"Do I dare disturb the universe?"
~T.S. Eliot

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Live Animals" Review--Hamlin Park Fieldhouse

The progressive modern dance company, “Live Animals Performance Collective and Friends,” premiered Go at The Hamlin Park Fieldhouse on October 29 and 30.  The company is directed by Kate Corby, also on the dance department faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The performance inspired viewers to consider their own choreographic patterns in any seemingly ordinary day. The pieces in Go were connected “through their explorations of identity, borders and geography,” Corby explained in the program notes.  Some of my vivid recollections of these discoveries are as follows.

Carrie Hanson, faculty member at the Dance Center of Columbia College and director of the dance company, The Seldoms, choreographed the first of five short pieces, “Right of Way Management.”  Kate Corby and Chris Walker, the two captivating performers, used pedestrian movement as an impetus for motion, but frequently froze together as if caught in a still frame.  Initially, I found their intense focuses to be looking, but not truly seeing each other, and their movement with straight legs sweeping the floor appeared deliberately awkward.  As the piece continued, curiosity grew in their gazes, and awareness of each other’s presence heightened, even if the connection was one of conflict and negotiation of space and direction.

Dancers in “Always in April,” choreographed by Corby, demonstrated juxtaposing emotions by conveying the power of dancing alone but simultaneously the desire to connect with another.  As they progressed across the stage in an accumulation of balletic movement, they punctuated their movement with sharp contrasting movement such as slapping their chests or spinning rapidly.  The women finally recognized each other’s presence and began awkwardly touching each other’s shoulders, then backing away.  That first acknowledgement established a sense of intimacy and tension, and I became aware of their female sexuality, an energy that grew as the piece developed.

“Excerpt in Blue,” choreographed primarily by Emily Miller from the “Get Down/Pick Up Company,” was a beautifully musical piece that seemed to describe the motion of waves and ocean tides.  As they came together to dance as partners and were separated from each other in an ebb and flow, it was fitting that they danced to ocean effects and the soaring voice of Joni Mitchell’s “California.”

“Reflections” choreographed by Arnsenio Andrade-Calderon, a celebrated Cuban dancer and has worked with the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica (NCDC), was an incredibly strong presentation of the power of the human body.  The solo dancer, Chris Walker, who has also performed with NCDC, began in a red-tinged spotlight.  He began to twitch and flex his muscles like an insect, the light and shadows emphasizing the power in is back, shoulders, and arms.  As he continued through a series of athletic floor work and controlled standing legwork, his sweat and struggle was visible.  Walker’s performance could be viewed as either a decay of life or an affirmation; it reminded me of how we are truly amazing creatures.

The final piece, entitled “Go,” by Kate Corby and dancers, was the only trio in the show, and it shed light on the dynamic of groups of people as they meet and depart; cliques, anxieties, and opinions all were apparent in the dancers’ faces as they chose with whom to partner.  At times, two of the women stood with deliberate, but not affected looks and glances, while the third dancer performed full-bodied, quirky movement upstage.  I was intrigued by the power of a simple glace and the array of emotions—inclusion, invitation, uncertainty—it can convey.

The cohesive show inspired me to consider the everyday interactions between people and the power that non-verbal language possesses.  The patterns we weave in space leave traces of us, both literally and metaphorically. Each personal interaction can be a frozen frame of a duet or trio, as we choreograph moments in each day.

Live Animals will perform Go for New York audiences in February, and Carrie Hanson’s The Seldoms will perform on March 12-14, 2010, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review of Bill T. Jones' "Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray"

Ravinia Festival was the ideal venue for the premiere of Bill T. Jones’ newest work, “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray,” which was commissioned by Ravinia and premiered on September 17th. Using a variety of mediums, the evocative dance theater piece, performed by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dane Company, used Abraham Lincoln as a lens through which to view today’s society and questions.

The show opened with a solo singer, Clarissa Sinceno, singing a chilling spiritual that set the tone for the multi-layered show, which frequently featured accompaniment of American folk music and sound affects of distant trains, a symbolic linking of the past to the present. Act I of the performance featured various narrations of a stories, each accompanied by a solo dancer who gracefully inhabited the text. Among the tales of seemingly ordinary people were the stories belonging to Abraham Lincoln’s, his wife, Mary Todd, and Bill T. Jones himself. Lincoln’s biography was instantly recognizable, and the dancer who portrayed him, Paul Matteson, danced with fluid grace and strength. Each narrative began with “He/she was born…” and struck me as a different imagining of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.

The choreography did not mime or mimic the text, but the movement seemed to move through the text as if using the words as a brief catalyst for bodily inspiration. There were a few instances where the words and movement harmonized together in a stirring moment; Asli Bulbul, the dancer playing Mary Todd, used a gesture of covering her face in her hands, when it was told of her son’s passing, a gesture that was later used by the company to signify war and death. Among the narratives of these historic figures were also the biographies of every day people. One dancer played a present-day soldier who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the text told of his conflicted opinions of war and service to our country. Another played a small-town woman opposed to change. Another biography told the story of the dancer himself, and his struggles to fit in with the classical model of the traditional American. Each story harkened back to Lincoln’s story of the quintessential Midwestern man who became one of the country’s most famous heroes. Bill T. Jones’ narrative reminds us how he is the great-grandson of slaves, and how the taste is still bitterly with him. The many dimensions of the literal narrative and more abstract tale in the form of dance allowed the audience to be absorbed in story in an incredibly engaging way.

Set and media also added dimension to the work. A large, circular netting enclosed the majority of the stage, and while the featured soloist and orator were outside of this net, the rest of the company would be less prominently featured behind this frosted lens. It is my interpretation that these dancers represented the whole of a community, while the soloist came forth to represent the individual and his or her story. Lighting is also used to create ghostly silhouettes, which was coupled with the sound of distant trains (both as purposeful sound affects, as well as the occasional live accompaniment of the Ravinia Metra).

Another truly beautiful aspect of Jones’ work were the live musicians, who took on the amazingly difficult role of both providing hauntingly beautiful melodies as well as tying the whole theater piece together. The musicians provided accompaniment for the dancing, and even became more intimately involved at times by coming on stage. Also, in between each narrative, a folk or spiritual song was used, and engaged the whole company in athletic dance that used ballet, modern, and folk dance vocabularies.

Act 2 was entitled “The War,” and demonstrated a break down of this calm story-telling setting. With Lincoln’s assassination at the end of Act 1, the second act brought this violence to life. The dancers struggled with each other by breaking linked arms, diving wildly into each other’s bodies, spinning, and jumping with amazing athleticism and technicality. The dancers also took microphones and assume a shouting debate about freedom and how we should be allowed to express it. The musicians broke out into a garage-band style of loud chaos, organized solely by its complex meter and common key.

Other text and poems were also spoken throughout the piece. Featured prominently was Walt Whitman’s Poem of the Body, which expressed an itemized list of body parts. The first time it was used, at the beginning of the show, it was a lens to view the stunning soloist, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, as she gracefully allowed us to view her dancing body with admiration. Later in the second act, inserted into Whitman’s poem were other more violent words that highlight the decay of civility during war. At the finale of the piece, we were left with Mary Todd in her black mourning dress, and a solo dancer in a bright spotlight, seemingly representing the present woman or man who dreams of having a legacy.

Jones’ choreography was graceful and fluid, and the dancers carried with them a sense of presence in their bodies and physical strength. Jones demonstrates that a ballet-based vocabulary is not antiquated, and can powerfully describe human emotion.

This production was different than other overtly political work of Jones’ in the way that it was successfully both accessible and provocative. “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray,” whose title echoes the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, certainly was a lot to digest. It was at times a dance performance, at others, a rock opera, a play, a live concert, or political debate.

Fall was clearly on the wind at the Ravinia Pavilion, and it reminds us of an election season nearly a year behind us. Jones caused us to question how far we have come since 1862, when the Emancipation Proclamation was written, and how far we must still travel.

“Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” continues to tour nationally and internationally through July, 2010.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lollapalooza rocks, despite the rain

Chicago's Grant Park hosted one of the nation's largest rock music festivals this past weekend. I was lucky enough to attend the festival on Friday, for free, as a volunteer!

First, about my job...I was a volunteer for the "Rock & Recycle" program. A new green initiative began a number of years ago when Chicago began hosting the festival, and the Rock & Recycle program was officially launched in 2008. Eco-friendly activities paved the way for rewards. By filling up a plastic bag with recyclable goods (Lollapalooza invited vendors that serve beverages and food in recyclable containers), festival attendees received a free Lollapalooza T-shirt. Also, by taking one of any number of green actions such as riding a bike or taking public transit to the park or refilling a water bottle, participants earned Green Card stamps. Receiving three stamps entered them into a raffle to win a Honda Insight Hybrid. On “Green Street,” festival guests browsed booths selling eco-friendly and fair-trade merchandise. Lollapalooza partnered up with Green Mountain Energy in order to raise money to counteract effects of ever-day carbon emissions. For $5, participants could buy a souvenir BeGreen™ Fan Tag to help offset their carbon footprint. 8,500 tags were purchased at Lollapalooza 2008, which Green Mountain states had the equivalent environmental impact of taking almost 500 cars off the road.

At my booth, I collected filled recycling bags, stamped cards for completed eco-friendly activities, and directed people to Green Street. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people were enthusiastic about being green, and despite the resulting chill from the rain, they were more than happy to fill up a recycling bag.

One of the best perks about the job was that I was able to request where I was stationed. I asked to be placed the north end of the park (in a tent, sheltered from the rain!), and was therefore able to hear the bands I wanted to while on my shift. Ben Folds rocked on piano and vocals in his usual fun-spirited, youthful way; I love how he still has a bit of nerdy-student look to him with his glasses and occasionally self-deprecating lyrics, like "I'm rockin' the suburbs/Just like Michael Jackson did/I'm rockin' the suburbs/Except that he was talented..." (though the song was released in 2001, the MJ reference is especially striking). The Decemberists put on an impressively strong show, performing their newest album, The Hazards of Love, written in the style of a rock opera, in full. Shara Worden joined the band as the powerful female soloist in this narrative performance. I was also able to hear the mellow Bon Iver from a distance, and was introduced to the Fleet Foxes. I really enjoyed their folk/rock hybrid, and bought their self-titled album yesterday. In the evening, the rain had stopped, and I was free to enjoy the two headliners. I watched about half an hour of Kings of Leon, and enjoyed their drive and southern soul. I headed over to the other end of the park, to hear the darker, 80's British rock band, Depeche Mode. They were powerful and passionate, and we all shouted for more, even after their encore of "Personal Jesus" that we had been craving.

All in all, a fantastic day of environmental activism and music. I even felt, amidst the rain, a touch of Woodstock spirit among us.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Reflections of Interlochen

Sunday, August 2nd, marked the close of another music-filled summer at Interlochen Arts Camp. I always get nostalgic when I think of Interlochen, as I attended the camp as a dance major for three amazing summers high school.

The closing performance takes place in the Interlochen Bowl, the stage of the open-air pavilion filled to capacity with all of the performers of all the advanced instrumental ensembles. It adds up to over 500 musicians! The summer of art and music is concluded with this performance of Franz Liszt's symphonic poem, Les Preludes. During the last six minutes of the piece, dancers suddenly emerge onto the scene! First they are seen walking down the aisles through the audience. Next, balletic couples partner each other on the bandshell. Finally the audience is most surprised when dancers appear on the roof of the bowl itself!

I performed in Les Preludes, once, as one of the dancers walking down the aisle, and the following summer I was promoted to a roof-top dancer. I vividly remember awaiting our musical cue on the back side of the roof, looking down through the skylights on the low-brass section of the massive orchestra. When we entered the "stage," we had to be careful not to overstep the chalk line that is about a foot 1/2 away from the edge! It was honestly a little scary, but more than that, thrilling and truly magical.

I have so many countless memories of my wonderful summers there. Each day was hard work, and dance majors' daily schedules were particularly long. Every student in each discipline worked long and hard at their art, and often spent additional time practicing and rehearsing (especially the music majors spent many hours in the "practice huts.") We were able to reap the rewards of our efforts by our performances. For us dancers, our work concluded with Dance Ensemble, at the end of the session. (I have one bone to pick with Interlochen, and that would be the changes that were brought upon the Dance Department the year after I left, in 2004. There were a number of campus-wide changes, such as making the eight-week camp into a six-week camp. Some of the main consequences fell on the the dancers, and due to the space being occupied, they longer enjoy the luxury of performing in Corson Auditorium. Dance Ensemble now takes place just simply in the studio. Granted, the beautiful dance building sits on the lake with large glass windows overlooking the landscape, however, I feel like there must be a way to collaborate with the rest of the departments. I hope that the future dance students will soon be able to enjoy the professional performing experience like the rest of the artists at the camp.)

When not working hard at one's art, campers enjoy more traditional activities of evening/weekend camp life. I enjoyed being immersed in the arts all around me; almost every night I would hear a band/orchestra/choir concert, see a theatre department play or musical, view an art gallery opening, attend a poetry reading, or catch another artistic endeavor. Often we would go as a cabin or support our fellow cabin-mate's performance.

On nights when I took a break from seeing a show, I might hang out on main campus and get to know my counselor or fellow campers, who became incredibly close to me over the four weeks, take a swim in the late, practice my french horn (which I had brought with me and was inspired by the excellent music majors to practice), or journal-write on the lake at sunset. We were called to our cabins at night by the trumpet "call to quarters," commanded to turn off lights by the sound of "Taps," and risen in the morning by another trumpet sound. I found being surrounded by art in this way to be so incredibly inspiring, and the summers of 2001-2003 became some of the best summers of my life.

At the end of every music performance, the ensemble would play or sing the Interlochen Theme, a piece of Howard Hanson's Symphony No. 2, "Romantic." Applause is "shh'ed," as the concert traditionally ends in silence, the last notes ringing out into the night void.

At the end of Les Preludes, the conductor (who is always the President of Interlochen, currently Jeffrey Kimpton) breaks the baton, symbolizing the end of another musical season.

Two summers ago I visited the Interlochen campus again, a number of years behind me since I had been a camper. Stepping into view of Kresge Auditorium, the other main pavilion for music performances, proclaiming "Dedicated to the Promotion of World Friendship through the Universal Language of the Arts" across the top of the arch, I felt my eyes mist over. Interlochen will always be home in my heart, and I hope to someday return to teach or somehow be a part of this amazing transforming place again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jazz Dance World Festival--Chicago, 2009

Jazz dance dominated the scene at the Harris Theatre in Millenium Park July 22 through July 25, as the Jazz Dance World Festival returned to Chicago. Gus Giordano, who passed in March of 2008, is hailed as one of the most influential founders of concert jazz dance. Giordano initiated the first Jazz Dance World Congress, a five-day celebration of dance, in 1990. Master classes are held throughout the day, and inspirational performances are given in the evening. In 2002, the Congress was held in downtown Chicago for the first time, and the performances were presented as the “Jazz Dance World Festival.” The event has been held in numerous international locations, and has been in Chicago every other year since 2005.

Giordano helped shape the definition of jazz dance as a form that derives its soul from the expression of rhythm and musicality. Arguably, there is no company that can deliver this sense of intonation better than the Windy City’s own Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. The company’s performance of Pyrokinesis, choreographed by Christopher Huggins, was sizzling with energy. The first section, set to solo piano music, was modern-dance based, and the movement, with pleading contractions and flexed hands and feet harkens back to Martha Graham’s technique. The second half becomes an explosive expression of jazz, exemplifying how the movement is the music (a spicy jazz piece by the United Future Organization) made visual. The trumpet trills became rounds of fouette turns, the percussive underlying beat transcribed as an African-based step. Truly, the Giordano dancers appear so tight with their unisons, bold in their solos, and in tune with each other when harmonizing, that they act as musicians with their bodies.

River North Chicago Dance Company also impressed the audience with its incredible physicality. The athletic piece, called Take a Seat, by Frank Chaves, featured five male dancers from the company and five chairs, on which they jumped and turned. In the second half, they commenced to do a whole section of turning, jumping, weaving in an out of each other, and even back-bending with the chairs mounted on their backs. I couldn’t imagine how much rehearsal (and how many injuries) this must have taken to perfect.

LehrerDance, a new company founded in Buffalo, New York by former Giordano Associate Director Jon Lehrer, performed their premiere performance at the Harris Theatre. Lehrer’s Fused by 8, as the title implies fused modern and jazz forms, while also adding elements of gymnastics or break-dancing. This echoed the music, which was a hybrid of classical and electronic/hip-hop. Though they did not quite possess the poise and perfection of the Giordano dancers, in time, they have potential to mature and become more in tune with each other as artists and athletes.

Other highlights from Friday night’s program include Billy Siegenfeld’s Chicago company, Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. This theatrical company combined elements of comedy, drama, vocalization, singing, body rhythms, and tap dance to make for an extremely entertaining experience.

All of the companies that performed graced the stage with technicality and musicality. The Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater showed off incredible extension combined with a balletic style. Two dancers from Philadelphia’s “Philadanco” performed a serious duet with utter beauty and concentration. Finally, the Cuerpo Etéreo Danza Contemporénea, hailing from Mexico performed a highly technical, athletic, and intricately rhythmic piece. All of the companies performed with the energy, grounded power, and expressive lightness that epitomizes jazz.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The loss of a creator

As I reflect on the recent passing of Merce Cunningham, I recognize the philosophy and achievements of the innovative choreographer and creator. Perhaps he is most recognized for his Chance techniques, which were so revolutionary in the 50s when he began utilizing them. Personally, when I think of Cunningham, I have images of arrayed and partnered dancers using ballet vocabulary to communicate the randomness of the directions that has been given to them. I recognize the intelligence of the dancers and everyone involved to put together such an intellectual performance. Of course, he should also be recognized for his collaboration with brilliant composer John Cage (also credited for the ideas behind chance operations). The two artists were so mentally in synch when they were working together that the end result of their creations was genius. Cunningham's use of modern technology as it advanced is also incredibly impressive.

For all his achievement, I find this quote of his own to be most moving:

"You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls."

To me, this most clearly shows Cunningham as a moving, thinking, dancing human being. It is a beautiful way of describing the life and spirit that is the epitome of dance, and why we are brought together to move and be moved. Cunningham, certainly, was anything but an unsteady soul, but was bold and confident as he paved the way for many modern dancers to come.

CSO shines at Ravinia

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed for a packed house on Saturday night at its summer home, the Ravinia Festival, and even the vast lawn was brimming with picnickers.

The world-class orchestra opened the evening with Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Two celebrated Ravinia regulars returned to the Festival; pianist Peter Serkin performed for his 23rd season, and world-renowned conductor Christoph Eschenbach led the CSO with his emotional, emphatic direction.

The Brahms concerto (c.1858) consisted of a multitude of moods, from celebratory to somber. The violin section demonstrated their versatile abilities when they played triumphant passages that instantly became sweet and lyrical, enhanced by exposed oboe and horn solos. Serkin played the sweeping arpeggiated chords with meditative beauty, but brought the most feeling to the cadenza at the end of the first movement, and the energetic finale to the third.

The second half of the concert presented the main attraction, Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, (“From the New World”). The Czech composer was in the “New World” itself when writing the symphony; he conducted his previous Symphony No. 8 in August of 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and was inspired to write his ninth that year while residing in the rolling hills of Iowa.

The first movement, especially, presented the composer’s portrayal of the musical melting pot of America, as one could catch glimpses of Eastern European, English, and Celtic-sounding melodies. The CSO demonstrated the ability to transition seamlessly from luscious string lines to sharp accentual punctuations, driven by the percussion section.

The English horn soloist, Scott Hosteltler, produced a beautifully lyrical, warm tone in the second movement, “Largo,” that is emblematic of the pastoral mood. The reoccurring chord progression, first stated by the brass opening, later repeated in a less densely orchestrated choir of woodwinds and solo horn, and closing the movement by brass again, became familiar and nostalgic. The CSO brought a dynamic sense of forward motion to idyllic landscape that Dvořák painted.

The third movement, “Scherzo: Molto vivace,” became more overtly energetic and featured the intricate brilliance of the CSO’s violin and woodwind trills and majestic brass statements.

The final movement, “Allegro con fuoco,” highlighted the strength of the CSO brass section. The trumpets produced impeccably tuned, crisp fanfares, and the horn and low brass section provided the backbone of power. The element of the percussion, especially the timpani, brought the excitement to its true height. Principal horn player Dale Clevenger effortlessly soared melodically in the numerous, high-range solos, and the brass as a whole appeared united in strength and power that arguably tops previous seasons at Ravinia. Eschenbach conducted this final coda with passion that was evident in his grand, flourishing movements.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sing us a song, you're the Piano man...

Two nights ago, I was fortunate enough to hear two of the greatest living musicians of this era. Billy Joel and Elton performed to a sold-out crowd at Wrigley Field in Chicago on July 16, and they still have all the passion and soul of their heydays. The concert was about 3 1/2 hours long without intermission, and featured multiple sets that kept the show in constant motion. Elton John, dressed sharply in a tux with a flashy blue collared shirt and his signature shades, opened with the tender "Your Song." Soon, Billy Joel, dressed in a black suit like a classic jazz pianist, also selecting something sentimental, performed "Just the Way You Are" as his solo opener.

They then joined together in a dueling-piano style, the two grands "face to face," as the subtitle of their concert implied. They turned up the heat with "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," the old-fashioned LED lights projecting a sunset, echoing the evening sky itself, and rocking the house with the passion of the rebellious teens they once were, with "My Life."

John and Joel proceeded to play generous individual sets. Personal highlights from John's set include the melodic "Levon," classic "Tiny Dancer," with it's instantly recognizable piano intro, and poetic "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." In the latter, the back up vocalists carried the enthusiastic crowd through the sweeping, melodic chorus. John concluded with "Crocodile Rock," which got the crowd on their feet dancing, and really highlighted his tight band.

At this point, the audience assumed a break, but soon the lights came up again to reveal Billy Joel, jamming like he would love nothing better than to deliver a crowd-pleaser. He opened with the catchy "Angry Young Man," an immensely energy-filled, piece, impressively driven by his two drummers and guitarists. He continued with a multitude of his bests, including the rhapsodic "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," (highlighting Joel's band and talented saxophone players) the classic "River of Dreams," and the anecdotal "We Didn't Start the Fire," which, now in 2009, reminds us all of the repetitive nature of history. The crowd was on its feet again, snapping and shimmying with his closing "Only the Good Die Young."

Next, the duo joined again for a combined set of both their songs. I loved hearing the two great masters jam together and add a new voice to each other's music. What strikes me as unusual in the world of celebrity, is that after all the years in the spotlight, both musicians still seem grounded, and they showed a genuine gratitude for their audience's enthusiasm. Both portray stylistic differences to a similar genre; John's songs often tend to be more sentimental and poetically abstract, and his voice is sweeping and rich in timbre. Joel sings honestly about the struggles of the every day man just trying to get by, and his voice cuts through the air with sharp passion, even when singing softer, more lyrical tunes. Both voices may have been roughened by age, but the passion behind the music was as present as ever, and their fingers still sharp. Their chemistry on stage is evident, pointing and gesturing to give the credit to the other. The audience that comprised the full house was diverse in age, revealing how John and Joel's music speaks to every range of people.

While both remained on stage for the encores, both had a final word--John sang his beautiful and touching "Candle In the Wind," written in honor of Marilyn Monroe's death (and re-written as a tribute to Princess Diana after her death), while we linked arms and swayed, lighters and cell phone lights popping up across the stadium bleachers. Of course, Joel's Piano Man was the most fitting closure to the night...we were all indeed in the mood for a melody and were certainly feelin' all right.

At that point, the stage went dark, but I was not ready for it to be over. I could have listened to the two play far into the night. As the bright stadium lights came on, and I resigned myself to the bittersweet sense of finality. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see these two brilliant musicians light up the stage together, perhaps for one of the last times.

Billy Joel and Elton John's Face 2 Face Tour will play again at Wrigley Field on July 21st, and have scheduled performances in other cities across the country through November.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The beauty of collaboration

As a post-graduate out in the world now, I am considering what kind of work I want to do and create.

When we produced our BFA thesis concert on May, we had been working with our casts since September. I was rehearsing with an awesome cast of six dancers, who are passionate artists and have intriguing, enthusiastic personalities. In the Spring semester, however, I added four Acting majors from the Theatre Department to my project, and they changed the whole tone of my piece.

To backtrack a bit, in the Fall, I was a part of a Dance Department/Theatre Department project, directed by guest artist Laurie Carlos (New York Avant-Garde Performance scene, Movin’ Spirits Dance Theater Company, Urban Bush Women...). This process was one of the most important, influential experiences of my college career. The performance piece we put together was made up of scenes that we created, with Laurie's instruction, throughout the entire two months of rehearsal. Rehearsal each night was a challenge for me, as I considered myself a "mover." I held back whenever I was asked to speak or do something more along the lines of "acting." Through collaboration with the actors, howerver, I found myself more eager to join in their form of expression, or at least add to theirs with mine. The performance also incorporated a fantastic combo of brilliant musicians, as well as moments that highlighted our own singing. Our lighting designer, stage manager, and ASMs were also intimately involved in all of our rehearsals. Laurie called this working in the "jazz aesthetic," the idea of a smooth meshing of improvisational elements within a context of ideas, evoking the feel of jazz musicians who gracefully modulate in and out keys. Working this way relies on the close collaboration and deep listening between all performers.

I feel like this type of inter-disciplinary work has the power to take root deeply within performers. As I worked with my cast of dancers and actors for my thesis, we shared stories with each other about our lives, and we created movement and song to echo these stories. After each rehearsal, I was left feeling like I was creating something meaningful. The dancers contributed through a unique set of technical and artistic skills, and the actors were able to offer suggestions that I would have never thought of, and make the work come alive in brighter, bolder tones. Everyone worked together by sharing parts of themselves.

Whatever I pursue next with art, I know now that I am driven by this inter-disciplinary work. I know I want to collaborate again with actors, musicians, tech crew/designers, and other types of artists. The many layers give the work depth and meaning, and I'm being to understand that it's this kind of art that speaks to the 21st century generation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Looking back on Batsheva

I went to see Batsheva Dance Co. at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre over a month ago, and I thought I missed my opportunity to blog on this experience. I've just started my Spring Break, though, and realized that despite the immediate impact of images fading, writing on a performance, or at least pieces of it, is always fulfilling. It helps me understand and define my own aesthetic, and reconsider aspects that didn't appeal to me at first viewing. I also came home to find the Batsheva review by Sid Smith in the Chicago Tribune that had been saved for me.

Batsheva performed "Deca Dance," which is an ever-evolving conglomeration of various pieces that Ohad Naharin has choreographed. The piece of the program that I was hoping that Batsheva would present, and was so incredibly excited that they did, was the "Echad Mi Yodea" segment. I have seen this piece twice before, both performed by Hubbard Street in "Minus 16." This piece, which utilizes the accumulative nature of the music (an intense rock-version of a Hebrew children's/traditional song). Sixteen chairs are set in a semi-circle, and the dancers perform a seemingly simple but wildly specific accumulation in time with the music. One chair is left empty for a dancer that is slowly walking around the semi-circle, and one dancer consistently falls to the ground, over and over again. The most striking part, for me, is the end of the "chorus," when the dancers jump up to a strong parallel stance and chant along with the music. ("Shebashamaim, uva'aretz," actually meaning "In the heavens and on earth," ironically enough, against the severity of the music.) Something about the accuracy, musicality, strength, and piercing focus makes this piece come alive for me, and it is truly one of my favorite works of art. While Smith, in the Tribune review, mentions the presense of the audience-participation section, also performed by Hubbard Street as part of "Minus 16," (which I agree, is definitely a clever crowd-pleaser) I was surprised he didn't mention this brilliant piece.

I agree with Smith, when he acknowledges the tiresome repetition of the excerpt of the piece set to lines by poet Charles Bukowski. I admit, this was not my favorite, and I'm surprised they chose to perform two pieces with an accumulative structure, especially when the first one was so strong (and memorable, for Chicago-audiences, at least). The "gritty" lines, as Smith put it, didn't do anything for me. I was impressed, however, by the dancers' ability to repeat the same movement, in a way that was recognizably the same movement, but at the same time, not truly a mechanical carbon copy.

I was also excited that Batsheva performed sections from "Shalosh," or, "Three," which I had seen in Tel Aviv this summer. The section they performed is one of sheer athleticism, along with grace, boldness, and passion for movement. Toward the end of the piece, the dancers align themselves in one of three lines, the front dancer taking a moment to solo or do something showy before moving to the back of the line. The solos escalated to a point of what to me represented almost forced, self-afflicted violence or humiliation, as they pulled up their shirts or even unzipped flies (Smith says, "innocently," though I got more of the sense of dangerous naivety). To me, it was as if they were a part of a competition, almost a mock-reality show, and the rivalry and ridiculousness get out of control. The presence and honesty it must have taken to perform this is admirable.

While there were definitely many other mentionable moments like the incredible performance of the soloist who improvised for 20 minutes or more before the show opened, the intriguing women of Naharin's "B/olero," or the various sensual duets both, male, and male with female partners. Truly, their athleticism and artistry never fails to inspire me.

Some things of disappointment, however, were the quite visible and definitely audible protesters outside the theatre, denouncing the Company for its government's military actions, and calling for a complete boycott of everything Israeli. I find this action to be, first of all, inappropriate, and second, counterproductive. While Batsheva is an Israeli company that is proud of their people and culture, they are not representative of every political opinion (of which there are many!). It upset me so deeply that artists would be targeted by this blind and unfocused anger. Coming to my second point, it is the artists--the dancers, musicians, actors, painters, and poets--who can bring people together for shared experiences of compassion. If we cannot share art with each other, how can we share peace?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

On silence

I'm still getting used to trying to write regularly, though this sometimes proves difficult...

A few weekends ago was U of I's spring production February Dance. I performed in an event that happened before the show, coordinated by New York choreographer and U of I faculty member Tere O'Conno. Participants were asked to meditate on silence--We had five minutes to perform a piece in a 10 ft. by 22 ft. square area, the only limitation being that our performances had to be in complete silence.

This Silent Show opened with a professor and orchestra conductor in the Music Department simply reading through a score, minimally conducting, gesturing, and internally processing. Other performers danced in the intimate area, performed Tai Chi, or projected videos. One artist who is particularly adept at the skill of knitting presented various personified objects he had created.

When I first began thinking about this project, my first impulse was to think of silence as oppressive. I have participated in numerous movements in which silence is used to demonstrate a lack of voice and legitimacy. This includes the Day of Silence movements on high school and college campuses, a day of self-imposed silence to demonstrate the lack of voice that the GLBTQ etc. community feels every day. I was also reminded of the Breaking the Silence series that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs every summer. In this series, summer director James Conlon chooses and conducts pieces by composers that were victimized during the Nazi Regime, often music considered "degenerate" or even written by Jews while in the concentration camps. However, I realize that silence as a meditation and solace can be enlightening and necessary. Through all of these thoughts, I did some free-writing on the nature of silence, both oppressive and liberating.

Free-writing became central to my piece. I decided I wanted to perform this stream-of-consciousness writing. I collaborated with a friend, and, dressed in white T-shirts and shorts, we wrote, drew, and scribbled on each other with markers, while rolling, arching, otherwise maintaining contact with each other.

The experience was different than anything I had ever done before, and with the audience also standing inside this white box with us, the setting was extremely intimate. (With the exception of the showering/scrubbing that followed,) I enjoyed this opportunity to think about the nature of silence and its resulting thoughts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A musical Inauguration brings hope for the Arts

Music played a crucial role in President Obama's inauguration today, and with it came a feeling of invigorating relief and forward motion.

CNN broadcasted the words of American jazz musician/composer/arranger Quincy Jones during their coverage of the Inauguration.  As a friend of Barack Obama's, he is requesting that Obama create a new official cabinet position: Secretary of the Arts.  With arts funding suffering under the previous administration, and especially now, due to the economy crash, our role in being arts advocates is even more imperative.  I might be being too idealistic, but I really hope that Obama's approval will come to pass.  To sign a petition to support it, click here: http://www.PetitionOnline.com/esnyc/petition.html

Regarding other thoughts, a quartet that consisted of Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Gabriela Montero (piano), and Anthony McGill (clarinet) performed "Air and Simple Gifts," arranged by John Williams, at the Inauguration.  The piece opened with Perlman's angelic, rubato strains, and Yo-Yo Ma entered with the deep, resonant tone of the cello.  When the clarinet sang the first familiar phrase from Simple Gifts, one could not help but think of "Appalachian Spring" and the inherent American sound of Copland.  The piano joined and it became a swift journey of the American spirit, and a sound of new hope for the future in this coming era.

Josh Groban, who never fails to move me with his genuine musicality and rich, true voice, performed "My Country 'Tis of Thee" on Monday the 19th with Heather Headley and the DC Gay Men's Chorus, a really fantastic blending of voices.  The two unique voices each brought out different colors and blended fantastically with the choir.  U2 also performed a passionate "In the Name of Love" among other songs on Sunday, one of numerous other artists to perform on inaugural weekend.

Many a marching band also carried this spirit through the parade, including the first openly gay band to march in the Inaugural parade (a contingent from the Lesbian and Gay Band Association).

I only felt that a physical manifestation of this excitement was lacking.  Perhaps a Secretary of the Arts would put dance in its proper place, at the forefront of the arts, for the first time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaga class in Tel Aviv

As my first post on my new blog, I’d like to share some writing I did following my experience in Tel Aviv this summer, where I spent three weeks studying Batsheva Dance Company’s training technique.

An original technique known as Gaga, developed by artistic director Ohad Naharin, combines elements of improvisation, visualization, focusing techniques, and physicality. The classes in Gaga technique were physically and mentally intense, complex, and amazingly rewarding I took at least two, and frequently three classes per day, which were usually taught by Batsheva Company members or its Ensemble (their training/apprentice company) members. Their knowledge of the body, movement, and the technique was rich and deep, and their passion for sharing their knowledge and dancing with the students was inspiring. The classes were primarily taught in Hebrew (of which my comprehension is little), but phrases and important ideas were translated for us English speakers. I met other Israelis who were warm and inviting, and danced with a few other Americans also studying the Gaga technique. (See Deborah Friedes' Dance In Israel blog: http://www.danceinisrael.com)

The Batsheva technique is simple at its core, but complex if you are trying to grasp all that it offers. During my three weeks of dancing, I learned how to open myself up to the information that was being offered and absorb the Batsheva philosophy. My body began to apply the ideas more naturally as the classes progressed, and I learned how to be more free an uninhibited. While the technique taught at Batsheva is about many things, including allowing the body to be free by releasing excess tension, harnessing one’s imagination as a source of inspiration, and connecting to your own personal passion for movement and dance, I found its core values—understanding the body as a natural source of energy, power, and a positive life force—to be especially powerful. I found myself understanding more than ever before how movement and dance is deeply life-affirming. Many of the classes had elements of a cardio workout and were otherwise physically draining. Some teachers pushed us to a point near exhaustion. However, at the moment that we were able to rest, the energy and life that radiated was one of the most amazing of my dance experiences. The tingle of the flesh, the pounding of the heart’s pulse, and the breath flowing through the body kept me going. Many ideas in Gaga, like this, are equally valuable in metaphor as they are in physical practice. As the classes continued and I began to understand more deeply Gaga’s connection to determination and life. As we shook, suspended, connected, floated, pushed through exhaustion, and danced, the idea of resiliency, strength in perseverance, and harnessing positive energy resonated deeply with me. I found that working in this way, in Israel, was a powerful and meaningful experience.

The Graham tradition is of course deeply rooted in Batsheva, as she co-founded the company. The idea of emotion, drama, and struggle that's inherent in Graham is also present in Gaga. When we were pushed through physically difficult situations (whether it was cardio or muscular fatigue), we were always reminded to find the pleasure in the effort, and the passion through the struggle. I also had two classes with Ohad Naharin, and he is an incredible mover and a passionate, driving teacher. The classes were more challenging, as he really wanted to try to get us to understand the technique at its deepest level.

I was also able to see a number of Batsheva performances, and they were incredible—I especially loved the performance of Shalosh at the Suzanne Dellal theatre, a performance of beauty of human body in motion and humor that crescendoed into a finale of intense physicality and matching emotion. Batsheva will take it’s show, Deca Dance on tour in the States, starting late January.

I am so grateful for this experience I had with Batsheva, and I have been utilizing bringing the technique into and its philosophy my other classes. The ideas inherent in understanding my own sense of energy and power, the ability to conjure life from movement, and the struggle to persevere are now becoming an integral part of dancing.