The Place I Dance - by Leigh Barrett

Disclaimer: I have two left feet. I cannot dance. The rhythm exists in my head, but for some unfathomable reason, it never quite reaches down my legs, getting hung up somewhere in my throat as I hum along, inevitably out of tune.

I blame my imagination. My head is so filled with the vision of the sound, I think perhaps that is what sucks up all the energy.

As a child, growing up without television, and relying on the radio to be the theatre of the mind, it was several years before my mother started taking me to every musical film and Broadway-style extravaganza that came through our nearest city. By then, my imagination was in full flight and every tune I heard played in my head as a stage production or “video”, even though this was decades before VH1 was a twinkle in cable television’s eye.

I really thought I was “normal”, that this was true for everyone, so never considered writing down these images.

Once film, stage shows, and videos permeated my consciousness, all that was left was a feeling of either being wonderfully entertained, or a dissatisfied feeling of, “Well, I wouldn’t have done it like that.”

And then, I went to the ballet. I don’t remember the first time, but somewhere along the line it must have settled inside my veins, and the music I listened to became more focused dance videos. I recall hearing Robbie Robertson’s “Showdown at Big Sky”, and “seeing” an ensemble, clothed in black, dancing wildly on top of one of those extraordinary, red hoodoos you find in the Utah desert as a helicopter flew above, circling overhead as they danced.

There was no narrative to it, just people experiencing the anthemic power of the music, and expressing the emotion of it in a setting that engulfed these tiny and insignificant human figures. But, it was also the human figures that brought the majesty of the desert to life. Imagine my surprise when I finally saw the video, and noticed some of the rock formations (not quite the same as I imagined), and colors, in Robertson’s own vision of his song.

To this day, it is my imagining that comes to mind every time I hear the song.

But, I cannot dance.

For years, virtually the only music I played in the car or at home, was William Topley. I was obsessed with his rich, deep voice, the stories he told, the poetic lyrics, and the images and movies I saw in my mind transported me in each song. But, it was an evening at the ballet, watching friends of mine playing their music to a story of Zorro, that a lightbulb went off in my head, and I knew it was time to transfer those images to paper.

“Prince of the Deep Water” took over a year to write. I had no idea how to do this, how to write a dance production when I am neither dancer, nor musician. But, some of the world’s finest writers have found themselves in the same position. Stephen King, I would hope, is not a serial psychopath as many of his characters are.

So, I set about listening to every recorded song of Topley’s, many times over, identifying the common threads that run through the lyrics. Cover songs were discarded, although I did keep songs based on poems like his adaptation of John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”. Songs that fell outside the “threads” or were in a genre out of place with the majority of songs, were also cut, and a shortlist of 76 songs formed the foundation from which to work. From there, I narrowed down the story. The story is not Topley’s. The story exists in my mind, and my task was to find his words that fitted that story. Since I cannot alter the lyrics, or change the music, the process can be likened to a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

That song says this… but in order to fit my narrative, I either need to reinterpret the lyrics, or change the story. And there goes my day, fitting, refitting, changing, re-imagining, until it falls into place.

So, with two left feet, and a singing voice best left in the shower, I find my place in a world that lives between the two.

Musicians connect one note to the next.

Dancers connect one movement to the next.

The librettist connects the dots of the musician and the dancer, and creates a reason for both to complete each other.

To engage, to hear, to see, to believe: that is what I do.

Frederick Ashton said, “I think the great asset of ballet is that it can heighten beyond words certain situations and give a kind of poetic evocation…”

Bringing a lyricist’s words to another level, transforming them into action, is as important as a dancer’s ability to physically manifest the emotions of the words.

"When a man of genius arranges the letters to form words, and connects the words to form sentences, (dancing) will cease to be dumb; it will speak with both strength and energy; and then ballets will share with the best plays the merit of affecting and moving, and of making tears flow, and, in their less serious styles, of being able to amuse, captivate, and please.” (Comte d’Essex, Act 4, Sc 3, by Thomas Coirneille, 1625-1709)

The thrill audiences have in watching “the Nutcracker”, one of the most famous of narrative dances, has long been ignored by choreographers who have instead focused on the abstract dance. I can understand why. Dance can emote and transform music, but a strong narrative is very difficult to write. If everyone could write a good story, there would be many more F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Tolkiens, and Wildes. There aren’t, and many attempts by highly gifted choreographers to write narrative dance have failed as audiences lose interest as a story flatlines, or the dancer loses the plot.

Recently, Paul McCartney, arguably one of the most successful songwriters in several generations, discovered the difficulty of narrative writing when he wrote a libretto for New York City Ballet, and one of the kindest reviews called “Ocean’s Kingdom”, “that sinking feeling”. The New York Times called the writing, “trite”.

A fantastic choreographer can direct emotive and passionate energy into movement, and create shades of meaning through physical expression, but the artistic sum of the performance requires far more than that.

 As we head deeper into the 21st century, a greater awareness of our surroundings is happening. We are no longer isolated in our communities or country, no longer oblivious to the world.

“Painting and dancing have this advantage over the other arts, that they are of every country, of all nations; that their language is universally understood, and that they achieve the same expression everywhere. (Jean Georges Noverre (1727-1810)

Noverre was a little before his time, and reading those words now, is illuminating. More than ever before, we are confronted by images from around the world, our knowledge grows, and social media has made is possible to connect with people from places we would never have dreamed of speaking to before this age.

With these connections, we grow, and our society grows and changes as a result.

We know about the Nepalese earthquakes in great depth, Hurricane Katrina, Asian and African child brides, climate change and the threatened island nations; we know about regions of violent conflict, and obscure groups who inflict their extremism on people in countries most have difficulty finding on a map.

While dance hasn’t reached the point where people can see news events on stage in a large-scale global way, what it can do is identify the impact on the individual. Dance can tell the story of a person with PTSD; dance can tell a story of slavery, and of conflict. Dance can provide narratives that impact, increase our awareness, touch an audience, and also entertain.

As the world grows smaller and more connected, there is a demand that we learn from each other. To my mind, the best way to learn is through our creativity: using music, dance, and other art forms to tell our stories. Giving an audience images, sounds, and knowledge that they remember long after the curtain comes down.

By seeing the music, we can know. We can understand. We can grow.

 “…and then ballets will share with the best plays the merit of affecting and moving, and of making tears flow, and, in their less serious styles, of being able to amuse, captivate, and please.”