage Theatre for hosting this important part of our creative process.
On Friday 17 December and Saturday 18 December there will be two special work in progress showings of Helen + Hell, at the Backstage Theatre in Longford. Details can now be seen here (PDF).