Sunday, November 22, 2009

UW-Madison Faculty Concert

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Dance Program showcased its annual faculty concert this week, held for the first time in many years in the Wisconsin Union Theatre. While able to accomodate a larger audience, the ambience at the Union pales in comparison to the made-for-dance comfortable H'Doubler Theatre in Lathrop Hall. Poor sightlines (no rake to the main floor seating), broken seats, chipping paint, and a cumbersome tech table placed in the middle of the audience don't create the inviting, tidy and professional atmosphere of the H'Doubler. But bring the lights down and begin the program, and most of the blemishes fade away.

Technically, this concert was huge. Each of the seven multi-media dances necessitated a crucial balance of staging, design, and lighting. Uncredited in the program, lighting designer Claude Heintz sculpted each piece in a meaningful, artful, and in many cases stunningly beautiful way.

The stand-out piece of the evening was not by a UW faculty member, but guest artist Susan Marshall's powerhouse "Name by Name". Striking and curious from the start, a torso emerged from under the main curtain, prone and with head upside down, arms outstretching to the side. Rows of dancers appeared tightening together in a ballet pose and sublty rippling like water in a gentle current. In a solitary spot stage right, soloists carved through a series of firm arm gestures, quickly dropped to the floor, sprung up and repeated. Bodies fell into each other, being supported, rolling and emerging as half torsos from the upstage curtain. All 18 dancers swirled--coming and going, dropping, rolling, turning, lifting, and converging in a single line, rushed toward the audience into a blackout.

Marshall's odd costume choice (designed by Frtiz Masten) abitrarily patched together dancers in multicolored trunks and bras, with others in billowy white outer garments. And David Lang's Phillip Glass-like score began tediously, but did build as the dance progressed.

In "And Everywhere In Between", Kate Corby's choreography created a simple compelling triptych accompanied by live solo violin. In one powerful moment, the dancers slowly progressed left to right in a deep squat, like a flock of exotic ducks, shaking their heads from side to side. Filling the stage, they slowly turned in unison to fix a riveting gaze on the audience.

Other pieces on the program were not as successful. The visuals in Marlene Skog's "Cross Current" were its highlight. Stretches of blue lit fabric pulled at various angles across and up and down the stage space intriguingly framed the upstage grand piano and solo dancer Karen McShane-Hellenbrand. But the dated choreographic movement felt ill-fitted to the dancer who ran awkwardly from one side of the stage to the other, and shifted from one linear pose to another for no apparent reason.

Chris Walker fused modern dance with Afro-Caribbean in "Left at Right", a high-energy romp showcasing student dancer Mary Patterson in a strong clear solo moment. The other three pieces choreographed by Jin-Wen Yu, Li Chaio-Ping and Peggy Choy were simply too busy to be effective. Each featured video projections and other media such as large pieces of fabric, text or live music. And for all three, these choices resulted in a muddy mix with no clear sense of focus, direction or structure.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Farewell, Merce

It's hard to believe that another dance icon has passed from our world. Well, that is to say that on the heels of the death of Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham has left his flesh body. But his amazing life and career will long impact the world beyond dance, beyond life as we know it.
Not much can be said about Merce that he hasn't already told us. From my own outside perspective, I had one long-lasting impression of being in the same room as Merce. In the mid 1990's, he brought his company to perform in Madison, Wisconsin. Highlighting the concert was his exquisite Beach Birds at the end of which came the company bow. Merce entered the stage slowly and steadily emitting a presence that was unmatched by anyone in the room. Knowledge, confidence, clarity and calm radiated from his thin arthritic body. This was not an impostor or an understudy, this was Merce Cunningham.
One of the few artists to fearlessly embrace the present and allow his work to evolve, Merce threw himself into the world of experiment, and later the world of technology. He remains one of dances all-time greatest innovators. As a composer friend of mine commented yesterday on hearing the news, perhaps John Cage has a piano prepared for him in heaven.
Thank you, and farewell, Mr. Cunningham.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Save the Dates

Here’s a sample of the dance feast you can partake in for 2009-2010 in Chicago:

At the Museum of Contemporary Art

Nora Chipaumire with Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited
lions will roar, swans will fly, angels will wrestle heaven, rains will break: gukarahundi
October 1, 3, 4, 2009

Lucinda Childs
October 15-17, 2009

Anna Halprin, Anne Collod and guests
parades & changes, replays
November 5, 7, 8, 2009

Akram Khan Company & National Ballet of China
February 26-28, 2010

The Seldoms with Fraser Taylor
March 12-14, 2010

John Jasperse Company
Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies
April 9-11, 2010

At the Dance Center of Columbia College

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
October 1, 2, 3, 2009

Lucky Plush Productions
October 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, 31, 2009

Cloud Dance Theatre of Taiwan
January 22, 23, 2010

February 4, 5, 6, 2010

Jump Rhythm Jazz Project
February 18, 19, 20, 2010

Troika Ranch
March 4, 5, 6, 2010

Wayne McGregor/Random Dance
March 18, 19, 20, 2009
Hedwig Dances
April 1, 2, 3, 2010

At the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance

Mikhail Baryshnikov
Three solos and a duet
September 25, 26, 27, 2009

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
January 27, 2010

Hubbard Street Dance Company 2009-2010 Season
October 1-4, 2009
December 3-6, 2009
March 18-21, 2010
June 3-6, 2010

Joffrey Ballet of Chicago 2009-2010 Season
October 14-25, 2009
December 11-27, 2009
February 17-28, 2010
April 28-May 9, 2010

Friday, July 3, 2009

Remembering Pina Bausch

My first experience with Pina Bausch was through a German Dance festival in Chicago in the early 1980’s. I didn’t see her work performed live, but at the encouragement of my modern dance teacher, watched a film called “On Tour with Pina Bausch”. The film changed my perspective of dance forever.

Until that point, I had only known dance as pure movement and only considered it from a technical standpoint. Bausch innovatively stretched the limits of dance technique and movement, but in a compelling theatrical way. Somehow she found a way to use the abstraction of dance vocabulary to tell concrete and powerful stories. And not only did Bausch influence countless choreographers, but she did so from a home base of the industrial Ruhrgebiet---a region comparable to Gary, Indiana in the U.S.

Her influences will no doubt be felt for years to come.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On Dances in Theatre Plays...

Creating dances for actors requires a special skill set. Although an actor may possess great body awareness, that does not necessarily go hand in hand with the ability to grasp actual dance steps, retain them, or perform them with any sort of stylistic grace. So the mindset to approaching this kind of work from the choreography perspective necessitates patience and knowledge that compromise will be the way to best achieve the desired outcome. Often dance rehearsals for a theatre play are brief, as the actors primary focus is on scene-work and blocking. This differs from dance rehearsals in which studio rehearsal time is often dedicated to improvising and creating the movement on-site. In theatre, a choreographer must enter the rehearsal with steps and a design in mind already.

But being prepared is not enough. The most important ability that a good choreographer brings to a theatre collaboration is that of story-telling. Even though a dance within a play might appear to be strictly entertainment, it exists as part of a larger story. The details of that story can (and should) come through in a dance.

A dance can provide the excuse for characters within a play to communicate something beyond what they are allowed to say in scripted words. (In Shakespeare, love relationships are often revealed in a dance.) A good theatre dance can introduce, explain or expand upon physical relationships (the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet), break away from constraints of society or situation (the dream ballet from Carousel), or present a ritual or celebration (the title song from Hello Dolly or a Shakespeare wedding dance). To be effective, the dance must suit the situation and be a believable extension of the characters performing it. The action does not abruptly stop and suddenly a dance begins. A good bit of choreography flows seamlessly as part of the logical sense of the play.

In a successful piece of theatre choreography, the audience is entertained and sometimes surprised to see actors moving in skilled choreographed patterns. But they also learn more about the characters, story and the situation after seeing the dance.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Dancing at 100

Last week Dancing at 100 grandly celebrated a century of the presence of dance training on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. The four-day festivities included an historical photo exhibit, lectures, dance video screenings, concert performances and a traveling site-specific work.

Several concert performances featured a blend of faculty and alumni choreography and dancers presenting the overwhelming aesthetic of strong technical dance training. There were no tricks here, only pure and beautiful dance. The choreography never hid behind gymnastics or gimmicks and very few dances in the three studio concerts used any sort of props or text. Most resonant were those pieces with a narrative thread.

Ann Arbor Dance Works, the local faculty dance collective, presented a strong evening of works ranging from a sensual intricate ménage a trios choreographed by Amy Chavasse, to a simple compelling love story duet created by Bill DeYoung.

DeYoung’s piece, At Last Departs, made in 1975 highlighted the superb chemistry of dancers Amy Cova and Thayer Jonutz arm in arm supporting each other in a relationship of soft leg extensions, reaching and grabbing at each other in momentary desire to escape, and finally facing each other, arms extended, falling into a release that erased any tension that came before.

In Bitter Poison from Handel Arias (2007) choreographer Peter Sparling took dancer Jonutz through the aging process. Clad in plastic Elvis wig and a black suit jacket lined in shimmery fuscia, Jonutz emotionally contorted face and body first shedding his hair, then his jacket, then his life.

Less successful was Sandra Torijano’s Solo from the Last Full Moon. This excerpted sample from an evening-length work perhaps suffered from its editing. In the context of so many other clearly formed dances, this one had no rhyme or reason, and seemed just a run-on sentence of simple movement performed for some strange reason on and around a black plastic stepping stool.

The first Alumni Concert of the weekend featured an impressive range of solo works from Martha Graham to Yvonne Rainer to Robert Battle. Michigan-trained dancers definitely have the chops to pull off these challenging pieces, with Lisa Catrett-Belrose confidently opening the show dancing the Graham solo Satyric Festival Song (1932). The sprite-ish Catrett-Belrose played, jumped and rolled in her tight horizontal-striped dress. Flailing black hair, angular arms and sly looks evoked the spirit of young Graham.

Chair/Pillow, choreographed by Rainer in 1969 and performed by Patricia Beaman brought welcome humor to the otherwise serious-toned concert. In a brilliant repeated pattern, Beaman, clad in renaissance curls and corset, brought meaning to the simple manipulation of a bed pillow—sitting on it, kneeling on it, pulling it from behind her back—while Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High accompanied.

Rachel McKinstry, a Brooklyn-based improv dancer, found an innovative mix of technical dance with pedestrian movement. And dancer Michael Spencer Phillips performed Damn (1999) created by Battle. This percussive, precise, military-feeling dance started slow and steady, then grew in detail and intensity until Phillips collapsed on the floor with a cry.

A few of the works were less clear. Susannah Windell locomoted in varied circles while tossing rose petals on the floor for no apparent reason. And Angela Gallo performing her own choreography, only concerned herself with avoiding tripping on her long pant legs.

Two highlights emerged from the second Alumni Concert. The first, Deep Song (1937) also a Graham piece, compellingly performed by Christine Dakin. The second, Gay Delanghe’s delicious trio for three leggy women entitled Venice, Milan, Florneza (2000).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dancing with Scoliosis? Fear Not!

Medical findings rate dancers among the most prolific sub-series of athletes who have scoliosis. (Gymnasts and swimmers also rank near the top.) But do not fear! Dancing does not cause scoliosis! This statistical data, most likely came from medical records of adolescents who noticed the spinal curvature and sought a professional opinions (Non-athletes perhaps do not use or look at their bodies enough to even recognize the presence of scoliosis until they experience back pain later in life.) Being active, constantly scrutinizing ones physique in a mirror and aiming to move in symmetrical patterns is possibly why postural variations are most often noticed in dancers in the first place. And a teacher’s good eye can also detect muscle or bone imbalance.

The main concern for early detection of scoliosis is to help reduce the possiblity of complications with aging. Progression of scoliosis can lead to back pain or arthritis in the spine, negative body image, and in severe cases, increased pressure on the lungs and heart.

The lateral curve of the spinal column in scoliosis can appear as and “S” shape, or a “C” shape when viewing the spine from the backside. It is sometimes accompanied by a twist in which one side of the ribs rotates forward and the other back, or by one side of the pelvis sitting higher than the other.

Unless screening is done, this imbalance can go undetected for many teenagers. My own mother has scoliosis and did not know it until age 46 when she accompanied me on an office visit to an orthopedic spine specialist. I was 16 then and in ballet class had noticed a small hump on one side of my back when looking sideways in the mirror. Medical specialists know little about the causes of scoliosis, but have some proof that heredity may play a role, so my doctor decided to look at my mom too.

Options for treatment at that time were: 1. Surgery to install an immoveable titanium rod into the spinal column, thus limiting much of the mobility of the spine, 2. Wear a cumbersome brace for 23 hours a day for five years, 3. Do nothing and see what happens. The severity of a curve is measured in degrees called Cobb angle, formed by drawing intersecting lines through the vertebrae as pictured on an x-ray image. The higher the Cobb angle number, the more sever the curve, with 40 degrees being a case in which bracing of surgical action is considered. For me, at just shy of 40 degrees, my doctor advised no intervention as long as I kept on dancing. So I did.

Even now, there are few new options in this country for treating scoliosis. The Schroth method of physical therapy, first developed in the 1960s in Germany, has made an appearance in the US recently, but is still not accepted as a valid medical treatment by western medicine practice, so remains relatively obscure. (The method is a series of breathing, strengthening and stretching activities based on the individual case. The series is taught and must be repeated daily for the remained of the individuals life in order to be effective.)

As symmetrical as we appear on the outside, internally we are very much the opposite—one stomach, one liver, one heart—our torso balances the protection of these organs in the best way that it can, sometimes causing compromises in the alignment of the extremely flexible and resilient spine. We are also in general either right or left-handed which causes upper back muscles to develop unevenly. It is my guess that most people have at least a mild form of scoliosis.

Those of us who have this imbalance in a more noticeable way can consider strength and flexibility as aids toward relief. There’s no way to stop the changes in bones as we age, but supporting muscles can be kept strong and pliable. And scoliosis should not keep you from dancing. Many dancers find the effects of scoliosis to be minimal on their ability to dance, but they also may encounter problems when they stop dancing.

In her book “Getting Started in Ballet” Anna Paskevska states the following: “The very nature of ballet training—working both sides of the body equally and in harmony—helps to correct the misalignment that scoliosis creates.” Some may argue that scoliosis cannot be “corrected” but it is true that ballet training provides the opportunity, through working symmetrically, to strengthen weaker muscles and release the tense ones. And where there is mobility, there can be change.

Dance on!

Friday, May 29, 2009

What Moves Us -- Opening Night Concert

The World Dance Alliance-Americas General Assembly held in Madison, Wisconsin this year, christened a weekend-long conference of classes, lectures, panels and performances with a showcase concert mixing a bill of local groups with out-of-towners.

For the most part, the dances were ill-suited to a venue the scope of Madison's lovely historic Capitol Theatre. A smaller theatre would have served the intimate works better and made the show feel less tiring. A few exceptions kept the audience connected to this technically smooth, but way-too-long program.

Out of the thirteen pieces emerged a stunning minimalist solo with Escher-like video projections entitled "Somewhere Close to Now". In it, Philadelpia-based Niki Cousineau used simplicity and economy of choreographic form to its best. Rare that dance and video are so perfectly married, Cousineau, obviously a strong dancer, boldly chose to draw attention to the power of hand gesture, simple running, and stillness, allowing time for her strong presence to be absorbed.

The Taiwanese Bird and Water Dance Ensemble, a company of dancers with disabilities, filled the stage with colored ribbons, unison movement and bright, chintzy sequined costumes. Inconsistent in dance technique, but strong in performance skills, this group of young athletic amputees and blind dancers took command with a series of lively Asian-flavored contemporary dances all choreographed by Tsui-Chen Yen. In the highlight "Rainbow in the Heart", a trio of fearless blind men, youthful, flexible, and clad in white, leapt, rolled, spun and reached with a commitment seldom seen, even in able-bodied dancers.

Also, the Madison-based Jazzworks Dance Company brought solid technique and a welcome sense of humor and lightness to "Borrowed Baroque" --a nicely structured bit of stylish choreography by Sam Watson.