Dartington Time

Dartington Time

Duck’s career illustrates a valuable corrective to those narratives of British modern dance during and after the 1960s that focus exclusively on the American connection.

Dr Larraine Nicholas Senior Lecturer Dance Programmes School of Arts Roehampton University / From her Book (dance history at Dartington College of Arts)

Katie Duck: A European Theatrical Model

Fulkerson’s fourteen years at Dartington offered a period of growth and stability to movement and choreography there, stretching from 1973, when the new dance scene was only just beginning, to 1987 when it was well established. Fulkerson’s and Paxton’s contribution to this, not least through the festival, is clear. Just to consider another pattern of the period, Fulkerson’s time at Dartington also took her from the relatively easy financial circumstances of the early 1970s into the late eighties when things for Dartington would become very difficult indeed. In her last year at the College she became acting head of the whole Theatre Department, perhaps a fact contributing to her conviction that she needed to move on in order to keep her own work advancing. Her position was taken by Katie Duck.

Duck’s career illustrates a valuable corrective to those narratives of British modern dance during and after the 1960s that focus exclusively on the American connection. Of course Atlantic crossing was central to the development of artists such as Butcher, Smith and Alston; and Americans in Britain such as Paxton, Fulkerson and Duck were dynamos for development here, but mainland Europe also provided specific contexts where British and American artists would find stimuli. Amsterdam was an especially vibrant centre of radical performance and experiment where artists from America and Europe intersected.

In the early 1980s, European dancers were invited to the Dartington festival and Dance Umbrella. Among them was Pauline de Groot, based in Amsterdam, already having taught at Dartington and choreographed for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre in the early 1970s. Katie Duck’s first appearance at Dartington was in the festival in 1983, invited by Fulkerson who had seen her work in Amsterdam. She had been a student at the University of Utah with a background in ballet and modern dance techniques (Graham and Cunningham) but her introduction to the French school of mime and to clowning was decisive in moving her towards work with narrative and character. In 1975 she was one of the founders of the Great Salt Lake Mime Troupe with other dancers and jazz musicians, touring in America and then Europe where she settled.[1]

In Amsterdam she discovered the free improvisation practised in jazz and avant garde contemporary music and met musicians in the network that included Britain and Germany. Although difficult to define, free improvisation is unlike the traditional jazz improvisation based upon a known repertoire of themes and improvisational structures. Some musicians associate it with an anti-hierarchical social network and a political statement denying the commodity value of music, while others find it immerses them in the authentic process of music making. This kind of improvisation is free in the sense that the spontaneous choices made in performance are not bound by the rules of any particular idiom although they might adopt and discard them at will. Duck was fascinated by this way of working, where ‘forms were built and busted’.[2] She became one of the dancers to develop successful collaborations with free improvisation musicians. (Steve Paxton working with David Moss is another instance, mentioned previously.)[3]

Leaving the Mime Troupe in 1976 Duck went on to perform solo shows and street theatre, also developing her own approach to improvisation, choreography and working with musicians. A key musical collaborator was the American cellist/composer (also based in Europe) Tristan Honsinger. She was also absorbing some of the European modern dance tradition, from the Dutch dancer Jaap Flier (a founding member of Netherlands Dans Theater, influenced by Jooss) and Traut (Trout) Faggioni in Italy, who had been a student of Wigman. In 1979 she formed Group O (gruppo) in Florence, to work intensively with dancers and musicians, using improvisation to discover material (which might be set) and also as a way of exploiting choice and chance in performance. Before coming to teach at Dartington, Duck had been based in Europe for ten years, chiefly in Florence and Amsterdam and really belonging in her approach to that artistic environment—a European artist then. At Dartington she reconnected the 1980s to the 1930s, bringing back some of those old Jooss students to give seminars—Simone Michelle, Dai Ailian and Ann Hutchinson-Guest.

At the Dartington festival in 1983, Duck performed a duet with Honsinger, Talk to Me. A review remarked on the novelty of this kind of work, and indeed on the novelty of discovering what dancers might be doing currently in Florence. Their theatricality was broadly based.

It is hard to package these two who invade each other’s media, improvising around their relationship, in structured scenes, singing daft out-of-key songs to cello, engaging in a repartee of non sequiteurs about domestic life, free movement (mime to a story, veiled and transformed into an Italian woman and Honsinger, her ageing maid), in procession with squeaky duck and whistle accompaniment.[4]

In 1984 Group O (Gruppo) toured with a major production, Rutles, bringing it to the Dartington festival and later to Dance Umbrella in London. Performed with (and sometimes against) a selection of Beatles songs, it was a collage-like or episodic series of incidents that had been developed through the process of research and improvisation Duck had developed with Group O. Research and free association of ideas in workshop situations released diverse images to work with. This was an interior process, but differing from Fulkerson’s Release imaging. Duck terms this a ‘fantasy’, allowed to develop through associations, growing into movement, text and use of props.[5] Starting points for Rutles were the history of the Beatles, ‘saying goodbye at the airport’, the film The Deerhunter, and the astronaut Neil Armstrong. Not that any of this was finally apparent in the work, since these were only the starting points for journeys into fantasy, character creation and encounters in non-communication which had some disjointed logic because they had flowed from a coherent process. This work had been rigorously set, although it retained the verve and spontaneity of improvised performance, having, according to one observer, ‘the same fascination as observing a patch of sea and the movements of driftwood within it…. Arrivals, exits, pockets of dance, drama, and concentrated posing combine in a continuous kinetic conversation.’[6]

Next year, she and Group O (Gruppo) were resident artists at Dance Umbrella, performing The Orange Man and giving workshops. They also showed an improvised piece, Reckless. Alongside the improvising dancers and musicians from Group O it included dancers who were significant on the British new dance scene and visitors to the Dartington festival—Gaby Agis, Kirstie Simson, Julyen Hamilton and Lloyd Newson.[7] Duck was teaching full-time at Dartington from 1986.

Duck’s artistic process was in flux while at Dartington. She had been working with Group O for eight years, in a very special style dealing with objects, vocals, music, narrative, movement and light. She was used to the process of developing a piece, including research and developing material by association, taking a whole year. Most of this work was set into rigorous forms overlaid with other forms, complicated choreographic structures that appeared to be the outcome of spontaneous choices in performance. The contradictions of this situation were beginning to impress themselves on her.[8] She began to break open the structures by introducing guest improvisers into formed and structured works, for example Steve Paxton during a performance of The Orange Man at the Dartington Festival in 1985. Wild Card was a duet piece made specifically to have a different guest at each performance—literally a ‘wild card’ and Mind the Gap referred as the title suggests to the gaps or points of entry where the performer had choices to make. In the video, Katie Duck: Small Scale Dances, Charlotte Zerbey performs a dance of set material (literally ‘small scale’ because the dance is framed in a constricted space in which she cannot stand). Steve Paxton comes into the dance only with the information that he should stay behind her. His attempts to relate to her only seem to emphasise Zerbey’s self-contained movement patterns. This became part of Brown Eye, Green Eye (1988), a piece for four musicians and four dancers, using both set material and improvisation, that was the final piece made under the Gruppo name although Duck would continue to work with some of the members.[9] She was moving towards the full exploration of free improvisation of dancers working with musicians. This was what she would go back to Amsterdam to work on in 1991.

Duck’s background in mime, clowning and character gave her a broad performance background that had much in common with colleagues in other branches of theatre. I have already outlined some of the ways in which dance and non-dance theatre moved towards each other in the 1980s, towards a genre of performance that highlighted experimental and collaborative theatre making, working with images in an allusive way, images that were generated in the process of devising theatre. Duck worked with Ric Allsopp, Head of Writing for Performance, using a company name, NoVeMBer. Ante-Chamber and Thought Sonata were performance pieces of music, text, sound, dance and movement. They now think of Thought Sonata as being the most successful of their collaborations, partly because, during its time in their repertory, it moved into a much more sophisticated use of sound technology, with the live sampling of sound generated from the live text, sound tape and environmental sounds. Its declared theme was the ‘contradictions between actions of thought and actions of impulse’ but this only seems to be one of many starting places.[10] The text by Allsopp speaks of a garden, a man who visits it (sometimes called ‘the gardener’) and a woman who seems to be in a timeless state there (in some versions she is identified as ‘the statue’). Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, also provided some of the images they layered together in making the piece. While they talked of the danger outside the garden—of conflict and burning cities—and of the nature of time and thought, Allsopp moved around sixteen rocks into patterns and piles. Duck’s initial movement material developed into a final dance to music from one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

To take a contrasting form, I now want to describe a session in free improvisation as caught on an in-house video camera at Dartington in 1987 or 1988.[11] This is intriguing, not only because it illustrates the interaction of musicians and dancers in a free improvisation. It is also a moment to observe and compare the personal movement styles of Mary Fulkerson and Katie Duck. And here is the Dance School as a performance space; again displaying its flexibility with yet another form of dance-making decades after Margaret Barr first occupied it.

The three musicians, Tristan Honsinger (cello), Alex Maguire (piano) and Steve Noble (percussion of drums and gongs with additional wind instruments) are set up towards the back of the performing space. The four female and three male dancers including Fulkerson and Duck are dressed in practice gear of trousers and tops and the audience is seated on the floor—an informal gathering. What immediately becomes apparent is the way in which the whole improvisation of some forty minutes resolves into vignettes of relationship, sometimes humorous, sometimes tender, sometimes virtuoso interaction. Never a free-for-all, the performers all notice and give space to the small engagements of solo, duet and trio, dancers and musicians taking time out sitting on the widow sills, or moving away from the central space. There are moments of stillness as well as frantic movement, frequent transitions to, from and on the floor and an overall resilient, unforced movement quality.

The set begins with Fulkerson making a long sideways stretch to the reverberations of the percussion’s first notes, softly resolving her weight into the floor, rolling, scooting along and gesturing, then smoothly rising to embrace the floor again and again. Her movements melt into each other even when she and the percussionist have together increased the pace and dynamic contrasts. Three other dancers arrive including Duck. She is mercurial, with bursts of energy coming between pedestrian transitions. These three move around separately, establishing their own movement identities, before they start to interact. To clusters of notes from the piano, they get into spiralling off-balance descents to the ground and up again. When the final three dancers take to the area the cello is in too, and the piano sometimes gets an unconventional treatment, wires rubbed directly along their length.

Through what follows the boundaries between sound making and movement making blur. Honsinger leaves his cello to sit and converse with Duck or brings it into the dancing area to play. Maguire mimes piano playing, puts on a yellow plastic mac to chat about the weather and dances the twist to a jolly harmonica tune. The dancers make noises and speak, often for sound rather than sense. They pick up on each others’ movements and on musical rhythms and textures. Duck gets involved in a duet with another dancer: continuously passing close to each other they adopt an over arm throwing gesture giving impetus to the movements. A persistent rhythm in the piano gets overlaid with a romantic melody on cello and develops into a dance while Fulkerson gyrates by herself, like the only one listening to the music at a party. There are bursts of contact improvisation, and an absurd incident with Fulkerson and Duck both balancing on another dancer’s back in an ungainly and tangled heap. They converse about how to get out of it and there is some business trying to grab a hat. But Honsinger calls an end to the set!

Artist/Educators in Practice

The idea that Dartington’s artists, including dancers, should also function as educators went back to Christopher Martin’s idea of 1941 and had been kept alive by the Arts Centre and College ethos fostered by Peter Cox. Speaking in 1978, Fulkerson saw her job at Dartington as that of a choreographer who also had teaching commitments. ‘I knew I would be teaching dance and I would be able to do it in my own way, which I had done at Rochester as well: to be in charge of the situation. And it has been incredibly supportive.’[12] However it is clear that the post was not without its tensions for the artist having to negotiate between the demands of the job and the need to create and perform. Both Duck and Fulkerson speak now of careful planning to make their own time for studio work alone, Duck in the small studio of Warren House (built for Jooss) where she lived on the ground floor, revelling in the historical connection, Fulkerson in college studio space at lunch times. Fulkerson managed long performing tours including Europe and South and North America, by negotiating some free time to be taken abutting College vacations. Duck saw Dartington as giving her a settled base and a space for reflection, ‘five years to conduct research and teach’.[13] For these two and Paxton as well as many of their guest lecturers, the teaching was the outcome of personal artistic practice. They taught what they had discovered for themselves and in some cases teaching was part of the discovery. But there was always also the dilemma that both their personal facility in dance practice and creativity would be lost and that they might not be able to make appearances frequently enough in the most important locations. Duck claims she had to rebuild her career in Europe after Dartington.

Up to the late 1980s, when finances at the College became much more constrained, the range and artistic standard of visiting lecturers was remarkable. Fulkerson brought in guest teachers from America who were friends or associates, many with the same release and contact improvisation background as herself, or like Albert Reid and Valda Setterfield having a Cunningham background (both had danced in his company). Some stayed for weeks or a term, others, like Nancy Udow and Steve Paxton for several years. Udow’s contribution to Dartington included the presence of her husband, a percussionist, and their performances together just as Fulkerson’s musician/composer husband added to the musical culture as well as composing for some of her dances. Nancy Topf, Marsha Paludan and Udow were exploring the influence from Skinner Releasing in their own ways. Simone Forti, a former performer with Halprin on the West Coast and in Happenings and Fluxus in New York, also put in an appearance. In the same way, when Duck was heading the subject area, she was able to bring in her own European associates, Jaap Flier and various members of Group O.

Former Dartington students and other representatives of the new dance scene in Britain and Europe were frequent guest teachers, as well as the Americans—festival performance and teaching contracts were often interlinked. The students were exposed to an array of approaches and ideas. For example, Jenna Agate (a student 1983–87), can reel off a whole string of names: as well as Fulkerson, Paxton and Duck (‘wild and challenging improvisation sessions’), she had Simone Forti, Nancy Topf, and Stephanie Woodard and she also remembers vividly classes with some of the performers from London’s new dance —Jacky Lansley, Fergus Early and Mary Prestidge, and the contact improvisation duo of Kirstie Simson and Julyen Hamilton.

With so many teachers, with many different approaches, was this a recipe for confusion or a rich and varied diet? For the most part, in spite of their own researches taking them in different directions, they shared and communicated a common basis in alignment work and/or contact improvisation. By the mid-eighties it appeared possible to define some characteristics of Dartington’s dance. Whether this was a ‘Dartington style’ or a generally conceived British new dance style influenced by American and European trends is open to debate. In movement style, the consistent training in unforced movement in all areas of space including the floor gave them what critic Sophie Constanti believed she could distinguish in Dartington students, something she called ‘that relaxed, tumbly movement style’.[14]

The late 1980s were less happy years at Dartington. The progressive Dartington Hall School, historically the definition of all that signified Dartington’s approach, closed in 1987 amidst scandals that possibly could have been surmounted if the Trust had been more supportive. This was also the last year of the Dance at Dartington festival and the year of Fulkerson’s departure to the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam.[15] Following this, Katie Duck now in charge of dance, was wresting with the revalidation of the degree on the lines of a modular system, with much less flexibility and spontaneity than previously in sending students off onto multifarious projects. The workload and costs involved were perhaps reason enough not to revisit the festival idea.

[1] Original name Katie Appenzeller. ‘Duck’ was a psuedonym adopted for the tour of a solo piece The Duck Play (1976).

[2] Ric Allsopp, dir. Katie Duck: Small Scale Dances, [Dartington Video Paper]

[3] The guitarist Derek Bailey, a central British figure of the genre who worked with Duck, cited the Japanese butoh performer and choreographer, Min Tanaka, as an important influence. Derek Bailey interviewed by Jean Martin, 16 August 1996

[4] Stephanie Jordan (1983) ‘Dartington International Dance Festival, The Dancing Times, July, pp.791–792, quotation p.791

[5] Jhamal (1984) ‘Katie Duck Talks to Jhamal’, New Dance, no.28, Spring, pp.?28–29

[6] For reviews see: Sophie Constanti (1985) ‘Passion in Parts’, Dance Theatre Journal, 3, no.1, Spring, 14–17: Judith Mackrell (1984) ‘Katie Duck’, Dance Theatre Journal, 2, no.3, Autumn, 39–40; Alys Daines (1984) ‘Katie Duck/Group O in Rutles’, New Dance, no.31, Winter, pp25–26. Quotation from Daines, p.26.

[7] One of the musicians was Derek Bailey (see note). She joined him and seven other musicians in a week of improvisation at the Arts Theatre, London, in 1987. See: Richard Cook (1987) ‘Don’t Fence Them In’, The Sunday Times, 10 May, available from Lexis-Nexis

[8] ‘Interview’, Tangent, Montreal Canada, no date

[9] Andy Solway (1988) ‘Blue Eye, Brown Eye’[sic], New Dance, no.44, June, p.22

[10] Thought Sonata flyer, 1990. I also have drawn on conversations with Katie Duck and Ric Allsopp (2006) and various versions of text and cue sheets in Allsopp’s possession.

[11] In the library at Dartington College of Arts, the video is catalogued under 799PAX and the label notes the date as ‘Jan 21st ?1988’. There is another set of improvisations on the same video, evidently performed on the same night and including Steve Paxton.

[12] ‘Mary Fulkerson: an interview’, New Dance, no.7, Summer, 1978, p.12

[13] ‘Interview’, Tangent, Montreal Canada, no date. For Duck’s more recent development of improvisation see: David Corbet (1999) ‘Katie Duck: An Interview’, Proximity [contact improvisation newsletter, Melbourne], 2, no.4, December, available online from http://proximity.slightly.net/

[14] Sophie Constanti (1985) ‘Passion in Parts’, Theatre Arts Journal, 3, no.1, Spring, 14–17, quotation from page 15. Critic Alastair Macaulay saw that in terms of ‘a new lyricism’ coming from Dartington, from which I infer that he was noticing a softening of bodily movement rather than a relationship to melody. See (1983) ‘One at a Time’, Dance Theatre Journal, 1, no.1, Spring, 15–21. See page 16. [14] where Duck also went to teach from 1991

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