Monday, October 23, 2006

The Live Billboard Project-San Francisco

Dancers are brave people. It takes trust, guts, and courage to jump towards someone and believe that they are going to catch you. It takes an inner confidence and strength to know that you can balance seven feet in the air while sitting on the palm of someone else’s hand. Dance is about so many things-talent, ability, technique, and creativity. But, it is also about expectation, reliance, and dependence. As a dancer, you expect that your body will cooperate and do the things that you need it to do. You rely and depend on your peers, your advisors, and your partners to support you both physically, emotionally and artistically. This is the nature of dance and choreography-you become used to putting your safety, your body, and your soul in someone else’s hands. And, the reward for doing so is usually worth the sacrifice.

Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions takes this idea of daring nerve and gallantry to an entirely different level. Their recent outdoor performance, The Live Billboard Project, took place on the side of a building at the corner of 24th and Mission in San Francisco. Harnessed and rigged from above, a trio of dancers propelled down the wall, attached themselves to hanging frames, and an additional soloist balanced herself at and on the edge of the roof, all while dancing. This aerial feat was masterful for two reasons. Firstly, even with the mechanics, complexity, and limitations of the overall concept, Kreiter’s choreography was successful in examining her chosen narrative: the nature of media and the feminine form. This achievement is particularly noteworthy because she managed to convey her message without a conventional performance space. Some of the other modern dance choreographers in this city have difficulty attaining that goal even when they have both a stage and a floor at their disposal.

I have to admit, when I read the director’s note in the program, which stated the impetus for her piece, my first thought was, here we go again. Another modern dance work focusing on the degradation of the female body in the media. This theme has become to modern dance what tortured love stories are to ballet. Over and over again, choreographers search for a new way to scrutinize this which appears to offend them so deeply. But, I should remember in the future that sometimes my first reaction is hasty and may cause me to view performance with a pre-conceived (and sometimes incorrect) notion. As I watched the piece, it became clear that Kreiter’s investigation of this concept was different-it was for lack of a better word, balanced (no pun intended). Many find the portrayal of women in popular culture to be demeaning and offensive, but even with this opinion also comes an strange appeal to and fascination with what is being portrayed. Whether this is good or bad is really up to the individual to judge, but it is important to realize that both thoughts often do exist. In the choreography, Kreiter managed to illustrate that this idea of women and the media is often a pull in two opposing directions. The trio section of the piece included images of being hung and being trapped with movements that were contracted, uncomfortable, and strained. At the same time, she also incorporated choreography for those same three dancers that was freeing so that it really looked like the trio were joyously flying through space. The solo that was danced at the edge of the roof also was indicative of this duality. One minute, it seemed as though the soloist was fighting an inner battle against her constraints towards her need for freedom. She would attempt to break away from what was restricting her by almost flinging herself over the edge of the building with an extension of her leg, her arm or occasionally a lay-out of her entire body. Then, at other times, the choreography evoked a feeling of calmness and a grateful serenity through small, flowing movements. With these, the audience could see her appreciation for what was keeping her attached to the roof and preventing her from falling over the edge. This illustration of duality is extremely important. Societal issues aren’t one-sided and a realistic portrayal of both views is what made the piece so powerful, convincing, and cohesive.

Secondly, and more obviously, the piece was an amazing spectacle to see. Dancers were actually doing choreography in the air. They hit key positions at the same time; they moved in unison; they extended; they contracted; they performed. And, they manage to accomplish it all without the standard support of a floor. It was an astonishing demonstration. How often can you walk down a street and see a rehearsed, choreographed and produced art-piece? On that night, on that corner, art was accessible to anyone who wished to see it. Yes, some of the audience had come to the Mission district specifically to see that performance. But, others just happened upon it-they were walking down the street, on their way to whatever they had planned for the evening. Some stopped and watched, others just glanced as they passed by. I have often heard the phrase, ‘art imitates life’. I think the message, the concept, and the fabrication of The Live Billboard Project was less on the subject of ‘art imitating life’ and more about art being a part of life.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Savion Glover-Zellerbach Hall

There were stomps, stamps, slams, and slaps; shuffles, scuffles, wings, and riffs; buffalos, toe stands, time steps, and cramp rolls. If you were at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on September 22nd, you were fortunate enough to witness a performance that incorporated many of these basic elements of tap dance. However, if you were in attendance at Classical Savion that night, you know that the show you saw was anything but ordinary or basic. What you saw was astonishing; it was inventive; it was everything you would expect from musician/dancer/choreographer Savion Glover. The evening was a classical and contemporary musical interplay between a string orchestra, a jazz trio and an amazing pair of feet. When it comes to tap dancing, Savion Glover is truly astonishing-there are few who would argue with that statement. Therefore, rather than focus on a viewpoint that is largely unchallenged, additional aspects of the performance should be addressed. And, in a discussion of his interdisciplinary approach to music and dance, both positive and negative issues come to light.

On the positive side, the program clearly illustrated Savion Glover’s startling talent as a musician, conductor, and composer. The latter is a role he excels in but it is rarely discussed or acknowledged in the dance world. That should be remedied because he is really one of the great composers of our time. The early sections of the performance presented an intricate polyphonic relationship between Glover and the musicians; a rhythmic examination of famous classical repertoire, including Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. There were times when the dancing and the music matched, and Glover’s percussive feet were working in the same metrical structure as the melody of the piece. Then, within the same piece, there would be other occasions when Glover purposely explored contradicting metered lines, juxtaposing syncopated jazz tap sequences against the structured backdrop of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music compositions. His ability to examine the different musical combinations between his percussive taps and the orchestrations resulted in one of the most complex fugal patterns imaginable. He took multiple independent voicings and integrated them in such a way that each one remained as important as the others-that is the textbook definition of a fugue. Nothing was musically subordinate or inferior-every line was of equal significance. Wherever they are, I could imagine Mozart, Bach, and Haydn also watching the performance that night and commenting on how they wish they had come up with the composition that was presented-the first two segments were that good.

The only disappointing portion of Classical Savion was the third and final section, in which Glover introduced each member of the orchestra and the jazz artists, and then proceeded to perform an improvised duet with each individual. He was not the only one that was improvising. During this long segment, each of the musicians improvised on their respective instruments while Glover offered an unrehearsed tap counterpart along with them. This type of exhibition is currently referred to as “improvography”. Improvography is a hybrid of improvisation and choreography, and is clearly a ‘made-up’ term that was first coined by the late tap legend Gregory Hines. According to the May 2004 issue of Dance Magazine, improvography has two elements, allowing dancers and choreographers to, “…embrace both the highly structured compositional nature and the improvisatory freedom of certain kinds of jazz/rhythm tap.” (42) While Glover is without a doubt an extraordinary musician and dancer, he is not successful at trying to apply Hines’ vision of improvography to his work. He certainly has the spontaneous, unplanned component down pat-no question. But, he does not give adequate attention to the other part-the parameters and the compositional elements that are also required for something to be improvography. Glover is not really using improvography as it was intended; he is using it to re-define improvisation. Unfortunately, re-naming something doesn’t change what it is. And, improvisation is self-indulgent playtime for performers. For the audience, it is a tedious and often insulting display that feels like you are watching performers rehearse, not perform. It is certainly fun for the participants, but not for the audience, which was made abundantly clear as some of the audience was not willing to sit through it. Improvisation has its place in dance and music, but the sad truth is that some artists have come to believe that it belongs in a presentational forum. It is a developmental tool, and that’s how it should remain-in the arsenal of work done in the studio, expanding choreography, and preparing for performance.

Conceptually, perhaps it would have been better to have the experimental improvography in the middle of the performance so that it could have been sandwiched in between two more powerful and clearly defined sections. The first two thirds of the show were so compelling that their strength may have exaggerated the weakness and ambiguity of the improvography portion. It seems as though the piece may simply need some more time to develop, reorganize and unify as one solid body of work if it is to be presented as one single production.