Dance duets popping-up in public spaces around the world

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets - photo Christopher Duggan

POP-UP Duets (fragments of love) is a series of short contemporary dance duets designed for a wide range of public spaces. From the Edinburgh Trams to the streets of Taiwan, audiences have delighted in the award-winning pieces. Just back from appearing at the renowned Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the USA (the first Scottish group to perform there in over 60 years), we spoke to choreographer Janis Claxton and composer Pippa Murphy.

What was the original inspiration for the Duets? How have they developed since then?

I have a long-term interest in bringing high quality dance to public spaces and new audiences. From my experience with creating several works for public spaces (Enclosure Humans, Chaos & Contingency and POP-UP Duets) I have learned that there is a huge audience of contemporary dance lovers but most of them do not yet know they are fans!

When audiences are up close and personal and able to view dance in different ways and the dance speaks to the humanity in all, they seem to ‘get it’ and we have learned they love it. Dance and movement is the universal language – a language we all understand if given accessible ways to engage. I believe the format of audiences sitting in one place for an hour or more held to their seats and unable to move is not ideal for all. People engage in viewing dance in different ways and many people need to move around, scan the whole space, wiggle and fidget in order to receive information.

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets - Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima

With POP-UP Duets people can be up close and personal, far away, sitting on the floor, even laying down and in some venues the audiences are able to watch the work from above. Dance is a three-dimensional art form; moving sculptures need to be enjoyed from all perspectives. We made the duets so that they work from every angle possible. Traditionally (Western) dance choreography is created for a flat screen stage. I believe circular and different ways of viewing dance are important for people’s souls.

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets

I really believe and am becoming more convinced with each show that we CAN bring high quality dance to public space and reach large audiences of a wide demographic. I believe audiences want to see life through dance and every one relates to love. With POP-UP Duets we wanted to share love and a way of relating that all types of people can identify with. People of all ages including kids enjoy the work.

I wanted to show equality – even if the male or larger person does more lifting, there is a sharing of weight, power and love- Janis Claxton, Choreographer

I also wanted to smash the hetero-normative habit of duets that pervade in all partner dance forms and to re-evaluate how we view women in the duet form; many duets in dance are really imbalanced in terms of gender and power. I wanted to show dance that was empowering for both partners and required agency from BOTH dancers to execute. Many duets (still!) have a macho man whirling a disempowered female around like a limp rag doll. It makes me ill.

I wanted to show equality – even if the male or larger person does more lifting, there is a sharing of weight, power and love in all of our POP-UP Duets.

Are there any artists who have influenced your practice in this area?

I would say that I fell onto dance in public in spaces rather than having any direct influence. Of course the Post Modern dance movement in the 60s/70s had an influence on all of us (especially Trisha Brown) but really this all came as a divine accident based on an unrelated research project.

In 2007 I was researching animal gesture and behaviour at Edinburgh Zoo and this led to the award winning Enclosure 44-Humans (2008) and latter Enclosure 99-Humans (2011) where dancers spent two weeks each Fringe inside an animal enclosure.

This experience was totally mind-blowing especially in terms of the 30k plus people who engaged in the work. This is where I began to understand that there IS a very very large audience of unknown and un-tapped dance lovers. I followed this with Chaos & Contingency (2013) at National Museum of Scotland and Kelvin Grove Museum confirming the findings. BUT, I also must say I am Australian and outdoor work, dance in public spaces is not new to us. So I have actually been working in an outdoor capacity for 30 years or more.

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets

What different spaces have the Duets utilised? Which were the most challenging?

POP-UP Duets has been have performed in museums, galleries, offices, libraries, street festivals, parks, airports - even on an Edinburgh Tram. I would say the most challenging was the Tram. Too small and too much under the feet motion!

What are the benefits or challenges around creating dance fo public spaces, other than theatres?

Benefits are great – no lights, super low-level tech! The excitement of not knowing and mostly (usually) a guaranteed audience and no need to sell tickets!

Challenges – getting folk to book and pay for the gig as they can’t sell tickets! Being taken as high quality and not just a throw away. (when people se the work they are sold!). Making sure health and safety issues are addressed – e.g. kids running around into the dance! Getting permissions for details like what we can touch, where we can move etc. But actually it has all been quite smooth everywhere we have worked.

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets - Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima

What does it mean to you and the dancers to be invited to Jacob’s Pillow?

Oh wow.. well that was like a dream that I never dared dream of! It was amazing and to be honest I am still pinching myself and am just so thrilled it has been a glorious success! It is a very very rare invitation. One of the most coveted in the entire dance world internationally.

Janis Claxton Dance is the first company from Scotland, and I am the first choreographer from Scotland, to be invited to Jacob's Pillow since 1954! It feels quite extraordinary to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Morris! I am humbled to say the least. And it has been great exposure for Scottish dance and I believe put us much more prominently on the international map.

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets - Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima

Pippa, how did you approach composing for the choreography?

Janis and I have worked together on a few different projects. I wrote the music to her solo show ‘Blue’ and Janis choreographed many scenes from an opera I wrote for the Commonwealth Games 2014. So when Janis approached me to write the music for Pop-Up Duets we already had a great collaborative process in practice. This collaborative relationship is based on trust, truthful and honest communication, positive feedback, rigorous attention to detail and above all respect for each others practice.

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets - Photo by Christopher Duggan

My composition style varies for each work I’m involved in and after a discussion with Janis we both felt the music should be pop-based. I wrote five sketches trying to capture the essence of Janis’ theme for each duet: Departure, loss, separation, young love. We tried them early on in rehearsal and adjusted the tempo and feel as the choreography was developing.

When the essence of the sound world was established and agreed, I wrote lyrics and melodies to go with the sketches and invited Kathryn Joseph to sing them and other fantastic musicians to record my ‘midi-mockups’.

How do audiences in different countries respond to the format?

Oh so many similarities and some differences. Mostly with joy and love and a lot of smiles. Also some tears which I am happy about. I want to move people! We get a lot of very positive feedback.

Some differences – In Taiwan the audiences were very humble and not proud and had no qualms about all ganging together and searching frantically for the next duet and then RUNNING (like a stampede as sometimes there were 200 people!) to the next duet!

At first the dancers nearly freaked, as they were not sure if they would be trampled on! It was quite funny.

Janis Claxton Dance - POP-UP Duets - photo by Phil Chu

Also the ‘paparazzi’ newspaper photographers in Taiwan got VERY up close and personal. It became a new kind of live art! In Singapore the kids were very interactive. Not shy at all to join in and the parents did not really intervene! I guess we would call it ‘immersive’ (though slightly dangerous) art! That was a bit worrying at moments.

In the USA people are so open and generous and very forth coming with feedback. They have been so enthusiastic. UK has also been great – British reserve is always the toughest nut to crack always but we have done it!

Find out more about Janis Claxton Dance and the POP-UP Duets at POP-UP Duets received support through Creative Scotland's Open Project Fund and Made In Scotland through the Scottish Government's Expo Fund.

Dramaturge: Clive Andrews. Costume Designer: Matthias Strahm

Photos by Janis Claxton Dance, Christopher Duggan, Phil Chu, Tao-Anas Le Thanh and Cherylynn Tsushima

This article was published on 28 Jun 2018