Sunday, November 24, 2013

Remembrance Suite at Vista Dances

The fall semester is snowballing to a close, and I'm thrilled to have worked with such wonderful students these past few months. Last night, students at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio danced "Remembrance Suite," comprised of two original Duncan pieces and a new choreography that we created together. I am so impressed with the maturity and artistry of this group of community college dancers. 

 I had just seven rehearsals with them to set this work, and they were incredibly present. We recorded our process and they worked from video when I was unable to be in San Antonio to rehearse them. It is such a joy to share with a group of dancers who are eager to bring their whole selves to this work. 

We also had the opportunity to share for a community fundraiser on campus last Thursday night. Students from St. Peter-Joseph Children's Home came to the Northwest Vista College campus for a holiday dinner. Three dancers from our piece were able to share two pieces during the meal. One of the great blessings of the community college system is that it makes higher education a real possibility for so many students. Duncan was such an advocate of access to education across class divisions. I imagine she would be pretty proud of these dancers too!

Click here to see these dancers in dress rehearsal for "Remembrance Suite"

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Duncan, Blake & Desire

I am not only artistically inspired by Isadora Duncan. I am also inspired by the various artists who influenced her—the poets, composers, and philosophers. And I’m inspired that she drew on such varied sources for creative fuel. As much as I love the specificity of Duncan’s dance technique, I also admire the example she set as an artist intent on carving out her own, unique expressive pathway.

I’ll never forget the first time I read Walt Whitman. In my sophomore English class in high school, we were assigned Leaves of Grass.  I was so moved by the beautiful imagery and the ecstatic philosophical perspective conveyed through Whitman’s words. Indeed, more than once I have looked for Whitman “under my boot soles,” or, more appropriately, as a Duncan dancer, under my barefoot soles.

Another of Duncan’s poetic influences, who has long inspired me, is William Blake. As a sophomore at Yale, I took romantic poetry with Harold Bloom and became entranced by the “Book of Thel,” a multi-plate poem that builds off of the cycles of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

The “Book of Thel” is a bit of an allegory.  Thel, one of the daughters of Mnemosyne, lives in the Vales of Har, the land of the unborn. Curious about the realm of experience, she converses with a cloud, a lily, and a clod of clay in order to get perspective on what it is like to cross the threshold of birth. In the final part of the poem, she basically gets a free pass to see what mortal life is really like. In Blake’s poem, she is overwhelmed and flees back to the safety of Har. Thel’s name, which is an ancient Greek reference that translates as “wish” or “desire,” is usually read as ironic, for Thel fails to satiate desire through her refusal of life.

Thel gives in to her fears, but I’ve often wondered what would happen if she was unable to return? Is there a way to confront fear of the unknown, of the pain and suffering that serve as counterpoints to ecstasy and joy? This is a huge theme for me artistically—how can one pass through the fire of experience and retain joy. Can an expansive, or innocent, life perspective survive the trauma of grief?

I believe it can. And I believe that the example of Duncan’s life and the technology of her dance technique offer models for the transformation of suffering into joy—for the simultaneous embodiment of full experiential knowledge and the retention of an innocent heart.

This month, I was thrilled to restage the trio version of my “Thel,” a choreography inspired by these questions that was originally staged in 2007 during my first year of graduate school. This time, I staged it for a showing at Austin’s One World Theatre, probably the most scenic performance space in the city, set in the hill country just off of Bee Caves Road.  Yelena Konetchy and Kirsche Dickson joined me for this performance and our rehearsals focused on creating a strong sense of ensemble. Breathing together—acknowledging the power of this work to shift the energy of a space. I look forward to more collaborations with both of these dancers in the year to come.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Site Specific Settings

I love site specific performance. And there is certainly a relationship between Duncan dance and nontraditional performance spaces. Natural, outdoor settings make a great venue for tunic-draped dancers, and when Karin Carlson asked me if I was interested in sharing any work for her Silk Road project, of course I said yes.

I first met Karin several years ago when she came to a Duncan workshop I taught at Dance Discovery. There were about five people in that workshop—two adults and three teenage students who drove up from San Antonio. It was a mixed group but we had a great time exploring basic Duncan work as well as creating new compositions based on natural dance movement principles.

When I put together my first site-specific piece in Austin as part of the Frontera Fest’s Mi Casa Es Su Teatro in 2007, I asked Karin to participate in an outdoor structured improvisation set in a field in East Austin. That piece, Rooted, consisted of five dancers, two men and three women (and the first time I ever put men in tunics), and each dancer created movement based on a score of planting, uprooting, traveling through space, and re-planting in another location. This is a movement metaphor that I often come back to, as it resonates with the transitory and migratory nature of contemporary culture—not surprisingly, it is also a theme that came up in the Talk to Me Movement course I co-facilitated with Peggy Lamb for Truth Be Told at the Lockhart work facility in the fall of 2007.

The pieces presented in the Silk Road worked with a wide range of different themes and movement metaphors and ranged from solos in silence to group works with recorded and live music as well as text. Choreographers set their pieces at different places along the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, and audiences gathered just across from the downtown Austin YMCA. Yelena Konetchy and I set the stage with our tunic-draped skips, and then the audience followed a swath of silk fabric to the first large sculpture of yellow metal rectangles before following a path that wound down to a small bridge, a side ditch drain, and back up to another metallic sculpture.

Site-specific dance work puts movement in conversation with space, with landscape and architecture, and puts art in dialogue with life in a way that integrates creative expression and daily experience. The art into life aspect of this kind of performance work enables audiences to look through a creative lens at other aspects of life as well, and when we bring creative purpose to lived experience, we discover that intention can actually transform circumstance. Plus, it is a lot of fun to encounter dance and performance in unexpected places.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Autumn Whirlwind

Fall is finally here—on the calendar at least—and October is shaping up to be chock-full of performance projects. In some ways, the events I have lined up for this month recap three major collaborations that I started within the past year, and I feel blessed to be able to continue each of these rich artistic dialogues.

Mid-October saw the Houston premiere of Divergence Vocal Theater’s Autumn Soiree, a haunting and ethereal decapitation-themed seasonal offering. I had a great time morphing between Anne Boleyn’s fearful inner spirit, Isabella and her famed pot of basil, and Annie of Edgar Allan Poe fame. Besides casting long shadows over Alison Greene’s spine-tingling incantation of the woman in green, digging a lover’s grave during Misha Penton’s haunting harkening of Isabella’s tragic fate, dueting with an eerie puppet, and even issuing the evening’s one blood-curdling scream, I also contributed choreography to one of my favorite piano pieces—Edvard Grieg’s “The Poet’s Heart,” played beautifully by Jeremy Wood. We ran for two packed evenings in Divergence Vocal Theater’s space at Spring Street Studios, and, as usual, the Houston audiences were warm and supportive.

The following weekend was the first ever Umlaufaloopa Arts Festival, at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum in Austin. My young dancers from The Girls’ School of Austin were joined by local professionals in an hour-long concert featuring dance games, original Isadora Duncan choreographies, and a reconstruction of Loie Fuller’s “Lily” by Jessica Lindberg. Yelena Konetchy and Jessica joined me in dancing a few of Duncan’s early Schubert choreographies, and we finished with a group scarf improvisation including young dancers from the audience.
What a joy to share this dance work in such an unbelievably beautiful setting! 20th Century American sculptor Charles Umlauf was influenced by the work of Auguste Rodin as well as by Rodin’s pupil Antoine Bourdelle, two European sculptors with whom Duncan shared artistic relationships. (Interestingly, the Musee Bourdelle in Paris hosted a retrospective of that artist’s renditions of Isadora Duncan in 2010).  We’re looking forward to sharing more Duncan dance at the Umlauf in May 2012.

The final weekend in October meant another performance in another city—this time back to New York for a workshop and showing of Il Senso in Movimento, my collaborative project with clarinetist Cheryl Growden Piana, pianist and visual artist Fiorenza Bucciarelli, and video artist Dino Miglio. This showing marked the US premiere of our collaboration, with previous performances in Italy and Russia. The event was produced by the Noyes New York School and included workshops in Bones for Life, led by Cheryl, and in Noyes Rhythm, led by Linda Rapuano with accompaniment by Blake Rowe.  Who knew that the last Saturday in October would bring such a crazy snow storm? I missed seeing friends who had planned to come in from upstate New York and from Connecticut, but it was so wonderful to see everyone who did make it, especially Lori Belilove and a few of her dancers including my former student Rachel Herzog (who came with Lori to Noyes camp in August) as well as Sam Humphreys and Morgana Rose.

Next weekend? Back in Austin for a site specific showing called "The Silk Road." Also save December 15 for performances of an original choreography "Thel," as part of The Present at Austin's One World Theatre.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Wind & Fire

Elemental themes are primary in Duncan dance. The body is in relationship with the earth, with water and wind and other natural forces. We teach small high sways with the image of tossing a flame from palm to palm. We are encouraged to catch each other’s wind as we explore ensemble improvisation. These aspects of Duncan dance are the reason why the movement is sometimes characterized as “natural” dance. We look to the movement of forces in nature to learn nature’s organic movement patterns in order to apply those principles of gravity, suspension, resistance, and release to our own bodies. Nature is dynamic. And Texas, this week, has experienced one of her most dynamic forces—fire.

Pedernales One/Spicewood Fire, Highway 71
Duncan, herself, was no stranger to the experience of fire. In our 21st century, Western world, we are relatively sheltered from the devastation and loss that fire can incur. In Duncan’s time, when more building was done from wood and the use of candles and gas and kerosene lights was the norm, incidences of fire occurred more frequently. In the first chapter of her autobiography, Duncan writes, “My first memory is of a fire” (My Life). She goes on to narrate having been tossed, as a young child, from a burning building.  Later she writes of a time in New York, when her family lost everything in a fire in the Windsor Hotel, where they were living and where her sister Elizabeth was teaching dance. In fact, Duncan credits that second fire as the catalyst that propelled the family’s move to Europe, where Duncan synthesized her artistic ideas and found her audience.

In the natural world, fire purges, creates space, and clears the way for new growth. But its method is destruction and it is very difficult to hold hopeful space in our hearts when encountered with the loss of homes and relics of family history.  As a result of the fires that have raged through central Texas this weekend, many families have seen their homes burned to the foundation. They have lost everything but their lives. Fire prioritizes our perspective. We are grateful for the preservation of life, and we experience directly the impermanence of the material world. We also realize that survival and new growth require the support of community.

There are many opportunities to give and to provide support for those faced with the prospect of rebuilding their lives. Firefighters are also in need of assistance to continue battling the blazes. The Texas Wildfire Relief Fund is organizing ongoing support (water, food, equipment, etc) for firefighters, and the American Red Cross of Central Texas is providing resources for those who have lost their homes.  

Movement in Duncan’s work is ebb and flow, a rhythmic giving and receiving. The perspective of fire enables us to express gratitude for what we receive and inspires us to give to those who have lost. May we maintain such gratitude and empathy in all aspects of our everyday lives.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tunics in Texas Retrospective

Time fascinates me. We measure it in even increments, yet we experience it with tremendous rhythmic variation. There is no even meter grounding human journeys in predictable regularity—unless of course you embrace a perennial philosophical perspective and mark seasonal and yearly cycles as indicators of time’s passage. But even then memory invariably highlights certain events and erases others completely.

Duncan wrote, “I believe in each life is a spiritual line, an upward curve. And all that adheres to or strengthens this line is our real life; the rest is but as chaff falling from one’s progress. Such a spiritual line is my Art” (The Art of the Dance).

Anniversaries invite reflection, and this week marks a full year of weekly Tunics in Texas blog posts. Last year when I started writing, my intention was to create a contemporary forum for Duncan’s ideas—to argue for the continued relevance of her dance practice and for a renewed look at her advocacy for physical and creative freedoms. I have largely explored this through examining my own practice and experiences as a Duncan dancer in a 21st century global landscape.

Duncan’s life spanned the turn of the 20th century, the transition from the Victorian era, through the vehicle of the industrial revolution, to the modern world. My experiences span the turn of another century, shaped by the internet, cell phones, and digital technology. Means of personal expression and global communication continue to expand and evolve, and yet the issues of women’s rights and human rights, restricted freedoms, lack of access to education and resources, and an imbalanced pooling of the world’s wealth continue to persist.

That Duncan used her status as a performing artist to raise awareness of critical issues and that she envisioned her art as a means to alleviate suffering and bring beauty into the world are but two ways that the example of her artistic life informs and inspires me as a modern exponent of her work.  I intend to continue to use this blog as a platform to examine my artistic practice as a Duncan dancer and to explore how this creative perspective intersects with and informs the world around me.

And has the year been global! I’ve based my reflections here on my current status as an Austinite, but my dancing journey has included multiple regional adventures (mainly Houston with Divergence Vocal Theater) as well as national and international collaborations with musicians and other dance artists in New York, Connecticut, Italy, and Russia. In this next year, I hope to continue to develop these artistic relationships and, through them, to share the beauty, joy, and creative potential of Duncan dance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Expanding Projects, Expansive Possibilities

One of my favorite Duncan lines is her insistence that, even though she appeared alone on stage, she never once danced a solo. I love the physical and thematic metaphor of relationship in her work.  In Duncan’s dance, the objectivity of the body is a metaphor for human subjectivity, and this weaving of life into art is a multidirectional conduit—it allows art to flow into life as well, and enables aesthetic expression to become relevant in contexts beyond the confines of the concert stage.

The healthcare industry and the jail/prison system are two such contexts, within which I have been working during the past few years. I’ve written here before about both Colors in Motion and Conspire Theatre, and I am excited to announce that both of these projects are on the cusp of expanding in new directions.  

For the next three months, Colors in Motion will be featured on the homepage of Kripalu’s website—click on “Take a Zen Moment” for a sample of Colors in Motion’s dynamic digital footage. This project integrates varying combinations of watercolor, music, movement, and poetry through innovative digital video technology to create calming and centering sensory experiences. This project is being marketed in the healing arts and healthcare fields with the goal of full-scale projection to generate holistic environments, synthesizing external harmonious stimuli with internal, somatic harmonic experience. Give us feedback by taking Kripalu’s survey about your experience with “Take a Zen Moment.”

Conspire Theatre, founded by Austinite Katherine Craft, brings theatre classes to incarcerated women in the PRIDE (People Recognizing the Inherent Dignity of Everyone) program at the Travis County Correctional Complex. I co-facilitated classes there with Kat for over a year, and we worked with some amazing women. One of our former students, a talented spoken word poet and rap artist, is achieving quite a bit of recognition for her work—check out Dan Solomon’s article about her in the Texas Observer.

Recently, Conspire launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds to expand its programs at the TCCC—Conspire will continue to work with the women in PRIDE and will also begin work with women in the maximum security part of the facility. Check out this article recently published online through Austin's Culture Map. I taught through Conspire at the TCCC as a volunteer, and I am so excited to see this organization gain the fiscal strength to compensate facilitators for their time and efforts. The prison and jail systems rely on outside organizations to provide educational programming and opportunities to inmates—spread the word about how to fund these important and effective initiatives! They literally change the directions of peoples’ lives, providing empowering, creative experiences, community support, and skills to make self-actualizing choices.

The great lesson in Duncan’s work is freedom—through breath, through movement, through cultivation of intuitive listening and self-awareness, we learn that we can live joyfully from our hearts in any context. How beautiful it is to witness the expanding possibilities of these two organizations as they remind us that creativity and the arts are vital tools for healing within our bodies, within our relationships to one another, and within our relationships to the world around us.