Monday, September 20, 2010

Live Music Capital of the World

Swaying with scarf in front
of giant guitars at Austin
Bergstrom International Airport

Isadora never flew into Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Had she done so, she surely would have been impressed by the modern day monuments commemorating Austin’s commitment to live music. Of course, the idea of “live” music in Duncan’s day would have been a mute point—recorded music was yet to become the norm for dance performance. When Duncan was dancing, the choice was not whether to work with recorded or live music, but whether to work with piano accompaniment or full orchestra.

The relationship of music to movement is a major element in Duncan’s choreography. Critics commented that she literally made the music visible. Duncan played rhythm with her feet and legs and shaped melody with her arms and torso. When teaching Duncan technique, dancers analogize the work of the lower body as the left hand and that of the upper body as similar to the work of the right hand when playing piano.  I also like to think of the music as a force, similar to the wind, that either moves through the body or picks the body up whole and carries it through space.

Playing pipes on the beach
from Duncan's "Air Gai"
Granted, Duncan’s relationship to music was not always literal and was certainly never mechanical, and she was critical of schools that emphasized rote repetition. Duncan’s work did not limit dance by defining it as music visualization, rather the relationship between music and movement was organic in nature and conveyed the effect of spontaneity, even when the movement was choreographically structured. Duncan’s dance movement was, above all, expressive, and the desire or impulse to move had to originate inside of the dancer. Even though her work is well recognized for its intimate relationship to music (she blasphemously used non-dance music by composers including Chopin and invoked images of musical instruments like pipes and cymbals in her dances), Duncan also experimented with creating choreographic sequences in silence, exploring and developing the relationship between gesture and emotion.

This fall, I am blessed to be involved in a number of performance collaborations with live musicians—including a range of instruments from piano and percussion to clarinet and saxophone. I relish these opportunities because the conversation between movement and music is much more resonant when the dancer listens not only with her ears, but with her whole being, to the tempo, quality and tone of the musician, and when the musician is, in turn, affected by the dancer’s expression.

Austin, Texas, as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” is a great place to be as a Duncan dancer. Just last month I joined pianist Patches King for a performance as part of Central Presbyterian Church’s free weekly concert series. Look out for more collaborations with Texas musicians in the weeks ahead!