Raised out of the pit: An analysis of three live performances in which all performers take on the dual role of dancer and musician

In This Article


This article will focus on three current performances in which innovative solutions were used to combine dance and music, and integrate a diverse cast consisting of dancers and musicians. The works include Cesena (2011) by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker; A Trio for Double Bass, Dancer and Musician (2012) by Aaron Lumley and Sasha Ivanochko; and part of Silence Must Be! (2002) by Thierry de Mey. Central to the three works is the dual role both dancer and musician play, each using performance elements from the other’s art form. In many articles that discuss different forms of collaboration between dancers and musicians, this type of duality is simply ignored (see Stiefel, 2002). Therefore, the following discussion aims to challenge current perceptions and understandings about the possibilities of interdisciplinary practices.

White (2006) in her article As If They Didn’t Hear the Music refers to Blom and Chaplin, who claim that the best sounds are produced by dancers. In contrast, White argues that the best movements are executed by musicians. These claims will be further substantiated through the analysis of the three pieces mentioned previously focusing on the form of collaboration between dancers and musicians in the three performances and its impact on the two art forms (dance and music), the participants and the audience.

A trio for a dancer, musician and a double bass

Sasha Ivanochko, a Toronto-based dancer/choreographer, and Aaron Lumley, a double-bass player and improvisator, collaborated in A Trio for Double Bass, Dancer and Musician (2012) 1 . The work was premiered in January 2012 at the Toronto music gallery in Canada. The gallery promotes and presents innovation and experimentation in all forms of music and encourages collaborations between various genres and performers. The performance unravels a temperamental relationship where the two performers not only accompany each other but collide and overlap with one another in a dramatic, intuitive and at times dangerous manner (Music Gallery, 2012).

The traditional relationships and hierarchy between dancers and musicians are challenged in these performances by providing equal opportunity for each performer to express themselves not just through one medium but through movement and sound alike. Additionally, the use of a musical instrument as an active participant has serious consequences for the entire work and justifies the actions that unfold through time.

Ivanochko mentioned that this was the first time she created a piece based on such an unusual collaboration with a musician. According to her, both artists’ traits and experience contributed to the success of the project (Ivanochko has a background in both music and dance and Lumley is a very physical musician). She explains that initially a common language had to be found, but after it was established, a structured improvisation framework was quickly defined. This allowed for the production of simultaneous, accidental and unique sounds or movements that demand total attention and a direct response.

Both performers wear casual clothing while the pale, minimal lighting illuminates the empty stage. This creates a bleak and intimate environment, out of which the performers’ relationships with the instrument emerge, encompassing moments of conflict and intimacy, connection and separation, release and tension. In some moments, one performer can be seen leading or responding to stimuli initiated by the other. The stimuli can be aural, visual, physical or textural (e.g. responding to the texture of the instrument). The two performers can be seen interacting with each other through eye contact, resigned reactions, spontaneous sounds and movements.

A female dancer lies on her back embracing a cello between her legs, which is bing played by a male performer. Aaron Lumley & Sasha Ivanochko performing Trio. The Art Gallery Photos, 13 January 2012.

Lumley’s movements are mostly dedicated to the production of sounds; however, they remain unusual in many ways. At times he plays the double-bass with two bows and at other times with his bare hands, thumping on the instrument’s body for a percussive effect. He can be seen exiting and entering the stage, physically connecting with Ivanochko or being led by her, lying down on the floor, rolling over, sweeping the double-bass across the stage and placing it in various positions. Thus, due to physicality required to play the instrument, his repertoire of movements is somewhat limited compared to that of Ivanochko. Throughout most of the performance, he stands vertically on the stage while Ivanochko executes various forms and directions, synchronising her virtuosic movements to the dramatic tones of the double bass. Unlike Lumley, her physical interaction with the double-bass seems less experienced and mainly serves as a dramatic role. At times, Ivanochko takes control of the instrument and plucks the strings with grating sounds, or sweeps the bow on the strings and strums the instrument un-rhythmically. In another segment, they both play the instrument together: she is using the bows as he determines the pitch with his fingers.

The sounds produced are often irritating and their continuity is constantly disrupted, while melody, when it is played, only contributes to the already tensed ambience. However, it is during moments of silence that the underlying musical qualities of the movements’ motifs (the changing tempo, speed and dynamics), are truly revealed. In these moments, the audience becomes audible too, accentuating the feeling of intimacy produced in the small performance space and exposing the performers’ vulnerability.

The performers’ attempts to lead, to connect or resist each other create tension, symbolising the complexities of the relationship between choreography and music, and the relationship between a man and a woman. In the first minutes of the performance, the dancer physically represents the qualities and lengths of the sound by coordinating her movements with it. The gap between sound and movement is only revealed later in the piece during musical pauses. In these moments, Ivanchko’s movement appears to linger, giving the effect of lengthening or echoing the sound. An even bigger contrast is created when the notes are being produced as pizzicato, while the movement is continuous. During other moments, Ivanochko prevents Lumley from playing. These interruptions to the sound continuum directs the observer's attention to the performers’ body tension and accelerated breathing which emphasise the power struggle between them.

Noticeably, during the performance, dance movements correspond to the tempo, pitch and intensity of the sounds, however, in other instances the sounds also respond to a movement stimuli. This can be seen when Lumley slows the tempo of the music as Ivanochko stops moving, or when he gradually decreases the volume in response to her tilting body. In a different segment, Ivanochko climbs Lumley’s shoulders as he plays low, continuous notes, demonstrating the weight of the situation. In other occurrences, Lumley produces a specific note as a reaction to Ivanochko’s touch: when she touches his heart, he produces a final, low, long note. Towards the end of the work, as she aims a bow straight to the centre of her abdomen, the sounds lengthen and become low-pitched, underscoring the emotional intensity of the drama.

The double-bass is an essential part of the work, being present for the entire duration of the piece. It is an additional participant in this complex relationship and serves as a stimulus for action. Both performers interact with the instrument and touch it in various ways. The performers emulate its position and shape. In one segment, Ivanochko lies beside the instrument and her body is curved to match its shape. In another, she vibrates on the floor like a string. She leans on Lumley in a way that resembles the instrument and moves his hands on her body, the way they would on the double-bass.

The instrument features (its weight, shape and size) often shapes the movement and slows it down, and so, when Ivanochko lifts it horizontally, her knees are bent and her back curved. The double-bass position in space often changes: at times it is laid on its side or placed vertically. Sometimes it is placed on Ivanochko and other times it is held by hands or feet. Thus, the instrument becomes a dynamic entity, contributing to the changing design of the performance space.

The shape of the double-bass gives rise to sexual connotations, serving as a sensual object which arouses the two performers. With its body resembling a woman’s, Ivanochko’s jealousy is seemingly intensified by Lumley’s interactions with the instrument. The distance or closeness between the instrument and each of the performers has an important symbolism. Lumley is often close to the double-bass, as he is the one playing it, while Ivanochko stays alone. This distance symbolizes Ivanochko’s frustration and imbalance, as she constantly tries to gain Lumley’s attention by separating him from the instrument.

In conclusion, the sophistication of this performance is in exploiting the limits of the trio to create a meaningful narrative. The clumsy instrument becomes the separating factor between the two partners, weighing their relationship down. Lumley’s necessary proximity to the instrument is the basis of the problem in the relationship, causing Ivanochko to express her frustration by producing unusual, irritating and deformed sounds. At the end of the performance, as the light fades, it seems that the conflict is left unresolved and the three performers remain entangled in each other; the relationship of a woman and a man is just as complex as the relation between dance and music. Moreover, just as musicians are dependent upon their instruments to maintain their identity, the instrument is meaningless without the performers’ reference to it.

Darkness, be gone!

Anne Teresa is one of the most outstanding choreographers of our time. While training in New-York, in 1981, De-Keersmaeker was influenced by the post-modern dance movement (De Baecque, 2010) which is known for its interdisciplinary art practices (Banes, 1987). Throughout her career, she has collaborated with various artists (mostly musicians), examining and challenging the boundaries between different art forms, especially dance and music (De Baecque).

Cesena 2  was first performed in 2010, during the Avignon festival, in the picturesque town of Cesena, Italy. In this project, De-Keersmaeker furthered her research into the integration of music and dance by breaking the traditional orchestral and dance hierarchy. Nineteen performers (6 singers and 13 dancers) share the stage, dancing and singing in a dialogue stemming out of a 14th century score by Ars Subtilior. De-Keersmaeker searched for music that corresponds with the history of Cesena. She found that during the late 14th century a massacre took place there (De-Baecque). Her purpose was to connect contemporary physicality and movement with the music of the past, to highlight the shared emotional experiences of past and present (De-Keersmaeker, 2012).

Cesena is the result of a collaboration between De-Keersmaeker’s Rosas company—and composer Bjorn Schmelzer’s musical ensemble—Grain de la Voix (the Grain of Voice). Schmelzer, just like De-Keersmaeker, looks for unconventional ways to allow ancient music to bloom in present times. He claims that both he and De-Keersmaeker support the approach that body and sound are expressive and contain genetic, historical and cultural information. Schmelzer’s and Rosas’ unique approach, has led to the discovery and exploration of new ways to experience movement and singing. The creative collaborative process took four months, during which time the artists had to deal with a complex score, the gaps between the participants' artistic experience and the many possible forms in which the two arts could interact with each other (Cvejic & De-Keersmaeker, 2013). The score's structure gave rise to the project’s conceptual structure, which resulted in the formation of ten choreographic scenes, each with their own unique theme. The music also influenced the choreographic plan in relation to space, time and the organisation of people. This can be seen when the participants move and sing in conjunction with the multi-rhythmical melody.

A group of 10 dancers dressed casually in black t-shirts, pants and sneakers performing in front of an old brick wallThe performance Cesena at the Palais des Papes, Avignon. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

Since most of the participants are not trained vocalists, certain segments are performed by whispering and whistling instead of singing. During the beginning of the performance, one performer stands nude at the front of the stage and gives a primal scream whilst curving his back to and fro, viscerally announcing the wrongdoings which occurred at Cesena (Cvejiv & De- Keersmaeker). In addition to the singing, the performers’ movements produce their own unique sounds: bodies hitting the floor, the steps of dancers and the repetitive hammering of spades on a wall. In this way, an additional real-time soundtrack adds another layer to the historic tune.  De- Keersmaeker explains that she chose to include voice because it is a product of the basic human function of breathing which is common to all people and has the ability to personify their human peculiarities (De Baecque). In this work, the integration of voice, breath and minimalistic movement expresses human frailty.

De-Keersmaeker was looking to incorporate a simple language of movement led by several principles, but common to all performers. The choreography mostly utilises vertical body alignment and walking as an organisational factor in space and time. Thus, ’walking motifs’ were formed in relation to the rhythm and structure of a specific musical phrase. These motifs later enabled different forms of integration between sound and movement that were not initially intended to be matched.

Additionally, choreography is used to represent historic events and medieval characters and archetypes. The decay of disease-ridden bodies is represented through a group of people slowly collapsing to the floor and Branbau Wiscontie, an evil 14th-century tyrant, is portrayed by a man whose gestures and movements incorporate the physicality of an executioner (Cvejiv & De Keersmaeker)

De Keersmaeker reports that the multidisciplinary collaboration integral to the creative development of Cesena led to certain challenges. One of whom was how to organise the large cast (among whom 16 are men) vis a vis the musical elegancy and sophistication. Her solution was to alter the spatial density by having the performers travel across the stage with light, continuous movements, matching the quality of the music.

Another challenge was how to allow for simultaneous production of sounds and movements to exist without interrupting each other. She used simplicity as a guideline, focusing on pedestrian movements or motifs that are based on the motion of a single body part (Cvejic & De- Keersmaeker).

De-Keersmaeker utilises the mutual elements of dance and music—space and time, to connect between the two. The connection of an archaic tune with contemporary dance movements serves as a solid bridge between the time periods and is often visually accented: a lift performed during a high pitched sound or the intensification of sound and tension when one person is moving closer towards another. In addition, the performers enter the stage from various directions throughout the performance—the same as notes are located on a musical scale, representing various pitches of sound.
Certain production’s element also signify the ideas behind this performance. The original performance took place at 4 am, before sunrise, in an open space. This environment was later reproduced in theatres by indoor stage lighting. The changing levels of light mean that both senses of sight and hearing are forced to adjust as the environment is altered. The viewers’ perception is sometimes focused on visual or audible information or both, but at other times imagination is required to fill in the gaps. This is particularly so in moments of darkness, which unifies movement and sound. The gradual exposure of light serves as a measure of the passing of time throughout the performance, for both movement and sound. The characters are slowly revealed by the light—spectres from the past given concrete forms in the present. The lighting also draws attention to a white sand circle, surrounding the stage floor. The performers who move near the circle blur its boundaries while producing myriad sounds. The act of blurring symbolises the shattering of boundaries that define the artists' roles, the relationship between sound and movement and, the present and the past.

In conclusion, the performance of Cesena places emphasis upon the connection between music and dance, and the mutual dependency of the two: sounds originate in movement and movement is followed by sound or imagined as a rhythmical pattern. The integration of dance and sound emanating from the body of each performer enlivens the past and connects it with today’s reality. Moreover, this performance further develops the interdisciplinary practice of combining music and dance, musicians and dancers, while showing there is still more to explore.

Visualising sound and listening to movement

Thierry De-Mey is a Belgian composer, film creator and a co-founder of the musical ensembles ‘Maximalist’ and ‘Ictus’. In 2005 he became the Artistic Director of Charleroi/Danses, a Belgium-based centre for choreography (Guynemer, 2011) and has collaborated with renowned choreographers such as Anne Teresa De-Keersmaeker, Wim Vandekeybus and Michele Anne De-Mey.

Thierry De-Mey has found that when combining two forms of art, one will usually support the other, and yet, he still strives for equilibrium. He is searching for solutions to problems born out of a merge between art forms. For example: how can a circled shape be presented by music? One solution he found involves using a third factor—such as a metaphor—as a mutual ground for different genres. He also mixes elements from different mediums representing rhythmical patterns through dance steps (Plouvier, 2001).

De-Mey introduced a method of musical writing which incorporates visual and choreographic aspects. Each is as important as the music being played. Thus, musicians, and in particular drummers, were also asked to focus on the aesthetics of their movements.

At the core of De-Mey’s research is the attempt to understand the tension between physical gestures and the sounds they produce, choreography and the score, and the movements of an orchestrator to those of a performer. His attempts at gaining this understanding can be seen in the works: Hands, Musique de tables (1987), Unknowness (1996), Light Music (2004), Capture Technology, Silence Must Be! (2001) and Pièce De Gestes (2008). These works require the performers to focus on the visual aspects of their movement, and the last two works are performed in absolute silence, making them impossible to experience through non-visual mediums. The search for further ways in which sound and movement can interconnect have led De-Mey to compose musical scores for cinema, dance performances, dance films, and for multi media performances (Harrop, 2012).

One of De-Mey’s most renowned works is Musique de Tables, 1987 (Harrop, 2012). This piece was written for three percussionists who produce sounds from a table and perform in synchronised choreography with their arms and hands. This work can be considered as both a dance and a musical piece since the choreographic elements are just as important as the musical ones. Every rhythmical pattern represents a specific quality of movement—a physical impulse or dance movement which is labelled according to a metaphorical vocabulary (e.g. typing, windshield wiper and piano playing) invented during the creative development of the work (Plouvier, 2001).

In the performance Silence Must Be! (2012) 3 , sound and movement are combined to form one medium, so that the performer can be seen both as a musician and a dancer. Much like in ‘Musique de Geste’, this work was written for a single conductor and incorporates physical gestures performed mainly by the use of the arms. Primarily, the gestures resemble those of a conductor; however, when the short soundtrack begins to play, the concept becomes clearer and eventually resembles a dance performance. When the soundtrack stops and the rhythmical movement continues, we are left with the post-influence of audible sounds (Smith, 2003). The piece is mostly performed in silence and just as Musique de Tables it exposes the thin line between music and dance. Movement over time is rhythmical at its core, and sound originates from a movement impetus.

The performer, Casey Cangelosi, stands in front of a black background, dressed in black so that the palms of his hands and his head are prominent. Because of this setting, the audience is drawn to rhythms generated by his movements. The performance begins as he tracks his own pulse with his hands, a gesture symbolising the connection between movement and sound in the most primordial and basic way. Both are part of our vitality and the rhythm that propels us through life. While one hand continues to represent his pulse, the other marks a different rhythm, creating two layers of rhythmical patterns. As appose to conducting, which entails constant feedback from the orchestra, here the performer is attentive to his own timing and actions and both the performer and viewer are required to imagine sounds, graphic images and rhythms. The performance ends with Cangelosi drawing his finger to his lips—a gesture associated with asking for silence—then sharply pointing at the audience before returning to the initial representation of the pulse. Each of these gestures has a familiar, recognisable association.

In conclusion, Silence must be! by De-Mey shatters a few boundaries. It presents a musician who can also be classified as a dancer, it expands the compositional practice by utilising movements to suggest music and sound by creating a performance that is based on complex rhythms and it obviously challenges the notion that music should be audible. However, perhaps the work’s greatest achievement is the way it succeeds in playing with the viewer’s perception, creating a Synaesthesia affect, merging aural and visual sensory experience so that rhythm is visualized and movement is heard.


The significance of the three artworks described in this review originates in the regression into a  primordial need—the need to move the body aesthetically through rhythmical patterns and the need to produce sounds. Indeed, looking back at the past, some of mankind’s greatest cultural achievements were born as a result of the influence and inspiration music and dance have had on each other (Abrebaya, Vardi, 2002).

These three performances discussed lead us to re-evaluate the meanings of collaborative work, community life, sensitivity and curiosity towards other forms of art. Stiefel explains that it is because of collaborative work that an entire production team can connect personally and artistically to the project at hand. Moreover, the synthesis of art forms demands a change in the regular creative work process. A change that challenges traditional conceptions opens the door to new experiences and influences the various aspects of a stage production (lighting, props, multi-media and costumes).

In addition, integrating different forms of art in a live performance demands total attention and allows for freedom of improvisation—two elements which instantly anchor the performance in the present, making it more spontaneous, lively and authentic.  It also takes advantage of the performers’ combined qualities, the musician’s physical expression as well as the dancers’ musical ability, adding another expressive dimension to any performance.

In the synthesis of art forms, the audience is required to be simultaneously attentive to both mediums (sound and movement) to attain another level of interpretation (Azulay 2006). In the Trio performance, this requirement helps the audience to understand the essence of complex relations, while in Cesena it enables the audience to make the connection between past and present. Moreover, this multi-expressional presentation challenges the expectations of the audience. In the Trio, the viewer is left surprised when the double bass is being played in unconventional ways, whereas in Silence Must Be! viewers who expect to listen to a musical piece watch the performer’s movements instead, and in Cesena, it is impossible to differentiate between the musical ensemble and the group of dancers.

In conclusion, the selected pieces prove that there are still many more possibilities to explore further interactions between dance and music, dancers and musicians. Both art forms can develop tremendously, forming novel artistic language and new meanings, by adopting each other’s principles and concepts.

The logical forecast for the future is that the relationship between these two art forms will be based more on technological advancements.  The choreographers will continue to experiment with new ways to control sound, making the dancer the manifestation of music.


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