Having journaled on this topic for the best part of a year, on and off, bouncing between different perspectives, it felt appropriate to share my ponderings. In no way are these the final thoughts and I believe this discussion will ebb and flow in my mind. In many ways it feels trivial and unimportant but also the sort of question that can really tingle the thoughts: what is the difference between dance and theatre?
My first perception would be to call these two separate disciplines. What I mean by discipline is that these are two different practices that have different rules and parameters similar to how long jump is different from football. My usual analogy is inspired by Ido Portal who in turn draws from a Zen proverb, “empty your cup”. Portal’s idea, that I have altered into my own practice, suggests that disciplines can be considered cups or “containers”. These containers are the parameters and rules that hold the water or “contents” inside. For example, the contents of long jump may be rhythm, biomechanics, proprioception and so on. Portal advocates to focus on the contents instead of the container, drinking the water and not chewing the cup. This leans towards the perspective that constantly debating whether something is dance or theatre is “chewing the cup”, whereas a more fruitful experience would be investigating the contents within these: presence, rhythm, design, colour or sound, to name a few. So, perspective one: “it doesn’t matter if it is labelled as dance or theatre, what matters is what it contains”.
My second observation is the crossovers in content between the two. Considering theatre and dance as two isolated cups fails, due to the diversity in rules within each. If we say that dance is “rhythmical movement” then surely we could also apply mime into this or even the rhythm of an actor’s journey across the stage in a Chekhov play. Perhaps then dance is “abstract movement” but what about physical theatre, German expressionism? People may say that theatre has more storytelling but what about the post-dramatic theatre of Hans-Thies Lehmann or any theatre that is not narrative driven? Dance and theatre are far too large to be containers. It is like saying “I do sport” which gives me no indicator as to whether you are a sprinter, pool player or equestrian gymnast. Perspective two: “dance and theatre are too broad to be defined into a certain set of rules and parameters”.
So, we have broken the cup. We could consider dance and theatre then two flowing rivers that break off into other streams or come together at various points. For example, one cannot deny the theatricality and storytelling of Crystal Pite’s The Revisor or the dance movement in Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning. The content, or water, mixes. I would personally consider that many forms of dance are a form of theatre, whereas theatre tends to use dance as a tool. Dance is a verb and when we use “dance” in the sense we are in this article, we are considering mostly the staged aspect of dance, whether that be staged in a traditional theatre space or not. There is a sense of an established audience (sometimes… let’s not bring flash mobs into this) and an established performer. This dance is theatre, a theatre that emphasises and prioritises the tool of dance (verb). But, and importantly but, the theatre of dance is not limited to using the tool of dance but constantly uses other theatrical tools and devices such as design, text, storytelling or voice. Dance is just put into the spotlight so to speak. So, a lot of dance is theatre but not all dance is theatre (me dancing in my room alone is pretty theatrical but not theatre in my eyes). And, theatre can include dance as a tool for expression. Perspective three: “dance and theatre are two rivers that intertwine. Dance can become theatre and theatre can include dance”.
The issue we now find is a conclusion. But there is none, as the exploration constantly continues. We continue the debate as to whether our art is dance and theatre, dare I say mostly to appeal to certain venues, funders or so on. “We are a theatre-only venue, not dance” is a statement that confuses me profoundly. But, there is some benefit to having your own understanding of these two words, even if it is accepting that it isn’t as simple as a definition.
The container is not as important as the content. The container will always fail to encapsulate the vastness of dance and theatre. For dance and theatre are flowing rivers, intertwining and changing colour as they move.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Discussion is one of the ways I have found the most clarity. Either comment or you can email me firstname.lastname@example.org. Or Instagram. Or post.
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