Enabling the arts to tell a story

The arts are all about communication and story-telling. That’s what they were created for. They are a reflection of us and our society.

The arts, in their broadest sense, are created by us to celebrate our achievements and to examine the way in which we live.

They are about entertainment but they are also about making us stop and think about the world in which we live.

The best plays, films or television programmes are those which include something more than a light, frothy storyline and a happy ending.

That’s not to say that we should turn our back on comedy or frothy entertainment – far from it; good comedy is very hard to achieve – but the best art-forms are those which have something more to them. They have an element that lingers in the back of your mind; something that you mull over for hours or days afterwards.

I was a huge fan of the TV drama The West Wing for exactly this reason. On the surface it had its on-going storylines about the day-to-day political intrigues which surrounded The White House, but in the background there was always a moral dilemma to be addressed. Frequent-ly, there was no right or wrong answer – often you were damned if you took one course action and damned if you didn’t.

Occasionally there was a clear moral course of action but at times it wasn’t always politically expedient to take that route. Did the characters have the courage to do what was right and, if they did, what was the outcome?

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The West Wing was a richer, more interesting programme for these rich seams of moral debate not being the central storyline. They were stripped through the programme and the series, adding texture and colour.

The writers realised there’s nothing worse than being lectured or being subjected a high-minded, self-righteous diatribe. It’s enough to get you running for the hills. The best forms of thought-provoking drama are those which lure you in with an entertaining storyline and attractive characters first.

Once you identify with the people then you start engaging with the drama.

The New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich is currently staging Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame. On the surface it would appear to be a murder mystery but it’s about far more than that. The murder is really only the device by which Maugham throws his characters together and then allows them to discuss the nature of love in all its forms.

And it’s not just television, theatre or films that can do this. Art, music, literature are all better experiences when they can be experienced on more than one level.

Dance, that seemingly most abstract of art forms, can also tell a story, can also weave character and narrative together to engage an audience in a debate about our society and how we live our lives.

Next week the Jerwood DanceHouse on Ipswich Waterfront is hosting two performances of God’s Garden, the latest production by acclaimed choreographer Arthur Pita. The show is a co-production between DanceEast and ROH2 – The Royal Opera House’s outreach, touring programme.

God’s Garden tells the story of The Prodigal Son but it also combines the tale of a jilted bride. It is a dance show with a definite narrative to it. Portuguese choreographer Arthur Pita describes it as very much dance theatre.

“The devices we use to tell the story are very theatrical. We jump in time, we jump between the son’s journey and the bride’s story; the use of sound, props, set, costumes, text and dance is all there to serve the story. We use music and sound effects – all the devices you would expect in theatre but it is essentially a dance piece – it is dance theatre.”

He said it is more than a body in a space. The set and tangible props, like tables and chairs, give it a sense of place.

“Everything is heightened. It is what I call surreal realism. Dance is truly an international language and for God’s Garden I wanted audiences to view it as if they are watching a foreign film without the sub-titles. I wanted them to focus on the body language and on the imagery. There is some Portuguese dialogue but it is not there for understanding; it is just to add texture.”

He said that dance was able to express character and add information about people just as easily as dialogue. “The other thing I love about the piece is that we have people on stage with ages ranging across three generations. I have cast the show in a very particular way and we have on stage an 83-year-old woman who is playing the grandmother. This was very important to me because I wanted the audience to really experience a real grandmother. I didn’t want a 20-year-old dancer made up to look like a grandmother. We have a real 83-year-old woman dancing on stage and that’s incredible.

“When you see her move, you see her whole history coming out of her body. I really love diversity and the more diverse the cast and the more extreme the show, the better. Once you have a wide-ranging cast, able to do a dance within their capabilities, all performing in unison, I find that very powerful.”

He does love narrative work but sees his dance world as more concerned with exploring themes and images. “I love to play around with ideas and images in a slightly Fellini-esque way. With God’s Garden I have driven the story slightly more just to make it extremely clear what it is. Once the story is clear you can take diversions, take other paths, so long as you return to that central story – which allows the audience to know where they are.”

He said that bearing the audience in mind is absolutely central to his work. If the audience is lost then there is no point in staging the show. The audience has to engage with the show in order for it to work.

“You have to take the audience with you on the journey. That’s what’s so exciting about dance narrative – that you have to write the whole thing ourselves. With God’s Garden I wanted to tell the story of The Prodigal Son but I also wanted a bride revenge story, so we had to mesh the two together. We have to ask the question: what was he running away from? Why did he come back? And what are the consequences?

“I wanted to ask these questions and the more I read about it, the more I researched it, I realised that there was a lot to be said about the morality involved. It became a more interesting discussion piece.”

He said the key to opening up a discussion with the audience was to make it personal – the audience has to relate to it – and once that happens there can be an artistic conversation.

If governments, arts funding bodies, business sponsors want to know what the arts brings to people then it’s this. It holds up a mirror to our world and we can examine our reflection and hold a conversation with ourselves.

Hopefully, as a result, we can make our lives better.

God’s Garden is at the Jerwood DanceHouse on October 19-20.