I meet Rosalind Crisp in the upstairs theatre at Chapter. ‘This is my space,’ she says. She takes long strides and almost dances to get to her bag. She asks me whether I’m a dancer and looks a little disappointed when I tell her that I’m not. I tell her that I’ve been started to write about dance recently and have fallen in love with it. ‘With a dancer?’ she asks. ‘No, with dance.’ She looks surprised and bemused. She ponders where to have the interview and some lunch. She thinks the café downstairs might be too noisy for my recorder. I tell her that she needs to eat. I feel I’m taking her away from her safe haven to plunge her into the midst of eaters and drinkers, and a film crew filming just outside the café.
Crisp is one of the foremost choreographers in contemporary dance worldwide. In 2015, she was awarded the highest recognition in France as Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres; yet she is unassuming, kind, and generous. She gives me her time freely and doesn’t mind when my questions become an interrogation. She takes time to explain her aesthetics and idea of dancing without a hint of pride.
Crisp recounts her journey as dancer and choreographer and says, “Some time ago there was a shift, I think it’s when I started working on my own. … In the beginning it was catching the movements and later it was about the way I was producing the movements which has led to my work of the last 15 years.’
Crisp’s radical approach is a close observation of where the body wants to go, the patterns established by years of training and habits, the ‘history,’ as she calls it, of the training that dancers have and that stops them from being aware of where the movement comes from and making different choices. She says, “I suppose I noticed with dancers that if they do things unquestioned that doesn’t interest me, … I would call it the history stuck with them. They haven’t questioned it in that moment. It has more power over them than the present moment because they’re forgetting. They do that and don’t realise that it’s actually just their history speaking,” she laughs.
Crisp’s idea of unlearning dance is a gaining of awareness of movement. She says, “I got very interested in what happens before a movement, what happened after I moved … how actually not do the dancing that I thought was dancing in order to open up a bigger view of what it might be.”
The awareness she seeks takes many years of rigorous training to develop. She says, “I have the same dancers for years and years. … I never say ‘do this or that,’ they’re so deeply in the work. They’re so amazing. They learn so thoroughly to dive into someone’s work. … It amazes me. They’re incredible. They bring so much. They bring this enormous commitment to go wherever I wanna go. … They do it in their own way. It’s given back to me other flavours of the work. … They’re not trying to get it, they’re taking it where it needs to go.”
Crisp’s openness is to the audience too. In undoing dance, she also wants to undo performance. She seeks a connection with the audience by going beyond showing a piece. She reaches out to her audience. She says, “I call it withness. A lot of dancing is being on your own, in your own world, with your eyes shut in the studio, then there’s an audience and it’s a whole other thing. It needs a lot of practice to develop that. It took me a long time to learn how to be with an audience and not just present something for them or at them. … I really love being with the audience. … it’s kind of melting that distance between us.”
I ask her how she connects with the audience. She says, “I just want them to be so involved that there’s nowhere else … I really want them to be completely gripped. Otherwise why do it? It’s gotta be better than television.”
I say that it can be hard to be gripped without narrative. In most TV being gripped is waiting to see what happens next. It’s manipulative.
She says, “I think theatre is very manipulative. I’m completely manipulating the audience. Totally. But I hope you don’t feel manipulated. I hope you just get engaged. It’s because, it’s a lot of trickery, it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot generosity, it’s a lot of skill, it’s a lot of surprises to get an audience really involved.”
I say, “Generosity is not manipulation.”
She says, “It’s still manipulative, it’s still a job to get you engaged.”
I say, “You’re still true to something.”
She says, “Yes, I’m true to my job of getting you engaged. I want them to get involved in every moment, so much that I’ll do anything to get you involved.”
I say, “If you really wanted that, you would do something commercial, why are you not doing something commercial?”
She says, “because I love dancing.”
I say, “See!”
She says, “I believe (dancing) it’s a way I can communicate. It’s the best way I can communicate.”
I say, “That’s not manipulative. You give something you love in the way you love. It’s you giving something.”
I continue, “You need to do something to engage the audience, but that’s not where the work comes from, it comes from you loving dance.”
She says, “You can be a great dancer and a terrible performer. I learned how to perform from Andrew Morrish. He’s a great performer and a great teacher of performing. It’s about the audience. It’s about your connection to the audience. That’s the most important thing for him. I’ve learned a lot from that. There are two responsibilities: one is to my dancing, my material, my satisfaction artistically, the other one is to the audience, and they are both equally important. If I haven’t got the audience I have nothing to offer. If I’m the only one knowing what I do, I have no communication. I still think it’s very manipulative.”
I say, “It’s the wrong term. Manipulative is cheap tricks.”
She says, “I do cheap tricks.”
I say, “I don’t believe you.”
There is no artifice in Rosalind Crisp, no aloofness, no pretension. I do not believe that her work could be anything other than a heartfelt and honest attempt at challenging herself and the audience in the most radical way. It is a work of love.