lawrence kavanagh

Who wears the crown? An artist and four choreographers take on jealousy and authorship

Originaly published by Dance UK in 2011

Jealousy, a collaboration between dance and sculpture, is showinged at The Print Room, Notting Hill It is a devised dance work, lead by sculptor and installation artist Laurence Kavanagh with the collaboration of four choreographers: James Cousins, Herbert Essakow, Daniel Hay Gordon, and Morgan Runacre –Temple. The text for the devised work is novel La Jalousie by Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet.

I met with Laurence halfway through rehearsals on the invitation of producer Andre Portasio, ex English National Ballet dancer, and my long suffering ballet teacher. Here I share insights gained from our conversation as to where this collaboration fits amongst the many encounters that dance is currently having with other disciplines. The project, funded The Print Room, is also an encouraging example of philanthropy which should be championed in this austere time for the arts.

Laurence has found himself in an interesting position, somewhere in between a dramaturge and an artistic director, facilitating an interdisciplinary collective of collaborators including the audience. He has set the conceptual framework for the work, and the text La Jalousie. Also his sculpture provides a physical framework or set for the work. So what parts of his practice have come through in this new way of working? In his sculptural works, he addresses authorship and voyeurism, also key elements in the text. La Jalousie (1957) reads like a written description of a film. Laurence explained that the concept of the Nouveau Romantic novel is to provide information, images, and moments in such a way that someone can piece it together themselves, a form of collage. Instead of writing books which focused on plot, narrative and character, the author Alain Robbe-Grillet used methodical and often repetitive descriptions of objects.

In the book, time is a continual ‘clip’ where the physical circumstances surrounding a suspected affair are observed by a suspicious, absent narrator (the husband). The story and the emotional experience of jealousy are expressed through structure, the repetition of descriptions, the attention to odd details, and the breaks in repetitions. I can’t help thinking of Pina Bausch at this point. Robbe-Grillet’s texts inherently mean many different things to many people, which provides rich ground for collaboration.

For Laurence, this notion of piecing together the story indirectly is familiar ground, and his audience often shares authorship of the work in this way. In his art practice he constructs three dimensional environments taken from films that the audience can enter into and build their own impressions over a period of time spent inside them.

In Jealousy the audience still shares the authorship of the work, however, their experience is more clearly orchestrated. They play the mind of the jealous husband, the voyeur, as the reader does with the book. Voyeurism is also played out in the dance. From what he has seen, Laurence says that he is ‘hugely encouraged’. The audience is 'really there, locked into what happening, with just a square banister dividing them from the stage'. Having seen work on the opening night I would agree, the intimacy of the space made me very aware of my own, slightly inappropriate, proximity to the intimate lives of the characters.  

Up until now the only people in Laurence’s works have been the viewers, and the presence of performers brings orchestrated gesture into his sculpture for the first time. Human movement and the audience’s part to play are more choreographed than ever before. It is no longer up to chance where people stand, what they look at and for how long, or the pathways taken through the work. It is edging closer to a filmic version of voyeurism and so I am not surprised when Laurence tells me that his next desired project is, in fact, a film.

So how does this project fit with other collaborations that I have written about in this series, Siobhan Davies Commissions for example? There are probably more differences than similarities between the two projects. Siobhan instigated her own role of commissioner and curator as Artistic Director of Siobhan Davies Dance and went about it very much as a choreographer. She carefully selected each collaborative relationship and set the rules (such as no compromise) and then stepped away form the project. The resulting works were shown at Bargehouse, an established visual arts context, to a mixed audience from both spheres. The pairs of collaborators (plus one trio) effectively gave up everything except the essence of their creative practice, without compromise, and produced genuinely hybrid works.

In contrast, Laurence accepted a role which has elements of artistic direction, dramaturgy and curatorship. The role was offered to him by the Artistic Director of The Print Room. The initial ingredients and outcome were set, his brief was to create a conceptual and physical framework. The outcome will be seen by a largely theatre and dance audience, at an establishing theatre space in West London. Founder and Artistic Director of the space Anda Winters commissioned the work with her own resources, chose the collaborators and set the vision. The end result is very specifically a theatre piece, not a live art work or a performance piece. As collaborations go, Jealousy follows a standard devised theatre process, with a multidisciplinary team. Comparisons with companies like Wildworks, a landscape theatre company of artists, dancers and actors lead by sculptor Bill Mitchell, springs to mind.

Choreographers and artists often have more authorship over their work. In this instance Laurence is not in control of the visual outcome it its entirety, and has not chosen one of the key materials, the choreographers. 'Irrational juxtaposition', he says half in jest, 'is relevant to the author, so critically the work will be successful whatever the visual outcome'. Talking with me after the show Daniel Hay-Gordon, who dances in it as well, was certain that interdisciplinary collaboration was the way forwards saying ‘it took the crown off the choreographer’.

The experience that Laurence has to liken this project to, is curating a group show- organising whole artistic entities that all respond to the same theme, alongside one another. He is keen to point out though, that he is not a choreographer. He has set a framework for four specialists in that field to respond to, equaling four separate sets of movement material which overlap in the piece. For him the choreography is another material or object that is being arranged as part of the whole. Of working with choreographers, he says: 'It is exactly like working with an artist, sometimes you just need to know when to shut up! You listen and talk about ideas and then leave it alone that is what this process is about. As far from the ‘uber curator’ as can be.

Two weeks into rehearsals when Laurence and I first met, the four choreographers had not seen each other's work, fearing cross contamination. Laurence was working out a way to respectfully and sympathetically piece them together. Now, two weeks later, it is evident from the crisp, and succinct performance that this has happened. Choreographer James Cousins told me in an email: ‘One aspect I’ve really enjoyed is the jigsaw puzzle of piecing all our sections into one full length work. For me structure is a key feature of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s work, and the idea of a seeing a repeated image from different perspectives has been very interesting to explore. Although structure is very prominent in my own work and something I’m always conscious of exposing the audience to, I feel it’s something that I felt I’ve really had the opportunity to push in this process and has led to quite a different result’.

Devising collaboratively has clearly been a new experience for many of those involved, including Laurence. Half of the choreographers are classically trained and half contemporary. That to Laurence is like craft versus contemporary visual art, three very distinctive ideologies for the visual artist to deal with in a theatre context. He points out that as an artist making objects, you remain slightly removed from the work and often know what the work is before the show opens, or have seen each others work before. This was not the case here so there was a real element of tension, excitement, danger. Was it going to be a real visual clash? James, collaborating with spatial design for the first time, says ‘more unusually, it’s been a rare chance to work with three other, very different, choreographers. It has actually been a lot less painful than I anticipated though, I think due to the fact that we all had such a clear starting point with the novel and that Laurence’s art work is so specific and provided a very unique world for which our work to exist in. We actually found quite a few moments of connection between each of our works and I think this is really due to the clarity of the space’.

Laurence feels that the choreographer's work ‘is really stunning' and says 'it is a total privilege to be working with some of these people, and that is not just words’. Most reassuring to him is that everyone on board had understood the book. Initially it was a bit of a facer, 'nothing happens!' the choreographers said. With no overt story, the structure is all there is to go on. There would be no way, Laurence tells me, that he could do this if there was a story involved. It just isn't the way that he works and creatively he would fear a mediocre outcome. This on the other hand, he asserts, will be very good or very bad, but it won't be mediocre. Having seen the show, I can safely say that his courage paid off, the work is very good indeed. 

Laurence has found himself having to do things differently. Normally he wouldn't have to talk about his work until the opening of the show, only to a very select group of close and trusted people chosen by him. One of his objectives is to keep the lines of communication open, to avoid the work becoming too fixed, or private, to keep minds open to the process of collaboration, otherwise a potential for jarring arises. Music has also never been part of his tool kit, but to aid the dancers, the choreographer’s first response to the book had to be a piece of music. The reasons for this being that  although a degree of facing the unknown needed to happen it was only really realistic to expect a certain amount of this in such a short timescale.

Being in the new context of theatre has allowed him to deal with terms, restraints and situations that he wouldn't have allowed on his own turf. The project has the advantages of being relatively instant, and not bureaucratic like some of his past projects with larger scale organisations. This is a rare situation where a private funder commissions the work, with a desire to have it done in three months. It is an experience vastly removed from doing an Arts Council England application as Laurence, Andre and I know all too well. 

However, here there is the expectation of entertainment alongside art, which comes with the theatre territory. He finds it an interesting situation 'In the art world, performance is not charged for, you go there wanting to be challenged. The expectations are different here, although I do want people to go away and think about it, it is not solely a dramatic entertainment experience'. Many theatre makers would agree with him in that ambition.

I did indeed go away from the show entertained, and I did think about the work afterwards. The choreography is structurally precise, intriguing and meaningful. The dancers and the artwork in which they are situated, all carry a sense of precision and clarity which allows the audience to engage with the subject matter without distraction. What seems to have come from this collaboration, as I have often seen in multidisciplinary teams, is the editing out of empty stylistic habits and superfluous content which may be enjoyable to make but not useful to the audience. There is a meaningful communication with the audience evident in this work that comes from a process of constant evaluation of material against another, less familiar,  discipline. I genuinely hope to see more work from this collective! 

The complete set of writing that Dance UK publised is below: 

/A visit to Siobhan Davies Dance Company

// Coffee with Stephanie Rosenthal, curator of MOVE: Choreographing You at the Hayward Gallery.

// A conversation with Siobhan Davies about dance thinking.

// Falling in love with another art form Yvonne Rainer and my divorce from painting.

// Catching movement, painter Peter Lanyon.