Monday, March 28, 2011

A Local Field Trip

Spring arrives early in Austin, and I had the luxury a few weeks ago of lesson-planning for my Austin Community College Modern Dance I course outdoors. I was so inspired by this experience that I asked my students if they would be interested in taking a field trip for a class outside—to Austin’s Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, which is just around the corner from where we usually meet at Galaxy Dance Studio.

Tanagra Figures at Umlauf
I was met with a resounding “yes” and the readiness to pack up and leave right then! This was before spring break, and I wanted to check in with the Umlauf’s Director of Education, Sheila Fox, and make it an official trip. I also wanted to use the opportunity to teach a bit about the relationship between dance and sculpture and to highlight the direct influence of sculpture on the development of early modern dance practices.

We set a date for the Thursday after spring break, and I used that Tuesday to emphasize movement initiation from the solar plexus—a core element of Duncan’s technique, and an articulation of the body that is highly visible in Umlauf’s sculptures. We also worked on some phrasing from a Duncan dance called the “Cherubim,” focusing on a chase sequence with skip turns. The skater figure in the sculpture garden provides a really clear example of one of the shapes in this dance.

Tanagra Figures at Umlauf
On Thursday, students met me by Umlauf’s “Spirit of Flight,” and we began our class with conscious breathing and a classic Duncan arm lift. We continued to warm up through sways, bobs, and wheels, before journeying down into the garden to skip the larger pathways and learn Duncan's "Tanagra Figures" among the sculptures.  We finished by dancing some of the “Cherubim” phrasing on the pavilion area, and concluded with a beautiful group improvisation.

"Cherubim" chase on the pavilion!
The day was hot, and I think we got a bit dirty (especially practicing a laying down sequence amid fallen leaves), but the movement was joyous and the students were inspired. If only I had daily access to a beautiful outdoor space to share and create within Duncan’s subtle, specific, and soulfully uplifting dance technique. I’m very much looking forward to getting these students outside one more time this semester—check out ACC’s Carnival Ah! in a few weeks, when we’ll have class outdoors at the Rio Grande Campus on Tuesday, April 21st.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Music, Rehearsal, & Artists' Space

Houston is fast becoming a quick road trip! This weekend I zipped down from Austin for first Klytemnestra music rehearsals with Misha, Miranda, the musicians, and the composer. Saturday we met in the music building at the University of Houston—my instructions were to enter the side of the building next to the statue…a contemporary version of Winged Victory (Duncan would have taken that as a good sign).

Winged Victory
The music for this new opera is haunting and beautiful. As a dancer, it is interesting to sit in on the part of the process when the musicians are beginning to integrate the efforts of their solo practice. For this project, I’m still in the learning-the-music stage. For me, the dance movement most organically materializes after I’ve absorbed the music by living with it, listening over and over until I can recall most of the phrasing in my imaginative mind, and I find myself waking up in the morning with the music playing on a loop in my head. I’ve been working with an early recording of the Klytemnestra piece that is only instrumental. After this weekend’s rehearsals, I now have new recordings that include Misha’s vocals and Miranda’s spoken text.

Music Rehearsal at University of Houston
I am loving this representation of Aeschylus’ ancient story. The spoken and sung texts pair inverse chronologies to articulate Klytemnestra’s tragic tale. The actress starts with the end of the story, after Agemmenon’s return—which, from thousands of years of historical distance, we can presume the audience knows—and the operatic text begins with Klytemnestra waiting…marking time for the ten long years that describe the Trojan War.

Rehearsing at Divergence Vocal Theater
It is interesting to me to consider the differences in audience reception of a narrative (book, performance, film, whatever) that is supposed to be telling a story for the first time—that leads the audience members along a step-by-step process of revelation of plot—versus that of one that assumes everyone knows the story. The latter example enables audience members to experience aspects of the performance not limited to intellectual comprehension of a logical series of events. The audience is freed to enjoy rhythms, sounds, and textures that conjure an imaginative and emotive, as well as, an intellectual landscape. In this way, the repetitive act of story-telling serves a ritual-like function. It offers audience members the opportunity to listen somatically and aurally, as well as logically—to hear and to feel the poetic play between the meaning and the sound of the words. And this particular collaborative composition crafts that relationship artfully!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Packaging History

“Oh!” I gasp, out loud, at my desk (at my day job—and, yes, even this artist still has a day job—watch out for a post about juggling personal economic and artistic priorities at some point in the future—Isadora would have loads to say about that state of affairs for artists…)—“What happened,” my boss/co-worker/office-mate, asks. “Did someone die?”

Bass Concert Hall, Austin, TX
Well yes, but—not exactly. I mean, it has been over a year since Merce Cunningham died. And my gasp wasn’t expressing shock and fear. It was excitement (and hope). I knew the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was coming to Austin, and I had urged my Austin Community College modern dance students to go. It was, after all, a historic event. And dance historian is part of who I am. But, I had a work meeting that night—and I had thought about it, but hadn’t yet broached the subject of asking to be excused so that I could see a dance concert. And here was an email from a friend telling me she had an extra ticket.

Thankfully, my day job is in the arts, and my boss, who is also an art historian, told me that I had to go. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour—in Austin for one night only. What a layered concept—a legacy tour. You probably know that in order to avoid the chaos and conflict that erupted over the rights to perform Graham’s work after her death, Cunningham decided that, after his passing, his company would embark on a final tour of his works for a period of two years and then disband—forever.

What a bizarre mode of reception, as an audience member, to sit and watch a dance concert, acutely aware of the historicity of the event? Kind of like seeing a ghost—these bodies, on this stage, trained by Merce, dancing these works for the last time. Tracing patterns through space, with rhythmic variation, highly tuned to the other bodies onstage, organisms operating as parts of a whole.

I’ve never been comfortable with how Cunningham’s creative legacy intellectually stimulates me. As an undergraduate theatre student at Yale, we created works based on chance as an exercise in our study of Cunningham and John Cage. The elements of serendipity and unpredictability inherent in that process excite me. I suppose that is the part of me that embraces improvisation as art and craft.

Two of Duncan’s most profound contributions to modern dance are the element of spontaneity (within craft) and the argument that dance, as an art form, can and should stand on its own two feet—that dance is an art in its own right and not subservient to the music, which partners it. As famous as Duncan is for her musicality, she also experimented with, but rarely performed, dance in silence.

And yet, Cunningham’s creative approach has always seemed a bit cold in its mathematical purity. As a dancer, I move in response to internal impulse—I found my home for artistic creation and expression in Duncan’s technique and repertory because there is a reason to move and movement follows a rhythmic cadence, or wave rhythm, and it is intimately related to the music. We don’t count in Duncan dance—in learning and teaching the choreographies, we sing instead. Once you learn the music for a Duncan dance, you never forget the movements. The music and the dance are simply audible and kinesthetic expressions of the same impulse, the same thought.

And yet, even if Cunningham’s processes seem more mechanized, here are his thoughts, his movement impulses, etched through space on this stage, with these living, breathing (at times audibly) bodies. For the last time. Except that is not quite the case—the company will be disbanded, but the rights to the dances will be maintained by a trust, and they will continue to license and set the works. So even in this final transition—this passing from life to death to legend, Cunningham has carefully crafted how his work will move from living art form to historical artifact.

What if Duncan had done this? What if Duncan had mandated that “dance capsules” be made of her works and that her artistic legacy was to be carefully controlled? Thank goodness this was not the case! Although as Duncan dancers, we are still fighting for historians and dance professionals to understand and respect the technique and craftswomanship underpinning Duncan’s work, thank goodness she didn’t seek to control the final reception of her gesture.

Duncan’s dance is entwined with the initial impulse to move, but it does not control the landing—such a tough concept for mechanically trained dancers to embrace. The line in the dance is very specific, but it is the result of the movement, not the product of willfully executed intention. There is an element of letting go—and in that space, that softening at the solar plexus predicated by the exhale—that is where freedom lives. And thank goodness that element of Duncan dance, both technical and metaphorical, is not encapsulated in an historic moment, but expansive, vibrant, and very much relevant nearly a century after her time. I wonder, what will be the impact of Cunningham’s work, a hundred years from today?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Duncan & Stanislavsky

Constantin Stanislavsky saw Duncan’s first Moscow concert in 1905 and later recorded his impressions of her in his autobiography My Life in Art.  He describes his reaction as that of a “newly baptized disciple,” and expounds, “when I became acquainted with her methods…I came to know that in different corners of the world, due to conditions unknown to us, various people in various spheres sought in art for the same naturally born creative principles” (Stanislavsky, My Life in Art).

Duncan in Russia
Duncan and Stanislavsky met when she returned to Moscow in 1908, and he reminisces, “we understood each other almost before we had said a single word” (My Life in Art).  Both Duncan and Stanislavsky crafted their performance arts through their ability to organically convert an internal, emotional impulse into expression.  Both artists were able to achieve a state of being present in the moment and imaginative circumstance of performance and to respond with either dialogue or movement to the textual or musical cues.  Both artists sought to create a reciprocal dialogue between life and art, and they maintained a correspondence continuing their dialogue about their performance methods.

Duncan's Moscow School
Duncan wrote to Stanislavsky, “Today, I worked all morning and put many new ideas into my work. Rhythms again. It is you who have given me these ideas” (Victor Seroff, The Real Isadora). Stanislavsky wrote to Duncan, “You have shattered my principles. After your departure, I kept looking in my art for the thing you have created in yours. It is beauty, as simple as nature” (The Real Isadora (by the way, this book is the only source where I have found English translations of parts of the Duncan/ Stanislavsky correspondence— when I was in Moscow in 2005, I requested to view the letters, which are housed in an archive at Moscow Art Theatre, and my request was denied)). Although Stanislavsky was unsuccessful in his attempts to bring Duncan's school to Russia, in 1921, when Duncan finally did establish a Russian school, her students were frequent audience members at Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre productions.

Building for Moscow School 2005
Glimpsing the working dialogue between these two great artists is exciting. It feels kind of like being a voyeur through the lens of time. I wonder, at what point, they realized the parts they were mutually playing in the revolution of performance methods? I also wonder what texts future historians will use to gain insight into artists' creative relationships, especially as we continue to move into a paperless, digital age. Emails and texts have displaced old-fashioned letters as the primary means of written correspondence. But perhaps blogs, with their innate capacity to self-archive, will still be around to provide future historians some clue as to the creative practices and processes of artists of our time.

Look out for more ruminations on artists’ awareness of their own historicity in next week’s post—the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final tour is coming to Austin.