Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wendy Houstoun's Desert Island Dances

If you’ve ever felt the need to suppress a bit of a giggle, or even the hint of a snigger, at a contemporary dance show, British dancer, Wendy Houstoun is about to set you free. Free to laugh out loud, guffaw and generally show your appreciation through the action of your funny bones.

“It wasn’t particularly intentional when I began,” says Houstoun of the early days of her dance career in the 1980s. “But people laughed at certain things I was doing and I pretty much decided to go with it…”

From those origins, Houstoun has developed a style of performance that moves beyond categories such as “dance” or “stand-up comedy” blending movement and text, gesture and commentary, and taking her into all sorts of unexpected places. Her show Happy Hour, for example, toured bars and pubs, bursting into life among the drinkers.

Her latest show, Desert Island Dances, is a kind of catalogue of Houstoun’s favourite moves from over the years, the gestures she might take to her desert island if she were ever a castaway.

“It’s a bit of a diary really about what remains with you of people, the residue. Quite often what stays is a gesture that we take for our own. We sort of assume that we are all unique individuals, but really we are all big catalogues, composites of others people’s movements.”

Houston originally trained as a primary school teacher, so her first encounters with dance were in traditional styles such as ballet and tap. She soon found, however, that teaching was not for her. “I wasn’t a very good teacher at all. At least not in the public school system, in London, with 15-year olds, who are, quite frankly, scary.”

Then she came across the National Theatre of Brent, a celebrated “no budget” two-man theatre company that performed truncated versions of the classics in shopping malls and other unlikely venues. Helping to teach one of the performers a piece of classical ballet, she was struck by how well it worked when as the dancer recited his text while dancing.

Eventually she moved into a theatre in education company in Doncaster, and from there to work with some of Britain’s most innovative companies, notably DV8, an innovative troupe, lead by Lloyd Newson, which also had scant regard for the purity of dance and was happy to incorporate unexpected elements, such as spoken word. (Houston also works with Sheffield company Forced Entertainment, with which she will also be performing next week in Dublin in The World in Pictures.)

“Some people complained, because for them talking in a dance piece was the result of a failure of some sort….”

But that was, surely, a long time ago. Since then, Houston, as well as Newson and DV8, must have thoroughly staked out the territory of a new type performance that combines dance with other theatrical elements?

“Well it’s odd really, because dance seems to go in waves, and right now in Britain it is back in one of its purist phases. So when I performed Desert Island Dances in London, at the post-show discussion all the questions were about me not doing “pure” dance, and about that business of talking. Why exactly did we need feel the need to gab all the time…?”

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