Dance Theatre Journal – Without Trace

Kicking and Screening

Ian Bramley

Dance Theatre Journal, October 1999

To tell a complex story, Murphy and writer Spencer Hazel have created a sophisticated use of drama and dialogue where the roles shift between the four dancers who embody the main characters and two actors who at different times speak for each of them.

In Mark Murphy’s works, high velocity dance, cinematic vision and dramatic narrative blend seamlessly to create rich and complex theatre experiences that unflinchingly explore human frailties and cruelties. Murphy’s characters inhabit a world composed of reality and imagination, of uncertainties and fragmented viewpoints. Here the truth is unreliable and fantasies can be both an escape and a trap. From V-TOL’s first full-length work, Time Spent In The Company of Bad People to last year’s ‘murder mystery’ …and nothing but the truth…, Murphy’s works have held up a mirror to his audience, showing us the awful and absurd things that we do in the name of love, lust and longing.

Against this background, Murphy’s outline of Without Trace might seem surprisingly simple: ‘It is the story of a woman who apparently, for no good reason, simply decides to disappear.’ But as with previous works, Murphy uses the storyline as a launching pad to present the internal psychological battles of his characters and the vagaries of the human condition. He employs narrative to allow the audience to engage immediately with the work and be drawn into its concerns and while he delights in making his work accessible in this way, he doesn’t wish to be too restrictive: ‘I want the narrative to be clear, in order to leave space for people’s imaginations to play.’

In Without Trace, Beth leaves her home to hitch-hike into an unknown country of self-discovery. She is on a journey to find the essential core of herself, a journey which can only start when she abandons her loved ones, her partner and the comfort of all things familiar. Can she survive without identity, without love? Will she be able to reach the ‘escape velocity’ she needs to break free of the past? With each new lift, Beth reinvents herself, trying on new personalities for size. In this way Murphy continues his interest in fantasy, only this time as ‘a rehearsal for what your life could be.’

But Beth’s is not the only story told in this piece. Jim and Anna, her lover and best friend, are left behind to imagine the worst and to question whether they knew Beth at all. Yet, in his depiction of their confusion and despair, Murphy hopes to portray something positive, to show that ‘at the most horrendous time of your life you have the most interesting opportunity to learn.’

And along the way, Beth is offered rides by various people who are on journeys of their own and reflect her own inner searching. And this is only the beginning of the story…

This elaborate tale is presented through the multi-media form that has now become natural to Murphy, who says ‘I can’t imagine making work that doesn’t have a multi-tiered approach to it anymore’. Dance as always remains the backbone of the piece, as for Murphy ‘movement can describe the emotional landscape better than any other element’ and he conveys raw feeling powerfully through the immediate image of the expressive moving body. (Though there is much pleasure to be derived from the precision, subtlety and sheer speed of the compelling choreography in itself.) Projected film gives Murphy the opportunity to add different layers to the action, expanding brief moments or compressing long periods to highlight specific events and details. The film also allows the piece to escape the confines of the theatre into specific locations which reflect Beth’s physical and metaphorical journey: as she strips away the old definitions of who she was, the landscape around her becomes increasingly bleak and featureless. To tell a complex story, Murphy and writer Spencer Hazel have created a sophisticated use of drama and dialogue where the roles shift between the four dancers who embody the main characters and two actors who at different times speak for each of them. Alongside this, live music, specially composed by Graham Cunnington, creates a conversational, interactive relationship between the musicians, the performers and the film.

Murphy’s is a holistic vision and each element is developed in conjunction with the others to create a unique theatrical synthesis. For example, the set for Without Trace (which Murphy describes as ‘a sweeping dynamic curve that suggests a journey whose destination is always just beyond reach’) was constructed before rehearsals began, allowing the cast to explore its potential as they developed the piece and ensuring that the physical stage environment becomes an integral part of work.

Preparing for such detailed and integrated work is a long process. Murphy researches his chosen subject painstakingly, looking at how other artists in different media ‘have successfully dealt with similar subject matter.’ Murphy has often acknowledged the role that film has played in the development of his artistic vision, citing directors such as Scorsese, Kubrik and Lynch as influences.

For Without Trace, Murphy found inspiration in the movies Three Colours Blue, Paris Texas and The Vanishing, each of which ‘offered insight into similar themes to those of the piece.’ After Murphy’s initial explorations, he headed off with his performers and collaborators to a house in the middle of nowhere for a week. At this point Murphy didn’t direct, but simply initiated the different processes that the company used to draw on their own experiences and reserves in order to create the story and characters for the stage. Through watching films, group discussion, improvisation and, in particular, the writing of diary entries for each of the characters, the foundations for the piece were gradually established. It was only after this that detailed work on the script, the music, the choreography and the film began.

Murphy’s work shows a remarkable unity and depth given the number of themes and media that he brings together in each piece. Even more laudable is that the work is simultaneously demanding, accessible and entertaining. Murphy hopes that in the future he will direct for film, ‘bringing a choreographic eye to the filming process.’ I, for one, am looking forward to his first movie.