CN D Magazine

#1 Sept 22

When Dancers Find
Their Voices on Stage

Dounia Dolbec

t u m u l u s, François Chaignaud et Geoffrey Jourdain. Photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage

More and more choreographers are asking performers to use their voice – to speak, to sing medieval and pop music, or simply to make familiar (and less familiar) noises. While their approaches differ, many believe it enriches the art form – and relish the freedom, the vulnerability and even the strangeness that may arise from “vocal choreography.”

We are far from silent bodies. Yet western dance programs generally teach dancers to be silent, as if the voice and the dancing body couldn’t coexist. The French choreographer Flora Détraz, who has explored the interplay between the two for over a decade, says that in her training, “the voice and bodily sounds were virtually absent: when we jumped, we had to land without a sound, and always keep our breathing inaudible.” The Berlin-based artist Jule Flierl, who has researched Valeska Gert’s vocal dances, had a similar experience. “For me, ballet school was a place where I had to keep silent,” she says. “It’s very artificial to have silent people on stage.” François Chaignaud, whose latest piece, Tumulus, has a cast of 13 who both sing and dance throughout, remembers how when he was training at the Paris Conservatory (CNSMD), “dancers were like a backdrop, like wallpaper” when they worked with singers.

For some artists, bringing the voice into their process may be “an instinctive response to this education where you’re taught to ‘dance and shut up’”, says Flierl – and greater freedom seems to be the result for them. Johanne Saunier, a longtime performer with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, describes it as “a new way”, “a fresh start.” Détraz concurs: “it freed me from something. It opened a way into exploration, research, like a huge window.” For choreographers, too, vocal practice has become a must: “I need to see an entire individual’s self,” says Simone Mousset, who is based between Luxemburg, France and London. “If there’s no voice, I’m puzzled.” For Chaignaud, “conveying meaning, words, articulate sentences” is one way to “avoid making the kind of dance that remains slightly impressionistic.”

In that case, the voice supports the dance, and vice-versa – “a very organic relation,” according to the Lebanese choreographer Ali Chahrour, “because both come from the body and are part of its presence, its connection to time and space.” “It’s another way of dancing,” confirms the Danish dancer and choreographer Mette Ingvartsen. Chaignaud says his singing is better when the body can move, and Mousset adds that movement liberates the voice, while stressing the importance of the “double training” it implies for dancers. “It’s a lot of cardio, endurance training, apnea exercises, to learn to control the breath or decrease anxiety”, Chaignaud says – all with the goal, in his case, to develop “a body that can do no harm.”

Releasing one’s voice is also a challenge – and it can trigger insecurities. “At first, I would lose my voice,” recalls Ingvartsen. That sense of fragility holds some fascination for Flierl, who is uninterested in “athletic, ambitious dancers who want to do big gestures.” Instead, she strives, she says, for “an intimate voice, as puzzling as the dancing body” in order to reach “the moment when a breach in identity occurs, when there’s a loss of control.” Still, that work may involve mastering new physical techniques: Détraz, for instance, has resorted to massage and deep breathing in order to “connect to deeper internal layers.”

Muyte Maker, Flora Détraz. Photo Bruno Simao

For these choreographers, using the vocal cords also does away with strict divisions between art forms. Chaignaud’s dream, he says, is to present “more complex, heterogeneous, heteroclite bodies” – bodies who, far from being docile despite their sense of discipline, use sound to be more than “a reflective surface” or a “perfect instrument,” as Flierl puts it. Flierl also points out that men find it more natural to use their voice than women, and stresses the importance of taking up space that way, on stage and off.

Integrating the voice can also unsettle expectations, since audience members may not expect to find “vocal bodies” in a dance performance. Singing, Détraz says, is one way “to become other,” and thus fosters empathy – or at least, she believes, a “deeper emotional connection” with onlookers. It adds “an invisible layer of emotion we can’t understand but feel,” says Chahrour. “Hearing the performers’ voices creates a visceral bond with them,” if only through the vibrations they produce, concurs Mousset. “Sounds build bridges between people,” says Saunier.

Still, the risk is to produce an overly busy soundscape, or to overwhelm the audience. “The ears are a judgmental organ,” says Flierl. “You can tell when someone is pretending, playing a part. You have to be aware of the audience’s ears, not just their eyes.” And while productions weaving choreography and vocal work together have become increasingly prominent lately, they are by no means in a majority in the dance field. Whatever the approach, “finding a space of freedom” is key, Détraz says. “That’s what is most urgent.”