Barefootblogger: thoughts on dance

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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"Serenade" and a Solo

February 22, 2006

Last weekend James Sewell Ballet premiered a new ballet, “Serenade”, to Schoenberg’s music of the same name. We performed it at the Ordway in Saint Paul with the magnificent Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

This is a good ballet. It is one of James’ most technical with many multiple turns following many more and at top speed. It is something to sink ones teeth into; we as a company are just beginning to investigate this one.

And yet there is something magical about the raw reality of a brand new piece. I think it’s very special, seeing all the edges and vulnerabilities. Our task is usually to make it look easy and yet there’s a rough-and-tumble quality to a premiere that’s endearing. At least, that’s how I choose to look at it. (I give other performers this leeway too.)

Indeed, on Friday night the piece was rough yet ready and it was a thrill to perform to a sold out Ordway. One of the most beautiful venues in the Midwest, it has hosted several highlights of my career: MN Opera’s “Nixon in China” last June is foremost in my mind.

“Serenade” is largely an ensemble piece. Nine of us negotiate the stage in strict formation, defining our respective roles in any given yet particular pattern so as to bring to light a certain something in the score. Oh what music! This piece has surely grown on me. It is exacting and masterful. My naïve ear witnesses history as I listen to the a-tonal perfection. James rose to and met this choreographic challenge. The ballet invents as many steps as it exploits standard ones. In the same breath we are doing those recognizable multiple turns then lumbering on the floor on the way to crouch between another dancer’s legs, our feet inelegantly yet brilliantly ginched.

This choreography, perhaps more than James’ other work, pays homage to Balanchine. I see this especially in the pas de deux for him and Sally. They flow in and out of irregularity and classicism with precision and clarity. It is en pointe and totally in control. It is funny and respectful. It is deadpan with an inner secret.

I have a solo. A SOLO. It is very special to me and I look forward to delving deeper into it even as I sit now in relative satisfaction at the recent memory of performing it. Sally likens it to Paul Taylor dancing in Balanchine’s “Episodes-Part II”. Here’s what happened…In 1959 Balanchine and Martha Graham were slated to collaborate on a new work with music by Anton Webern. In fact the choreographers worked entirely independently of one another. Each created a section: she Part I, and he Part II. The “collaboration” came into play in that she used three City Ballet dancers and he used Paul Taylor who was in her company at the time. Paul had a solo, created in four one-hour rehearsals. (Paul did a lot of homework.)

So Sally makes this comparison and my heart thrills: I knew my solo was important. Home I go to refer to my books; I remember reading about the incident in PT’s autobiography “Private Domain”. There it was again. The way-with-words PT has is old-fashioned, charming, I am drawn right in to his history and somehow feel that I am extending it’s life through my solo.

I enter the space cross fading with Justin and Brittany. He is carrying her off in a slumped-over lift and so James instructed me to enter slumped over too. (One of the many references to evolution in the piece.) My step quickens as I straighten up toward center stage, hoping the conductor won’t start til I’m placed and stilled. I stand on one leg (not a forte) and gesture coolly. Yet here is where I open my heart to the audience. Perhaps I can give them a way in to this perplexing music and these esoteric steps. Thus the dance begins and I am at once balletic and modern. In my pointe shoes I am doubled over and distorted. I attempt to channel PT as I strike a balance. Never having seen “Episodes”, I instead conjure his solo from “Aureole”, that brilliant use of stillness as he balanced in second position releve for a whole phrase of music. James threw one of those in for me too: a crouched stare at the audience, stillness while the music ends a phrase.

PT writes about his feeling the need to dutifully represent the modern dance community in 1959. Then the ballet and modern camps were distinct and separate. Now those lines are blessedly blurred and I stand in the vortex. That is my goal, my reason for dancing and expressing. To me dance is dance and ballet is as every day as my legs are low. I am unconventional and yet, in the words of Lincoln Kirsten to PT, I hope to have a “maverick talent for oddball dancing”.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Inheriting Roles: Implicit in Ballet

February 19, 2006

A few weekends ago I had the pleasure of performing a role not normally my own. The piece was James Sewell’s “Anagram” and it was with live music in Rochester, MN. Sally Rousse, who normally dances this particular part, did not go on the tour with us. Thus it was that I was given this gift.

When one is taught a role first-hand, there is a quickening. The senses come to attention. The forehead wrinkles as you struggle to imitate and make movements your own. As the inheritor it is important to get your needs met, your questions answered. Depending on the time frame, the priority rises and sets with your need to know.

This particular role begins as a pas de deux and quickly becomes a trio. Both partners have been longtime colleagues and put me at my ease. It is not easy stepping into another dancers original role, especially when that dancer is Sally. I had to very quickly get over the fact that “I’m not Sally” and that the steps will never look the same. They will not have the same ethereal quality with me doing them. And so there is a relinquishing, a giving over, a surrender. But through trusting the steps a leap of faith was made and in the process of execution I found singularity. Though I could not become her I could become more myself.

In terms of surrendering, the same is true from her perspective; she must pass on her knowledge to me. She did, most graciously. Her quiet way yet rapid pace was on the verge of my threshold for retaining. And yet I kept up. We’ve known each other so long I can almost intuit her process. Plus I’ve watched her do this part countless times, as I’ve leaned against the mirrors in our studio or stretched in the wings. It is always a painful thrill as is it so ethereal.

And so it goes. This is an age-old story. From dancer to dancer roles get passed down. If you’re lucky, that transmission takes place live and in-person. Often video is used and is inherently flawed. No, the real, raw deal is to learn form another body. That way you’re privy to the secrets, the thoughts, the dimension. Separate from the choreographer, the originator of a role is the blood and guts, literally, of a part. The body is the instrument and is forever marked by the dancing of a role. And so transmission of a part is intimacy of the highest order and as I said, it is age-old. Through working in this way we as dancers are participating in the timeline that is our history. We are the inheritors; we continue the stories even as we make new ones.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Home Movies - a review

The five performers of Everett Dance Theatre were earnest and sincere in their presentation of Home Movies, a compilation and accumulation of non-linear personal stories accompanied by visual images and dances/gestures around the themes of family and memory. Despite the non-linear nature of the piece, it was very straightforward and even dated in feeling; it was a little odd to see them in the setting of the Walker Out There series, known for it’s experimental edge.

Nevertheless the piece managed to disarm the audience. As the title implies, each performer brings with them actual photographs and/or film footage of their lives, their childhoods in particular, which we view on giant screens that scroll up and down as needed. They weave their visual stories with narration and movement, at times to touching effect. The piece opens with a dance sequence, intermingled and effortless in it’s ensemble partnering. As their stories unfold, performers group and re-group to serve the story, fading into and out of focus. Transitions were flawless as we were led from film to dance and back.

Sokeo Ros, an endearing performer, offered fine movement juxtaposition as he occasionally broke into breakdance sequences amid the fluidity of much of the other movement. His deadpan style was needed against the sometimes campy and too performative expressions of the others.

There were moments when the piece reminded me of what kids do: put on shows for the grown-ups after dinner. There was a playfulness that was at times cloying but ultimately was effective at representing the themes set forth.

Perhaps the most poetic moment was Aaron Jungels’ (co-founder) spliced together film of sequences of foreign films that his film professor father would show his kids. Aaron’s comments read like subtitles below the images, like a kid’s journal entries: “Bergman was creepy…” To have uttered the words would have ruined the image, it was after all about film.

Every person’s story is a foreign film to the rest of us. We do our best to keep up with the subtitles and have occasional moments of overlapping experiences. This piece seemed to ultimately be about getting one’s story out there and letting it bump up against and intersect with the others. In the end we are left with our memories. Often tragic moments thankfully turn funny (like peeing in school). Sometimes tragedy remains so and etches itself upon our faces. The final images of the piece, ones we’ve seen before, remind us that history repeats itself.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

At the Museum: Thoughts on Villa America

Just overheard: “I just did the New York City Ballet Work-Out. I mean ballet’s just as good as Pilates if not better.”

As I sit with my chocolate croissant and mostly decaf coffee, as I embark on this, my second entry for my blog, this is what I hear. Yes, ballet is better than Pilates. Perhaps not for “work-out” purposes but certainly for artistic ones. I know she meant no harm. I am weirdly flattered that my livelihood came up in a random conversation. As always when I come here, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I have the sense that I am in the right place at the right time.

Coming here on a Wednesday is a rare treat. Usually I am doing the aforementioned b-word, but we just returned from a tour and have the rest of the day off. I’ve been up since 4:15 AM Mpls. time.

I’ve been itching to see this exhibit, Villa America, a portion of Minneapolis native Myron Kunin’s collection of American paintings and sculptures spanning 1900-1950. I am writing not to critique the exhibit so much as to attempt to articulate how I am inspired by it, by art of other mediums in general. Painting and sculpture always come into play in my work, mostly as points of departure. Many times when I am faced with beginning a new piece I come here to gather inspiration around me like a shawl. It always works; I always do.

Today is no exception though as I write I must admit that I am still processing. There were some luminous works in the show. Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Slightly Open Clam Shell” comes to mind. I don’t tend to go for her work though I admire it for it’s saturated, velvety skill. This little painting however transported me with its opalescent translucence. It equally conveyed positive and negative spaces. Her work tends to do that, masterfully. Do we think about that in dance, that negative spaces can spark and inspire us as much as the “positive” elements? William Forsythe’s improvisation techniques come to mind: use of backspace, space below the floor. Ask the body to respond and it will expand and contract in new ways. Pose a new puzzle to yourself.

The first time I came to the museum was within a month or two of my moving to town in 1994. We had a James Sewell Ballet gig in the Pillsbury Auditorium and one day after rehearsal my friend Christian Burns and I stuck around. I got close up to the paintings, concentrating on the texture. Chris is a painter and you can tell that in his choreography. All of his art is layered, messy, mostly abstract (except that there’s always something recognizable: a human face just decipherable below the surface of color or a human interaction amid chaotic movement, that pulls upon the heartstrings.) It seems as though through his paintings he’s gained a certain comfort in layering, in creating a sketch and covering it up, revealing just a tiny part. He employs this in his choreography and to dancers this is a rough concept. We very quickly become accustomed to movement, married to it. We are pained when it is taken away from us, scrapped. But that process is important, vital. Choreographers are indeed painters, with bodies and time and space. It really is all about the process of trial and error until the opalescent translucence emerges.

In this exhibition too I loved “Two Seated Figures”. It was monochromatic and reminiscent of Picasso in its portrayal of larger-than-life female nudes. They were primitive, wearing mask-like faces, their huge eyes kohl-lined. I was reminded of my female duet “Before Words” that I am in the midst of performing with Sally Rousse under the auspices of James Sewell Ballet. Interconnected and primitive.

There was a magnificent work, someone's mother painted after her death. All angles and severity, he must have hated her. He certainly got back at her. Green and black boldness.

What most directly inspired what I think will be my next choreographic project was a work called "Roberto". It was of a circus performer, 1/2 clown and 1/2 himself. I am stuck in perpetual facination with the world of the performer. Though I am one myself it remains a mystery to me and I hope it always will. It keeps me coming back. It is my safe haven, my cocoon. "Roberto" puts me in mind of my work-in-progress "Papier-Mache Cabaret" that is in the lottery to be in this summer's MN Fringe. Shedding, revealing and hiding behind theatrical devices make up the existing piece; I can't wait to delve deeper.

My afternoon here will feed me for awhile. Until soon, P