So Many Kinds of Making (Part 4): Tulsa Modern Movement

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This last installment of my series on Tulsa dancemakers focuses on Tulsa Modern Movement (TuMM), which unveiled in 2011 with a site-specific performance on the Arkansas River. The choreographer of that piece, Ari Christopher, is now the company’s Executive Director, and I serve as its Artistic Director, with both of us also continuing to dance and make new work for the company.

TuMM has had another season of diverse events, beginning in September with “Unbound,” a collaboration with composer/violinist Karen Naifeh Harmon and photographer Nathan Harmon. “Unbound” was the fruit of almost a year’s worth of discussion (starting in the afternoon pick-up line of the school our kids attend). It was Karen who had the idea in early 2013 to launch an international call for compositions for “Unbound”; it garnered 150 submissions, five of which were chosen for our show. I got to create movement for these gorgeous pieces of music over the summer, and August saw us working with a small chamber ensemble and with Nathan’s giant cantilevered camera on wheels to create an intimate, multi-perspective evening of dance at Living Arts of Tulsa on September 6, 2013. I’m very proud of “Unbound,” both the collaborative effort that created it and the end result, and I’m happy to announce that TuMM will present it again June 7 and 8, 2014, at the gorgeous Studio K, as part of Hold, the company’s season-end show. (I’ll share more in the next month about the process of revisiting the piece to be shown on Studio K’s stage, much larger than the gallery space we made it in!)

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Ari Christopher and Alicia Chesser in “Unbound,” photo by Nathan Harmon

Fall and Winter 2013 saw TuMM hosting Contact Improv jams and Gaga classes for the community and relishing another chance to invite our audience to get up close and personal with our process at the company’s second annual Works in Progress Showing. (Y’all are good observers, askers, imaginers.) In January, Ari took another trip to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for a foray into dance film with the museum’s Sara Segerlin, on the anniversary of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” You can see their film here!

All season both Ari and I have been at work on new projects for TuMM’s season-end show. Ari is creating “Self-Storage,” a six-part experiment for five dancers in different ways to hold memory, and a look at how those ways of holding (or rejecting, or integrating) affect our identity, our sense of self. Some of the music is being composed by Michael Christopher, Ari’s dad, inspired by movement Ari has already made — a much different process from choreographing to pre-set musical structures and moods. Ari works often with movement motifs, and in “Self-Storage” you’ll see memory and identity evoked through rolling, plucking, stretching, throbbing, depositing, carrying, stacking, making space … all visual/physical evocations of a highly elusive mental/emotional reality. TuMM will perform excerpts from “Self-Storage” when it opens the May 11 performance of Tulsa Ballet’s “Creations in Studio K.”

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Ari Christopher (photo by Alicia Chesser)

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Ari Christopher and Aleks Weaver (photo by Alicia Chesser)

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Ari Christopher, Mona Hatter, Katelyn Yeary, and Aleks Weaver in rehearsal (photo by Alicia Chesser)

I’m making something for the June show called “Envelope,” a solo for one of our dancers, Aleks Weaver, with original text by Amy Page and a sound score by Scott Bell. (If you haven’t noticed, I have a certain enthusiasm for working with artists in other disciplines. Still a kid at heart, I suppose: “Hey, you’re cool. Wanna make something with me?” There’s nothing I dig on more than sharing an idea with another artist and hearing where they imagine they might go with it. Ideas bouncing back from the extraordinary creative people in our community only get more beautiful upon their return.) I was inspired first by Aleks’s own unbelievably grounded, tumbling, round, powerful movement (she came to us from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, where she got her degree in dance) and by some personal investigations into various kinds of containers (houses, bodies, relationships, boxes I put myself in … ). I began by literally thinking about an envelope — how it’s cool and white on the outside but holds a warm message, how it’s got sharp edges and corners and a waiting center, how it travels, how it folds and closes and opens — which took me, with Aleks’s constant feedback and inspiration, into thoughts about being boxed in by one’s own need for self-protection, and about how that box might be softened, about how what’s at the center of it might be allowed to reach and open the edges.

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“Envelope” brainstorming (photo by Alicia Chesser)

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Aleks Weaver and Alicia Chesser (photo by Ari Christopher)

In addition to these projects, TuMM has been working this season with the Harwelden Institute, taking an original production called “Afternoons with Emery” into public schools throughout Tulsa. “Emery” was conceived and created by Ari Christopher and Jessica Davenport, and features amazing props, shadow puppets, and a lot of wild imagination. Sharing this show with kids has been one of the most fun things I’ve ever been part of. (And getting to do this tour with Ari, Missye Campbell, Katelyn Yeary, and the one and only John Cruncleton of the Nightingale Theater ain’t bad, either.) Ari has taught movement and theater to around 3,000 students in schools all over the Tulsa area this year as part of the Institute’s education outreach program.

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Letters to TuMM from kids after seeing “Afternoons with Emery,” via the Harwelden Institute

This weekend, on April 19, TuMM is hosting its first fund- and friend-raiser, The KiCKER, at the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa’s Hardesty Arts Center (AHHA), in support and celebration of its 2014-2015 season. The event will feature food from some of Tulsa’s coolest restaurants, plenty of drinks and desserts, a silent auction, and a live performance by TuMM’s dancers. Hope to see you there!

 

 

Flashback: Celebrating “Merceday”

img-mg---merce-cunningham-7_135612106743It’s Merce Cunningham’s birthday! Today on the blog I’d like to give a bow of respect to one of the most fascinating, original, maddening, endearing, and brilliant artists of the last hundred years, a creative genius whose twinkle-in-the-eye dances took me gently by the face and shook me to smithereens when I saw them for the first time. In homage to him and his extraordinary company, today I’d like to share a review I did for the Dance Insider (under my maiden name) of their Spring 2001 season opening performance at City Center in New York.

I haven’t seen a piece by Cunningham live in many years now. But these images are as fresh in my imagination as if I’d seen them yesterday. Merci, Merce.

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Merce’s Trance Dance: Events that Bear Attending to
By Alicia Mosier
(Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier)

When you come out of a Merce Cunningham concert, familiar sounds sound more articulate; walking takes on new dimensions. Cunningham, now 81, has been presenting his alchemy of movement, nature, time, and space for 54 years. The huge ovation that greeted him when he came on stage last night at the opening of his company’s season at New York’s City Center was another testament to the world’s continuing affection for him and for the things he has shown us.

Things like, for instance, that there need not be an “incident” or a purposeful action for there to be an event that bears attending to, or that movements can be stripped of almost everything recognizably dance-like and still work as dancing. Or, that movement and nature and time and space, in their infinite reverberations, are so beautiful. Throughout the evening, sentences like this kept popping into my mind: “You see the phrase as its parts,” and, “The same thing two ways.” Such Koan-like thoughts are what occur to you when you are utterly absorbed and your mind is just letting things in and out, which is the state into which Cunningham’s pieces draw you in their perfect objectivity.

223170490_a85571bd63When New York City Ballet performed “Summerspace” (1958) last year, and they did it so well, there was a dramatic impetus to the piece; I found myself looking for images, for meaning. In the performance the Cunningham dancers gave last night, I was looking at elements: balance, velocity, spatial relationships. There are probably no other dancers in the world with more control than these (it comes from low in the pelvis) and more calm in their bodies. Jennifer Goggans had me rapt from her first moment on stage, a warm, serious spirit coming through her modest, powerful, unbelievably controlled movement. She did everything like it was nothing at all, and somehow that made it all the more important to me to take in everything she did. (Later, seeing a child halfskipping down the sidewalk, I had the same reaction.) Paige Cunningham, Daniel Squire, Koji Minato, and Jean Freebury (great in a long, daunting essay on balance) were all just as fleet and aware and wonder-inducing.

The curtain rises and falls on a whole world in this piece, with its eternal-summer pointillist backdrop and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg and its score, like crickets breathing, by Morton Feldman; it seems to exist long before and long after the dance is over. Nature in the theater, someone once called it.

You see nature, too, in “RainForest” (1968), in the yawning and standing still and gentle animal nudging that Cedric Andrieux, Jonah Bokaer, and Jeannie Steele engage in at the beginning. Here, though, they do it amidst dozens of Andy Warhol’s floating silver pillows and to a creaky score by David Tudor, played by Paul De Marinis and Takehisa Kosugi. While “Summerspace” has survived looking as fresh as the day it was born, this piece looks thinner and more dated. Still, in its endearing close duets and long, long solos (Derry Swan’s, with a bent over head-shake and a series of slow, sculpted side battements, was especially gripping), it showed us plenty. To speak of Robert Swinston, his fretful face staring into the black, is to speak of artistry of the highest order: massively focused, every move a question or an incantation.

1296837032-merce.way_stationIs Cunningham’s work investigation, or is it play? It’s both, of course. For over half a century he has brought experimental art and music vibrantly into the mix of his work, as well, which makes the exploratory mood all the more intoxicating. Charles Long’s sculptures for “Way Station,” which premiered last night, get you excited right away. You don’t know whether to laugh or boggle when the curtain goes up on five almost creature-like pods that look like they’re made of melting taffy or brightly-colored glue dripped down from a Brobdignagian art class above the stage. Each has three stringy legs and three puddled feet touching the ground (“Tripods,” actually, is the name Long gives to his decor).

That the tall, three-legged shape of these sculptures leaves a perfect space for people underneath is a nice conceit. The dancers complete the decor (just as in “Summerspace”: if no one was moving in front of that backdrop, maybe all we’d see would be dots). Daniel Roberts hangs out under the yellow tripod for several minutes at the beginning; later Lisa Boudreau does the same, leaning on one leg like she’s waiting at some dream bus stop.

Stepping around and in and out of these huge, delicate “way stations” is no problem for the 16 deadly-precise dancers. (I love the way they smile, and blink.) The good-looking costumes by James Hall — beige bodysuits with vaguely Native American-themed printing up the sides of bell sleeves or one pant leg, even a little fringe on a couple of people — add warm mauves and rusts to the fingerpaint colors of the sculptures.

Elements cropped up in the work’s first part that to Cunningham connoisseurs might seem familiar: one found oneself waiting for the trio to come in, for a slow balance on half-point, for a deep bend down and to the side as the spine torques against the legs, and there they were. This first part meanders a little, mostly in arrangements of twos and threes and fours and people stepping in from the sides at wide intervals, everything on curves and planes. There’s a lot of speed, then a lot of slowness. (As the dancers complete the decor, the decor gives continuity to the dance.) A lovely passage featured three couples with winglike pairs of arms and surprising lifts at the end. Holley Farmer of the beautiful feet and the perfect technique was a fascinating, sure, mercurial presence.

Takehisa Kosugi’s score (which he played live), earlier scratchy and staticky, develops a wonderful case of schizophrenia in the second half: in come whacked-out harmonicas, hints of a carousel, spurts of klezmer clarinets. Three men bound in with a spark of vigor; three women follow; and from here on in it’s energy-and-focus cubed, more dynamic in shape and variety. Everybody sits down for a while, then bolts up and off the stage. There is an incredible sustained passage of balances in plie and half-point for one woman (a lot happened on one leg in this piece), big leaps for the men, and a phenomenal triple duet that ended with the men hurtling the women into the air and dropping them down again into a spin.

“Way Station” seemed more “composed,” with less random movement, than the other pieces on the program. (I heard one
woman at the interval say, “I sort of wish there’d been more running around.”) But the aesthetic of its creator — the exploration, the pure unexpectedness, the thrilling beauty, the gentleness, the fun – came through loud and clear, and it sent the audience into an ecstatic trance.

“A Sense of Humanity”: Talking with Jodie Gates

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Tulsa Ballet asked choreographer Jodie Gates to create a new piece for this year’s “Creations in Studio K,” the groundbreaking series that has produced a crop of fresh ballets every May since 2008. Gates — founder and director of the Laguna Dance Festival and Vice Dean and Director of the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance — has spent time with TB before, setting “In the middle, somewhat elevated” by her choreographic mentor, William Forsythe. I spoke with her in 2011 about staging that ballet, and I had the pleasure of sitting down with her again two weeks ago, on her last day of work in Tulsa, to talk about her new piece, “The Angle of Incidence,” which will premiere the first weekend in May at Studio K alongside new works by Ma Cong and Young Soon Hue Simon.

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photo by Christine Cotter

AC: Thank you for another chance to talk with you! I got to watch a little of your process of teaching “In the middle, somewhat elevated” to the dancers here a few years ago and I was very interested in the language you were using. I’d like to hear about the piece you’re making, about your process, about your influences, and I have a million questions … but start with this piece.

JG: So you know that I’ve been choreographing for about 12 years. It’s not that long, really. Something I always like to pride myself on is that I’ve persevered through all the other responsibilities I have in my life. It’s a form of creativity that once I left the stage really filled a void for me — working with dancers, a sense of community, being able to share language, vocabulary, and a sense of humanity together — so that’s been very pleasing for me. Even more so being a female neoclassical choreographer, that’s what I feel most proud of. There’s not many of us out there, and to be getting to work with dancers of this caliber, this is extraordinary. I feel incredibly blessed to be here, actually.

The piece I decided to do for the company is with five couples, five men, five women. It’s a Saint-Saens piece of music that consists of five movements (Cello and Orchestra Opus 16). The music is rather classical but the movement is not, it’s juxtaposition to the movement. It’s about 21 minutes long. I struggled with whether I wanted [the women] on pointe or not. I knew that Ma [Cong]’s piece was on pointe because I’d watched a rehearsal of his piece back in August when I was here setting “In the middle,” and I thought: diversity in the program! I don’t know what the other choreographer will be doing, but why don’t I take them off pointe? So that lends itself to more organic movement, they’re able to get more grounded, so we’ve been exploring. There’s a quickness in it. The movement that I tend to have established within my choreography is very circular and voluptuous, I suppose.

AC: Yes — in the clips I watched of your choreography I saw something I don’t often see in neoclassical work, which was epaulement, so much lush upper body. I see a lot of arms in choreography these days and a lot of legs, but not often that sort of across-the-body poetry, and I was very struck by that.

JG: Thank you!

AC: I remember you talking about epaulement when you were here staging the Forsythe piece. I don’t think the first thing people might think of when they think of Forsythe would be epaulement, but it makes all the difference in the piece.

JG: Absolutely, he’ll say it’s epaulement and hands, because the hands show you where to go. And that’s ballet at its best. So the exquisite part of being able to create a work here is that these dancers are so incredibly trained that Marcello has hand-picked and they all have a great sense of epaulement, so it’s already leaps and bounds above most other companies. So it makes that process a lot easier.

With this piece, I see a lot of it as a whirlwind, a tornado of sorts [laughs]…

AC: You’re in the right place!

JG: Yeah, it’s been on my mind! So there’s a sense of swirling, particularly in the last movement, a lot of it is very simple, a lot of it is just duet work, so it’s been fun to explore.

AC: Is there a tone to the piece, a color, a theme, any images you had in mind before you started? Is there something that you wanted to work out?

JG: Yes, it’s abstract but there is a ramp as a prop, it’s a rather large ramp, about 10 feet long, and another 5×5 platform on the top, about three feet high, so we’ll be using that quite a bit. It’s a descending and ascending sort of feeling. I’ll say, “I want you to run up or slide down or do a duet here but smaller, on the platform,” so we’re going to work that out in the next 24 hours. I want them to move it too, so how long does it take for the dancers to move the ramp? We’ll work that out too. So in my head it seems incredibly cool [laughs]. We’ll see! The pleasure is in imagining and inventing movement and the process, and you hope that the outcome is equally as thoughtful and entertaining and successful.

I think of the word “refracting” — this idea of when something goes in water, how it distorts the water — so you’ll see a lot of the movement has a lot of that circular counterpoint to it. It goes in and out of classicism. I’ll say to a dancer, “do your favorite jump, right over there!” So it pops like that too. I think it’s going to be entertaining, a nice gentle piece. There’s no narrative, not yet. It’s funny how when I look at it after it’s done I’ll say, oh yes, this was working something out, [maybe] a life moment for me but also for the dancers because they’re also in a place in their lives and you feel that energy every day.

Though I have a plan, when I come to work with companies I really like to work intuitively and feel them out too and empower them with the ability to help collaborate. For example, the first day I taught three phrases, phrase A B C. Pretty much motifs throughout the ballet. And I asked them to partner up and make a duet from those motifs. I gave them a few tasks to do and they came up with great material, a lot of which is the initiation for the duets. So it’s fun. They own it, like a piece of clothing, they wear it, it looks natural on them, and it also makes the process collaborative.

AC: Which is more fun than standing at the front of the room saying “I have all the ideas, I am here to pour them into your bodies”…

JG: Yeah! Last night I was working, it was the end of the day, I was a bit tired because I’ve been really going fast, creating a lot of material very very fast (in 9 days I’ll have done 22 minutes!), and I actually looked at the dancers and said, “I don’t have a clue. Help me out here.” And they did! “How about we try this?” I just had to be honest, I felt a little bit blocked. It was the first time, and of course it’s going to happen, and they were great.

AC: So they have been empowered with the confidence that they understand the piece well enough now, because they’ve been participating in it, to be able to intuit what might come next. That really comes through in performance, when the dancers are deeply invested in it personally.

JG: I think you’re absolutely right with that, but watching this last program with the Forsythe and Christopher Bruce and Alejandro [Cerrudo]’s piece they were equally deeply invested, so it’s partially because of them. I would have guessed that that [points to “Extremely Close” playing on a video screen near where we’re sitting] was choreographed on them. And that comes from their training, their diversity. They’re able to dig in deep, and it’s authentic. So I do commend that that’s already part of the culture here but it is true that when it’s your movement you see that it’s more organic.

The first movement in my piece is right now the strongest; it’s almost like it introduces the strengths of the couples right away. The piece starts with a shaft of light that goes up onto the ramp and already you don’t even have to speak about what that means because it’s going to mean something different for you than it does for me, but it’s certainly an ascension. So I asked two women to initially improvise a duet and I gave them three tasks: surfacing, avoidance, and contact through manipulation of each other’s limbs. These two women made a very interesting duet! And it happens to a very quiet drone in the music just to set up the piece, and they are ascending slowly to the ramp. And then the two men just follow quietly behind them, just walking, and the music starts and the ballet goes. The beginning of the piece is quite strong, or I feel like it could be if I really get it right, if I’m able to fix a few little things and tweak it, so I’m kind of right now processing through all five movements and finding the linchpins within each movement. There are highs and lows; it’s hard to keep everything as clear as I would like it.

AC: What’s your editing process like?

JG: Well, right now I can see that I have too much material and I hope I have enough time before I leave to edit away some of that. I can see where things are really working. I can see where I have a good idea and I have them moving really really fast, really fast, and I’m not sure yet because I haven’t stepped away from it to tell if it’s a bit too much. But I try to be very thoughtful about editing because I do know that it’s better to give less than more a lot of the time, but particularly in the fifth movement I’m working on now — where the music is huge, it’s robust, it’s orchestra — I’m struggling with just having somebody walking across the stage! I don’t know if that’s gonna happen! You might just see a lot of people running in circles and lifting and things going on because it’s hard for me to let that go. So I’m hoping to filter through that.

The good thing is I brought my assistant with me, her name is Jennifer Lott, and she and I have been working together very successfully as a team. I’ll set the phrase, and she’ll go and teach it to them as I go rehearse a duet. It’s like having four eyes, so as an editor too I’ll say to her, “does that look like it’s too much?” And it’s really helpful. It’s like having a dramaturge. And she stages my works too, so she’ll know this one, so it will have a life.

New creations are done every year here, which is so amazing, I so commend Marcello for that because it’s so key for choreographers like me to have the opportunity to work with these fine dancers and also for the dancers to have the opportunity to be created on and have a voice and get to know themselves better as artists.

AC: I’m curious about your thoughts on women in dance today. Is it like in the Renaissance where people would say, oh, there weren’t any women painters then, and you say, no, there were plenty of women painting, they were just keeping their paintings in their houses because there wasn’t a market for them. Is the same sort of thing happening with choreography?

JG: It’s funny, it makes me think of a piece I did in Berlin in 2008 or 2009 to Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn’s music. They were brother and sister; it’s a fascinating story, I’d love to do more of a narrative about them. What’s fascinating about her is that she was composing gorgeous music, but her brother had to produce it for her. We’ve come a long way since then. We’re seeing more of a trend of female choreographers, female directors. I think it’s difficult to be a woman coming from the ballet world and then become a choreographer. I think it’s changing because now there’s this hybrid dancer who does it all. With modern contemporary dance you start to explore movement a bit more rather than being told what to do as the ballerina. I think women are exploring within a piece they might be doing — like me creating a work here, for example, might be spawning some interest in some woman here. They see me, but I’m [asking them], “What do you think? Do you think that’s going to work here?”

AC: You’re giving them choreographic tools. They get to see every day how you do it.

JG: I was 35 when I left as a principal with Pennsylvania ballet. I had a beautiful job there, dancing all the roles I’d always wanted to dance when I was at the Joffrey but didn’t get the opportunity due to the difference in repertoire. I knew I needed to be mentored to choreograph. So I knew I either had to go back to college or … go to Frankfurt! [laughs] And I went to Bill [Forsythe] and asked if I could be there. First of all I wanted to dance that rep, but also I learned so much, I just needed tools. I would love to create workshops to teach simple compositional tools to dancers who haven’t had that in college. In college you take improv and comp, right, so I think there is something to that, but I think we’ll see more female choreographers. Neoclassical ballet choreographers, I should say. I hope we do see more of that. There’s probably only a few of us who do this type of work with ballet companies that are women at the moment, but I sense there’s a shift coming.

For me I feel as though it’s my responsibility. I have this great body of knowledge from dancing so many different people’s works. That all informs my own work. Obviously Bill is going to inspire me — critics say “it’s rather Forsythean” — but I’m so influenced by so many people whose work I’ve danced, whether it be Lar Lubovitch or Mark Morris’s musicality or Antony Tudor. I definitely know that all those steps are in my body somewhere even though I don’t dance anymore. It’s a part of my physical intellect. And in the meantime I’m trying to find just how do I move, how to transpose that on a group.

AC: I love that image of all the pieces that you’ve ever performed living in you. When these dancers are learning and rehearsing a piece for weeks and weeks on end and then they get it sort of charged into them with adrenalin in performance, it stays in the body…

JG: It’s like a shard for life!

AC: It’s like a war wound!

JG: It’s true! [laughs] You’re accumulating all of this stuff!

AC: And years after the fact you make a gesture and you think “that’s from Tudor!”

JG: So often I’ll do a step, be creating something, and I’ll go, wait a sec, what ballet is that from? I have to stop myself and I’ll ask, did anybody ever dance that? And sometimes they catch it and sometimes they just haven’t danced the role, but that step is in there, it’s probably from a preparation or a transition, and it works still. I don’t mind. We all are derivative. It’s hard to do something completely original and when I do see choreographers accomplish that and succeed in that it just pleases me so much. It’s rare. I’ve seen it a couple times. It’s beautiful. For me, I guess I so enjoy the process, I so love making movement, I love having that human exchange with fellow artists. I think that’s what drives me to continue to create new work.

And again, being a woman, a neoclassical choreographer, I feel like I’m in a special position in my life to be able to have these opportunities. I’m so grateful that Marcello brought me here. I remember being a little bit nervous about showing him my DVD. I’m very careful to separate any work I do for Bill from mine. Marcello asked me, “why don’t you give me one of your DVDs?” And I did, and he checked out my website and said, “I’d love to have you, can you come next year?” It’s really nice to have this time. I could spend weeks and weeks here, but it’s been a great opportunity. I’m very pleased.

 

Submerged: Dancing in the Tulsa Tunnels

Looks like Tulsa might be a little excited (or at least intrigued) about tomorow’s eMerge Dance Festival in the tunnels under downtown — online tickets have sold out! (There will be a few left at the door before the event begins at 7:00, so give it a shot if you didn’t buy online.) The goal of eMerge, a project of the Living Arts Dance Committee, is “to promote a revival of art’s culture-bearing and connective function by reintegrating it into communal settings. The mission of the festival is to support and promote community, interactive dance art, and civic participation.” I think this year’s festival is going to exemplify all those things, and I’m eager to hear what you think after you experience it.

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Johnson and Vokoun

I get to perform with Jessica Vokoun and Rachel Bruce Johnson in one of these tunnels tomorrow night, performing a piece we created together. We began the process by meeting in the space and spent some time just looking, feeling, writing, absorbing, talking, letting ideas ricochet off the walls. This particular tunnel is very long and slopes upward; the walls and ceiling are close, hard, and rather drab. There was a sense of claustrophobia and even a little paranoia in the space (thanks to the blind corners at each end, we could hear the voices of passersby before we could see them), but also, thanks to the ascending angle, a sense of opening toward a new space at the far end. We began to think about a journey, about the effort of moving forward to a new phase of life, and since there are three of us, about how such a journey is both individual and dependent on the support of a community. We discovered that the tunnel’s walls were narrow enough for us to rebound off of, so that became a new dimension in our dancemaking, a counterpoint to the forward thrust that underpins it. As we explored moving on the slope of the floor we discovered that we often fell back the way we came after a few forward steps, that the momentum we would build would naturally die away without quite a strong effort to keep moving forward. Hence our title “Two Steps Forward” (with its implied “one step back”). Our process of creating the piece was wonderfully collaborative, each of us bringing our own phrase work (which then got broken apart and cut and pasted throughout the piece) and diagramming the music Jessica chose and discovering transitions together. The process of making it in fact mirrored the concept of the piece itself: that we are each always working in our own unique way but that the full effort of creating one’s life involves the contributions of many.

first notes

first notes

 

Other choreographers/performers doing site-specific work and dance installation include Nina Madsen Dance, Kira Blazek, Amy Morrow, Living Water Dance Community, Anna Bennett, Maggie Boyett, and Portico Dans Theatre. Viewers will be walked through the tunnel system by docents, moving to a new place underground to see each dance work. Have a blast — we will see you there.

So Many Kinds of Making (Part 3): The Rangers

This penultimate installment in my series on local dancemakers’ upcoming projects attempts to put three certain women on pause for just a moment, just to take their pulse, which isn’t easy, as you’ll see….

Jessica Vokoun

Jessica Vokoun

Between curating the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival (which she founded), choreographing musicals, making beautiful dance for camera, and teaching the next generation as Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Tulsa, Jessica Vokoun is a steady, bold force in Tulsa’s dance scene. In January she directed TU’s bi-annual dance concert, this year on the theme “Dance in the Digital Age.” The program included a staging of “Pupil Suite” by Andrea Miller of Gallim Dance, which was in residency at TU in November. She’s creating a site-specific piece for the eMerge Dance Festival (the one in the downtown tunnels) with Rachel Bruce Johnson and me, and even more site-specific work for an OKDFF event at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in June. I’ve had the pleasure of observing her interacting with her students at TU, dancing with her, making dance with her, and talking film and life with her — like her art, she is clear, genuine, and overflowing with good ideas.

Nina Madsen (photo by Rachel Bruce Johnson)

Nina Madsen (photo by Rachel Bruce Johnson)

Nina Madsen returned this past fall from a hiatus and started anew as an independent freelance choreographer under the name Nina Madsen Dance. Nina is one of Tulsa’s best modern dance teachers, offering a twice-monthly safety release technique class at the Flyloft that’s full of deeply valuable information from her training in Laban Movement Analysis, and equal doses of fun. She’s had a busy season resetting “Fighting” and “Between Us 2″ (originally created for TuMM’s Confessions in 2012) on Portico Dans Theatre for their upcoming Mob Mental.ity show; making a fascinating new duet (I’ve just seen excerpts) called “Spoken … Far from Finished” for herself and Portico co-director Jen Alden, which they’ll do together for eMerge; and creating a new ensemble piece for Portico called “Gener/o.” Nina Madsen Dance will present the duet and “Fighting” before the May 8 performance of “Creations at Studio K.”

Rachel Bruce Johnson (photo by Megan McKown)

Rachel Bruce Johnson (photo by Megan McKown)

I can’t imagine what the Tulsa dance community would look like were it not for the influence of Rachel Bruce Johnson. Her organization The Bell House does it all: presents the Exchange Dance Festival, curates and supports photography and film projects (like Edition #28 of the Dances Made to Order film series), hosts residencies (a downright life-changing one last summer with Melody Ruffin-Ward, for instance), and organizes workshops (most recently a superb CounterTechnique/Gaga doubleheader). Rachel is also the one responsible for all the gorgeous preview films Tulsa Ballet releases before its performances. And she’s always making dance, improvising, sharing her tools and her gutsy spunk and laughter with the rest of us. She’ll perform with me and Jessica Vokoun at eMerge on April 12 and open Tulsa Ballet’s “Creations in Studio K” with a solo piece on May 10 at 7:30.

Rachel has also been a member of the Out on a Limb Dance Collective, based in Waco, Texas, for several years now. OoLD does things the Texas way: big, rangy, let’s-give-it-a-whirl-and-see-what-happens. It puts on the annual {254} Dance Festival in Waco, at which I was honored to perform Rachel’s solo for me called “Imprint” last fall. This year the collective has two projects going that involve Tulsa dancers. The first is resetting a work from 2009, choreographed by OoLD director L. Brooke Schlecte, for restaging in Tulsa in 2015. Se Morte (Self-Death) deals, Schlecte told me, “with an exodus from self-overindulgence to self-acceptance through a series of movements meant to take away and dissolve the selfish desires. But these desires naturally need to be replaced with something; they always are, this is the journey.” It’s been “an adventure to remake,” she said; “it’s a piece that is quite personal, therefore, it has been a bit hard to step outside and see as separate from my life. With [a] new cast it quickly came to life again, this time with more depth and energy. I am still learning about it and hope the experience is fruitful for the performers and the audience.” Se Morte will be restaged, Rachel tells me, “along with a full baroque-inspired suite of humorous and quirky commentary about over-opulence,” excerpts from which you might have seen at Exchange in 2012 and eMerge in 2013. The second OoLD project is a long-distance dance game I get to play with Schlecte, Johnson, and Texas dancer Sarah Newton. It involves index cards … lots and lots of index cards. And FaceTime. I’ll write more about that process soon here on the blog!

That’s a lot of dance for just a few women to be making. And there are more of these rangers, like TU student Anna Bennett, for instance, who’ll present an original piece at eMerge next weekend, and the many young choreographers like Christina Woodrow graduating out of the ORU dance program and moving into the world to learn and share new tools and inspirations. Then there’s Tulsa Ballet’s Ma Cong, launching into an international career (I’ll be talking with him here in the next few weeks) … and Gavin Stewart, originally from Tulsa, now making work in Richmond, VA … and Jennifer Mellor, now living in New York, whose work we’ve seen at “Creations” … and Amy Morrow, who’s really “from” everywhere but keeps a fire warm here, teaching Gaga and making dance from Mexico to Tel Aviv … and Troy Herring, studying at Juilliard … and Stephanie Miracle, another Tulsa native now working on her MFA at the University of Maryland, who just won a Fulbright to study Tanztheater in Germany…. Fodder for Tulsa Dances for years to come (thank you).

So Many Kinds of Making (Part 2): Portico Dans Theatre

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I began this series of profiles with Living Water Dance Community, a local group whose very nature (improvisational, dynamically spiritual) involves change, growth, and transformation. This installment looks at what’s coming up for another company that’s always looking to explore new theatrical possibilities: Portico Dans Theatre, founded in 2008 by Jennifer Alden and Valeria Cordero, now co-directed by Alden and Michael Lopez.

The big first event of the spring for the whole dance community is the eMerge Dance Festival on April 12, at which this year 10 local choreographers will present site-specific work in the historic tunnels underneath downtown Tulsa. For eMerge Portico will share excerpts from its upcoming season-end production (to premiere at Summerstage July 18-20) titled Mob Mental.ity, which shows the company moving away from the single-narrative format that has structured its previous productions (Project Alice, Super SuiteBorN, and Combined Minds) and toward a more genre-mixing style, incorporating live original music chosen through a call for compositions, video by Kelly Kerr, set design by installation artist Glenn Herbert Davis, and four kinds of dance (aerial, contemporary, hip-hop, and modern), in addition to works by Amy McIntosh and Nina Madsen, originally created for Living Water and Tulsa Modern Movement, that are being restaged on Portico.

“The production focuses on the mentality of mobs,” Alden told me, “how they are formed in even the most innocent of circumstances and how they respond to external and internal stimuli; learn to breathe and work together as a unit, even if they are unaware of each other’s existence prior to the mob formation. Various mobs are depicted: children at a birthday party, religious, political, civic, etcetera. The concept is how an individual ‘I’ becomes a collective ‘they.’”

"Mob Mental.ity" (photo by BlinkPhoto Tulsa)

“Mob Mental.ity” (photo by BlinkPhoto Tulsa)

This is now the third year that Tulsa Ballet has invited local choreographers to present their work as a pre-show for the main company’s “Creations in Studio K” in May. This year Portico will bring Alden’s setting of Axis by Eric Hyrst, the founder of State Ballet of Oregon, with whom Alden danced as a teenager. Portico will present a portion of the piece at Studio K, and will perform the entire 22-minute work, set to music by Stravinsky, when it tours Oregon in August.

“It takes me about a day to get through three minutes of the work and to make sure that I have everything correct in my notation of the work,” Alden said of her restaging, done with the blessing of the choreographer’s foundation. “It is somewhat easier to recreate as I was in the original but many parts I really have to study for intention as I only played my role and not everyone else. As I set it though I can easily show the dancers the movement as it feels so natural for me and I can easily remember how it should look and what Eric was going for. For the process of recreating the work Rachel Bruce Johnson is creating a documentary film around the process from me taking notes to setting the work on the dancers to performing it on stage. We have also gotten the permission rights to show clips of Eric’s archive to give more color to the documentary. This is a great honor for me as Hyrst’s former student. Eric Hyrst studied with the Royal Ballet in England until moving to the US when he was 17 to dance with New York City Ballet and Balanchine. He then traveled the world touring until he decided to become an Artistic Director with Kansas City Ballet and then Royal Ballet Canadian. He then decided to start [the] State Ballet of Oregon [in the 1970s].”

"Axis" (photo by BlinkPhoto Tulsa)

“Axis” (photo by BlinkPhoto Tulsa), Portico directors Michael Lopez and Jennifer Alden at left

In addition to these two productions, Portico looks forward to a second collaboration with Tulsa Camerata and Tulsa Shakespeare in the Park on June 6 at Guthrie Green as it performs “six pieces from three different Shakespeare comedies, in addition to selections from Axis and Mob Mental.ity. I wanted to keep the tone light thus only using plays with humor,” Alden said. “We [are working on] how the three plays will be set with the actors as we are basically doing an abridged version of all three. Justin McKean is helping me screenplay the three comedies (Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice).”

For more on Portico’s spring and summer adventures, as well as its many class offerings, visit http://porticodanstheatre.org.

The Body Knowing

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It’s been a while since I had a minute to do much thinking here on the blog. The making I’ve been doing has been in-the-trenches work, hands-on and non-theoretical. We talk about the movement we make, but mostly so as to make more movement, though the talking’s awfully good in itself. In the studio, I’ve been thinking with my body, not with my mind.

But what is this body-thinking? The single most persistent question of my life.

“I believe the body takes us to the edge between the known and the unknown,” said Sarah Gamblin, in town last month for a performance at New Genre. (This post is my thanks to her for being the clearest window I’ve looked at, looked through, in quite some time.)

There can be nothing more “known” than the body. I’ve lived in mine my whole life; it’s my one consistent interface with the world and everything in it. I never leave it. It’s the most known thing to me, and it’s the neuro-motor-sensory instrument through which I know everything else.

But the body is also my deepest conundrum. It speaks in its own language of pain, hormonal rushes, insulin spikes, heart palpitations. It operates without my conscious thought. It’s so often a dark place to my mind, but it knows things that are unknown to me.

It knows to contract and tense when I am under threat. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen tells me the skin knows the nervous system intimately, and vice versa (in fact they begin from the same embryonic tissue layer), so that comforting touch becomes neurocellular information. The body knows that the throat holds disgust and that anger and love and happiness make my hands want to do something.

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Anatomy, physiology, group dynamics, physics: unknowableness challenges my knowledge. Its knowing teaches my unknowing. This is the poetry of bodies in time and space, the tender tragedy of us. The just-so angle of the head that makes me choke back tears. The laughing leap in the dark. We humans, we are always on the edge; it’s the dancer who shows us it’s a sweet spot.

Sarah Gamblin

Sarah Gamblin

Technique PowerUp: Countertechnique/Gaga Workshop March 29

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Having access to various movement languages is something dancers in bigger cities can count on when they need a technique boost or a creative reboot. It’s a kind of professional development that’s been hard to come by here, but as demand increases so does supply. It’s been the dream of many of us to have more options for the dance community in Tulsa, and with a lot of work and a lot of goodwill that dream is becoming real. 

On March 29, Tulsa dancers will have a chance to dive deep into two different techniques that play well together — Countertechnique and Gaga — as Bell House Art brings Kira Blazek of the University of Oklahoma and Amy Morrow (well-loved here after her winter Gaga series) to town for this unique doubleheader. Morrow will teach a Gaga/Dancers class, followed by a composition workshop based in Gaga. Blazek will teach Countertechnique, developed by Anouk van Dijk. Pre-registration happens here. Come get some new tools!

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Landscapes and Momentum: New Genre Dance

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The New Genre Arts Festival always brings home meaty material for movers and this year’s offerings are already delivering.

Ieke (under chairs) and Alicia at play; photo by Steve Liggett

Ieke (under chairs) and Alicia at play; photo by Steve Liggett

The Festival started last weekend with a two-night Open Lab at Ieke Trinks and Sarah McKemie’s “Unscripted Play” installation at the Hardesty Arts Center. Participating in “Unscripted Play” was one of the best creative experiences I’ve ever had. To walk into a huge space full of random stuff with lots of other people and have complete freedom to let my mind and body spin out absolutely however they want to for an hour was incredibly refreshing. I found the practice very rigorous, and also tender, hilarious, and physically and mentally challenging and delightful. To some it might have looked like just people messing around … and that’s precisely what it was, that’s what life is, and this experiment in following one’s interests and impulses in the company of others really was a “lab” for me, honing humor and attention and compassion, as I go back out and do it in real life. Cheers to Ieke and Sarah on a wonderful AHHA residency.

This week brings Sarah Gamblin and the Big Rig Dance Collective up from Texas for a workshop and two performances at the PAC’s Doenges Theater. Gamblin, who teaches in the prestigious Texas Woman’s University dance department, has been a mentor for many of the dancemakers working in this region. Simply put, she’s an improvisation ninja with a lot to teach performers of every stripe. Her workshop, “Wild Child, Throw Your Head,” takes place Wednesday March 5 from 9:30-11:30am at the Flyloft and is open to all dancers. Performances of “Acts of Absence,” with live music from the Hentai Improvising Orchestra, are Friday and Saturday at 8pm. More info here!

Sarah Gamblin and Hentai

Sarah Gamblin and Hentai

This week ALSO brings multimedia dance performance artists Miller Rothlein to the Nightingale Theater, with a free workshop tonight (no experience required!) and performances of generate. degenerate. Thursday at 8pm and Friday at 10pm. “The challenge: to make and perform a multi-media piece using only sustainable energy.  In generate. degenerate. the sound, media, and light are powered entirely by the physical actions of the performers.  Aided by a score of vintage country and western, a life is simultaneously told and erased in the telling.” More info on Miller Rothlein here!

Miller Rothlein

Miller Rothlein

So Many Kinds of Making: Local Dance in 2014 (Part 1)

Over the past few years, thanks to the tireless creative and administrative work of dance artists and their supporters, dance of all kinds has become more and more of a presence in the cultural life of this city, not just in the big theater downtown but in galleries, on sidewalks, on film screens, in schools. I feel it most in conversations with casual acquaintances, who’ll tell me they saw some dance here recently and they’re still thinking about it, or who’ll ask what they should see next because the last thing really moved them. The dance community is growing, becoming more established and at the same time bolder and more passionate about following its own heart. I’m proud to be a part of it. (You can experience original site-specific work from many of these groups at the eMerge Dance Festival, produced annually by Living Arts of Tulsa, on April 12, 2014, in the tunnels under downtown Tulsa.)

This week, as we look ahead to spring and anticipate the end-of-season performances coming up from local dancemakers, I’d like to share with you some of their observations on what they have in process. My point in this series is this: the dance you see on stage (or wherever you see it) doesn’t just happen. Like any other art form, dance is made through a long process of thinking, trying, asking, working, building, asking again…. And each artist does it differently, cares more or less about different elements of the process, has different intentions and goals. Artists aren’t just producers of entertainment, though they are certainly and happily that; they are people who create in order to understand. It happens to be one of my favorite things, talking with people about why and how they make what they make, and I hope these thoughts spark something in you as well. Stay tuned throughout the week for updates from more of Tulsa’s movement makers.

Amy McIntosh

Amy McIntosh

We’ll start with Living Water Dance Community‘s founder and director and professor of dance at ORU, Amy McIntosh. I’m always inspired by Amy’s deep thoughtfulness, the way she views dance and life as intimately involved with and informing each other. LWDC spent the last while investigating the idea of justice in a series of intense ensemble dances; that thinking has led them into a linked territory: community.

I continue to have an interest in community and both my husband Jacob and I keep talking about what it means to live in community.  Lately we’ve been talking about how we believe that our family is our first community … that when we seek to live in abundant community with our two boys we establish trust, gift-mindedness, authenticity, and love, and that this generates a living, real entity that changes all of us.  Jacob and I feel the tension of the world to pull the family away from one another, to outsource the opportunity to pass on to the next generation to professionals, and to lure us into believing that the glitter of being able to climb social, corporate, artistic, educational … ladders will give us our identity and make us.  We are finding that we don’t have a lot of tools or role models as 30-something adults to cultivate community within our family due to a culture that we feel seems to value over-scheduling, manic pace, an attitude of more is better, and how fast can we advance.  We believe that what our family needs is to be known, to spend time together, to value one another’s gifts, and to establish a way of life together … and this all takes time.  So we are on an adventure together, growing our living community of a family, and I’m seeking to understand what it means to be integrated as a mom, an artist, a wife, a follower of Christ, a teacher, a friend, a daughter, a sister….  Living Water Dance Company is shifting to be called Living Water Dance Community as an outward expression of what is happening internally with us.  Our upcoming work for eMerge dance festival is based on the following:

What happens when we let go of consumer-based systems of outcomes, profit, competition, and control and embrace cooperation and innovation through community?  How can Peter Block and John McKnight’s text, Abundant Community be practiced through contact improvisation?  “Aliveness is a state of unpredictability, mystery, and fallibility. It requires relatedness, willingness to not know, willingness to face the silence. It requires time, whatever it takes versus how long will this take. What kills aliveness is our need for consistency and control, love of speed, love of knowing and certainty, relationships being transactional, needing to scale up, be performance-oriented, feeling ‘I must get it right’.” –Peter Block

Forging Community will be created from practicing principles of both a consumer-based society from text, Abundant Community (scarcity, fear, competition, control, system…) and principles of an “abundant community” (kindness, generosity, silence, time, cooperation, discovering gifts amongst the people… ) in our rehearsals, forging a new work that is authentically created through lived experience.  Aspects of the work will remain improvisational and will be dependent on the dancers, space, sound, and audience.  We will create our own live sound score using vocals of text and song as part of our performance.

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