Writing about dance is like making fugues about architecture: The Death of Birds ten years on
I first saw Julian Page’s The Death of Birds at the 2014 Burn the House! dance festival in London. It was the last piece in a mixed bill of small-scale works about which I remember nothing, save for a lingering sense of their marriage of megalomaniacal ambition and interminable execution. The programme note was, for Page, unusually brief and coherent:
We talk about the “language” of dance as if it were its own tongue, rather than a limping interpretation of signifiers in actual spoken or written language. This piece is an attempt to enact a full translation.
In its earliest incarnation, The Death of Birds was a duet performed by two recent Laban graduates whose names are, alas, forgotten to history, or at least forgotten to this writer. It was danced to birdsong and lasted twelve minutes and fourteen seconds. It was utterly opaque and I was utterly captivated. I was twenty-three years old and ready to suffer profundities. In Birds , I had found an artistic cause that would grant me a delicious long-running martyrdom.
The critical response to the duet, however, was not enthusiastic. The Telegraph described it as “curiously puritanical”; the Guardian was barely more effusive with “haunting but restricted.” Notably, every review admitted its “difficulty,” in sentences that varied from coolly admiring to peevish.
In the aftermath of this lukewarm reception, Page telescoped his ambitions and worked as a dancer for a series of mid-gauge companies. He made one or two interesting but unaspiring works on companies yet smaller than the ones he danced for. His career followed the usual Russian doll format of an emerging freelance artist, with autonomy and creation taking place within and at a smaller scale than bread-winning employment, but with the same tense smile painted on regardless.
The Death of Birds reappeared two years later at Mist, a platform in Berlin that had a good reputation and a grotesquely self-congratulatory artistic director; many of my readers will grasp the name without its full spelling into a sentence. This time, the piece was larger (five dancers) and more extravagantly staged: It included an early version of the now-notorious spinning chair scene, the “bedroom” solo, and the first intimations of what Page called the “flood of dirt, woodchip and feathers.” It ran for just over half an hour.
The programme notes for the Mist staging were a little more fraught:
Words are a cheap tent for the solid stuff of meaning. The body is the tongue’s slave labourer; at best it is a donkey led by a carrot, at worst a fat worm writhing on a small, smart hook. Alphabets are tyranny. This piece draws on the very bones built, flesh filled. It is a sentence.
PLEASE NOTE: The audience are required to regulate their breathing. The audience are asked not to begin to die unexpectedly. Cramping and weeping are allowed but not encouraged.
This version of The Death of Birds was also the first to bring producer Tomas Ross and dramaturg Monivong Molivann to Page’s creative team. Molivann, only twenty-five at the time, was a stranger to the dance world; she was best known in literary circles for setting up and subsequently setting fire to an independent poetry press. Tomas Ross, prior to his engagement with Page, had gained some notoriety as the producer of Honey Circus’s immersive ballet series, described by an Observer dance critic as “a war of erotic attrition with the audience.” I have no doubt that this was the line that piqued Page’s interest.
I spoke to Ross—a vigorous, handsome man—about the piece’s evolution.
“Well, the main thing to remember,” he told me, “was that we’d managed to get Arts Council funding. Birds was, in Julian’s vision, much larger than the resources he’d been given to play with for the duet. He wanted to properly develop the ‘patterning,’ he called it, the compulsive pattern-making of metaphorical expression, and he needed more performers to do that. He was looking at the thing from far away, if you see what I mean.
“I think he also wanted a lot of noise and dirt being blown about everywhere with giant fans, you know, the ‘flood machines,’ and you can’t get that on a crowd-funded budget. Hand on my heart, I didn’t always get the impression that he loved his audience. Their presence kind of antagonized him, actually.”
And the program note, which contained such aggressive instructions for the audience—was that Ross’s doing, or Page’s?
“It was him, and it was originally about seven hundred words long! He wrote it all on napkins and pinned them up around his room. I cherry-picked and matched it to the word count. It was a shame he moved about so much, really, because every time he moved, he’d leave the napkins behind and we’d have to start over.”
The second version of The Death of Birds was as precise, even forensic, as the first, but more uncomfortably compelling. (I admit that here I have self-plagiarised from my review of the time; moreover, I can now admit that I’d stolen and used the press pass of a better known critic after the weight of my own name failed to gain me entry to the oversold Mist showing. I maintain that one has not known true desire until one has known the glimpse of a drunken press night in full swing behind the shoulders of an unsympathetic usher.)
What happened onstage that night was the work of five bodies and a clever lighting designer, but every cold configuration seemed to have its own echoes and shadows that appeared in a depth of space beyond the stage, slicing through the audience. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran a hatchet job so lengthy and so detailed that it could only be treated as praise.
Eight months later, The Death of Birds was restaged at the Linbury in London. This was an unexpected twist that came about (if my readers will forgive me) because of an unexpected twist; the choreographer of the scheduled production had slipped on some leaf mulch at the top of a flight of concrete stairs, fallen down them, and broken his neck. Ross pulled strings with frantic fanaticism to get Page’s piece programmed in replacement, calling in favours he barely had the lips to whistle for and spending goodwill on credit. When I mentioned this in our conversation, he described himself as “infected” with fervour.
I was familiar with this sense of infection, which came coupled with a certain wilful surrender. My fervid review of Birds had caught the eye of my then-editor. She was, I think, interested in finding out how deep my obsession ran and whether we could use it to generate a few more hits for the online edition. I suggested that I interview Page for the features section and was given the green light.
Naturally, Page refused to meet me (sending this message via his dramaturg Monivong Molivann, who had, by this time, taken on the role of Page’s sentence generator). I emailed Molivann my review and waxed lyrical for good measure. Molivann brooded for several days over her reply, putting me in mind of a chess master irritated into watchfulness by a lucky amateur. Her eventual lackadaisical missive contained some vague half-promises about letting me “come backstage.” In fact, I managed one better; I was privileged to be at a bare bones rehearsal for this staging, a privilege which, as can be imagined, took a certain amount of creative obfuscation and faffery on my part.
Three of the dancers who had appeared at Mist returned to the Linbury—Genevieve Z., Pierre Ponty, and the late Kumiko Tanaka. Stripped of the stagecraft, they moved like descriptors through the studio. I saw, as I had only vaguely comprehended before, that the choreography of the piece was somehow sectish, obsessive. This is the only way I can describe it. They moved cultishly.
Tomas Ross was not present at the rehearsal, but Molivann and Page himself were.
Page, physically, was never an imposing presence. He was slim, pale, neat. When I had seen him dance before, in other peoples’ work, I had characterised his style as politely graceful. But up close, I could see that he was plated with exhaustion. I don’t mean that he looked tired. I mean that some deep malaise appeared to have formed a shell over his skin. Melancholia came off him in waves.
He never performed in The Death of Birds, and I think this is one of the lasting shames about the piece. He took his dancers through the phrases, drawing the space of the room around him. I had never realised, before watching him that day, just how crude the occupation of space could be. Page made us look lumpen, not because he was technically flawless, not because of his strength or proficiency, but because he moved as an equal of the ceiling, the walls, the floor, and the air. He wasn’t radiant but he radiated, like something predicted in a theoretical equation.
After the rehearsal, Genevieve Z. approached me. I had noticed that the famously reticent Molivann had been watching me rather sulkily from her corner of the room, and I assumed that she had sent Z. as an emissary of her discontent. It is worth remembering that at this time, Z. was still at an early stage in their career; frequently misgendered, frequently underused, they were figuratively and literally overshadowed by the colossus Tanaka, limestone-light, gorgeous, and almost seven feet tall.
In fact, Z. was charming and kind. They took me out for a coffee and asked me the sorts of questions I should have been asking them, to the despair of my editor. I managed to shoehorn in a hopeless little interrogation about Page as a man and an artist, and Z. was typically generous:
“He seems very restrained and a bit cold, but once you get past the British reserve, he’s pretty playful. He smiles more than you’d guess, and grins even more than that. He hates talking about his own work, but I think that’s because he reckons it ought to have the strength to stand alone. He reckons it’s failed if he can’t get his meaning across onstage. He feels like he’s let down his audience, he feels it badly.
“We’re all so glad to be working with him. He’s not good at talking himself up, but he knows the value of his own work, I think, in a quiet way. He’s all right, really. Nice. A gentle person making severe stuff.”
At the end of our upside-down interview they handed me an envelope. I will confess, now, to a foolish thrill turning the ends of my fingers numb as I took it. Z. was as magnetic then as they are now, and I was still romantic about people and their funny people ways.
“Moni thought you might be interested in this,” they explained. “She said yours was the only review that had managed to intellectually engage with Birds .”
“What is it?” I asked them, stupidly, with the actual thing right there in my hands ready to answer the question. Page was right about language.
Z. smiled. “A cry for help?”
I have kept the contents of the envelope to myself for eight years. I am choosing to share it now because on this, the tenth anniversary of The Death of Birds ’s first performance, I believe our instinct is to dig, once again, for answers, because of the “rightness” of the timing, the “rightness” of the act of digging. We cannot always answer tragedy; we can only contextualise it.
The envelope contains a sheet of A4 paper with Page’s name, austerely stylised, as the header. It is printed with guidelines for the dancers. I have to admit they are fairly anodyne, and could have been issued by any bombastic maker to his company. There are notes about “movement quality” and “befriending the space.” But scrawled over the paper is a handwritten correspondence between Page and Molivann.
Page’s handwriting is delicate and slightly slanted, with coiled joints; Molivann’s is an eyelash-fine scrawl that spasmodically loosens and tightens between words. The temptation to draw parallels between their handwriting and their personalities is impossible to resist, but I will leave my ruminations unarticulated. It is sometimes more valuable for a word to just be a word.
She writes to him: “Narrative is the base material of empathy. It’s our attempt to bridge the gap between experience and interpretation. You can’t turn your whole piece into a neologism. It’s alienating.”
He writes back: “Empathy is overrated.”
She writes to him: “Empathy is an art form that takes skill and devotion to master and not caring isn’t radical. You fucktard.”
He writes back: “Quite angry???”
She writes to him: “I still don’t know why you brought me onto this project, other than to have someone to argue with. Ever since [illegible] you’ve been [illegible] and I can’t [illegible] forever.”
He writes back: “Wasn’t asking you to? Need to talk about the trio section. You had some good ideas re: Platonic solids.”
She writes to him: “Tues?”
He writes: “I’m so tired, Moni. Even when I sleep, I’m tired. It’s just dance. It isn’t saying anything. Nothing says anything. Sometimes I get an ache in my bones that only wants a diagnosis to describe it and I wish I could curl up and rot. Every time I move, I’m lying. I lie and lie and lie and lie and lie.”
She writes back: “[illegible]”
It’s a fascinating document, not the least because it is so obviously performative. Were they passing the paper back and forth between them during a rehearsal, anxious not to be overheard? Or were they indulging in some eccentric postal correspondence? It is nothing that could not have been said over email, or even hissed in the wings.
Page was not a man for ephemera. He was monkish in his shedding of possessions. Indeed, it was only recently discovered that there is still a lock-up in a storage building containing most of his worldly goods—crockery, summer clothes, a rather dusty Xbox, and so on—that is maintained by direct debit payments from his still-functioning bank account. His own notes on his work have been preserved by the people around him, an untiring team of baffled Boswells. I suspect that Molivann forced this flurry of communication on him in an attempt to pin him to the sentence.
The third performance of The Death of Birds received more critical attention than the first two, most of it positive. Page was celebrated, somewhat confusingly, as a true original, but also as the natural inheritor of any number of unlikely and frankly contradictory names: Pina Bausch, Hofesh Shechter, David Lynch, Samuel Beckett, Sarah Kane, Elfriede Jelinek, Ben Marcus. Reviewers reacted to the tender violence and opaque certitude that formed Page’s particular vernacular and picked their own confused equivalent.
In retrospect, we can view this third performance as the breath taken in before the screaming begins.
The Death of Birds briefly toured the UK in 2017, with a few notable performances in Europe. The Geneva performance saw the first implementation of what would be Tanaka’s completed version of the “bedroom” solo, although without her famous final flourish. In Paris, a former lover of Page’s allegedly attempted to stab Tanaka, Molivann, and company dancer Briony Strouther, for reasons unknown but easily speculated upon. This would have been scandalous enough without the three women being in different parts of the city on the night of the attacks; the spurned lover travelled between the arrondissements on a stolen Vélib’, the knife between her teeth. No charges were pressed and Page’s only comment on the whole misadventure was, “Oh dear.”
Page returned to London and began work on a new piece, Soldiers , which proved popular (and financially rewarding) but lacked the tenacity of Birds . Unbeknownst to all but his immediate creative team, during this period of apparent artistic coasting Page was working on another, more ambitious Birds : the version with twelve dancers, which is being restaged tonight.
This final variation on The Death of Birds was staged in London on 14 July 2020 and should have been—would have been—the purest and most perfect version of the piece.
I do not think it is entirely controversial to suggest that what took place on that night, though tragic, remains the cleanest articulation of Page’s intent. By the time of the final performance, he had stopped writing about or commenting on his own work entirely, and the programme notes were signed by Molivann. They were insane:
Art is a crime against meaning because it so tyrannically insists on tying itself to the sorry strictures of our language. We have loaded ourselves with denotation wrought from outdated wastes of words. We infect ourselves.
When the rains come, they don’t come with intent; they cannot even be said to come because that suggests a goal of place. This is the first site of the colony.
You can slap me or you can kiss me and it is both the same thing and two entirely different stories. Your wrists are like novels to me. Your throat is a lullaby. It is always bodies and bodies do as they will do. What I feel is not thematic; it happens like weather.
The audience are requested not to start dying, yet.
The audience, of course, did survive the night, thanks to the heroic intervention of the stage crew and front-of-house staff. No one noticed that the “flood machines” had been tampered with until they were switched on, and even then it took several minutes of uncomfortable and increasingly panicked choking for the reality to set in (such was the power of the curious scenes onstage). Once it became clear that Page’s “flood of dirt, woodchip and feathers” were to turn into a grim, post-modern version of Heliogabalus’s roses and suffocate the house, the staff hit the fire alarms and prepared to evacuate.
Unfortunately, the final version of The Death of Birds included a soundscape in which a fire alarm would not have been out of place. The “bedroom” solo, danced by Tanaka in a fire of splendour, was played to a half-full house of people part in and part out, standing and seated both. In this liminal space, the great Tanaka laid herself across the line separating the interpretation and the intent. She took the solo to its hard edge and stabbed herself. The blood, one witness later said, looked like the least real thing in the room. She died before the ambulance crew arrived.
Page officially quit the dance world the next morning, via a press release written by Ross. He refused to comment on the tragedy, even after it became clear that he could not be blamed. The “flood machines” had been turned into weapons during the performance, when Page, Ross, and Molivann were sat in the audience with their alibis; moreover Tanaka had left a note expressly stating her intention (although, interestingly, she mentioned only the act of stabbing, and not the act of dying).
The subsequent police investigation revealed a cell of radical young language philosophers at the heart of the doctored “flood machine” plot. It was a farcical outcome that seemed to take itself too seriously.
Page’s artistic team were always uniformly sub rosa , and after the final performance they were truly smothered by silence. But this restaging is an exceptional circumstance.
I’d pushed my luck with Molivann once before, and I could see no reason not to do it again. After all, I had given her eight years to collect her pawns and rooks and reset the board. I emailed the same address from which her attempted brush-offs had first issued, and was delighted to receive a coldly exasperated response almost immediately. The email address, and the woman, was active. After an arch correspondence that saw me matching Molivann’s ironies with effusive and sincere praise, I was fortunate enough to speak face-to-face with her at a small café in King’s Cross.
I ask Molivann, a small, dark woman with extraordinarily sophisticated under-eye bags, about the aftermath of the last Birds . She describes it, bizarrely, as “narratively weak.”
“He never came to terms with it. Not just because Kumiko had died—we were all wretched over that; it should never have happened. But the melodrama wound him up. It was grotesque to him.”
Three months into the investigation, Page took a restorative holiday in the Scottish Highlands, staying in near-complete isolation. Molivann visited him there:
“He’d turned in on himself, more profoundly than I’d ever seen him turn. It’s not that he was especially silent or withdrawn or moody, although he was more than capable of indulging in those. He just seemed to have switched off a part of himself, or taken it somewhere else. He was—boring.”
Boring? I ask her, and Molivann grins.
“Yes, boring. He was a boring, boring man. It was like he couldn’t connect to anything, and couldn’t be arsed to try, so he’d decided to nod civilly at everything and everyone until given further instructions. I got a spark out of him—once or twice—but it wasn’t worth the effort.”
It must have hurt, I venture, to know that his magnum opus had met such a sordid end. No wonder, perhaps, that he’d surrendered to isolation.
“His magnum opus?” Molivann repeats. “Let me tell you now, his ‘magnum opus’ was a magpie’s nest full of shiny crap he’d picked up. Julian was artistically indebted to almost everyone who crossed his path. He was a grand collagist. I would go so far as to suggest that he was a plagiarist. The Death of Birds was his Bluebeard’s chamber, a collection of other people’s hearts. We poured ourselves into that piece. We were obsessed with it, in a way that he just wasn’t. His genius wasn’t his choreography or his dancing; it was giving us a blank canvas and letting us turn it into substance through the sheer force of our interest.”
The Death of Birds is a masterpiece, I counter.
She shrugs. “Very well. Yes. It is. He was brilliant. I don’t deny it. I just mean it in a different way to you.”
Molivann stayed with Page for a week before returning to London. He received few other visitors, and the last people to see him were his parents. On the morning of the 28 November 2020, he left the cabin where he was staying, strolled into the mists of the Highlands wearing a too-light jacket and too-old shoes, and vanished.
I volunteer the suggestion that has been passed around the industry like a banned book: Did he commit suicide?
“Commit suicide? He couldn’t commit to anything,” Molivann replies, her voice tender with hatred.
We will never know what was going through Page’s mind on the day of his disappearance. There is very little we can know about him at all, except that his output enervated and entranced him and he was driven by his need to perfect it. We cannot even know that the official police verdict—missing, presumed dead—is the reality, as it works on pragmatic assumption and not narrative momentum, which is what always guided Page, and his team, and his audience. It is certainly what has driven me. Even now I cannot believe in the utter silence of his inferred demise; I cannot shake myself of the image of Page walking up the escalator at Angel Station, his backpack slung over one shoulder and a ticket for tonight’s performance in his hand. At times his gathered, overheard musings on the “language” of dance and his “new vocabulary” seem truly profound; at others, it feels desperately juvenile. Nevertheless, The Death of Birds is a masterpiece, and fully deserves this restaging. Perhaps, stripped to its essentials, it really does “mean” nothing at all, and I think Page would have liked that. It cannot be solved. It can only—be.
The audience are required not to start dying, yet. But of course, by living, the audience are.
Ash Walbrook, Sadler’s Wells, January 2024