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Thinking of Nothing: Charles Linehan’s ‘The Clearing’

'forest clearing' by zoomyboy.com (Creative Commons Licence)
‘forest clearing’ by zoommyboy.com (Creative Commons Licence)

So here’s the scenario. You’re moving through a deep, dense forest, thrashing your way through the undergrowth, leaves and branches pressing in on all sides. You hear noises all around you, ferns rustling, twigs snapping; you turn to look, but in the dim light you see only green. After what seems like a lifetime of pushing, limbs exhausted and scratched, the trees suddenly thin out, a pool of blue appears overhead, your eyes are dazzled by a flood of white. You step into a clearing.

We can imagine this forest as a metaphor for contemporary life: a vast, teeming jungle of information, bursting with linguistic, sensory, statistical, relational, and every other kind of data. We can imagine the clearing as an open space within this swarm, a pause in the onslaught. The confusion and uncertainty fade; things become clear, simple, and transparent. We are able finally to make sense of what we see, because what we see is what we see.

Charles Linehan’s The Clearing is a dance for four performers, with an original score by Richard Skelton. There is no narrative, nor does it seem appropriate to describe the movements as demonstrations of skill (though the talent of the dancers is obvious). There are no discernible patterns, no expressions of ideas, no hints of character or allusions to external situations. The dance is simply what it is. Or is it?

In the post-show discussion with the choreographer, Siobhan Davies referred to his work as “unspeakable” — as if it possessed some quality no word could stand in for, something that lay outside of verbal language. But is it not the case that all words are to some degree unspeakable? That they all fail to completely signify the certain specific things that we want them to signify? That they never seem to let us say what we mean.

From this point of view, the clearing would seem to be a longed-for impossible dream rather than a metaphysical possibility. And yet, watching The Clearing and its companion piece The Fault Index somehow did bring me into a state of mind where I forgot about the institutional context of the theatre, the conventions of lighting, sound, and staging, the traces of the dancers’ training, the influences of various currents of dance history, the techniques of signification and representation. I just saw what I saw — clear, simple movements.

The works made me stop thinking, pushing a kind of reset button in my brain. Or perhaps, more precisely, they made me think of nothing — the question, “thought of what?” became unanswerable. Being someone who likes to know what he thinks, I was and remain deeply unsettled by this. Isn’t not thinking equivalent to a shirking of responsibility, a surrender to mindless consumption? Isn’t the refusal to say something a turning away from the world? Yet the self-sufficiency of each swing of the arm and stretch of the leg persists. The dance gives itself fully, while giving nothing. A disruption, an interlude, like a clearing in a thick forest. This potential to unsettle and disrupt is one of the reasons why I need art like Linehan’s in my life.

Charles Linehan Company: The Fault Index / The Clearing

Thursday 19th May, The Place, London