Dance Theatre Journal (Volume 14/4 1999)

Return of the Narrative
Ian Bramley finds Matthew Bourne and Mark Murphy telling tales.

In contemporary dance there currently seems to be the expectation that the art form operates without narrative. (Just as Covent Garden audiences appear confounded by plotless works using the language of classical ballet.) This impression works to a certain extent - but only as a generalisation. Contemporary dance has its roots in narrative as well as non-narrative forms. Martha Graham's works were often narrative, as were Agnes de Mille's. European dance, from Jooss to Wigman to Bausch, has also played around with narrative and character. You only need to think of ARC or Mark Morris to realise that story telling still has a place in current dance practice, however minor. The radical shift really came with Merce Cunningham and the post-modern artists of 1970s America who banished narrative from their work along with virtuosic movement and the need to entertain. But looking at dance works today reveals a variety of dance styles and forms, and while most dance works on offer avoid Œtelling a story' they do tend to include a narrative of some kind - rarely linear and often abstract or psychological in nature.

European Dance Theatre is often based around the idea of character and scenario rather than plot. Artist/performers such as Nigel Charnock, Wendy Houstoun and Javier De Frutos all base their works around their own 'character' who may or may not be the same as the performer. While not narrative, they still have their roots in this same literary and theatrical tradition.

Two artists who have embraced the use of narrative are Matthew Bourne and Mark Murphy. Bourne and Murphy are typical alumni of Laban Centre London in that they have taken an unexpected direction in their approach to dance. At the beginning of their choreographic careers, while highly praised, both could have ended up ghettoised, Murphy as an exponent of diluted Eurocrash, Bourne as a purveyor of whimsicality. However, Bourne, through his commercially successful revisions of ballet classics, and Murphy, in his integration of film and dance, have found ways of negotiating for themselves a place in the dance world.

Unlike, the other member of the Laban Centre London choreographic trinity. Lea Anderson, who found her inspiration in the visual arts, both Bourne and Murphy sourced their artistic vision in examples from the big screen. Their cinematic models could not, however, be farther apart. Bourne, who happily cites Fred Astair as a hero and the screen musical as an abiding influence, has said, 'What I've realised over time is that my early obsessions - with musicals and dance, theatre and film - have fed what I have done.' Murphy's lore comes from works that examine the violent underbelly of society, from a darker canon that includes Scorcese, Coppola, Hartley, Kubrik and 'particularly David Lynch'. Murphy reveals, 'I saw Blue Velvet and thought, "I want to make work like that. I want to make dance like that."'

It is their shared cinematic heritage that has led to both Bourne's and Murphy's focus on narrative in their work. Bourne says of narrative: 'It appeals to me very much - because of my love of theatre and film, I suppose. Inevitably, it appeals to me to do that in dance.' Murphy admits, 'In terms of narrative, my biggest influence has always been films.' And while this focus on narrative may be unusual, it may also have contributed to their success.

Mark Murphy has been slowly progressing towards a cinematic use of narrative in his work. V-TOL's Time Spent In The Company Of Bad People, though not a narrative work itself, felt like a commentary, a palimpsest of a story that the audience couldn't see. By the time of Headshot, stories were beginning to unfold, if only obscurely. Headshot's evolution from the idiom of gangster films is perhaps more apparent from it's visual imagery than anything else, but while not exactly telling a story there was a development taking place, in the way that characters reacted and scenes were acted out, that reflected an underlying progression akin to a plot.

Murphy's use of film added another dimension to his work, allowing him to comment on and extrapolate from his choreography through moving images. It also allowed him to build up more complex narrative structures than would be possible through choreography alone, by using close ups, imagery that conflicts with the live action, contextualising shots etc. Importantly, it also allowed him to break up the linear time of his pieces:

ŒThe introduction of film gave me the opportunity to play around with all the things that are taken for granted in film, like flashback and flash forward, and playing around with time a lot. Being able to condense time and being able to really stretch time.'

With his latest piece, ...and nothing but the truth..., Murphy takes on - to a certain extent - the literary genre of the murder mystery, while extending the subjective fragmentation of viewpoint that he explored in his La Ronde-like By Force of Fantasy. In ...and nothing but the truth..., action is replayed through the viewpoint of each character. While this fragmentation of a linear narrative feels modern, it is, in fact, quite traditional. The successive testimony of each character is typical of the literary genre of detective fiction where each suspect accounts for his or her actions at the time of the murder and gives insights into the victim's history and relationships to other characters. Ironically Murphy demonstrates the subjectivity of truth in a piece where the audience's response is directed precisely by Murphy and by the narrator placed within the work to keep the audience on track.

The use of the narrator is the 'ultimate step', as Murphy puts it, in dictating the intended meaning in his work. Murphy admits his use of narrative is underpinned by his urge to reveal his authorial intent as clearly as possible to the audience - to limit their range of possible responses.

'I know artists who are happy for there to be a myriad of interpretations of their work. But for me I always felt that I worked too hard for people to come and go "Maybe it was this" or whatever. I felt very strongly I wanted people to know exactly what we were trying to get at.' Bourne's motivation to use narrative in his works is different from Murphy's. Rather than attempting to control the audience's response and reveal the intended reading ('I like to let the audience make their own mind up'), the aim is to reach as wide an audience as possible through layering of meaning and through the retelling of familiar tales.

Though Bourne's early works were character- and scenario-led they were not narrative. However, Bourne's choices of romantic ballet scores have led to his revisionist use of the stories that originally accompanied them. The fairytale narratives of the Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Cinderella are problematic in a post-Bruno Bettleheim world inhabited by Margaret Attwood, Marina Warner and the ghost of Angela Carter. As adults, we can no longer simply accept the stories as fantastic tales for children: fairy stories have found themselves flayed alive to show the historical, psychological and sexual anatomy that lies beneath. But to go too deep might make the works too inaccessible, too dark and too far away from Bourne's generally light hearted (though not light headed) aesthetic and his aim at broad appeal. (One of Bourne's early ideas for the plot of the Nutcracker was to make the fantasy elements Clara's way of blocking out experiences of child abuse 'but it all got a bit too heavy and difficult for the family audience that Opera North wanted to attract.') Instead Bourne tries to find a way of making the more fantastic and romantic elements palatable to an audience drawn from a post-modern society by framing them in a way that deliberately highlights their unreality: the Nutcracker becomes the orphan Clara's dream of love and food; Swan Lake is a world distorted through the Prince's madness; Cinderella the near-death hallucinations of a victim of the Blitz. On top of this Bourne layers a veneer of psychological exploration and historical specificity that allows the viewer to recognise and locate the story on a social and personal level.

Bourne despairs that accessibility is seen negatively in the dance world, but this emphasis on giving the audience what it wants can prove problematic. In Bourne's Nutcracker, Clara loses the fight to win the Nutcracker Prince in her dream. However, in the framing orphanage narrative the Nutcracker Prince reappears to sweep her away from her impoverished existence. This works against both the psychological thrust of the narrative framework Bourne has created - the dream as an escape from reality - and against the containing strategies he has set up around the fantastic elements. So why does it occur? Bourne admits it occurs because he wanted to send the audience away happy. Bourne's shying away from the notion that his Swan Lake and its male avian population could be taken simply as a 'gay' reworking led to difficulties in the texture of the piece (and indeed a gay reading would probably produce unexpected and uncomfortable reading).

Is it possible to therefore say that the success and popularity of Bourne's and Murphy's works are at least in part due to their use of narrative? It is always difficult to identify why an artist appeals to his or her audience, but in this case it is interesting to note that the dominant art forms in this part of the twentieth century are television and cinema, and that the overwhelming majority of Hollywood movies and television dramas are driven by linear narratives. Taught by their experience of film and TV, the audience expects to see a dramatic structure of a beginning, a middle and an end (in that order), linked by a recognisable, straightforward plot. It would seem likely that a dance work which offered a narrative key into the work would therefore allow an easy route for the audience to access the piece, and both Bourne and Murphy draw people from outside the usual dance audience into the theatre to see their works.

It has to be said that neither Bourne nor Murphy relies on linear narratives. Bourne, as mentioned favours the framing device familiar from gothic novels and fantasy films (think The Wizard of Oz). Murphy's work chops up the plot and the perspective, techniques familiar from literature and from less mainstream films. But neither strays too far from the dominant form to make their work difficult to read. This doesn't mean that the work cannot challenge the expectations of the audience in terms of the narrative structure as well as in its choreography and content. Indeed, part of the benefits of pinning the work onto some form of narrative allows dominant forms to be questioned and manipulated. (Remember the furore at Bourne's temerity to mess around with traditional ballet stories, subverting their Romantic ideals.)

Murphy is popular, Bourne more so, but their use of narrative is grounded in their individual need to connect with their audience in their specific ways, and it may be this as well as their artistry, rather than the mechanisms of narrative that they employ, that has led to the popular acclaim that they receive. However, anecdotally at least, people not immersed in the art form seem to have difficulty 'reading' dance. Narrative works may provide one answer to this problem.

Ian Bramley is the Editor of Dance Theatre Journal.