Karaoke with Kafka… and seven dancers: Daniel Linehan’s ‘Karaoke Dialogues’
He sure is a smart thinker. But this time it seems Daniel Linehan has done a bit too much thinking. With the unfortunate result that the gifted, Belgium-based American choreographer has squeezed much of the air out of his newest piece. The Karaoke Dialogues? Seven dancers reading aloud fragments from literary classics that appear on tv-screens, while they dance. When describing a karaoke night you would probably be choosing words such as loose, funny, spontaneous and light. For Linehan’s take on karaoke, my guess is spectators will be ending up with words as formal, cerebral and tedious.
Daniel Linehan is linked to a couple of big venues: he is associate artist at deSingel (Antwerp) and artist-in-residence at Opéra de Lille and Sadler’s Wells (London). Without any doubt he can be called one of the rising stars of contemporary dance, and as this was his first piece for ‘the big stage’, expectations were high. Right before the performance of The Karaoke Dialogues at Kaaitheater (Brussels, during Kunstenfestivaldesarts), he presented his great, recent book A No Can Make Space, a written proof of how clever an artist he is.
For The Karaoke Dialogues Linehan has chosen fragments from Plato (The Republic), Aeschylus (The Oresteia), Cervantes (Don Quixote), Kafka (The Trial), Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Freud (Notes Upon A Case Of Obsessional Neurosis). The texts – dealing with laws, crimes, and other legal problems – are blended together as if they tell the story of a single legal process. The piece is divided in several parts: Laws, Crime, Investigation, Verdict, Appeal and Punishment. With an Entr’acte somewhere in the middle. As with karaoke the texts can be read on tv-screens (on wheels, so the dancers can move them around on stage), by both dancers and the audience. While the dancers read them aloud, they dance. ‘The words determine the rhythm of the dance’, Linehan explains. ‘Each dancer shifts back and forth between their individual approach to the text scores and the group dynamics of a collective choreography.’
A lot of work has clearly gone into constructing these Karaoke Dialogues. And it undoubtedly is a demanding piece for the dancers to perform. Respect is due. (‘The dancers have told me that it is difficult to remember the dance material because it has no physical flow’, Linehan says, for instance.) But from an audience’s point of view this stays a rather cerebral and formal exercise that fails in crossing the bridge, in becoming a stimulating dance performance. Strange how the texts in the end just seem a fixed score the dancers are dancing to. It didn’t even make me think of karaoke, except for the fact that I saw texts passing by on a tv-screen.
What you end up with, as a viewer, is a very formal ‘game’ – a feeling enhanced by the fact that the dancers keep an emotional distance from the texts they are reading – and thus, unfortunately, a monotonous performance. You also wonder what it is Linehan wants to transmit with the texts he has chosen, with the concept of that trial. Something more than just a neat way to structure this performance? While watching The Karaoke Dialogues I couldn’t help thinking that Linehan might have felt too that this was a performance that needed a little boost. Why else all the costume changes? Why else that Entr’acte? Why else that one dancer opting for a totally different register, almost becoming a clown, at some point during the piece.
Somewhere in the middle, the two tallest dancers of the group – the experienced Cédric Andrieux and Kennis Hawkins – were performing a wonderful duet. Without talking, they just danced. I felt relieved, in a strange way. Reading a couple of other Linehan-quotes, afterwards, reminded me of that moment. ‘It’s like the karaoke is making the writing of the dance more visible for the public.’ And: ‘One might think that the dancers are being controlled by the karaoke machine. On the other hand, they often seem to be very much in control of their dancing. Sometimes it seems that they become so engaged with the karaoke machine that they are actually controlling it. In this piece there is a constant dialectic between self-expression and external control.’ And I thought: how come The Karaoke Dialogues didn’t succeed in transmitting all of this?
Karaoke with Kafka, Plato… and seven dancers: Daniel Linehan’s ‘Karaoke Dialogues’