The Functions of Contemporary Dance in Spoken Theatre on the Example of Performances in the Estonian Theatre in 2015. Preliminary Thoughts.

Madli Pesti

Article was first published on Tantsuinfo Kuukiri (Dance Info Monthly) in Estonian, March 2016

Theater is comprising of more and more genres of art and the specific defining of theatre as a notion has become more and more vague. Spoken theatre has become more and more hybrid as an art form, absorbing various musical scenes, visual arts, various multimedia solutions and also movement on a very wide basis. In the following I am especially interested in what position has movement and corporeality in the spoken theatre. I will look at this issue through the functions of movement and corporeality with the examples of the Estonian spoken theatre of 2015. How does contemporary theatre appear in the Estonian spoken theatre? What function plays choreography in various performances? What kind of different movement practices we can find in spoken theatre? (…)

Performative corporeality

Theatre NO99 catches the eye as with their particular corporeality amongst the Estonian spoken theatres – their approach can be named as performative corporeality. The actors with such corporeality do not (only) want to present somebody or embody a character. The aim is to communicate the being of one’s body. Being intensively here and now. An example of such kind of corporeality is Ene-Liis Semper’s and Tiit Ojasoo’s “Filth” and Ene-Liis Semper’s “El Dorado”. In both of these performances I see the seven deadly sins, human urge and lust played out with mainly bodily means of the actors.


Another example of performative corporeality: Sasha Pepeljayev’s performances staged with Estonian spoken theatre actors. In 2015 he staged “Idiot FM” with the actor students of the drama school that was based on Dostoyevski’s “The Idiot”. The performance took place in the drama school up on the Dome Hill of Tallinn and simultaneously in various rooms. Two halls, staircase, windowsills and attic was used. It was a real environmental theatre where the main atmosphere was created with free and happy movement. Pepeljayev is a well-known choreographer in the Estonian theatre scene, one feels never bored in enjoying his multifaceted performances.

Physical movement

In many of the spoken theatre performances I see something that can be called intensive physical movement. As an example I take “Ekke Moor” (based on a novel by August Gailit) by the actor students. (…) There the choreographer Kristjan Rohioja – who has contemporary dance background – mixed elements of folk dance into the performance and that had a refreshing and contemporary effect.

The Black Box Theatre’s performance “5 Grams of Inner Peace” had a strong impact on the audience also through the intensive physical corporeality of the actor Silver Kaljula. (…) With the help of the actor’s intensive presence and movement the story of a young drug addict affects the audience.

As a third example stands puppet and visual theatre – “The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin” (directed by Mirko Rajas). (…) It’s positive that we can’t see any separate choreographic numbers in the performance, but the movement of the puppeteers and actors are clearly at the service of the storytelling (choreographer Maria-Netti Nüganen, assistant Sylvia Köster). This is supported by the scenography: the actors are climbing on it, clinging from it and hanging down from it.

Nostalgic corporeality

There are several spoken theatre performances where movement used and I would like to use the word “nostalgic” to describe it. For example the ending song “New York, New York” of Ingomar Vihmar’s performance “These Little Town Blues are Melting Away” by Pipsa Lonka. The choreographer Rauno Zubko created a merry and crazy dance for the big ensemble of actors on the big stage of Estonian Drama Theatre – the dance fitted well into this weird, a bit nostalgic atmosphere of the whole performance.

(…) Two more examples: Ivar Põllu “1987”, Kaja Lindal “Bodymind”


I can also see a pantomimic approach to movement. An important example is “The Master and Margarita” in Vanemuine theatre by Katrin Pärn and Janek Savolainen where the aim was a symbiosis of drama and dance. This aim was not fulfilled: drama stayed as drama and dance turned into pantomime, that means that it was in the service of the drama, the spoken word. Why pantomime? Because pantomime relies on imitation, actions and objects are imitated, and emotions are expressed with the whole body. The movement in “The Master and Margarita” is not functioning as an independent means of expression but illustrates what is spoken by the actors.

To go on with the possibilities of imitation in the spoken theater: I would like to mention a performance where an actor depicts an animal. An example is “Sylvia” in Estonian Drama Theatre, directed by the choreographer Teet Kask – this performance is his debut in the spoken theatre. The dog Sylvia is played by Inga Salurand who for this role got nominated as the best actress of the year. In this performance and the role of Sylvia, the dog, we can see how two aspects are combined in the best possible way: the actress’s ability to create psychologically convincing character and the choreographer’s ability to get the actress move in a valid way. (…)

 Cliché corporeality

In several of the performances of spoken theatre one can see movement patterns that have an affect of a cliché. I was not convinced by how corporeality was used in Black Box Theatre’s performance “Persona” (based on Ingmar Bergman, directed by Kaija M Kalvet). The main characters were played by Jaanika Tammaru and Laura Niils who are too young for this psychologically demanding story. The actresses perform a typical contemporary dance piece probably in order to show the characters’ inner self. That is one example when dance is not integrated into the spoken theatre performance.

(…) Two more examples: Puppet and Youth Teatre “Alone”, Theatrum “Rake”


As shown above, elements of contemporary dance and different ways of corporeality is used in many different ways and in different functions. It is probably possible to find even more functions if we look at the repertory of theatres during a longer period or in different countries.

Several of the examples shown above are made by students or young actors. It could be concluded that special movement patterns are sneaking into spoken theatre with young theatre makers. The other extreme, talking heads and standing bodies on stage is an old style approach, although still actively practiced.

Distinguishing the functions of corporeality shows in which way dance and movement exists in spoken theatre. I argue that original movement patterns in spoken theatre can contribute to make the performance as an integral whole. The authors of a performance should think thoroughly why a certain kind of movement is used in their work of art. If a choreographic piece is functioning just as an interesting element of form, it could harm the integrity of the performance. If the actors are giving sense to their corporeality and it emanates from the performative qualities of theatre art, it is also convincing for the audience.

*Image from Theatre NO99 performance Ene-Liis Semper’s and Tiit Ojasoo’s “Filth”

**This text is written within The Writing Movement Network that The Writing Movement Network is supported by The Nordic-Baltic Mobility Programme for Culture Short-term network scheme.

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