Monday, December 27, 2010

Santa & Tunics in the Snow

Isadora Duncan didn’t believe in Santa Claus. She believed strongly in human will, in the power of the human spirit to transform material circumstances, in the healing properties of art and love. But she didn’t believe in Old Saint Nick.

Tunics in the Snow!
In narrating significant events from her childhood, Duncan recalls a Christmas when she was punished for challenging a teacher’s assertion that Santa Claus had brought candy for the children. She writes, “I made the first of my famous speeches. ‘I don’t believe lies,’ I shouted. ‘My mother told me she is too poor to be Santa Claus’” (Duncan, My Life).  The teacher responded by denying Duncan the candied treat and forcing her to stand in a corner. Duncan writes, “I never got over the feeling of the injustice with which I had been treated, deprived of candy and punished for telling the truth” (Duncan My Life).

I wonder what Duncan would say about the relationship between economics and Christmas holiday rituals in our contemporary culture? Surely, there is still disparity between different families’ abilities to provide lavish and abundant material rewards for children’s yearly goody behavior. I wonder, as well, about training children to expect a direct material pay-off for behaving according to adult strictures. Doesn’t quite seem consonant with understanding the true nature of charity, the impulse to give from a sense of compassion, not from an expectation of reward.

Duncan may not have subscribed to the Santa myth, but she certainly got the concept of charitable giving. In fact, her life abounds with examples testifying to the significance of selfless service. In starting her first school in 1904, Duncan advertised for unwanted children and took in those whose families did not have the means to care for them. She refrained from charging tuition and poured the earnings from her tours into running her school. She migrated to Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, desiring to bring her art to the workers and their families. Her intention was to share her talents with her students and her audiences for free.

Tunics in the Snow in Chicago
Duncan, with her uncompromising vision, firmly believed that every child had a right to develop her creative and expressive capacities to the fullest, and she held on to this egalitarian belief. She also believed that children have an innate sense of wisdom and should not be underestimated by adults. I imagine she would have appreciated my young niece’s impulse to put the expensive toys on her list for Santa, rather than asking for them from her parents, both illustrating her belief that Saint Nick is not constrained by finances and attempting to demonstrate frugality for her parents.

Despite the economic disparities that still plague our contemporary society, there are some great organizations with programs intended to bring holiday gifts to families in need. One of my enterprising yoga students corralled a group of people together to adopt a family through SafePlace, an Austin organization providing support to survivors of domestic violence.  Austinites, if you are interested in sponsoring a family for the holidays next year, there are several great organizations including SafePlace and The Christmas Bureau of Austin. If you don’t want to wait that long and are interested in ways to make a difference now, check out I Live Here, I Give Here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tunics at the TCCC

Freedom is a major theme in Duncan dance. Whether interpreted as social freedom, personal liberty, or spiritual emancipation, I believe that freedom at all levels of human experience and organizational development was a goal for Isadora and is metaphorically embodied in her dance technique. Tunics, with their free-flowing simplicity, are unrestrictive garments that enable the body to move unencumbered. The coarse black and white striped uniforms worn by inmates at the Travis County Correctional Complex are not.  (And neither are the clunky, knock-off, black rubber crocs that they give the women to wear, for that matter—an impediment that becomes obvious every time we balance on one leg to independently rotate our ankles…).

A la Duncan's "Ballspiel" at TCCC!
I became curious about performing arts work in prisons while still living and dancing in New York, but I didn’t pursue it until I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. In the fall of 2007, during my second year in graduate school, I received a listserve email asking for performers to participate in a holiday event at the Lockhart Work Facility, a private prison in Lockhart, Texas. (I didn’t realize then that privatization of prisons was actually big business). The holiday program, sponsored by Truth Be Told, was entitled God in Human Form. We were to share some personal introduction that relayed an instance of divine expression in our lives (not necessarily religious).  I asked if I could bring in a tunic. The warden said yes.

Fast-forward a year or so to the spring of 2009, as I was wrapping up my MFA at UT (and after having facilitated some incredible and transformational work with incarcerated women in Lockhart through Truth Be Told), and another email makes its way through the listserves at UT. This one is asking for a co-facilitator to teach a series of theatre classes with women in the PRIDE program at the TCCC. Kat Craft, a recent MA graduate of Goldsmith’s College in London, is looking to found a theatre company to bring performance workshops to women in jails and prisons. I volunteer.

After two rounds of seasonal workshops (Summer and Fall 2009) that met twice weekly, Conspire Theatre initiated an ongoing, weekly residence at the TCCC. Last Friday, we taught our last class before a two-month hiatus with plans to return to the jail in March. Volunteer work is hard. Not just because of the expenses of time, gas, and energy—but because the desire to transform the volunteer work into a professional career path takes persistence. It also means that paying jobs might have to supersede volunteer work. At least, that was my situation for much of the fall of this year.

As my post-graduate employment opportunities have waxed, my availability to teach for Conspire has waned. Thankfully, Kat has brought in a slew of guest artists and fabulous new facilitators, looking to sharpen their teaching tools, and the women have benefited from exposure to a diverse range of facilitators and teaching styles. Still, it has been hard not to be there every week.

Blue scarf in the wind at TCCC
“Intangible Gifts” was the 5-minute writing prompt for last Friday’s class. What do we have to give others that is not necessarily an object or a material “thing?” The idea was for the women to explore the seasonal focus on giving without feeling as if their incarcerated circumstance limited their ability to give gifts. For many participants, it started as a tough prompt but, as they began writing, they came up with more ideas. A smile, a hug, a listening ear—these are all gifts we have to give.

As I think about the idea of intangible gifts, I realize that all of the time Conspire Theatre has shared at the TCCC so far is an intangible gift. In wrapping up, one of the women said that the class “lifts our spirits.” Another woman said, “You pretty much waked us up and surprised us every Friday.” And it is true—there has been a shift for many of the women who have been there for several months or more. Conspire Theatre brings laughter and play into a space characterized by hostility and fear. And the result is a softening of boundaries and a growth of support and respect among a group of women who now express gratitude for getting to know one another, even under their current circumstances.

Austinintes, if you are interested in prison theatre work, subscribe to Conspire Theatre’s blog about the classes at the TCCC. And stay posted for news about upcoming events, including a possible spring fundraiser.

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!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Harry Potter, the Deathly Hallows, and the Alamo Drafthouse

Who knows what Isadora Duncan would have thought of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon? Surely she would have appreciated JK Rowling’s rich mythological landscape and the neglected-orphan-turned-hero storyline that figures somewhat into her own personal narrative. Duncan would certainly have noted Rowling’s nods to Greek and Roman myths, including my favorite Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin, named as a gesture to the wolf-suckled twin brothers who founded Rome.

Tunics at Austin's Alamo
Given Duncan’s struggle with melancholy, she would also have appreciated the Dementors as invisible, but very real, sources of human depression, as well as their antidote—chocolate. She would have identified with Ron’s story, narrated in the latest film release, about a ball of light entering his chest, reminding him that his relationships are truly important and that his heart will guide him where he needs to be.  She likely would have resonated with Rowling’s mixture of pagan and Christian symbolism, as Duncan embraced both in her own art.

An avid reader and an admitted fan of both cheap fiction and dense philosophy, no doubt Duncan would have devoured the novels as soon as they were released, supporting a cultural phenomenon in which crowds horded bookstores, hungry to read the next installment of Harry’s story. Of course, given the success of the books, the film release was inevitable—or was it?

Duncan was living and working during the advent of the motion picture era, yet she famously refused to be filmed. She did not think that her dance art would translate to film, and given the limits of the technology at that time, she was largely right. Only one short film clip of Duncan dancing exists, and this was shot from behind a tree without her knowledge. From a historical distance, it is invaluable, but does the genius of Duncan’s dance art translate? Not fully.

So, what about the Harry Potter movies? Do they capture the aspect of the novels that sent a media-saturated, visual and sound-byte culture scampering to bookstores of all places? In my opinion, not really—at least, from my perspective, the first four films were overwrought caricatures and terribly disappointing.

But, these last few installments, and the yet-to-be-released Part II of the Deathly Hallows, directed by David Yates, come closer as successful film renderings of Rowling’s work. It makes me wonder what the film journey of Harry’s story would have been like if Yates had directed the whole sequence.

Harry Potter at South Austin
Alamo Drafthouse
Of course, pretty much any film is enjoyable at the Alamo Drafthouse, Austin’s local dinner-and-a-movie theatre. I can imagine Duncan would definitely have appreciated the opportunity to sip a glass of wine with a gourmet goat cheese salad or tasty artichoke pizza. And what is coming next to the Alamo? I’m looking forward to seeing Black Swan with Natalie Portman, the first film in a while that has piqued my curiosity with a bad review (listen here for NPR)! Watch out for possible thoughts on that film experience in the next few weeks.

Just a quick side note—as today happens to be my birthday! There is a fun tradition in Duncan dance culture of the Birthday Polka—click here for a free listen and improvise your own birthday dance.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tunics on the Tracks

Tunic on the Tracks
in South Austin
Isadora Duncan not only created whole-body movement through space in her dances, she also traversed great geographical distances over the course of her life and career. Born in 1877 in San Francisco, Duncan moved first to Chicago and then to New York City in search of an audience for her developing dance art. Dissatisfied with dancing for New England socialites, she migrated further east to England and then France, achieving her first breakout successes in Budapest, Hungary in 1902. Her travels took her not only across Europe and into Russia, but also to northern Africa and South America as well.

Duncan must have logged a lot of rail hours in her day—traveling by train across the United States, Europe, and Eurasia. Long-distance train travel is a less known phenomenon in contemporary U.S. culture, with the exception of the heavily trafficked northeast corridor from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Nevertheless, there are great benefits to travel by train (no traffic jams and fewer distracted drivers for starters).

A native of the Southeast United States, my first impressions of train tracks were twofold: you must lift your feet when you drive over them or risk losing your lover (an odd superstition to teach a young girl) and awareness that train tracks generally divided Southern towns along class and racial lines (hence the ominous phrase “the wrong side of the tracks”).  I remember researching the price of train tickets from South Carolina to New York City, and feeling disappointed and disheartened to discover that Amtrack was just as pricey as Delta.  Of course, I logged my fair share of rail hours when I eventually became a New Yorker—both subway, within the city, and commuter rails into Connecticut, upstate New York, and (my favorite trip) out to Long Beach, Long Island, for the glorious summertime beach pass.

While travel within Texas by passenger train is not yet a viable option, I am hopeful that some day hopping the train up to Dallas or down to San Antonio will be a convenience and a reality. In the meantime, there is the new METRORAIL commuter train from Leander to downtown Austin to explore, if you haven’t ridden it yet! Check out LightRailNow! if you’re interested in reading more about the call for light rail transport in Austin.

And, Austinites, if you’re hunkering for a ride on the rails, pronto, you’ve got options. The Austin Steam Train Association offers rides through the Hill Country on a train powered by an historic steam engine (check out the seasonal North Pole Flyer), and for those of you without several hours of local sightseeing time to spare, there’s always the Zilker Zephyr, Austin’s kid-friendly, twenty-minute circuit through the park, both departing and arrive at a depot conveniently across from Barton Springs.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Dionysus and Devotion

Isadora Duncan was certainly aware of yoga. In fact, “The Mother of Modern Dance” was developing her work about the same time Krishnamacharya, “The Father of Modern Yoga,” was reinvigorating the asana aspect of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yogic path and introducing yoga to the mainstream. At the turn of the twentieth century, yogic practices and ideas were filtering westward, and dance scholar Nancy Ruyter cites Genevieve Stebbins’ early encounter with yogis in London and her incorporation of pranayama (breathing) exercises into her version of the Delsarte system, which she eventually called “psycho-physical culture.”

Duncan studied images
like this lunging Maenad
for the line in her dances.
Stebbins authored numerous pamplets and books explicating French actor and orator Francios Delsarte’s laws governing human expression, including an 1893 publication entitled Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics (Rutyer, The Cultivation of Mind and Body in Nineteenth-Century American Delsartism). Ruth St. Denis actually saw Stebbins perform some of her Greek statue dances onstage, and Duncan, who early in her career acknowledged Delsarte’s influence on the development of her ideas (but later denied knowledge of his system), was likely also familiar with Stebbins’ publications.

To my knowledge, there is only one direct reference to yoga in all of Isadora’s writings—a small snippet in a letter to artistic soul mate Edward Gordon Craig. Duncan wrote of her difficulty in sitting still in an attempt to meditate, and described the capabilities of yogis as “beyond nature.” She writes, “Well, unless one can be a Yogi, one must live according to one’s nature—only the Yogi lifts above all and I haven’t yet heard of a woman Yogi” (ed. Francis Steegmuller, “Your Isadora:” The Love Story of Isadora Duncan and Gordon Craig).

Peaceful Warrior Pose
Photograph by Deanne Clark
Of course, in 1906 when that letter was written, yoga practice was still largely limited to men. Duncan, in her search for natural dance movements, focused first on the needs of women, and for her, movement of the body through space, motivated by the solar plexus (which she called “the central spring of all movement…the unity from which all diversities of movement are born” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance)), was the key to experiencing mind/body unity. In her essay “The Philosopher’s Stone of Dancing,” Duncan identified three different types of dancers, one physical, one emotional, and one spiritual. This last dancer, she claimed, had the ability to “convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). In my opinion, Duncan’s dance practice, with its goal of luminosity, is a practice of devotion, in line with bhakti yoga practices.

So, Austinites, what then would Isadora have thought of Dave Stringer’s kirtan Friday night at East Side Yoga? Kirtan, a devotional singing practice, certainly raises energy in the spiraling-up-and-out pattern that Duncan insisted music should accomplish. Likely, Isadora would have taken Stringer up on the opportunity to fade to the back of the crowd, where there was room set aside for inspired dancing.

But, she might have disagreed with his assertion that the chanting, the singing, is the pinnacle of ecstatic expression. Following Nietzsche, Duncan identified ecstatic expression with Dionysus and Dionysus with the dance, insisting, “Man must speak, then sing, then dance. But the speaking is the brain, the thinking man. The singing is the emotion. The dancing is the Dionysian ecstasy which carries all away” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Veterans Day

Okay, space is an issue at The Girls’ School of Austin, where I teach my weekly Isadora Duncan dance class for K-2nd grade students. Right now, we push the furniture to the walls in the kindergarten classroom in order to facilitate the nearly dozen tunic-draped dancers whole-bodily exploring the relationship between music and movement. Thankfully, the weather in Austin is nice enough to accommodate some dancing outside of the classroom, but when winter sets in, this will no longer be the case.

Dancers in the courtyard
In brainstorming end-of-semester performance options for the dancers, we realized that a classroom performance would seriously limit the size of the girls’ audience. Ms. Schmitt, the principal, asked me if it would be possible for the girls to dance something patriotic. If that was the case, they could perform outdoors (and earlier in the semester), for the school’s annual Veterans Day celebration.

Something patriotic? Well, Duncan certainly choreographed revolutionary, if not outright patriotic, themes in her day, and her impulse to choreograph these dances is evidence of her deep conviction that all peoples of all nations have an inherent right to physical and spiritual freedoms. While the range of revolutionary songs she choreographed may seem paradoxical from a contemporary political perspective (Duncan lumped revolutionary themes from the French "Marseillaise" to the Soviet "Internationale" into one category), Duncan’s desire to represent freedom in her dances was transnational. It is from this place that I could say, yes, we can work with that—the girls will dance something patriotic on Veterans Day.

Salute from
"Stars and Stripes Forever"
Of course, with the girls, I talked about heroes, freedom, and working together to accomplish goals that benefit everyone. Somehow, I just didn’t feel the time was right to address the historic complexities of female bodies representing abstract ideals or governments employing dance and other performance arts for nationalistic ends!  Nevertheless, I did tell them how Duncan donated the building for her school Bellevue, located just outside of Paris in France, to the Allied cause for use as a World War I hospital. I also told them how her German students were held on Ellis Island when she brought them to the United States during that same war. The history of Duncan’s school intersects with some world-defining events, and since life provides the content for our dance art, what better jumping off point to begin developing historical perspective.

Under the scarf from
"Stars and Stripes Forever"
So, in honor of Veterans Day 2010, we created choreography to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” John Philip Sousa’s patriotic tribute to the American flag as a symbol of freedom and currently recognized at the national march of the United States. The girls shot across the courtyard in their blue tunics with sharp-kneed skips and outstretched arms.  They soared under a lofty blue scarf and finished by lunging deeply with outstretched arms or kneeling in salutatory tribute.  A sincere dance of freedom, strength, and joy in recognition of those whose military service has protected and preserved our many freedoms, including self-expression through the dance!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Selkie, a Sea Tale

Rather than pondering what Isadora would have thought of the selkies, I’m inclined to argue that she was one. Given her penchant for myth, her Celtic heritage, and the image of seal-skin-shedding selkies dancing on the beach in the moonlight, I’m kind of surprised Duncan didn’t animate their legend through movement. But, perhaps, the selkies would have fallen into that “nymph…fairy…coquette” category that Duncan was disinclined to dance, favoring instead “woman in her greatest and purest expression” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance).

Selkie, a Sea Tale premiere at
Obsidian Art Space in Houston
Of course, Isadora herself was constantly drawn to the sea, even narrating the beginning of her life story by declaring, “I was born by the sea, and I have noticed that all the great events of my life have taken place by the sea. My first idea of movement, of dance, certainly came from the rhythm of the waves” (Duncan, My Life).

The rhythm of wave movement is central to Duncan dance technique—there is a pulsation between doing and not-doing. The moments of not-doing, or complete repose, are difficult for very trained bodies to experience, but when dancers find that place of softness, they open up to the swelling of an internal impulse to move. Following this impulse, by opening the body to the possibilities of unencumbered momentum in motion, enables the dancer to explore great joy and freedom in movement. This approach also accounts for the organic quality of Duncan technique.

Yet, in creating movement vocabulary for Divergence Vocal Theater’s production of Selkie, a Sea Tale, I departed a bit from pure Duncan technique. Rather than initiating all movements from the center of the torso at the solar plexus, I began to carve through space leading with the distal tips of my fingers. I did maintain, however, a strong sense of my spine, from the tip of the tailbone through the crown of my head (or the long neck as we would say in Noyes Rhythm).

Selkie, a Sea Tale at Obsidian Art Space in Houston
Moving with awareness of the back of the body creates a different sense of embodying space—in yoga we analogize the back body with the universal and the front body with the individual. In some way, this exploration begs the question of whether moving with back-body awareness creates a more animal-like quality, while front-body awareness portrays beings that feel more human? Needless to say, I was gratified to hear composer Elliot Cooper Cole liken my seal-inspired, selkie movements to water—even while I departed from Duncan’s method of coordinating successive movement from the center to periphery, I maintained the organic, wave-rhythm quality, characteristic of early modern dance.

So Austinites, if you missed last weekend’s premiere in Houston, don’t fret! There will be opportunity to hear Misha Penton’s haunting voice, as well as the longing and lament in her poetic lyrics set to Cole’s evocative score, when Selkie, a Sea Tale comes to Austin next May—I’ll keep you posted!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Myth and the Harvest

Just as Isadora looked to antique Greek vases and statues to discern the ancients’ wisdom regarding harmonious anatomical proportions, themes and stories from Greek drama and mythology also informed the development of her movement technique and even appear as content in some of her choreographed dance works. With the change of seasons finally upon us here in Austin, I am reminded of Duncan’s insistence that we attune ourselves to the body’s relationship to nature, and what better way to explore that relationship than to check out the bountiful fall produce at our local Austin markets!

Duncan's bouncy run with
a red Roma apple!
Upon sauntering in to the Newflower Farmers Market on the corner of William Cannon and Manchaca the other day, I was struck by the plump yams, the fat squashes and the plentiful varieties of apples overflowing the baskets and bins in the produce section. Not to mention the giant pumpkins just ripe for jack-o-lantern carving. The combination of cool winds beckoning sweaters and scarves and the hearty fruits and vegetables begging to be baked or stewed and served warm brings to mind two fruit-inspired myths important to the Duncan dance tradition.

The two stories—Atalanta (and the golden apples) and Persephone (and the pomegranate seeds)—model characteristics of woman in a variety of aspects.  Atalanta is strong, willful, independent, and unwilling to marry. She challenges potential suitors to a race in which victory for the suitor is rewarded by marriage but Atalanta’s victory equals the suitor’s death. Pretty high stakes for the suitor—does that mean that Atalanta equates marriage with death?

Of course, in the second story—that of Persephone—there is no doubt that marriage equals death, for the maiden Persephone is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld to be his bride. Yet her sorrow and reticence coupled with her mother’s outrage over her fate (and a few ingested pomegranate seeds) result in a compromise allowing Persephone to return to the earth’s surface for several months of the year. These myths are complex and offer room for interpretation from many different perspectives—exactly what makes them so interesting to explore through dance movement!

Offering a pomegranate
to the autumn sun!
These myths also highlight the seasonal aspect of women’s lives—from maiden to reproductive maturity to crone—as well as the earth’s rhythm of planting, growing, harvesting, and decay.  While some might find the perennial philosophy that undergirds Duncan’s early modern dance practice to be a tad on the romantic side, during this time of shifting seasons and with festivities abounding from Halloween to All Saints Day to Day of the Dead, I personally enjoy contemplating how the themes of these myths resonate with contemporary life experience. For instance, how do you find the balance between fighting for what you believe in and letting go, in acceptance of circumstances beyond your control? Perhaps the lesson is in contemplation rather than in answering the question. And what better way to contemplate than through the dance?

Stay tuned for next week’s reminiscence on another ancient myth—but this time from the Celtic tradition! Austinites, if you happen to be in Houston next weekend, check out Selkie, a Sea Tale, a contemporary opera I am collaborating on with Divergence Vocal Theater for Friday and Saturday evening shows at Obsidian Arts Space in Houston—and Houstonites, come see the show!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Body Shift

The legacy of Isadora Duncan’s dance is broad as well as deep—she not only created a movement technique that organizes the body according to specific movement patterns, but she also widened the landscape of who can call themselves a dancer.  Duncan challenged the notion that dancers must learn codified steps and instead emphasized approaching dance from a perspective of inquiry and creativity. In justifying her desire to establish a school, Duncan stated, “the dance is the most natural and beautiful aid to the development of the growing child in constant movement” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance). Although Duncan took only children as her students, she identified individual human expression through gesture as source material for dance movement.  Duncan certainly would have been thrilled to see the wide range of creative exploration evident in this weekend’s Body Shift workshop, organized by Forklift Danceworks and VSA Texas.

Eiffel Tower
Saturday morning I attended a session facilitated by Michele Owens, a longtime dance educator, a modern dance guru for kids, and director of Wings, a dance company featuring differently-able bodies. I first met Michele a few years ago when she attended a Duncan dance workshop I taught at Dance Discovery in Austin. About a year later, I had the opportunity to assist her when she led a workshop for incarcerated women in Lockhart, Texas, through an organization called Truth Be Told. Saturday morning was the first time I experienced Michele’s work with mixed ability dancers, and she created a space for exploration that beautifully and seamlessly integrated a diverse group of bodies and enabled wheelchairs to become jungle gyms and sighted and visually-impaired dancers to sculpt one another in space.

Sculpting in Pairs
The creativity and risk-taking was stunning, as dancers allowed themselves to learn from and make adjustments for each others' differences in perception.  I had the opportunity to work with an intuitive and beautiful dancer named Nicole. Michele picked Nicole to demonstrate a sculpting exercise, and in watching her work, I did not initially realize that she was blind (also evidence of the amazing assumptions we make, even in mixed-ability settings!).  In sculpting me, Nicole made an immediate shift to the shape of my torso, rather than starting with arms and legs (as many people start this exercise from the extremities). Working from the torso first makes more sense, from a touch perspective, as one would certainly begin molding a form from the center of the form if working with clay.  Partnering with Nicole in this simple and familiar activity opened up a surprising new realm of creative possibility!  (And I’m sure Duncan would have appreciated the reminder to focus on moving first from the torso, the solar plexus, as center).

No matter how “able” our bodies are, there are limits to our ability to perceive. That is what makes us human. What a fantastic opportunity Body Shift offered for dancers to create in collaboration with other dancers who perceive and who inhabit space in different ways. The notion “dancer” so often implies one who has garnered a virtuosic mastery of the body, and this definition assumes a kind of perfection of the body and a symmetry or ambidextrous capability. It assumes a knowledge of the body that is somehow complete. But how much more interesting it is to not know? To be surprised by someone else’s discovery! To perceive a limit, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to discover a new pathway, a way around or through or under? This process of exploration and experimentation is a foundation of modern dance, and an important legacy of Duncan. And I thank the Body Shift organizers for facilitating such an exciting space of discovery.

(And, on a personal note, I also honor my Dad in this post—he was the first wheelchair user I ever danced with, and his vocal observations from a different perspective had a profound effect on many lives).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Forest Breathing in Nutley, New Jersey

Forest Breathing in Nutley, NJ
I have no idea what Isadora Duncan would have thought of Florence Fleming Noyes. Actually, she would likely have been critical, as she was of most of her so-called “imitators.” In Duncan’s day, the popularity of rhythmic or aesthetic or Greek or natural dance schools abounded (much, in my opinion, the way yoga studios populate our contemporary cultural and spiritual landscapes—but that is the subject for another post).  Nevertheless, I have no hard evidence that Duncan knew about the Noyes School. I do know that Florence Fleming Noyes saw Duncan dance—but only after she had begun to develop her own ideas. I also know that mutual artistic relationships existed, with personalities including Percy MacKaye (son of Delsarte protégé Steele MacKaye) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin. In fact, Noyes dancers mythologize her retort to Rodin’s assertion that Noyes had the most perfect left arm in the world (she wanted to know what was wrong with the right one)—surely Duncan would have appreciated that kind of quick-witted response to the sculptor whose studio she fled in fear after dancing for him clad only in her under-slip in her virginal youth.

At the Noyes School Pavalon
Portland, CT
While it’s fun to make suppositions about how Duncan would have responded to the work of her contemporaries, I certainly can’t put words in her mouth. I can however, speak to my own experiences as an Isadora Duncan dancer encountering Florence Fleming Noyes’ work. I was first introduced to Noyes Rhythm in an Isadora Duncan dance class in New York City. Linda Rapuano, the current president of the board of the Noyes Rhythm Foundation, handed me a brochure describing the immersive summer experience at Shepherd’s Nine in Portland, Connecticut. It was another year before I made it up there, but my first week at the Noyes School was absolute bliss. That week, I promised myself that I would return for a full month the following summer. Long story short (or, more likely, to be continued), I’m writing this post from JFK airport, en route to Austin after my first full weekend of meetings as the new Secretary of the Noyes Rhythm Foundation Board. I suppose this means I’m in for the long haul!

Forest Breathing with Fall Leaves
In the Noyes Rhythm practice, there exist a range of technique exercises, usually repeatable movement patterns describing different patterns of energetic flow through the body. A common teacher training practice is to ask teachers what their favorite technique is, or which techniques they feel are most foundational to the Noyes work. Recently, I have been thinking about the technique called “Forest Breathing.” It is a simple exercise, coordinating breath and movement, and it is usually taught by emphasizing the relationship of the individual practitioner to the group as a whole.  Practitioners envision themselves breathing with their whole beings and connected to one another the way a forest of trees is connected by its web of roots deep inside the earth. To my pleasure (and certainly a salute to synchronicity), we explored “Forest Breathing” as part of our opening Noyes Rhythm work before sitting down for the long hours of discussing board business!

Noyes Dancer (historic)
You have to love an organization that opens its board meetings with a centering movement practice, and you certainly have to appreciate a treasurer who encourages you to visualize runes in preparation for understanding finances and budgets! I am both thrilled and honored to be part of the body managing the organic growth and evolution of this organization, as we witness the unfoldment of the Noyes Rhythm work into a second century of practice.

Austinites, stay tuned for possible Noyes Rhythm sharings in the Austin area—and, you should know I’m not the only Noyes Rhythm tunic in Texas! A longtime teacher of the Noyes work (Arline Terrell) currently resides in San Antonio and is active with her dance practice there!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Veggie Friendly

Salute to Mr. Natural
You may or may not know, but Isadora Duncan was an “on again, off again” vegetarian for most of her life. Duncan biographer Peter Kurth supposes that the Duncans first decided to eat veggie after a cross-Atlantic trip from New York to London on a cattle boat. In her ever-endearing talent for romanticizing difficulties, Duncan writes of the experience in My Life, “Altogether it was a very happy time, in spite of the hardships, and only the bellowings and moanings of the poor cattle in the hold depressed us.” Of course, Isadora’s brother Raymond spearheaded many of the family’s more austere moral commitments, and he maintained the disciplines of both vegetarianism and alternative dress (tunics and sandals) for the duration of his life.

Duncan, on the other hand, was more emotive in her decision-making, and although she was inconsistent in her commitment to vegetarian eating over the course of her life, she did express strong opinions about the moral verity of eating a no-meat diet.  Expanding on Bernard Shaw’s analogy between killing animals and war, Duncan writes, “as long as men torture and slay animals and eat their flesh we shall have war. I think all sane, thinking people must be of this opinion…. Sometimes during the war, when I heard the cries of the wounded I thought of the cries of the animals in the slaughter-house, and I felt that, as we torture these poor defenseless creatures, so the gods torture us.” Having lived in Europe during the First World War, and even donating Bellevue, the site of her school in France, for use as a hospital, Duncan’s experience of the violent consequences of war was first-hand. She goes on to say, “While we are ourselves the living graves of murdered animals, how can we expect any ideal conditions on the earth?” (Duncan, My Life).

Running to Kerbey on the weekend!
Duncan may not have realized it, but she was advocating the application of the yogic principle ahimsa, nonviolence, to relations between both people and animals and among people. The notion of ahimsa underscores the commitment to vegetarian eating for many yogis, and just as Austin is an abundantly yoga-friendly town, it is also a veggie-friendly town.  This is important for a city whose culture centers on casual dining and a “foodie” fascination in addition to the live music scene.  And while there are many veggie restaurants worth mentioning in town, two of my favorites, both for the quality and range of choices and for the reasonable prices, are Mr. Natural (pictured above and also mentioned in last week’s post) and, of course, Kerbey Lane, whose menu features local produce (as well as non-veggie options for the inconsistent among you!). 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tunics in Tverskaya…or close by, at least!

Isadora Duncan envisioned a natural kinship between Russia and the United States, based on their revolutionary heritage. She could not understand why Americans did not embrace the Bolshevik Revolution as an act of the people similar to the American revolt against the monarchy in Britain. From a political perspective, Duncan’s position may have been quite naïve, but philosophically she was arguing for equality and freedom for all people, rooted in a transformation of human consciousness.

Silk Scarf in Red Square
“Place your hands as I do on your heart, listen to your soul, and all of you will know how to dance as well as I or my pupils do ” she said. “There is the true revolution. Let the peoples place their hands in this way on their hearts, and in listening to their souls they will know how to conduct themselves” (Isadora Speaks, ed. Franklin Rosemont—by the way, Austinites, Rosemont’s niece Genevieve Yellin is the owner of Sundara Yoga Therapy, where I teach yoga on Monday and Wednesday evenings in northwest Austin).

This radical notion, that meditating on our hearts enables us to engage with the world from a compassionate perspective, was joyfully present during the Free Poetry and Free Dance: Embodied Sense in Motion conference this weekend, hosted by Moscow State University. Scholars and artists from throughout Russia, England, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the United States defined, questioned, and refined the notion of freedom in poetry and dance through scholarship, workshops, and performances. Duncan, who also insisted, “The day when Russia and America understand each other will mark the dawn of a new epoch for humanity” (Isadora Speaks, ed. Rosemont), would have been elated.

"Time Pieces" from Moscow concert
Monday morning, before I boarded an Atlanta-bound plane from Moscow, my friend Petr said to me, “Meg, you always have adventures in Moscow.” How true! So, for this post, I’m departing from my usual style to share a bit about my experiences this week (in other words, this post is long!).

Sunday, a week ago, I flew out of Austin with the instructions to pick up my bags, pass through customs, and wait—they weren’t sure who, but hopefully someone would be there to meet me. How excited I was to come out of the security area on Monday morning and see Irina Zenkevich, a dancer with Inessa Kulagina’s Alekseeva’s Gymnastics group, with whom I performed at Chersonesos in Crimea in 2007. She shuttled me through a corridor to a new train connecting Sheremetyevo International Airport to the Moscow city center. And the train! Sleek, modern, chic, as Irina said, with special room for baggage and station announcements in both Russian and English. This was a very different experience from when I visited Moscow in 2008 and had to cram my suitcase into an already over-full bus for a traffic-jammed ride to the nearest metro station. This was also a quite different reception from the one Duncan received when she emigrated to Russia in 1921 to establish a state-supported school, and no one met her at the train station, not fully believing that she was serious about moving to Moscow.
Irina at Chersonesos, 2007
Coming out of the train station in the city center, Irina negotiated for a taxi to take us to Petr and Tania’s apartment, where I spent the week.  Seeming very Moscow, the vehicle had a standard transmission and a cracked windshield with a sophisticated GPS on the dashboard and a pleasantly jovial driver. We arrived at Petr’s and settled down in the kitchen for tea, fresh cooked vegetables from a family garden, and sweets. After a quick shower, I followed Petr into the city for a philosophy lecture where we met his girlfriend Tania (who, by the way, is a very interesting experimental and documentary filmmaker—check out her work on Vimeo). 
Rehearsal at Prometheus Studio
near Smolenskaya
Tuesday, I negotiated my own way into the city, taking the minibus to the metro and finding my way to the tourist office to register my visa. Then I met with Cheryl Growden-Piana and Fiorenza Bucciarell, the musicians with whom I would be collaborating for the performance part of the conference. Cheryl, the clarinet player, is Petr’s Feldenkrais student, who proposed a musical performance of clarinet and piano with projected images (her Italian friend Fiorenza is both the pianist and the painter) as part of the conference program. They were interested in working with a dancer, and when everything fell into place for my trip, Petr suggested they contact me. Cheryl emailed the music files (Victor Babin’s “Hillendale Waltzes,” Robert Muczynski’s “Time Pieces,” and “L’ètude nuè agreablement,” a piece by contemporary Italian composer Roberto Tagliamacco, a friend of Fiorenza and Cheryl’s). Tuesday was our first rehearsal, and while I had made some basic choreographic choices concerning use of space and type of movement vocabulary, I realized Tuesday that I wanted to develop the movement further—thus began an intense but creatively generative week!
Lecture for psychology students,
Moscow State University
Wednesday, in addition to rehearsals, I gave two different presentations about Conspire Theatre, the Austin theatre company founded by Kat Craft through which I teach dance and theatre to women at the Travis County jail. Students in Aida Ailamazian’s Moscow State University psychology class were particularly engaged, and we even played a raucous round of Zip, Zap, Boing! The seminar organized by Victoria Arkhanguelskaya sparked interesting discussion about the cultural differences between Russian and American systems of incarceration, and I’ve promised to contribute an article to a journal edited by Victoria. 
Both sessions were exciting reunions with friends—Natalia Fedunina, a Heptachor dancer and psychologist, came to translate for Victoria’s seminar, and Aida is not only a psychology professor at Moscow State University, but also the director of Heptachor and one of the conference organizers. The aspect of my relationship with these Russian dancers that I love the most is how our mutual interests overlap in many contexts. To me, this is evidence of dance into life—we share not only movement practices with similar histories, but also a desire to heal, transform, and inspire others through all aspects of our work, as artists, teachers, and scholars.
Thursday, theoretically a day off, I finalized my choreographic choices and rehearsed on my own, and I also caught up with some old friends. Moscow, like Austin, is a city with piquing interest in various mind/body/spirit practices, and I enjoyed a great vegetarian lunch with my friend Alex at Jagannath, a cafeteria-style Indian buffet (Austinites, picture Mr. Natural with Indian food).
Cheryl and Fiorenza
Friday morning the conference began, with a warm introduction from the university and a great first paper session. I was only able to hear the first two presentations, but I was very excited by Elena Yushkova’s research situating Duncan’s writings within the context of literary history and by Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux’s interpretation of an excerpt from a Homeric hymn in ancient Greek. Then it was off to the theatre for rehearsals before returning to hear the last of the day’s papers and the first of the weekend’s performances. 
The Friday evening performances were varied and engaging, and opened with musical offerings by university students. Vincent Barras shared his soundpoetry work, structured compositions exploring a range of dynamic vocal sounds, and Max Rotschild and Julia Idlis performed a collage-like dialogue between poetry and jazz themes improvised on electric guitar. After the performance, I caught up with my friends Natasha and Sveta over coffee, brainstorming projects for the future over cappuccinos with heart-shaped dollops of foam.
Tagliamaccco piece, from concert
Saturday was a whirlwind—off to the theatre for tech rehearsal in the morning, then back to the conference for my paper presentation exploring freedom and community in the work of Florence Fleming Noyes, a Duncan contemporary who I will talk about more fully in a future post! Then, scooting back to the theatre for quick warm-ups before the concert started. The performance space, PROET_FABRIKA, was a black-box dance space in an old factory-turned visual art and performance venue, and located just outside of the third ring in Moscow (if you’re not familiar with Moscow city planning, there are three concentric circular streets that define the center of the city).
Four groups shared work, including Inessa Kulagina’s Alekseeva’s Gymnastics group and Heptachor (two groups I performed with in Crimea in 2007). Both groups are influenced by Duncan; the Alekseeva group dances work passed down from Ella Ivanova Rabenek (Ellen Tells), a former student in the Elizabeth Duncan school in Germany who taught dance for MXAT (Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre School), and Heptachor continues the work of Stefanida Rudneva, the early-twentieth-century founder of the original Heptachor group, consisting of seven women from St. Petersburg who were inspired by Duncan’s first performances there. The full house enthusiastically received the dances, erupting into rhythmic clapping after Heptachor’s enactment of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The local television arts station gave the concert generous coverage—even coming into the dressing room to record interviews before the performance.
Teaching at Prometheus Studio
For our part, the concert was a moving experience. I danced the whole suite of “Hillendale Waltzes”, two parts of the “Time Pieces,” and we ended with the composition by Tagliamacco. Each element of the performance—the music, the movement, the projection, and the costumes (yes, I dressed Cheryl and Fiorenza in silk tunics!)—was mutually supportive, a serendipitous success! Winchester scholar Charlotte Purkis remarked that she thought Cheryl, Fiorenza and I had come as a group—when, in fact, we had only met on Tuesday. I have great hopes that we will find a way to perform this program again! Italy? Austin?
Sunday, I taught classes in both Isadora Duncan dance and Noyes Rhythm and I participated in Steve Batts’ contact improv workshop and a Butoh class led by St. Petersburg artists from Odd Dance Theatre, Natalia Ahestovskaya and Grigory Glazunov. Sunday evening, the conference wound down with a warm dinner at Sisters Grimm, complete with toasts and well wishes for the travelers. After the dinner, I wandered around the city with my friends Alex and Sveta, ducking into the Bulgakov museum and having coffee in a café before heading to Natasha’s for the night. Sveta, Natasha, and I stayed up way too late, drinking tea, reminiscing, and singing while Sveta played guitar. After just a few hours of sleep, Natasha and I headed off to the train station, waving goodbye and promising to keep in better touch.
Universal Gesture, in Red Square
Thank you again, to the conference organizers, especially Irina Sirotkina, who is not only a beautiful mover in her own right, but is also an amazing coordinator, translator, and dance writer, as well as Aida Ailamazian, Semina Maria, and Tatiana Venediktiva. Thanks, as well, to Ekaterina Tashkeeva and Julia Idlis, who not only helped with translation but also contributed their own scholarship and artwork to the conference. Also, thanks to my wonderful Moscow friends, especially Petr and Natasha, who generously hosted me in their homes, and to my newest artistic collaborators Cheryl and Fiorenza. And, many thanks to everyone who helped support my trip through Austin’s Dance Umbrella—I wouldn’t have made it without your support!
Next week—a much shorter and more local post…

Monday, September 27, 2010

To Moscow… В Москве!

While Isadora Duncan may have never flown into Austin Bergstrom International Airport, she did fly through Russia…or crash land, anyway, flying out of Moscow en route to Berlin in the fall of 1924. Duncan, unscathed, walked away from that small plane’s failed take-off, and she even led an impromptu dance class for gathered bystanders.

Duncan’s history with Russia was long and intimate. Books have been written, documenting only the Russian years of her life. She first danced in Russia in 1904, astonishing St. Petersburg and significantly influencing the artistic sensibilities of Fokine and Diaghilev while developing artistic camaraderies with Pavlova and Nijinski. She also inspired a group of seven young Russian women to develop their own tunic-draped movement technique, forming a company called Heptachor to explore the interrelatedness of movement, music, and ancient Greek philosophy.
Sans tunic, but with glasses at
Tolstoy's estate in 2008

In 1905, Duncan debuted in Moscow, prompting theatre innovator Constantin Stanislavsky to declare himself a “newly baptized disciple of the great artist” (Stanislavsky, My Life in Art), and to develop an artistic friendship with the dancer that included talk of Duncan dance as part of the Moscow Art Theatre (MXAT) school curriculum. Duncan never taught at MXAT, but she did found a school in Moscow in 1921 at the invitation of then Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky. She also married the infamous Russian nationalist poet, Sergei Esenin, and brought him with her on her last tour to the United States.

Duncan is well-remembered in Russia, oddly more so than in her native United States, and that is what makes travel to Russia as an Isadora Duncan dancer even more rewarding. 

Chersonesos, Crimea
Terpsichore in Taurus
festival, 2007
Today, I land in Moscow, for my fourth visit to Russia! In the fall of 1997, I spent three months living in Moscow as a student at the MXAT theatre school, in a study-abroad program sponsored by the Eugene O’Neil Theatre Center. I returned to Moscow in the summer of 2005 with Lori Belilove & Company for festival performances commemorating the centennial of Duncan’s appearance in Moscow.  In 2007 I joined three Duncan-influenced companies from Moscow for performances in the ancient Greek ruin of Chersonesos on the Black Sea in Crimea.  That trip led to a 2008 Moscow visit, during which I facilitated a movement workshop for hospital volunteers.

This week, in 2010, I return to Moscow, for a conference of scholarship, performances, and workshops sponsored by Moscow State University and Heptachor. “Free Poetry and Free Dance: Embodied Sense in Motion” takes place October 1,2,3.  Visit Heptachor for more information on the conference. Austinites, if you happen to be in Moscow on Saturday, October 2nd, or know anyone who is, check out the performances at PROET_FABRIKA, Moscow’s first factory-turned exhibition and performance space. 

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!