Monday, December 13, 2010

"Arabian Nights" and a Salome in San Antonio

Composer Jack W. Stamps seeks to “reconcile” Eastern and Western musical forms. He is insistent on the word “reconcile,” I think, out of respect for how various cultures musically express themselves in different ways. He acknowledges the history of Western exoticism of Eastern forms, yet works to weave multiple sounds into a rich, conversational and contemporary soundscape, citing an array of rhythms and instrumental voices.

Tunics in San Antonio
Certainly modern dance is no stranger to the impulse to mix multiple cultural influences, and the form was practically invented by Western dancers trying on movement styles from cultures other than their own. Isadora Duncan donned her Grecian-inspired tunics and sought to understand and “rediscover” (her word) a supposedly lost and ancient knowledge of the body’s harmonious relationship to the natural world. Ruth St. Denis created theatrical atmospheres inspired by images from cultures ranging from Egypt to India. 

From a contemporary cultural studies perspective, these artists have been critiqued for their appropriation of “other” cultural forms, yet I sense that their impulse to explore diverse cultural perspectives must have originated from a place of deep respect. It is interesting to me to note a shift in language from terms like “rediscover” to “reconcile”—the first implies a quest for knowledge and understanding, while the second seems to be a call to end conflict and make some kind of peace.

What to expect from Stamps’ new composition “Strange Frenzy: The Dance of the Seven Veils,” partially inspired by Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All and performed in collaboration with dancer Julie Nathanielsz? Many turn-of-the-twentieth-century Western dancers took their turn interpreting Salome, Maude Allen being one of the most noted, as well as a Duncan competitor. How to imagine a turn-of-the-twenty-first-century dancer embodying such an iconic theme?

Dancer Julie Nathanielsz in
"Strange Frenzy:
The Dance of the Seven Veils"
Modest, understated, stark, strong, playful, powerful, sensual are words that came to mind as I watched Nathanielzs skirt rhythmically across the stage, spine erect, with a whimsy of gestural suggestiveness in her hands, reflected only by the slight ruffle at the hem of her A-line, geometric-patterned shift dress. This was no Salome strip-tease. This dance mixed simple, classical vocabulary, the clean lines of a low arabesque and first position plie, with echos of gestural seduction, a twist of the hips, an unfurled wrist. Nathanielsz contrasted quick locomotive steps with sculptural stillness and an expressive range of movement quality all her own.

Isadora Duncan’s dance legacy is twofold—she simultaneously left us a very specific movement technique and an edict to develop our own, individual dance, to not copy anyone else’s movement. Duncan wrote of her vision for a school, “I shall not teach the children to imitate my movements, but to make their own. I shall not force them to study certain definite movements; I shall help them develop those movements which are natural to them” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). In watching Nathanielsz dance, it is evident she is dancing movement that is fully her own.

Austinites, if you missed Sunday’s concert, check out San Antonio’s Musical Bridges Around the World, Artistic Director Anya Grokhovski, for future chamber music events, just a short drive down I-35. The program for Sunday's event was fantastic and featured world-class musicians, worthy of a whole other post. If you’ve not seen Julie Nathanielsz dance, keep an eye out for future events, she’s located here in Austin!