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.

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.

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.

Surreptitious Rhythms – Art School

Yesterday I was invited to work with undergraduates at Chelsea Arts College in Pimlico. The session was part of a course on “Subtle Interventions” run by Lorrice Douglas, an artist and social dancer. Lorrice wanted to introduce her students to the physical element of site-specific work and thought that my approach to jazz dance would work well with people who had never danced, may never want to dance, but who might be incorporating the body into their created spaces.

After a brief introduction we dissolved the seated, intellectual, seminar for a standing circle and I started to work with them on turning their natural walking into rhythms. During our planning session, Lorrice explained that, due to the embracing nature of the course, she was hoping I could somehow avoid reference to specific eras which would occur as soon as I used a piece of music (be it Ragtime, Dixieland, or Swing for example). This made perfect sense, so I began with a metronome. This was interesting to me because I never use a metronome but had often wondered about whether it might be useful. I will write about this in another post. Suffice to say, it was the best solution in this situation. Serendipitously, my metronome is a very old family object and a little off time, so any concerns I had about using mechanics to introduce life-pulse to a silent space was very well served by my wonky time-keeper.

We soon gathered three distinct rhythms that the students were comfortable to move between. Upon Lorrice’s suggestion, we opened the door and went into the corridor, down the steps and out into the courtyard. Lorrice held the mechanical metronome and I clutched my mobile phone which was also keeping the same time through an App. The movements were still quite exaggerated as the students worked through the rhythms. Someone had the idea to go into the foyer of the art museum next door and so we released ourselves from the block formation (required to hear the metronomes) and, using our own internal pulse for tempo, took one of the three rhythms each and wandered across to the other building. Suddenly, the group seemed to grasp the idea which was to own the rhythm as if it were their natural walk. Although nobody was dancing per se, and the group was reasonably small (ten people), everybody we passed in the museum noticed the difference in our walking. Someone asked where the music was. The desk staff smiled broadly. The security guard seemed ready to react if and when we took it up a notch. Someone took a video and an older man tried to copy one of the rhythms before leaning against the wall laughing.

When we gathered outside afterwards and discussed our improvisation, it was not the footwork that they had learned but the kindly attention and smiles that they raised in strangers that turned an earnest group of young student-artists into people with ideas and a grin. I left them going home in pairs and groups, streetlights flickering on in the darkening afternoon. They were choosing the edges of the pavement, where their walking took shape and sound in the rustling leaves.

Mapping movement

The third poem we worked on that afternoon describes the flight of clouds over Dartmoor: ‘flight: amber tracings,/ shadows/ from clouds/ overhead. // the horizon’s tilt/ sheds vertical song // flashes with wings

Perhaps it’s the word amber, which described the color that passing cloud shadows turn the stiffer sturdier green grasses of the moor below, and that now describes the rough planks of the pub’s floor, but suddenly I can see the contours of Dartmoor mapped over a pub floor in Southwark.

Nikki has evoked this image by asking, ‘Am I the voice or the clouds?’

And following that, the exclamation: I’m walking around on a canvas. It’s still there.

It seems wherever we are we can throw down a meadow across the floor in our imagination. Locale has that great a power. As do words. As does the body in its flight across the surface of the earth.

The colour of tourmaline … take 2

2015-05-24 11.40.11Sunday, 24 May, 2015

We go out to the pub where Nikki has her Secret Salon, a Sunday afternoon dance event. It’s one of those upstairs rooms found at most pubs, with a rough wooden floor and lots of tables and chairs. Nikki clears the furniture to the sides of the room, creating a dance space in the midst of a cabaret setting. Nikki asks me to read the series and I do, several times; it’s a way to focus, to clear our minds from the train ride down to London Bridge, and the upcoming dance classes and event.

We begin with the first dance that she did over a year ago. She watches the video, refreshing her memory. And writes out the combination that she devised months ago for the poem that begins “the colour of tourmaline”.

We rehearse the poem and combination several times, and Nikki comments that the way I am reading is completely different from the first rehearsal in January 2014. It can be summed up, she says, in one word. I’m baffled; I have no idea what the word could be. She explains that the first version was about rhythm and the second about melody. I can see this in the dancing, which seems far more lyrical the second time around, but I can’t hear the difference in the reading, whereas Nikki can. We film the rehearsal and play back the two videos.

It makes sense though that the first version is about rhythm because we spent the bulk of our time in the first rehearsal trying to determine the stresses in the poem. This emphasis has switched somewhat in the following rehearsals. I have been thinking about the poems and how to speak them. I would like them to be as close to speech as possible without the rhetoric of ‘delivery’. Really, I want them to be like a caress. More present than a whisper, but without the need to compel or persuade. Something as quiet and as natural as the grass on the hills from out of which they came.

The second dance

Saturday night, 23 May, 2015

One of the things discussed on Thursday was the use of the dockyards at Medway. I wondered if the text should be more site specific, referential like the poem that I just finished in response to Rimbaud’s “Aube”. In the French poem, Rimbaud chases the dawn across the surface of buildings, steeples and domes, the marble quays, until he reaches the woods. The possibility of mixing languages was a question.

But we decided to return to the small poems that make up “Passing Moments”. Perhaps because we are feeling our way in the project it just seems easier to deal with very small poetic units. Eventually the poetic units will add up and Anna’s layering of music and words and Nikki’s steps will work to tie the series into a unified performative whole.

We chose two more poems to set, and worked in the hallway, a small space but enough for marking, devising two more combinations. Working in the hallway, we seem to shift our focus to the spatial elements of the poetry. Nikki seems more affected by the content of the words. The poem with the phrase “the horizon’s tilt/ sheds vertical song” affects her sense of movement. This doesn’t seem to be a problem the next day when we are working in a much larger space.

 

Country Lanes

Amy Seiwert’s choreography class

On Saturday I took a three-hour choreography class from Amy Seiwert. Seiwert is the artistic director of Imagery, a contemporary ballet company in San Francisco. A project she consolidated in 2011, Imagery with its half-dozen or so dancers is both collaborative and experimental. Its mission is “to expand the definition of ballet by exploding preconceptions of what ballet is and can be.” Videos can be found here: http://asimagery.org/video/

Weston Krukow, Annali Rose and James Gilmer in Amy Seiwert's THE DEVIL TIES MY TONGUE (Photo: David DeSilva)

Weston Krukow, Annali Rose and James Gilmer in Amy Seiwert’s “The Devil Ties My Tongue”. Photo by David DeSilva.

I first saw Seiwert’s choreography after the death of Michael Smuin in 2007. Seiwert had danced in Smuin’s company for some nineteen years, where she became involved with his Protégé Program. She became Choreographer in Residence at Smuin Ballet in 2008, after her own retirement from dancing. What struck me at the time was how different her choreography was from Smuin’s; he may have been her mentor but she had a style that was distinctly her own. It was carefully considered, thoughtful and precise, and engaging in its complexity. Smuin’s razzmatazz quality was nowhere in the landscape. Much praise should be given to the late Smuin as director and choreographer for fostering a talent so at odds from his own choreographic predilections.

I was curious about her process and about her thoughts. But I haven’t danced ballet in some twenty years, so the idea of class was daunting to say the least. You need to keep dancing to dance, otherwise both the body and the mind go in this totally absorbing practice.

Class was held at Alonzo King’s Lines Dance Center. About two-dozen dancers were there, young and at an intermediate/advanced level. I was definitely out of my league.

Seiwert began by talking about how she thought of dance. This was very spatial and structural. She had us move our arms out as if we were drawing a large sphere: the idea was that our sense of selves and movement in the world was composed of sets of circles or spheres. Rather like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, the drawing that embodies the Roman architect’s sense of ideal proportion.

But for Seiwert this circularity is less about proportion and more about the limits of our kinetic awareness. She calls it The Glinda Bubble, after the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, who first appears in the movie, floating down to earth encapsulated in a large transparent sphere. As a movement it is spherical and moves out toward the outer limits of what we can reach with our arms and legs. The movement can also be applied to joints, torso and head, independently of the limbs

There are two other circles of movement that she uses when choreographing. Something that she calls an orbit, a disc-like circularity that is parallel to the surface of the earth: in dance it is recognizable in the flat plane of the tutu. And something she describes as being like a plus sign, which follows the midline of the body and moves out from mid-torso in a small circle that travels away from and then back to the body.

She also described choreographer William Forsythe’s structural sense of the hand as having six sides: back and palm, fingertips and heel, pinkie-side and thumb-side.

By combining these two structural modes – her own and Forsythe’s – she can look at movement in a radically different way from that of ballet, which uses a vocabulary of steps as its choreographic elements.

After running through how these structural and spatial senses work as movement, Siewert taught a long combination. The combination had the overall characteristics of what she had just described choreographically: the movement was contained within the dancer’s reach, and it employed multiple circles that had us changing directions and twisting the body and its parts. There was no movement across the floor, for example, not that these ideas couldn’t be used in movement across greater distances than that of the body’s reach, but the combination was an intricate and precise illustration of the ideas presented.

What was fascinating to me was that when each group danced the combination, the individuals in the group danced to their own tempo. True, there was music, but simultaneity was not enforced. Some dancers maintained an even tempo, some danced sections of the combination slower than others did. I was slightly shocked. Being so used to the necessities of ballet’s count, and the regimentation of movement in typical dance classes (remember how fundamental the corps de ballet is to the art), I found the lack of movement in concert disconcerting. I didn’t quite know what to do, so I watched. What I saw happening on the floor was something like a ballet: with the individual dancers creating a kind of fugue or canon of the same but out-of-sync steps.

Then it was the dancers’ turn to apply the next level of choreographic techniques to the steps of the combination they had so faithfully learned. These were dynamic in nature and included: changing the direction in which you faced; changing the level at which you made a particular movement; changing tempo; stuttering, or the repetition of a movement; and reassignment, or having a movement done by a different part of the body. In groups of two or three the dancers, who were standing in a large circle in the stage-sized studio, presented their new choreographies.

It was all sort of extraordinary. Watching them I realized, I think for the first time, how pure dance is. There are no words or theatrics to persuade or enchant or repel, there is only the body – its gifts and its limitations – moving, with the dancer’s complete concentration, in beautiful planes to exquisite music, in a room that seems large but that is small, miniscule, in the great spaces of the universe.

It takes time to be a visionary

I’ve been invited to give a paper on an aspect of prose poetry at a symposium in Liège. In order to maintain a degree of focus in my reading, thinking and practice, I’m working on an association between prose poetry and early jazz music. The link between these two forms was inspired by Baudelaire’s famous Preface to his Petits Poèmes en Prose:

Who among us has not, in moments of ambition, dreamt of the miracle of a form of poetic prose, musical but without rhythm and rhyme, both supple and staccato enough to adapt itself to the lyrical movements of our souls, the undulating movements of our reveries, and the convulsive movements of our consciences?

This obsessive ideal springs above all from frequent contact with enormous cities, from the junction of their innumerable connections. (translated by Rosemary Lloyd)

It seems to me that what Baudelaire is invoking here is a spirit of early jazz, avant la lettre. The hard part will be proving it.