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

Talking with Anna J

Thursday, 21 May, 2015

Nikki, Anna and I meet at the British Library. It’s been a while since the three of us have met face to face. It’s been almost a year and a half since we met Anna. We discuss how each of us envisions her own role in this project.

Anna says that she is interested in how the computer would function in creating music for the project. She believes that in order for Nikki to dance, she will need a continuous pulse or beat, and she believes she can take the timbre/pitch of the spoken poetry and turn that into a pulsing sound through digital manipulation.

Nikki talks a bit about her conversation with British poet and jazz pianist Roy Fisher, in which they talked about elements that were relevant to the paper she delivered in Belgium in April. Fisher was amused by the idea of mixing poetry and jazz. He talked about the 1950s practice of mixing the two, which he says never worked, really. That the two forms – poetry and jazz music – never jelled in performance. Nikki thought part of the problem with combining jazz and poetry might be the inability of the reading voice to sustain sound, a vowel or a consonant. That is, I suppose, the greatest difference between speaking, or reciting, and singing. Singing is about sustaining pitches and varying the length of that sustained sound, even when the sound is decorated as in bel canto singing.

I remember seeing films of Jack Kerouac reading to Steve Allen improvising on the piano ( I also remember a record that my brother had when I was a kid that mixed jazz music and poetry. I do remember it as being odd, but fascinating at the same time.

Nikki also talks a bit about prose poetry versus poetry. Prose poetry she remarks always refers to a larger story, though it is not always necessary to have all of the story available to the reader/ listener. There are other devices that make the entire story clear as a background without it being concretised. She also talks about rhythmic repetition, like that found in the Bible. Phrases such as “He went out into the garden/ Out into the garden he went etc. (She discusses this in detail in her book Such Rare Citings.)

Anna points out that silence becomes the “phrase boundary”. She envisions the layering of phrases with sounds and words coming in and out of audibility.

One of the issues of performing together, especially improvisationally, will be cues: how for example would Nikki signal that she is happy or unhappy with the direction of the music or the spoken voice in performance. Anna suggests the possibility of a haptic device, such as a doorway. On one side of the doorway, she would be inside the action of the performance, grooving with the voice and the music, and on the other side of the doorway, she would be outside the action. I imagine this as a real doorway, or the frame of a doorway, on a stage. What is inside; what is outside, Nikki adds, and the question, How lawless am I going to be?

Anna comments that musicians use the smallest of peripheral cues to stay in sync. And that usually it is the horn player who can cue the other instrumentalists because his hands are free. Guitarists use the nod of a head.

We also talk a bit about the visualization of the computer’s coding. Rather than doing live coding, a parody of coding could be developed that is more accessible and humorous while using all the techniques of live coding. This idea brings up the question: Does the computer need to be obedient?

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:

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.