Tenth Anniversary Program
New York Choreographic Institute
Miller Theater at Columbia University
New York, New York
November 5, 2010
Empty Moves (parts I & II)
Brooklyn Academy of Music
2010 Next Wave Festival
Brooklyn, New York
October 29, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Michael Popkin
Two very different shows over the past month – Ballet Preljocaj at BAM’s Next Wave Festival and the New York Choreographic Institute’s Tenth Anniversary program at the Miller Theater – highlighted how music determines choreography - particularly rhythm. That rhythm is the heart of dance is one of those obvious things that you wouldn’t think still need to be said. (And as an aside I also wonder whether, if rhythm is the heart of dance, melody isn’t its soul?) But having watched a great deal of recent theater dance, there’s no point that needs making more than this. Whether because of a conscious decision or not – and as a cultural phenomenon it’s probably unconscious – much contemporary choreography is rhythmically weak; and when that’s not the case, pulsing and monotonous at the other extreme. It’s a result I’d say of reliance upon contemporary classical music, which either tends either to be highly colored but rhythmically impoverished (though oh so involved); or at the other end of the spectrum (the John Adams/Philip Glass school) pulsing and rather unvaried internally. In particular, composers and choreographers today ignore using actual popular dance scores or patterns as raw material – something that was extremely common one or two generations earlier. The idea seems to be that what is artistic has to be very heady, intellectual and cool, something you also see in the Chelsea galleries right now.
The Choreographic Institute’s Miller Theater program involved coupling Juilliard composers with young choreographers and seeing what happened. It’s a wonderful idea and the institute, a creature of New York City Ballet which has operated out of the public eye for the past ten years save for this first ever anniversary show, has made this its official modus operandi. The seven new dances for the evening were thus made to five new musical compositions created for the occasion by composers working with the institute's young choreographers (with one other dance, by NYCB corps member Justin Peck to recorded music); and the result was virtually a demonstration of the way that contemporary “art” scores create an airy dance atmosphere, and serve as a basis for highly imaginative visual tableaux, but generate visceral dance excitement only when they are also characterized by strongly marked rhythm.
The best offerings were Justin Peck’s Tales of a Chinese Zodiac where the ensemble of SAB students had strong musical lines to work with (the score was a recording of sections of Sufjan Steven’s Run Rabbit Run) and the resulting dance was strongly theatrical as Peck deployed his corps de ballet of SAB students, albeit on a cramped stage, inventively. Marco Goecke’s dance, entitled For Sascha, to composer Mathew Fuerst’s String Quartet, also had music with a clearly demarked rhythmic structure, here derived from rap music pulses and internal cadences, and the dance that resulted – for City Ballet’s Marika Anderson, Gretchen Smith, Daniel Applebaum and Sean Suozzi – was visually inspired by hip-hop as well as moves that occasionally reminded me of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It made me wish in particular to see more of Smith, whose speed and articulation, coupled with her infectious pleasure in what she was doing, were remarkable.
The three ballets to one score that concluded the evening – by choreographers Larry Keigwin, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky respectively, all to composer Daniel Ott’s Inflorescence – were a fascinating demonstration of the different ways the three choreographers adapted to the syncopation and line of a subtle score. Wheeldon’s solo for Sara Mearns succeeded by virtue of being a solo. He made the interaction between the rhythm and melody within the music unified by varying the steps of a single dancer (and how compelling a performer Mearns is!) and because it all played out in the one continuous flowing line of her movement, he depicted the music beautifully. What was rhythmically involved became intelligibly visible because of the unity of flow.
Ratmansky, in his Untitled ballet, accomplished the same thing by ingeniously linking his four dancers as much as possible into a single figure of two, three or four bodies; linked that is either literally in lifts and poses, or visually by occupying the same stage space in marked relation to each other. I should also mention that Bouder and Scheller are in the best physical shape of their careers. Earlier in the evening, Darius Barnes was also very successful with a dance called Mandala to Kyle Blaha’s music, with Eric Pereira being particularly compelling among the performers seen in the intimate up-close venue of the Miller.
I left the theater all the same wondering why composers and choreographers don’t pay more attention to established dance forms instead of trying to make contemporary tone poems that can somehow be danced to; and in particular why choreographers don't make more dances that move to traditional rhythms. Established dance music – historic and national dances like tarantellas, mazurkas, chaconnes, and waltzes; or Latin and contemporary dances and everything in between – is the richest fund for material that shows how human beings actually move to music when they don't think too hard about it. This is what people do and have done to music rhythms, so why wouldn’t a composer or choreographer want to start with this at least some of the time? There’s plenty to do making the old forms contemporary, taking them apart and seeing what the contemporary spin on them is, without having to invent things out of whole cloth. New wine in old bottles isn't such a bad idea some of the time. Some of Stravinsky’s finest dance music, for just one example, was based upon his re-construction (in his unmistakably personal manner) of renaissance madrigals or baroque figures. It’s also no coincidence that the most successful ballets in last spring’s Architecture of Dance festival at NYCB were precisely those by Wheeldon and Ratmansky that utilized historically viable material with character dance elements. Balanchine also did a good deal of this "contemporizing" of character or social dance forms.
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Preljocaj’s Empty Moves at BAM was the most radical demonstration of all in showing how dance can exist to rhythm and in fact nothing (or little) else. Without music, and lasting about an hour, four very attractive dancers dressed in casual shorts and tops move (basically in two couples but sometimes as a foursome or in solos) to the nonsensical sounds of John Cage’s Empty Words. Recorded by Cage during a performance at the Teatro Lirico in Milan, in 1977, this is nothing but Cage slowly pronouncing lines from Thoreau in the simplest cadences imaginable. Breaking the words into syllables rather than intelligible speech and then drawling these out very slowly, Cage's reading achieves something of the effect of a musician striking an antique harp; lines like “I lived alone” - from beginning of Walden - are rendered in a sing-song voice as: “Eye-eee (pause for two seconds) leee-veh-ed (spoken as three distinct syllables and then pause for two more seconds) ah-low-own (three more syllables, pause again)” and so forth. (This example by the way was chosen by me from Thoreau at random and I don’t mean to suggest that the audience ever knows exactly what the Thoreau text is – or at least I didn’t). Not surprisingly, during the recording the Italian audience begins to heckle and applaud and, as this reaction becomes progressively stronger and louder, it eventually forms a counterpoint to Cage’s nearly hypnotic performance.
Against this Preljocaj sets his attractive dancers – Fabrizio Clemente, Gaelle Chappaz, Julien Thibault and Yurie Tsugawa - in simple repetitive motions that stick to the rhythm of the sounds. As the speech is in syllables, so the steps are broken down to their most basic components. A phrase with a “one, two, three” count that ends in a pause is rendered “jump a quarter turn in the air, jump another quarter turn, then another quarter,” then stop. The barefooted dancers sometimes take off and land in closed fifth positions; but always keep their torsos loose and casual. Nothing is done that is ever really unattractive. Even in lifts the bodies remain relaxed and sympathetic.
The trouble with it was that it went nowhere. With the simple repetitions, and the primacy of sound over sense, there could be (and was) no development; there was so to speak nowhere to go. I’m glad I saw it all the same. Solemn, sometimes playful; it demanded little attention and gave an aesthetic pleasure in the theater that was different nearly in kind from what one expects. Casual, relaxed, and attractive, it concentrated on the dancers coming to rest at the end of each sequential motion and, from the point of view of Ballet, the template was steps such as balancée and ballonnée that go one way, and then the other, and then stop. The sound of the dancers’ feet hitting the floor at the end of each phrase reinforced the sound of Cage’s voice. Everyone was fairly polite. Was their passion in this group? Not really. Did they love or hate each other: Who could tell? They weren’t characters, but rather dancers with the same identify on stage as off. They displayed their bodies, moved to the rhythm and enjoyed themselves; were aware of you in the audience and that was part of their enjoyment. The movement was always harmonious and attractive and though not much was said, the evening was a pleasant one. It was like standing in a cool wind in early fall, exactly like the night outside.
Photos of the New York Choreographic Institute courtesy of New York City Ballet
Photos of Ballet Preljocaj courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music