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!