Cooling Off, Building Up, and “Mob”bing: Summer Dance in Tulsa

As the Polar Vortex moves through the midwest this week, bringing incongruously quiet, cool, rainy days in the middle of July, local dancemakers and presenters are doing their summer business. For some, like Tulsa Modern Movement, that means resting after our June performances of “HOLD” and building new ideas for next season (plus learning some fabulous Rachel Bruce Johnson choreography, a solo and a quartet). For others, like the Bell House, it means preparing rep for the {254} Dance-Festival in Texas in September and starting work with Jessica Vokoun on the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival (among many other things). Tulsa Ballet and Choregus Productions are preparing for massive 2014-2015 seasons (celebrating Marcello Angelini’s 20th anniversary as Artistic Director at the former; bringing in the likes of Martha Graham Dance Company and Wendy Whelan at the latter).

For Portico Dans Theatre, however, summer means showtime — they open their new show, “Mob Mental.ity,” tonight.

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Portico’s work has always embraced the idea that dance theater is fundamentally a kind of play, a disciplined taking-delight in storytelling and character and decor. In recent years, with the departure of co-founder Valeria Cordero and the arrival of new co-director Michael J. Lopez partnering with Jennifer Alden, Portico’s summer shows have taken on some darker colors. (Nina Madsen joined the company as a third co-director last fall.) But their bubbly spirit remains evident in the way they play with other artists (particularly visual and media artists in the past, but now musicians as well) and absorb ideas from many genres. “Mob,” as usual in Portico shows, involves many styles of dance — modern, contemporary ballet, aerial, hip-hop, plus additional choreography from Living Water Dance Community — and a wide range of music, some of it drawn from an international call for compositions by Karen Naifeh Harmon (who also delivered some amazing music to TuMM this way for “Unbound” in 2013). As the title suggests, the evening explores the psychology of mobs, leaders and followers, inclusion and exclusion and hive minds, flocking and fighting … a rich vein of material for sure.

Portico Dans Theatre’s “Mob Mental.ity” runs tonight and tomorrow at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm at the Williams Theater at the PAC. See you there!

Instinct and Intellect: Talking with Kidd Pivot’s Cindy Salgado

Tulsa has the huge honor this week of welcoming Vancouver-based Kidd Pivot to town for two performances of Crystal Pite’s most recent work, The Tempest Replica. Choregus Productions snapped up the chance to bring this internationally-renowned company here to a part of the world they’ve never even come close to on a tour, and from the responses I’ve heard to last night’s show, this visit is proving to be transformative for arts patrons in our community. Kidd Pivot presents one more show tonight at Cascia Hall — get tickets at http://choregus.org — and dancer Eric Beauchesne will offer a master class tomorrow. I got a chance to sit down with Kidd Pivot dancer Cindy Salgado this morning to talk about her five years’ experience working with the company and about The Tempest Replica in particular. Thank you to Cindy for her time, and to Choregus and Kidd Pivot for the opportunity to go inside this extraordinary company.

Kidd Pivot NEWAC: How do you start the process of creating these incredibly elaborate, complex theatrical pieces with Crystal? Do you start conceptually, or with physical exploration?

Cindy Salgado: It’s been different for every piece I’ve been part of the creation for. With Dark Matters, which was the first piece I joined [in 2009], Crystal had created some phrases for the dancers at Nederlands Dans Theatre and came in and taught them to us. For me that was really beneficial because I got to learn her movement quality first and then she gave us tasks based off those phrases. She knew she wanted to work with this idea of dark matter, she knew she wanted this shadow character throughout the piece. She’d already started exploring with Frontier, which was an NDT piece as well. So we had some jumping off points. She also had this idea of working with a puppet but wasn’t totally convinced about it. As we went along and she worked with a puppet maker and we started to explore with it, she was convinced she wanted to use it but wasn’t quite sure how. It was amazing how that piece came together really last minute. The storyline for the puppet came, like, the week before the show. She wrote the script of it and we had been playing so much in the studio with the way the puppet could move and articulate but it wasn’t until the very end that she put all the pieces together and understood that the story had to be that this puppet had to destroy its master and that that had to come back around at the end of the show.

AC: That’s amazing, because it’s tied in so beautifully all the way through, so to hear that it wasn’t the starting point of the whole thing is so surprising.

CS: She knew she wanted to work with the idea of us being “puppeted,” and that’s something Crystal always works with, really, the idea of the dancer being danced instead of dancing. That’s a concept we like to play with even in our improv classes: how can you allow for other things to manipulate you, either outside dancers or outside energies, whatever it is. I think that’s one thing that makes her work stand out — the idea that we’re not always in control of what we’re doing — and we’re really available to that process.

For The Tempest Replica, it was kind of the opposite. She had a story, so the challenge was how to tell a very complex story! She knew she didn’t have enough dancers to really tell it in its fullness, but she also didn’t want to tell the story from start to finish the way any Shakespeare play would. She played a lot with what kind of order to put it in, and that also came together quickly, how she wanted to structure the piece and how the “replica” parts wanted to fit in.

We do this whole “replica” storytelling [in The Tempest Replica] — which is another thing she tested out on NDT with a piece called Plot Point – and we worked with developing how these replica characters would move, finding the best way to tell the story as concisely as possible but still in an interesting fashion. We just fell in love with that process, trying to figure out the walks — we spent hours working with how to walk in a way that would look not too human but not so out of place so that you can’t connect to it.

AC: Can you describe the “replica” idea?

CS: We thought originally there might be sort of a play within a play that would help tell the plot of the story. But then Crystal realized in the process that Prospero’s character is creating everything that happens, orchestrating the plot. So these are characters that he’s built that he’s using to help make the plot a reality. Almost like a puppetmaster again, in a different way. Prospero creates these characters and they come back to haunt him. In the play itself, everything he wants to have happen, happens, but he is destroyed by that process. Crystal’s work has a tendency to be about a creator being destroyed by their creation. That came back within this story line, particularly with this being Shakespeare’s last play. In the last speech that Prospero gives he talks about “release me,” and there’s this sense of “I’ve done everything I can, I’m putting it all out there, let me go.” It’s just another really fascinating multi-dimension and layer of her work.

AC: In these pieces I see a beautiful combination of pinpoint heart-connection, a very personal quality that never feels sappy, and then a highly intelligent abstraction. That’s a really valuable set of qualities.

CS: I know. I’ve always been surprised myself at the balance she’s able to achieve. I think that’s just Crystal’s nature. When we improv together as a company she talks a lot about having a balance of instinct and intellect. You’ll probably hear that in your class on Saturday! That translates into everything she does. You can see that there’s a very thoughtful intellectual approach to the work, and at the same time there’s this instinct that drives it. There’s an emotional quality that, like you said, doesn’t feel sappy and comes from a deep place. I don’t know how she does it either!

AC: Kidd Pivot’s movement language combines extreme specificity and also an energy that’s a little bit out of control, a little bit wild. How do you train together? How do you achieve that quality?

CS: Crystal has an improvisationally-based class that we explore together as a company regularly, not an every day practice but it’s something we always come back to. A lot of it has to do with isolation. Crystal is a master of isolation, which I guess shows most in the Replica characters, her ability to break down one piece of the body and make that articulation so fascinating. We play a lot with leading from different parts of the body, and with partnering, which helps you to understand that “puppeted” quality. We do an exercise called “predator and prey” where two people are manipulating one person and that person can choose how passive or active they want to be in the process. In doing exercises like that you start to gain an appreciation for being both the follower and someone who can tap into that intellect in terms of how they choose to follow.

What’s unique about this company also is that when Crystal went off to have a child and then brought Nico back into the fold, we were functioning on our own for a bit as a company. We don’t have a ballet master, per se, so we would help to ballet master one another. In that process we all understood how to articulate the certain aspects that make her work special for one another. It’s weird when you’re working with your peers and you know they’re extremely talented to begin with and still to be able to find the details that make the movement more or less magical that you want to help them bring out. It was really special. First of all it brought us closer together as a company, and also it helped us all step up in our level of responsibility for understanding her work. A lot of us have been with her for a while but there are a few new-ish dancers. Crystal has a tendency to work with dancers she already knows through other companies, people she’s really worked with, so she knows what they’re like in process. She can tell that they’ll be muses of some sort for her. I was the one random person who didn’t come in that way, but I lucked out and had good timing and all that! Getting to know her deeper as a person helps us to understand what she’s looking for.

 

Cindy Salgado (center) in "Dark Matters" (photo by Christopher Duggan)

Cindy Salgado (center) in “Dark Matters” (photo by Christopher Duggan)

AC: There are often huge pieces of group partnering you have to do that just tumble across the stage. Can you talk about how you put those moments together?

CS: Because we do so much partnering in Crystal’s improvisational classes, we already have a sense of how we react to one another. Crystal puts a lot of faith in her dancers and our artistic choices. Every once in a while she’ll jump in and change a choice … “what happens if this person does this here, and what’s the reaction down the line?”

One of the big group partnering sections actually developed out of one in The You Show. It was a very dark moment, but she liked the tumbling energy we had there. But it has a totally different energy here, we’re talking throughout and it’s very playful. She’s never afraid to borrow from herself.

AC: There’s a kind of honesty in that. “I’m not done thinking about this yet!”

CS: She’ll use a lot of the same material with us and with NDT and it will look completely different depending on what the overall arc of the piece is. I think that’s why her work is so rich: because she is willing to return and develop it further.

AC: There’s some talking in this piece, which might be surprising for some people, and a lot of props, a lot going on on the stage. What’s it like to work with those challenges?

CS: With the replica scene we definitely struggled with props at first, and every once in a while something will go wrong and you just can’t help it. There’s this rock that comes on and off the stage that’s drawn by a string and we had a show at the Joyce where the string got caught and the rock couldn’t move and it was just a long stillness onstage with nothing happening! We just had a performance in Toronto where the projector stopped working, so you have to pause and reset … at the same time it’s amazing how the piece didn’t lose too much momentum, we were able to keep going, and we’re lucky to have a really strong technical team who can adjust so easily.

It’s quite fun to have all these things to play with. Eric [Beauchesne] is the one who plays Prospero and does the most speaking throughout the piece. He’s gotten so used to having this dialogue with himself as he goes through the piece that last night [after the first Tulsa show] we were saying, “If you ever do another dance piece you’re just going to be talking to yourself the whole time because you’re so used to this way of working!” For the rest of us there’s only a little bit of speaking, especially in that one scene we all do together, and there’s more natural sounds that come out in the movement depending on the emotional depth of what we’re doing.

For me, I play Miranda, and there’s a scene where I’m watching the shipwreck and seeing destruction and suffering for the first time and I’m crying throughout the whole scene. At the beginning it was very subtle, but the more that I played with how far I let myself go, she appreciated the sounds that came along with it. It wasn’t like we said, “Sound like you’re crying!” That would be horrible and would come across quite forced. So it just naturally kept growing, and because it was natural she appreciated the sound that came from it. There are also some recorded sounds in the piece that came from dancers and our sound designers. Peter [Chu], who was our original Caliban, recorded some sounds that he thought his character would make, and also Meg [one of the sound designers] recorded some of the lines for Ariel. You can feel the natural connection to Shakespeare because she’s an actress who has explored Shakespeare quite a lot. But there are only tastes of the language, so you don’t feel like you’re watching a play. You can tell that Crystal picks lines that she thinks are beneficial to the story line, to helping you understand, to heightening the emotional moment.

AC: How did you approach getting inside of your character?

CS: In the past, we’ve never had specific characters (well, in The You Show Germaine has a part where he plays a superhero, but it’s not like he even has a name or a history he’s playing with). This was the first time we had characters from a play that have multiple lines we could be drawing from, or not, and I think most of the dancers chose not to try to be somebody else and take on a role, but tried to find what it is about those characters that they relate to and apply that. Crystal’s also very smart in creating a piece where most of us are quite similar to our characters in some way or another. So getting me to be this dramatic girl who cries over other people’s suffering is really not very far from who I am! So it’s quite easy for me to connect to that part and each night go there because I’ve had experiences in my own journey that I can easily connect to. So I’m not trying to imagine myself as this child living on an island watching a shipwreck; I can imagine myself seeing children suffering that I’ve worked with personally. Crystal doesn’t put too much pressure on everybody to find it a certain way. We’re all given the freedom to find our characters the way we want to, and that’s really helpful. Bryan [Arias]‘s Caliban is scarier; Peter’s was more vulnerable. She likes to bring out different aspects depending on who’s performing it.

AC: What might this show give to someone who comes to see it, maybe someone who doesn’t know Kidd Pivot or even contemporary dance at all?

CS: I’ve seen how this show impacts people who come to see it. If you know the play, there’s a depth of understanding through the movement that you get to experience. Actors who have come to see it, for whom The Tempest is their favorite play, find that elements of this show move them so much deeper than they’ve experienced watching the play before. I’ve also had plenty of friends who know nothing about Shakespeare or this play and can still appreciate the physicality.

Crystal has a way of connecting physicality to humanity. Each gesture is something you can relate to. Each gesture comes from a real human place, so you can go through a cathartic experience through the artists involved and hopefully come out with a story that you can somehow relate to. Whether it’s about forgiveness, whether it’s about letting go, whether it’s about trust – all of those are things we all experience, and telling a heightened story to get to those places sometimes helps us process our own journey.

 

 

Tulsa Ballet: The Pulse Point

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It’s coming up on 20 years since Marcello Angelini took the helm at Tulsa Ballet, and in that time perhaps his most remarkable skill as Artistic Director has been his ability to keep his finger on the pulse both of the world of dance at large and of his own community here in Tulsa, a community which combines sophistication and a genuine enthusiasm for the arts with a certain innocence that comes from living in a part of the country that typically doesn’t experience groundbreaking creative movements until years after they hit the coasts. For the past two decades Tulsa Ballet has successfully navigated this push and pull between staying relevant and staying enjoyable, and its most recent triple bill, “Paint It Black,” is a tidy example of how they’ve done it.

I’m still hearing murmurs of “weird…” from viewers around me at the close of ballets like Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close,” but then I visit the TB Facebook page and see that the majority of responders to its “which ballet on the program did you like the best?” query chose that very piece. The ones who whispered “weird” will have loved Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster,” all strutting swaggering fun set to Rolling Stones music. The ones who liked the emotionally juicy Cerrudo might have been a little bored by “In the middle, somewhat elevated,” which opened the program — but they’ll have gotten some rock-solid contemporary dance education in the form of William Forsythe’s fierce classicism.

Hyonjun Rhee and Youhee Son in "In the Middle," photo by Julie Shelton

Hyonjun Rhee and Youhee Son in “In the Middle,” photo by Julie Shelton

There was plenty of value to be found in all three pieces, presented at the Lorton Performance Center on the University of Tulsa campus. The dancers performed the Forsythe with an eager, almost titillated edge of joy just beneath their sharp, flat, urgent planes and angles. TB first encountered “In the middle” in 2011, when former Forsythe dancer Jodie Gates came to stage it. What I saw was that the ballet had an immediate, strong effect on these dancers, turning up the heat on their own investment in their movement. The thing about this piece is that it’s just building blocks — many many building blocks — inside of which pumps a tornadic whorl of advanced physics. So in a way the dancers already know what to do, hence the delightfully “no big deal” demeanor they bring to Forsythe’s technically exhausting stacking and re-stacking. But in another way (in a point Gates emphasized in my interview with her) they are in a zone of extreme unknowns: what will happen this time when that huge pirouette a la second starts with maybe a little more power? What will the ripple look like in time, in space, in adrenaline? Because the ballet’s structure is so classical, so simple in its complexity (canons, fugues, themes and variations), the life inside each movement is shockingly visible. The cast I saw got it completely, corps member Carla Lopez and principal Hyonjun Rhee standing out for their technical and personal boldness.

Cerrudo is a choreographer one wouldn’t necessarily know about around here unless one had been keeping tabs on the trends, as Angelini does. Cerrudo is Resident Choreographer at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, one of the nation’s top contemporary dance companies (he got his start choreographing through HSDC’s “Inside/Out” program, which encourages dancers to make their own work), and has done the rounds at Nederlands Dans Theatre (a prerequisite for cool these days, or so it seems). Last year he worked with New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan on a duet for her “Restless Creature” project, and he’s created works for Ballet Arizona and Pacific Northwest Ballet. He’s young, hot, and Spanish, and he makes dances that nibble at intimacy, edgy but gentle around those edges.

“Extremely Close” is a little drop of wildflower honey in two parts: the first hit is sweet with lots of darker notes, the last a full-on rush. There’s something deeply satisfying about a dance with well-used props. White feathers, dropped from above during the intermission, cover the stage floor. When the dancers enter, they do so behind square white walls that move on casters. Walls and feathers. And so my mind does this …

block you out / cuddle you up

float across / float down

heavy / light

peek through / pillow fight

invisible mover

solid / air

dependable / changeable

hide behind / flyaway

… and so on. When I say there was more poetry in the set than in the choreography, it’s just to say the landscape was truly unusually delectable. Cerrudo’s choreography has that quality of sponginess charmingly common in young dancemakers — that is, what you can see most is what it’s absorbed from its surroundings. I look forward to watching his work distill in the years to come, his own voice strengthen and develop. For now I see Duato, and Kylian, and McGregor, and Lightfoot/Leon, and Crystal Pite, lots of emotional sliding on cotton socks, heads and arms disjointedly offset from the torso, an eerie movement quality that shifts in little jerks between passivity and decision, dynamics that teeter at the edge of “anxiety disorder” and “ennui.” A notable condition of our times, I’d say; Cerrudo’s on the mark. An accurate voice, if not yet a bold one.

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Hubbard Street Dance in “Extremely Close”

I wanted more development in the ballet’s first half, a barely-stopping flurry for eight dancers (as the feathers shuffle around the dancers’ feet and the walls shift swiftly carrying dancers behind and before). One moment tilted instantly into another (a single man in black trousers and jacket, facing away from us; a rapid-fire duet; a trio of leggy women), lighting up in small spaces in front of and around the walls like pegs on a Lite Brite screen, setting us up (I assumed) for the big reveal in the second half, the pas de deux, the passage that would make the picture whole. When the scene did shift to Dallas Blagg and Beatrice Sebelin, alone together, no walls anywhere to be seen (they’ve been pushed back together, slowly, light glowing between the cracks), I kept batting at the just-past movement in my mind, catching scraps of what might have been a connection with something seen earlier, blowing at ticklish feathers of half-memories. The ballet is like a party with two dozen conversations happening at once on the same subject; then the room clears and the conversation that remains is amplified by default, whether or not it actually is the most important talk out of the 24, whether it draws any conclusions, whether it sums it all up, whether there’s anything to sum up at all or whether it’s just one more conversation that slowly fades away.

Dallas Blagg and Beatrice Sebelin in "Extremely Close," photo by Julie Shelton

Dallas Blagg and Beatrice Sebelin in “Extremely Close,” photo by Julie Shelton

The duet is quite delicious, though, and not just when Sebelin clamps on to Blagg’s jawline with her mouth and they’re falling together in slow-motion. There’s an undercurrent of vulnerability and blind hurt that made me think of how we act when we don’t know the other’s weak places, how we dodge and nip in the hope that the other can be gentle with our own. The two go through a pattern together, then do it again with one more movement that bittersweetly completes the thought. They block each other; they open up like gates. Again, it’s true to life, and this duet is smart and compact and emotionally textured in ways that were barely hinted at in the ballet’s first half. I’d rather do without the ending (Blagg puts his hand on Sebelin’s face and she sinks to her back, then he reaches down to grab a black edge of fabric that turns out to have been underneath everything, and pulls it upstage collecting her, him, feathers, memories) which feels awfully angsty following that breath of intelligence. Cerrudo’s going to be interesting to watch, with his fine intuition for what pieces it might take to make a poem. The ballet doesn’t quite fully deliver on its potential, but it comes … extremely close.

(A little note on style. TB’s dancers this season are hard-working and focused, not a centimeter anywhere of wasted effort. I’d like to see a little more looseness in their dancing, especially in their throats in these contemporary pieces. Ballet training specifies keeping the head balanced firmly on the top of the spine, the chin perhaps ever so slightly tucked, and these dancers do a good job of letting their heads follow their spines in this choreography, but I feel a resistance from clavicle to chin, one more place of freedom for them to investigate as they continue to explore these hybrid ballet/modern works.)

Christopher Bruce's "Rooster," photo by Julie Shelton

Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster,” photo by Julie Shelton

Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster” is comfortable terrain for TB theatrically, though the movement is occasionally demanding in its extreme shifts from air to ground. It’s made to be a crowd-pleaser, and it was, particularly Jose Antonio Checa Romero’s almost cartoonishly bravura solo (the technique on this boy … Vaganova, baby). The men wear ruffled-front shirts and ties (an odd line, there) and the women short black dresses with red accents. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to be hotter than Chelsea Keefer, but lean and scruffy Andrew Silks managed it in his “outsiders” duet with her, his taut reflexes trained right on her bubble of personal space. Each section had one or two really juicy moments, which were typically repeated at least once, and though the rest of the choreography felt like mostly filler the dancers pushed into each moment with determined energy. A palate cleanser after two very differently complex flavors: leave ‘em happy, but leave ‘em challenged, too.

Tulsa Ballet ends this season with “Off the Floor: Creations in Studio K,” its series of new contemporary ballets created especially for the company and its intimate house. Since 2008, when the series began, “Creations” has premiered work by Ma Cong, Nicolo Fonte, Douglas Lee, and many other up-and-coming choreographers (including the late Tony Fabre, beloved here for his stagings of Nacho Duato’s work). This year’s edition features new pieces by Cong, Young Soo Hue Simon, and Jodie Gates (with whom I got to speak about her choreographic process and product here). For the third year in a row, local companies will perform as opening acts for TB during the second week of performances. Just another example of how contemporary dance in Tulsa would be far poorer without the perseverance and creative thinking of Angelini and his team. Cheers, thanks, and keep it coming….

It’s Going! A Personal Progress Report

This is the story of two days in the life of one dancer, four great teams, and four works in progress….

April 23

9-11 a.m.: A Sunday deadline looms for my second rehearsal with Rachel Johnson (in Tulsa) and L. Brooke Schlecte and Sarah Newton (in Texas) of Out on a Limb Dance for our collaborative dance game titled “If Then, What.” We each have our tasks — seven of them, each with several descriptive words attached — which we’re to work out on our own before meeting via FaceTime to proceed to the next level of the game. (The next level involves rules about speed and repetition and spacing, which each of us must memorize because at any given point in the dance one of us will be the “leader,” having been tagged by the previous leader, and will be the one to give the rules for that iteration.) I gathered the movement notes I’ve made so far and did some gentle exploration (in my kitchen) of the tasks I’ve been unsure about. It’s like writing a difficult letter to someone: putting something, anything, on the paper takes some of the intimidation out of doing the big work. Making two movements for one task, say, instead of trying to complete the whole task at once.

12-1:30 p.m.: Met with Rachel and Jessica Vokoun at the University of Tulsa to start planning a site-specific piece for the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival screening at Crystal Bridges in mid-June. Ari Christopher of TuMM will also join us for this project. We’ll be working in Walker Landing, which looks like this –

Walker Landing at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Walker Landing at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

– and sports a jaunty Keith Haring sculpture, some interesting little alcoves, and a gorgeous view of the water. We started talking about action painting (because of the museum’s strong Abstract Expressionism collection), thinking about the dripping and scraping and splattering done by artists like Jackson Pollock. Jessica discovered some concrete steps at the tennis courts on campus and suggested they can approximate the steps at Walker Landing as we begin to make some movement for that space. Site-specific inspiration, long-distance location. A challenge!

6 p.m.: Class with Rachel (a rare opportunity!). Sweaty. Momentum. Dynamics. Weight. High-speed direction-shifting. Oof. Awesome.

7:45 p.m.: Tulsa Modern Movement rehearsal. Spent an hour cleaning a chunk of Ari’s “Self-Storage,” a deadly syncopated complicated chunk! We’re discussing a possible change to this section that would have me taking Ari’s part and her taking mine … editing, editing, with a conversation about how our shifting places might change the dynamics of the section in ways that interest Ari, due to the different qualities of our movement.

9 p.m. brought a moment I’ve been waiting for for some time — visitors! — but not just any visitors — sound engineer, musician, and composer Scott Bell and writer Amy Page, who are tandem-collaborating with me on “Envelope,” the solo I’ve been making for/with TuMM dancer Aleks Weaver. I say “tandem” because we’re each working more or less independently, with me giving them little doses (mostly through conversation) of what I’m doing and inviting them to take those drops and create their own alchemy with them. So the poem Amy’s writing is “inspired by” my choreography only loosely, just as Scott’s sound score will be. They bring their own inspiration, their own history of craft, to the project, and I want that to be very present in the final product. This was the first time either of them had seen the piece (Amy had seen video of part of it). Our creative “agreement” is more one of sensibility than of specifics. I’m lucky to have as friends such intuitive, trustworthy, adventurous artists.

Amy and I have been talking for a while about how to incorporate the physical and literary “tellings” together in the staging of the piece. Her poem has its own life, as does the choreography, but it’s important to us that it not be simply laid on top of the dance. It’s also not a narration, or a set of directives to the dancer. As our time together ended, an idea emerged about having the reader onstage alongside the dancer, almost as a shadow, or perhaps a guide, possibly even interacting with elements of her costume. We have a lot of imagining to do! And since I choreographed this piece to no music, I’m going to let Scott surprise us with the score the week of the show. Just for fun. (Sorry, Aleks!)

April 24

9:30-11:30 a.m.: Back to “If Then, What.” For this work I have very little input from the other dancers about what they’re doing (though I have seen a little of Brooke’s work-in-progress). Which means I’m not measuring what I’m coming up with against what they’re coming up with, not comparing, not trying to do something distinctive or something that will blend in. Just whatever I like, whatever comes up for me when I start physically researching the words “connected,” “half-moon,” “escalating,” and so on. It’s a pretty radical freedom — lots of space — but also defined and bounded by the rules. A refreshing process: ice water for the creative brain. In this session I culled from the improvisations I’ve done, making some final choices for the phrases I’ll share with the rest of the team on Sunday. Here’s some video of one of those improvs, toward a one-minute phrase based around these elements: hair, trochanter, elbow, simultaneous.

 

Here’s what Brooke has to say about this part of the process: “I like how the set phrases feel like tasks I can check off my to do list, like baking a cake. The idea that we are all doing this separately and could potentially do it at the same time and space on stage is the most exciting part. It feels like a forum where we each give our opinions on a certain subject, through movement. This process is hard because it takes self-discipline to get the work done on time. I feel like I’m in school again.”

I’ll check in again soon with more progress! As always, your contribution is very welcome. Let me know how you’re working on what you’re working on!

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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.

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