Passing Moments: Rehearsal Video

 

A rehearsal video from May 31, 2017, showing an excerpt from the second section of the dance as a work in progress. Using videos we were able to see some of what Nikki was setting. Because both of us were dancing or at least “on stage”, it was impossible to know what the overall look and pattern of the dance were. This reminds me that Joe Goode works in a studio without mirrors. Since his choreography is collaborative with his dancers, it means that each dancer has a perspective of the piece, but no one sees the piece as a whole. The dancers are dancing to each other, rather than to an audience.

The rehearsal took place in a studio in south London. In the background the traffic noises blend with the recordings, creating a soundscape combining country and city.

Passing Moments: the movements.

Working on the choreography for “Passing Moments” was particularly difficult while Jaime was in the US. She sent me recordings of herself reading the poems, but I was finding it difficult to settle in to moving in the spaces  without looking like I was simply miming the words. I was not interested in doing this as I was looking to interact with, not repeat, the poem in movement.

I suggested opening up the reading by giving a lot more time to the spaces between phrases. Happily, Jaime was very amenable to playing with the presentation. The next recording I received from her was not only expanded in this way but also spoke against a backdrop of recorded birdsong, chimes and even a little piano. This changed everything. Suddenly there was not just space but invitation to dance.  Motifs became apparent and I began to work on identifying them to create a matrix as a basic structure.

The second challenge was that we were programmed to perform on grass! All my work so far on creating rhythmic responses to Jaime’s poetry would be unusable where no rhythm would be discerned. Yet I was still determined to avoid mime on one hand and abstraction on the other. I took what I had been doing with rhythm (ie using small motifs) and applying that to upper body work, so that there would be visual mapping of the poetry in my body. By this point, Jaime’s recordings had been finalised and the original work had re-settled into a meditative stillness of delicately crystallised imagery.

Jaime & Nikki in rehearsal

Jaime had previously uncovered some very brief lines about the city that I’d written for the Twitter platform which she set as interstitial pieces to hers. This new element required staging and we agreed on using a park bench for the transition: as dancer I sat down there at the end of a piece and when I rose it was to speak the urban lines. By contrast, Jaime – having recorded her work – was able to free-wheel around the performance space, becoming a visual element in her own poetry. Her words were central to the piece and her body acted as counterpoint to the performance.

Ultimately, the weather was against us and we performed in the beautiful Great Hall at Dartington. The sandstone walls, with the wood floor combined with the muted light of dusk to wrap us in as close to a natural setting as an indoor staging might be. Live and recorded voice; movement and stillness; city and country; indoors and outside, we wove them together but hopefully in a way that each element had space to layer and play not obscure each other.

“Passing Moments”: The first performance piece

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Nikki in rehearsal for “Passing Moments”

Our proposal to perform for the In Other Tongues conference meant we had to focus on making a 15 to 20 minute piece. We needed also to shape that piece to the demands of the conference venue. Initially we were to be performing outside on grass.

Performing on such a soft surface meant that rhythms could not be emphasized through the percussive sounds created by tapping or sliding feet. This factor deviated from our original intention, shifting our study of how poetry provides a rhythmic form equivalent to music for dance. We adapted to these constraints by deciding to emphasize the upper body as much as the feet, and to suggest a narrative in the work, rather than relying on pure movement.

There is a narrative of sorts built into my rearrangement of the original poems, which I then recorded as a soundtrack for the dance. Because the percussion of the feet would be lost in the grass, thus taking away an essential “musical” aspect of the performance, I added music to the recording using percussive instruments: shakers, bells and piano.

The narrative is one I’ve used a lot in various ways, in writing haibun and in opera. It’s the narrative of the 24-hour day. In “Passing Moments”, the first poem begins with “morning floats up”, the second and third poems are set in “the afternoon garden” and the last poem presents the dissolving of daylight’s crispness into the “wooly parcels” of evening.

After working on the first section we talked about making the narrative more complicated. Nikki didn’t feel entirely comfortable with a narrative set entirely in the country, and so we decided to add three urban sequences in between the four poems that are set in the green and rural landscape of Devon. The text for these sequences were taken from short poems written by Nikki about her life in London. Here is sequence two:

Domed skies of Europe! Resplendent again & glowing; birdsong your complex heartbeat. Money crouches awkwardly in a corner of its own making.

Revisited the scene of the crime. Place was closed. Standing in the empty car park, it was dark again, but the air was innocent now.

Her idea of the future was a black & white photograph in a fashion magazine that she was never flush enough to buy.

At the summit of the ironing pile, she planted her cocktail stick & called out weakly for a Martini.

So structurally, the dance moves back and forth between two environmental spaces, providing contrasts and enabling us to distinguish ‘parts’ of the story.

 

In Other Tongues

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Nikki (right) and I rehearsing.

Nikki and I are in Dartington in the southwest of England, and will be presenting a 20-minute dance-poem for the “In Other Tongues” conference. The piece continues what we have worked on off and on for a few years, in  between my return to California, and the illnesses of Nikki’s family and an uprooting of her home. The composition of the piece began with a series of short poems that I wrote in the Dartmoor area. I rearranged them to make four separate poems of poem fragments, which were recorded by sound engineer and composer Adria Otte. To this verbal line we added percussion and field recordings from the area and elsewhere, creating four movements with different meditative backgrounds. Among the field recordings were ocean and bird sounds from south Devon by Philip Goddard, rain, and birdcalls from Devon. The percussion included bells and shakers. I performed these in true Cornelius Cardew Choir random fashion. We had to adjust the levels of these sounds to give them more presence. Since I had opted to perform outside, the recordings and the ambient sounds would overlap. Although I liked the idea of parts of the recording “disappearing” into the natural sounds of the garden I also wanted them to hold their presence. After finishing the first three parts, I was at a loss of what do for the closing part. Piano improvisations kept coming to mind. Looking through her sound files Adria found a short piano improv by Julia Moon that she had recorded several years ago. She dropped it into the mix and it fit perfectly. The music for the piece, which is titled “Passing Moments”, was complete. The entire set can be found on SoundCloud here.

Let the body speak in the poetry of dance

After attending “Let the Body Speak”, a performance/ lecture by Bob Holman and the Alonzo King Lines Ballet, I realized that hula is one of the few dance forms in which text and dance are necessarily entwined. The hula is always accompanied by chant, and often the dancer sings the chant before performing the dance, which is accompanied by percussionist and chanter. Throughout the dance, the dancer may call out, sing, or reply to the chanter.

Rather than following the rhythmic flow of the words, the dancer uses their body as a kind of abstract mime. The hands trace out stylized representations of the words’ meaning, while the body follows a more formal pattern.

Hula and its chants have been a nexus for the retrieval of the Hawaiian language and culture, which had nearly disappeared under colonizing influences during the twentieth century.

Here is the link to a dance from the most prestigious hula competition on the islands. Miss Aloha competition 2015

The humane choreographic method of Joe Goode

On the weekend of May 20-22 I took the workshop “Finding the Bones” with Joe Goode and his company dancer emerita Marit Brook-Kothlow. The workshop was described in promotional material as follows:

“Using a teaching style developed by Joe Goode that incorporates movement, writing, and spoken word, participants will learn to be more aware and compassionate communicators, honest performers, and creative and mindful individuals.”

Specific acts of movement, writing and spoken word, are also described. But implicit in the workshop’s description is an understanding that performance is often uncomfortable, even when desired and desirable. The description also reveals a source of that discomfort by suggesting that performance doesn’t always feel “authentic”.

Despite its psychological underpinnings, the weekend-long workshop had a steelier direction, systematically revealing Joe Goode’s approach to choreography, a form of dance composition that requires speech and narrative to be incorporated into movement. Even further, that dance is a form of speech and narrative but one that needs those companion forms, essentially, in its performance. Speech, narrative and movement are indivisible in Joe’s choreographic process.

Joe Goode Performance Group

Dancers Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Andrew Ward and Damara Vita Ganley in rehearsal of the Joe Goode Performance Group. Photo by Jessica Swanson.

This introduction to the process was done in a carefully presented series of short exercises that led the workshop participants to intuit the narrative basis of movement.

The workshop on Day 1 began at 6 p.m. and ended at 9 p.m. It began as a short introduction by Joe followed by a warm-up that he calls “movement for humans”. Joe began the session by asking us to leave our ambitions, striving and the need to compete behind: Your grandmother loves you, he tells us. The warm-up took place on the floor, so that most of the body was supported most of the time. The moves resembled yoga, without the forced positions or sustained poses. Though rolling from curled position to curled position might seem almost too easy, it warms the muscles and the joints. Effort is made but as a form of relaxation. Waking up the next day I knew I had been exercising, all of my body seemed sore, but not, thankfully, too sore.

Rather than sitting in a circle and introducing ourselves in that self-conscious and stiff way that most workshops use so that participants have a sense of who is there and why, introductions to the group were done as a series of short exercises. We paired off, and were asked to enact how we saw the other person when she first entered the room. This was a challenge. I hadn’t seen, or noticed, my partner until the moment we paired off. I had to make a quick intuitive judgement on how she would have been moving if I had seen her at the beginning of the class. We then told each other something about our names. Interestingly, everyone took that to mean their given names, rather than their family names. Then going around the circle, people introduced their partners to everyone else by telling the story of the other’s name while enacting the gestures of how they had first seen them. It was collaborative, informative, simultaneously intimate and distant, as performance is, and completely painless.

The next exercise was to write in answer to the question, “What part of your body disturbs you?” We then chose six to eight words and the one word that contained all our emotion toward that part of the body. We were then given a chair and told to devise three sets of movement; for example, two long elegant movements toward the chair, and a finalizing movement. We then spoke the text while moving. Finally, we were asked to take the body part out of the movement. Voilà: the first dance.

Day 2 ran from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Marit led the workshop in the morning, and from her we learned a combination to music, similar to floor work in most dance classes. The combination had some characteristically modern dance moves along with moves that were extensions of something we might do in the course of the day: wiping a table, for instance.

In the afternoon, Joe asked us to again divide into partners. We shared singing, in an innovative and spontaneous way; a kind of sound-making. And then we were asked to write about our mothers. Once again the text pried into pain, but this time the pain that forms around our closest, most primal relationship. “What,” question asked, “is it about you that your mother is most disappointed in?” Everyone then read her text to her partner and the partner would choose some words in the text that were appealing or engaging. These weren’t necessarily about summarizing the text, or choosing the most insightful six words; the choice could be simply the most musical phrase, or the most nonsensical phrase. The writer of the text would then devise three movements based on text the partner had chosen. Her partner would “amplify” one of the movements by repeating it in some fashion. That gave each person a set of four performative phrases: singing or sound-making; a fragment of personal text; three connected movements inspired by that text; an “echo” of the partner’s movements.

To those four was added another set of phrases. Each performer would “place” her partner in a position, as if she were a statue. Then she would move into the negative spaces of her partner’s position. Once in that entwined position the two performers would “rock”. That gave each performer a set of six phrases. We were then asked to choreograph these phrases into a minute to a minute-and-a-half collaborative piece. Voilà: the second dance.

Day 3, which also ran from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., began with the movement for humans warm-up. After an exercise on reading movement cues from a partner, similar to the “push hands” exercise in Tai Chi, and a short discussion about performance and the emotions motivating performance, the workshop moved on to the third choreographic module. Again, we haphazardly separated into teams of two, and began to devise performative phrases, verbal and kinetic. Questions cued the making of these phrases, such as “What are you good at?” And the texts we each edited down our own texts by choosing a phrase or two of six to eight words, or one word. The one word was then inserted into the other phrase. The words I chose this time around fell into the following text:

dried leaves on abandoned
Victorian brick wall abandoned
music surprising word abandoned

Another text-generating exercise required moving around the large dance studio/ performance space and finding an object we were attracted to and describing it with three words. I found a pair of faux patent leather leopard skin mary-jane platform shoes. The three words were: shiny, animal, comfortable. We were then asked to put those into a description of ourselves. Here is the text I wrote:

Like a magpie I love shiny objects. I also love large, fluffy pillows and heaps of bright-eyed cats, glittering cups of tea, babas au rhum.

These texts we read to our partners. My partner had written a text on the tortures of insomnia. Collaboration with anyone is often an exercise in opposites. And the opening of thought that brings with it.

The movements we developed were extensions of the practices that we had used in the preceding two days. Finally, we were asked to put together a two- to three-minute dance. The difference being that we had to chose a particular space in the large dance/ office/ performance space. One of the major differences between this space and most dance studios is that there are no mirrors, a deliberate choice on Joe’s part. He didn’t explain why but my instinct is that having no mirrors requires two crucial things: trust in the emotional “rightness” of your choreography and trust in your fellow dancers and observers to recognize and accept that emotional rightness.

My partner and I chose a two-story-tall blank dark gray wall. It was the epitome of large open spaces gone entirely neutral. As we worked on putting together steps and text, Joe walked around posing a question and challenge to each group, “Where are you going to put the audience?” The answer had to be very specific, and in our case he suggested we ask the viewers to lie down on the floor with their heads back so that they were watching us from below and upside-down. That was too extreme for me to feel comfortable with – as an artist I tend to be minimalist along with all the constraint that implies – but I’m usually willing to go along with the program if a designated leader has an idea. Why not? It’s an opportunity for experiment, and it’s not going to ruin or even radically change my life. Change has always been a glacially slow process for me; surely a comment on the stickiness of my internal capacity for resistance. And so, our audience watched us upside down and from below as they were stretched out on the floor. Voilà: the third dance.

As I hope the above narrative points out this workshop was a detailed, well-thought-out excursion into a form of choreography developed by Joe Goode over, I imagine, some thirty years of work. It was brilliant, tender and fertile, moving through all the living aspects of performance from dancer/ singer to audience/ viewer.

 

Not so random choreography

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Alvaro Dule and Anna Nowak in Wayne McGregor’s “Atomos” at San Francisco Performances. Photo by Ravi Deepres.

When Wayne McGregor brought his company to San Francisco this past January, they presented an invitation only–workshop on choreography. This was in addition to the performance of Atomos, which was held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts under the aegis of San Francisco Performances. I didn’t attend Atomos though I had reviewed the work at its premiere in London in 2013. (That review can be found online at https://bachtrack.com/review-oct-2013-wayne-mcgregor-random-dance-atomos)

Since that 2013 premiere McGregor has come forward with more information about Atomos in particular, most of which can be applied to what he showed at his choreography workshop.

“The title comes from the initial idea that McGregor began with: “I wanted to make a piece which was kind of about uncuttable structures – I wondered how I could make a whole series of little atoms of physicality that could be put together in a really interesting way. And so that’s how I called it Atomos.”  As part of the creation of the piece, the dancers (and McGregor too) wore biometric bands, wearable technology that would give them real-time information about how their body was reacting to the movement. “We took that maths, basically, all those numbers,” McGregor says, “and created architectural objects with them: foam-like structures that the dancers could improvise with … And then we took those structures away, and the language in some way resulted from that.” Another inspiration was the choreographer’s favorite film, Blade Runner – which, via computer analysis, translated color, motion, and tone into a kind of vocabulary of movement that the dancers responded to. But for all of the technological prompts for inspiration, the resulting dance has its own, very human language.” (KDFC Radio)

McGregor brought four of his dancers to the workshop to aid in his demonstration. He began by describing that he would start with something that he could visualize – his house/ home, for example. That visualized thing would then become “the mental framework”, or “point of departure”, for a series of movements that he would share with his dancers in real time. He could likewise take music or sound and convert that to an image that would then become the point of departure.

He makes no decisions about the quality of the movements that come out of his kinesthetic response to this image. Rather, he works with how he and his dancers respond to those forms, building sets of movements that become the material he works with. He collects the movements, in a way, and puts “the forms in front of me like objects of clay”.

He demonstrated this by giving one of his dancers, Jess Wright, a combination of movements. The combination is complex and delivered quickly verbally by McGregor. Since his dancers are familiar with McGregor’s work and consummately skilled they are able to grasp the combination immediately and repeat it. He asks the three other dancers to use some part of the combination to create their own combinations. He gives a second dancer, Travis Clausen-Knight, a second combination. Where he gave Jess the combination by saying the steps and occasionally dancing them, he dances the entire combination for Travis.

There is a difference in the way these combinations of steps are kinesthetically reproduced by the dancers: McGregor has an unusual body type, thin and sinuous, very loose at the joints. What Jess and Travis — she with a more compact body, he with a more compact and muscularly knit body – sketch back is just that: a sketch. This is also true for the other dancers. There is a transformation that occurs in the very portrayal of the same steps. As David Kirsh, the Professor of Cognitive Science at U.C. San Diego and R-Research collaborator who observed the workshop from on-stage later noted, each body has its own signature. And built into this body difference is physical reinterpretation that can lead the movements in various directions.

McGregor added into the mix an additional set of images to kinetically reinterpret. He gave each dancer a word – green, lost, star, grain, root – and asked them to respond to those words physically. The words he cited were not just objects, one is a quality, one a state of being. Each dancer immediately formed a combination of four to eight steps. McGregor then set the four dancers in action by changing the timing of each dancer, the staggered repetitions and responses to his choreography and to each other’s choreography created a dense field of motion and movement.

As the audience could see: a lot of dance material had been created. And as McGregor pointed out if you do this kind of collaboration for twelve weeks, you have “hours and hours of stuff”. Kirsh also pointed out that this kind of interaction and collaboration creates a “stochastic algorithm” – a means by which randomness can be inserted and maintained within the making of choreography. “Randomness,” he holds “is an energetic addition to the process.” It is also a means by which newness can be added to the creative process, because information – in this case, differences of body, movement and response – comes from outside the individual in a continuous cycle of new movement, response, and reinterpretation.