Friday, October 23, 2015

"Operate"....Joanna Numata and Neil Schwartz

When you listen to the vocal style of Etta James, Nina Simone, or Ella Fitzgerald, one thing that is a common theme among all three, is their skillful use of phrasing and shading in their delivery. Many years later, when Eric B and Rakim came onto the rap scene, people were once again blown away by Rakim's artistic use of tempo and rhythm with regard to his speech pattern. His phrasing and deliberate pauses even earned him the nickname "Coltrane of Hip Hop." Consequently, dancers can also learn from this musical principle and create layers of complexity and nuance in their movement by creating moments of silence and phrasing. This collaborative video by Neil Schwartz and Joanna Numata, both from NYC Broadway Dance Center, highlights this concept perfectly.

MUSICALITY: Any orchestral work that exists is the sum of its diverse parts. The strings play in harmony with the brass, counterpoint to the percussion section, etc. But it is never the case, that ALL parts play at ALL times. This would create an imbalance in the orchestra's ability to ebb and flow between dynamic and sostenuto, forte and pianissimo. For balance to exist, the individual parts must know when to interact and when to hold their space silently. For movement artists, a similar effect can be created through the use of canon. An example of this is (:07-:09 and 1:05-1:07) where both choreographers ask certain dancers to hold stillness for a set count, thereby allowing the movement to mirror the repetitive aspects of the music. Sometimes, in the street vernacular you will hear this technique referenced as "ripple" or "peel off." In any case, the result is the same and is an effective way to add visual texture to break up a completely unison phrase.

DANCER SYNC: As I mentioned before, both of these choreographers understand the importance of phrasing the movement. When Neil's section starts (1:07-1:13) you can observe a beautiful balance between sharp, contracted, hard hit accents, and then perfectly smooth, legato, almost soft arm sequencing. This is very much akin to the way that the aforementioned vocalists would snap the pronunciation of one word, and then languidly stretch out the next. The beauty of this awareness can be seen in the dancer's interpretation of the choreography. When a choreographer realizes that the movement must have a cohesive flow between hard and soft, then the dancer can easily slip into this groove, as it is the natural essence of breathing (inhale is dynamic and powerful, exhale is relaxed and smooth).

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: Many times, when I watch young choreographers who aspire to work in the commercial industry, they often lack basic sensibilities. Because of this, their performances typically feel flat and one-dimentional. One simple lesson that can be learned from Joanna and Neil's work is the "Rule of Two". If you watch carefully, you will notice that every two counts of 8, there is a complete formation change from "V" to "inverted V" to "2 by 3" to "5 on a die" etc. By applying this simple rule, Neil and Joanna have created a compelling sense of power and intensity, thereby keeping the energy high and audience fully engaged. For even more complexity, choreographers can also apply the "Rule of Two" within the counts of 8 themselves, a technique that Academy of Villains have mastered beyond perfection.

KUDOS to Joanna and Neil for illustrating fundamentally beautiful form in the composition of their movement and being exemplary in their execution.

Friday, October 16, 2015

"Quiet Joy"...Brinda Guha

The word "FUSION" has recently risen to fame within the dance world, being used to describe any and all sorts of genre blending. At the moment, you can find teachers promoting everything from "contemporary fusion" to "hip hop fusion" to "latin fusion". All that to say, with so much fusion floating around the dance space, its beautiful to see an artist who has a truly clear vision when it comes to authentically blending disparate movement traditions into a cohesive choreographic statement. Brinda Guha, the artistic director of Kalamandir Dance Company in NYC, has taken the vocabulary of ancient Indian khattak dance, and crossbred it with a more western contemporary dance approach. The result is a lush and sensual treat for the eyes and ears.

MUSICALITY: Khattak dance is a heavily percussive Indian folk dance, that requires intense mastery of complex footwork and rhythmic patterns. Traditionally accompanied by the tabla, a drum that is capable of producing distinct tones and pitches, the khattak dancer has the ability to keep dynamic tempo with their feet, while simultaneously telling a fluid, continuous story with their hands and torso. To see a master khattak dancer in action, is to see the human brain working on many different layers, all together in perfect synchronicity. When Brinda started to blend the traditions of khattak with a more contemporary aesthetic, she was able to translate this duality by incorporating the iconic movement of folk styles into upper torso and port de bras, while exploring the more grounded elements of contemporary footwork and even, classical lower body technique (4th position, 2nd position, 1st position, arabesque, 1:53-1:55).

DANCER SYNC: All dance techniques employ some aspect of core and pelvic isolation and control, by focusing on this universal constant, Brinda was able to find common ground where khattak could intersect with contemporary. Watch (1:45-1:48) and you will a beautiful undulation of the hips and pelvic bowl. This is a perfect example of the essence of the Kalamandir approach, finding the movements that intersect and then building up and down from this starting point. Consequently, this creates a cohesive movement language that works equally well on both planes, thereby allowing the dancers to connect deeply to sequence.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: When I watch Brinda's work, I feel compelled to let go and allow myself to be hypnotically transported. The dancers of KDC move through the space like a mandala that is perpetually changing its form, evolving and shifting shape and color. There is also a mature sensibility to balance the percussive, rhythmic accents, with the smooth, lyrical elements. When a choreographer knows how to play with this delicate back and forth, the viewer is able to maintain a strong investment in the company's artistic statement.

KUDOS to Brinda for nailing the true aspects of a fusion between two very unique and seemingly contradictory modes of movement, creating a surprising and satisfying new amalgam.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"No Such Thing" - Jon Rua

Integral to the notion of artistic progress, is the necessity for innovation and experimentation. Jon Rua is an artist keen to explore the limits of street style movement, fusing it with a theatrical aspect that strives to dig deeper towards an internal motivation. Similar to the process of Adler and Stanislavski, Jon's approach to street style choreography is as interested in the "moves" as he is with the "motivation." For Jon, it is not enough to merely create visually exciting pictures, but these pictures must also serve a primary internal purpose of story-telling and character development. For this reason, Jon's style has been described as "urban theater" since it resides directly in the cross-hairs of foundation steps (locking, popping, isolations, waving, top rock) and traditional method acting.

MUSICALITY: For Jon, the importance of musicality cannot be stressed enough. But essential to this idea of musicality, is Jon's profound understanding of "the groove." It is a concept that is explored in various disciplines, such as the gaga technique used by the Batsheva Company. Essentially, it implies that the "motor" of the body is constantly plugged into the pulse of the music. If the music were to suddenly stop, the dancers would easily be able to continue the movement because the groove is still strong within. If you watch the initial moments (0:22-0:32) you notice how Jon has his dancers literally sit into the pocket of the groove, get into character, prior to moving. This moment of quiet stillness is fundamental to Jon's movement strategy. He also makes nice use of the percussive groove (0:47-0:49) where the back kicks mimic the dynamic impact of the kick drum heard in the track. One of the most visible moments of groove, occurs in ending tag of the chorus (1:37-1:39) where the pendular swing of the arms are mirrored by the lower body and knees. This creates a beautiful signature moment that Jon returns to later in the piece, creating continuity and structure, all based on the same groove.

DANCER SYNC: When the groove is strong, it is almost impossible for the dancers to feel incongruent with the movement. This is one of the beautiful aspects of groove-based almost always feels wonderful. There are, at times, instances where a choreographer will ask a dancer to do something wholly incongruent with the groove, for aesthetic purposes, but this is not one of them. I cannot identify a single moment where Jon's choreography seems out of sync with the dancers' natural movement instincts. It goes without saying, therefore, that Jon's choreography is not only safe, but also fun to dance.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: Jon himself has an extensive background in theatre, having worked extensively on Broadway and live performances. One huge advantage that this history gives him, is the ability to create dynamic staging, without relying on camera tricks or post-production. Notice that the entire video was shot in a single take, without edits, and still maintains a high level of dynamic, visual information. Intrinsic to this ability, is Jon's creative use of diagonal perspective. Look how seamlessly he transitions from a stage left diagonal, to stage right, to 3/2 formation, just within the span of 10 seconds (2:50-3:00). And for the typical audience member, who is unable to articulate why they feel so engaged with the stage action, these subtle shifts yield huge returns. For me, Jon has a stage director's eye and is also able to create background and scenery with the dancers' bodies. Notice how the dancers in the rear of the stage, create a backdrop for the featured couples at (1:45-2:05).

KUDOS to Jon for truly pushing the boundaries of hip hop story-crafting and creating new ways for us to view traditional street style movement.

Monday, May 19, 2014

"Wake Up"...Justin Conte

Walk into any typical dance class, and you will inevitably hear the teacher say at some point, "I want you to FEEL the music." Ironically, for many dancers who have trained in a highly classical setting, the ability to breath and be moved by the rhythm and groove is challenging and foreign. Dancers of the traditional vein, are often educated in a way that actually diminishes their natural movement instincts for something more "aesthetically pleasing" or "technically correct." However, at the end of all discussion and debate, dance MUST be felt and experienced for it to truly come alive. Justin Conte's choreography pays tribute to the tradition of classical technique, yet highlights the priority of sensation above all else. Just like cooking, dance should be a highly sensual experience that engages the dancer's sight, smell, taste, sight and, in this case especially, TOUCH.

MUSICALITY: The idea of contact and touch is an intrinsic element of Justin's style. It is interesting to note, that with the exception of the theremin perhaps, all musical instruments involve tactile engagement between the musician's physical body (fingers, lips, feet, hands) and the actual instrument. If you watch at (0:29-0:30) Justin creates a metaphor that simulates the crack of a snare drum with the clasp of two hands. This motif is then expanded throughout the body and outer extremities. For example, look at (1:19-1:22) and notice how the accent is now translated into the upper torso and head, and then with an outward snap of the knees.

DANCER SYNC: The permission to let loose, be free and ride the beat FEELS delicious to a dancer. Look at (1:37-1:44) where the movement takes on a decidedly pendular quality, where the joints of the arms and spine are allowed to swing and sway. At the same time, Justin creates a beautiful balance to the release by adding moments of sustained, modulated stillness, as when the arms slowly rise skyward. This modulation between control and release, restraint and abandon, engenders a feeling of natural authenticity in the dancer's body that is visibly satisfying. Another aspect of Justin's choreography that is worth mentioning, is the focus and attention he brings to the dancers' subjective experience. Whether it is the slippery glide of wet paint on the skin, dancing underneath a shower of flower petals or the rough texture of a concrete wall, it is obvious that Justin wants his dancers to "feel something" visceral and sensual, instead of simply performing a pre-rehearsed sequence of steps. This immediate recognition of the present moment is one of the hallmarks of TRUE contemporary dance, an element that is sadly missing in many current incarnations of the genre.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: This piece was choreographed to create "awareness"...although, Justin does not articulate the direction or subject that the awareness was intended. However, this is not important when discussing the ultimate goal and his success in this effort. It is enough that the viewer is totally drawn into the moment and the fully sensual quality that Justin imagined. There is a beautiful contrast between the dusty, grainy group movement, and the more intimate, dripping, close-up shots of the hands. As if to explore the full spectrum of sensation, from wet to dry, from fast to slow, from loud to soft, the entire project forces the viewer to pay attention, thereby creating an urgent sense of awareness and attention to subtle details.

KUDOS to Justin for creating choreography that wakes up our senses, touches the skin and whispers to the heart.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Read All About It"...Matthew Tseng

The merging of the passionate, virtuosic body with music that moves the heart is something of great appeal and beauty. For artist Mathew Tseng, “dance is a mixture of Athleticism, Emotion, and Movement,” which translates into what I see as physical inspiration. These qualities are not only embodied in Matthew’s rendition of “Read All About It,” but are brought beyond the expected performance realm of the Contemporary Jazz genre in a dance film combining beauty of scenery with beauty of expression. Out of the studio, off the stage, and on-location, Matthew takes his audience with him as he sculpts the dialogue between a narrative of friendship and the lyricism of choreography. Using film to convey the work really engages the audience within an experience that is not only readable and relatable, but also more intimate and sensitive than if viewed in a typical performance setting. The framing of the camera soaks the creation in nostalgia and enriches the qualities already inherent in the dance. Matthew has full control and it feels good to ride his perspective.

MUSICALITY: It is lovely how Matthew paints the vocals and illuminates the instrumentation of the song while carrying emotional context. The clarity of how the movement and music partner one another is so satisfying as a viewer. At (00:34-00:37) ones sees three different visualizations of the lyrics “come on.” First the arm swirls above the head and the dancers drop to the floor. Then they jump into second with a sweep of the arm. Lastly there is a sweeping fouette, the leg matching the rhythm in the wording. One will also note that each rendition of “come on” also finds a lingering or accented movement of the lower-body, which syncs with the chords of the piano. The connection to the lyrics may be more noticeable, but look further and one sees the piano in the footwork. A particularly noticeable example of this is at (0:40-0:56) when one hears “you’ve got the light to fight the shadows.” “You’ve got the” is seen articulated in the movement of the leg. The piano is seen in the out-in action of the feet on “light to.” The sounding of “fight” is visible in an attitude turn. Ever so poetically, “shadow” is found in a dynamic drop in body level. He is utilizing the entire body as a vessel of musicality. Yet, the upper-body to lyrics and lower-body to instrumentation is seen throughout as the passion of the dancers carry the song within. The layering within the choreography is another means he brings visual to the music. Taking notice of the material relatively early in the phrase work at (0:22-00:26) one sees a succession beginning with the female in the front being dropped into a split by her partner (ever so buoyantly and elastic, at that!). Next, the female in the back explodes into a jump. After the two girls connect in a roll to the ground, the male rolls his head. The trio becomes an accumulative orchestra of bodies accenting musical cues, allowing the song to be painted across the space dynamically. Matthew has clearly opened his ears and tailored his athletic and passionate movement to compliment the track in a variety of ways. The effect is quite enjoyable for the viewer and the breathe in the flow of the movement shows a fluid connection to all components of the song.

DANCER SYNC: Here at SERVINGCHOREO, we are always on the lookout for choreographers, who are considerate of the bodies that they are actually working with. For the purposes of this analysis, DANCER SYNC is a commentary on a choreographer’s ability to compose work compatible with his dancers’ abilities and comfort zone. All of our bodies are different and have various strengths and weakness, all of which are beautiful and valid in their own right. It is nice to see that Tseng not only keeps his dancers safe throughout the work, as seen in the partnering, but also gives the dancers space to express their own variations within the choreography. There is never a moment during the dance film that I worry for the dancers. One can see their comfort in the movement in their ability to hit musical cues while also living in an expansive, emotive state. In terms of partnering safety, at (1:30-1:36) one clearly sees the male figure supporting the female through a lift sequence. He smoothly and appropriately places his hands to provide the support she needs to move her body in space and allow her the freedom to express freely. I never have to worry that he will drop her or that his hand placement is misinformed. Audience and dancers are at east, which is ever more so noticeable when at the end of the sequence the female launches forward nearly out of his arms. The male is still there to support her daring escape as they seamlessly meet in his embrace, showing a strong connection between the partners and allowing the choreography to be accomplished injury-free. Partner safety is also seen during the male duet around (1:57-2:11). This section is really engaging, especially due to how weight is managed. The male dancers are able to suspend, lift, and share the weight of one another with fluidity and safety in the joints. A scary moment in the choreography could be one of the many sudden drops to the floor when the dancers fold down upon their legs. If done improperly, the dancers would be knocking their bones painfully into the floor or be at risk of more than a few bruises. Yet, the dancers do not collapse within their bodies, even as they collapse to the floor. They have the core strength and proper approach to land softly. At (1:12) the camera allows one to perfectly view how the dancers smoothly lower their bodies to the ground, following the flesh on the side of their leg and never for a moment compromising their knee. Matthew shows true compassion and understanding for his dancers at (0:47-0:48) when the choreography calls for an extension of the leg. One will notice that each dancer’s leg is at a different level, showing personal range of motion. The freedom Matthew gives to each dancer at this time is what I like to call a “gold star moment” because each dancer accomplishes the choreography as an individual and the audience witnesses the personal beauty of each dancer without an inclination to judge and compare. The height of the leg is not the priority and I thank Mathew for valuing his dancers enough to give them room to dance without sacrificing technique.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: There is something about viewing dance in real time, being in the space with the movers. Nothing can replace live performance. However, film enables Mathew to highlight the humanity within the work and guide his audience in a way that would not be an option if the choreography were to be performed upon the stage. Through both the perspective of the camera and the particular framing of the action, one witnesses human connection within the actual phrase work and a story that parallels the contemporary jazz movement. As much as I love pure movement, I am really drawn towards choreography’s ability to investigate the human condition. Plus, I am especially appreciative of the expressive capability of the hands. Matthew accomplishes both! At (1:57-2:11), during the male duet, Matthew rekindles a friendship that was broken at the onset of the work. This is seen with a close-up of their hands meeting. It is so powerful how the one hand brushes down the arm of the other, pulling the other dancer back into relationship and pulling at your heartstrings. The close-up of the hands joining references the “letting go” at (0:14). It is a little difficult to not be impacted by the uplifting nature of the gesture. And relationships are a ubiquitous experience for us all on a very basic level. The significance he brings to these interactions and the ways he using film to capture the dance makes for a relatable and inspiring piece.

KUDOS to Matthew for paralleling human experience and contemporary jazz in a creative film context: producing a work that is both relatable and uplifting.

Reviewed by Natalie Deryn Johnson

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"Young And Beautiful"...Mayo Alanen

For most hardcore contemporary dancers, a show like "Dancing With The Stars" holds little potential for the deep subtleties that are the hallmark of somatic work. For most, ballroom dance has a long association with flashy costuming and passionately presentational competition style dancing. Very few would look to the world of ballroom for deeper exploration beyond technical footwork, fake tans, and megawatt smiles. But for every "rule" there is an exception. This piece, by Mayo Alanen, is a "contemporary ballroom" work, that illustrates that the key to authenticity lies in the execution and the intention. For every ballroom choreographer that chooses the traditional route, there is a Mayo digging into the possibilities of a road less traveled.

MUSICALITY: It comes as no surprise that Mayo exhibits an almost instinctual sense of musicality and rhythm. Ballroom dancers are expected to know the rhythmic peculiarities that differentiate the foxtrot from the quickstep, the samba from the tango, and demonstrate proficiency among all. For this reason, Mayo hears music in a manner not unlike a drummer or tap dancer, paying attention to the long and short beats, the syncopation, and the rests between beats. I was particularly drawn to the choreographic shapes that Mayo used to accentuate the words "I know you WILL" throughout his musical scheme. The first time we see this idea is (1:15-1:22), where the female dancer emphasizes the "will" with a side-tilt develope and a battement derrier, before snaking to the ground like a serpentine switchback. In an effective use of theme and variation, Mayo again alludes to this same sequence at (2:21-2:28) but with a different set of shapes. Another moment, that illustrates Mayo's deft musicality, is the almost imperceptible mirroring of the strings at (2:12-2:14) which shows his attention to even the smallest of details.

DANCER SYNC: For the purposes of this blog, the "dancer sync" condition typically refers to the choreographer's ability to create movement that is safe and feels good for the dancer. As a master partner, and seasoned pro, Mayo is an expert at providing a stable foundation for his partners to rely on. For a simple example of the trust that is placed in Mayo's hands, watch (0:55-0:57) where the female dancer literally falls into his cradle, never hesitating for an instant. There are also numerous places where he literally lofts her skyward and makes us believe that she is lighter than air, in danger of floating out of his grasp.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: Mayo has a profound understanding of the professional ballroom world, having been a world finalist and a featured partner on Dancing With The Stars. But this time around, working with Colby Massanari, he is creating a compelling new argument as to what ballroom is capable of communicating. From the very beginning, he sets the mood, not with steps or "moves," but with the ephemeral wisps of fog and smoke. This simple metaphor paints an engaging picture of beauty that is as temporal as mist, here today and gone tomorrow. Notice how he bookends the work with this wind-swept motif, ending the piece just as it began (2:45-2:53). I also felt that Mayo has constructed a high-quality structure for the work, by slowly introducing the more traditional ballroom, instead of aggressively hitting us over the head at the beginning. Observe how long he waits before "pulling" his partner and the audience, into the ballroom element at (1:30-1:32). Prior to this, the movement quality is far more nuanced and textured, and serves as a perfect prelude to the traditional partner work. Also, from his background in the competition world, he has mastered the art of shape and posture. If you look at (2:15-2:16), he imbues the entire moment with a sharp sense of isolation and emptiness, by simply turning away on the word "nothing."

KUDOS to Mayo for framing ballroom in a new and invigorating context, allowing us to see a traditional art form in a poignantly new light.

Please visit for more info about Mayo's work.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Robert Hoffman: Creating TRUE Contemporary Work

If there is one question that currently arouses hot debate within the dance industry, it most certainly is "what is contemporary dance?" As a competition judge and choreographer, I often ask this question to gauge how deeply the media has infiltrated the mass consciousness. Many times, pop culture drives this tendency to categorize and label "what is" and "what is not." Because of this, one typically hears generalizations such as "its just ballet mixed with hip hop" or "a fusion of all styles." However, these are naive attempts to frame contemporary dance within a rubric of "moves" or "steps," when in fact, contemporary dance is reaction based by its very nature. This is why Robert Hoffman might actually be considered one of the most truly "contemporary" choreographers working in the industry today.

True contemporary dance is the exploration of the "now" and the present state. When a dance is truly contemporary, it must take into account all the feelings and sensations that the dancer is experiencing in that exact moment. It is for this reason, that European contemporary masters rely heavily on the art of improvisation to create honest and authentic movement. True improvisation taps into the unique set of environmental factors that are present at any given point in time. This is the reason that many people find compelling contemporary dance "edgy" or "relevant." If a dancer is being genuine in their exploration, there is the opportunity to fail and the possibility for someone to wonder "is this good or crap?" However, the irony is this: if we deem something to be "good" then it immediately becomes a past reference and no longer exists in the "contemporary moment." In a society that revels in past accomplishments and building a repertoire of "classics," this aspect of contemporary dance can be frustrating to grasp. In essence, just as you reach your "success" you are asked to let it go.

And here is the kicker, the only way to truly access these "past references" in a contemporary context, is to view them with self-awareness and understanding that they are literally "of the past." It is for this reason that Robert Hoffman is actually creating "contemporary" work with this piece of video satire. He is expressing his "current state" of observation with regard to the subject of CONTEMPORARY DANCE. And in providing a humorous self-awareness, he demonstrates a reaction-based experience to the feeling we have when we watch this SYTYCD-style, media-defined, mass-produced, market-promoted "thing" that has been labeled "CONTEMPORARY DANCE." We all know, on some level, that what the American public THINKS is "contemporary dance" is actually a glossy, hyped-up, performance that is referencing a past idea or pre-conceived shape. And because these are shapes that are so easily recognizable, Robert's contemporary reaction hits the nail on the head and achieves his critique brilliantly.

In the early days of hip hop, the pioneers of the movement always referred to the EXPERIENCE of "breaking." However, the media always attempts to synthesize an experience into a commodity, so that it can be mass-produced and consumed. This happened before in hip hop, and is now happening within the world of contemporary dance. To hold and smell a real flower is a sensory experience and is very different than seeing a photo of a flower on a magazine page. In all probability, the original flower is probably dead and destroyed by the time you see it on the page. In the same way, true contemporary dance must be experienced in the moment. Someone could perform a "contemporary dance" on SYTYCD, die the next day, and the episode will still air one week later. And this effectively disqualifies it as being "contemporary" since it is no longer "of the now." But since experiences have little to no shelf life, corporate executives need an artificial stand-in that will give television audiences the "flavor" of contemporary, without the actual meat.

So for this moment in time, Robert Hoffman is my featured contemporary artist…because he is actively engaged in the current state of affairs. He alludes to past references with a knowing and observant eye, and makes relevant and accurate comments about the misinformation that has been fed to the American public. Robert understands that the executives at shows like SYTYCD are in the mass-produced entertainment business, and if the word "contemporary" sells advertising dollars, then they will milk that cow dry. But the experience that I felt, while watching Robert's satire, was authentic and totally present in that moment. It is for this reason that I deem it incredibly contemporary work. Interestingly though, now Robert's video itself has now entered into the realm of my own past references….and so goes contemporary dance.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Daydream"...Joshua Pelatzky

I have spent the summer globetrotting to and fro. However, I am returning to my regular blogging schedule and am excited to bring you the work of Joshua Pelatzky. This piece touched me in a number of ways, primarily since I have a strong, personal connection to Italy and the dance community there. I wanted to highlight the work that Joshua is doing there and they manner in which Italian heritage and sensibility influenced this piece.

MUSICALITY: Taking inspiration from Chopin's Nocturne #2, I found Joshua's interpretation fascinating and nuanced. As Wiki explains, "This popular nocturne is in rounded binary form (A, A, B, A, B, A) with coda, C. The A and B sections become increasingly ornamented with each recurrence. The penultimate bar utilizes considerable rhythmic freedom, indicated by the instruction, senza tempo (without tempo). Nocturne in E-flat major opens with a legato melody, mostly played piano, containing graceful upward leaps which becomes increasingly wide as the line unfolds. This melody is heard again three times during the piece. With each repetition, it is varied by ever more elaborate decorative tones and trills. The nocturne also includes a subordinate melody, which is played with rubato." With the key feature here being the element of "senza tempo," how does a choreographer imbue a sense of rhythm and musicality, when the music is intentionally languid and wandering? In analyzing the movement, it becomes clear that the dancers are relying heavily on synchronized breathing to communicate in a cohesive way. Observe the extended partnering sequence from (1:25-1:45) and pay attention to the way the dancers "feel and breathe" their way through the movement, rather than "hit their marks." This is a very advanced skill within the dancers' bag of tricks; to be able to dance in a fully present, fully tactile, fully sensory manner.

DANCER SYNC: I greatly appreciate the movement choices that Joshua has included in his exploration of the space. Rather than filling the simple landscape with overly expressive gestures or awkward technicality, he wisely allows the movements to grow out of a place of simplicity and genuine experience. Noticing that the physical space features multiple levels, curved arches, and a variety of surfaces (wood, stone, earth), he created choreography that blends the human body with these elements in a harmonious union. I love the moments when the female dancer "walks" along the diverse perimeters (0:44-0:46) and (3:13-3:17)...nothing technically tricky, but simple and completely effective.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: One of the challenges for choreographers working in an online video format, is the inability to translate sensory information via digital mediums. When you watch a live performance in a theater, the audience can see, feel, hear, smell, taste the effort and artistry of the dancers. But when you watch a dance online, some aspect of the experience is inevitably lost. However, every once in awhile, a choreographer like Joshua, will choose images, movements and sequences that have the capacity to wake up and engage our collective sense memories. When I watch this video, I am immediately transported to that palazzo, I can feel the breeze and smell the dust. As a dancer, I can imagine the cool touch of the stones on the soles of bare feet, and I can taste the salty sweat of dancing al fresco.

KUDOS to Joshua for giving us the opportunity to travel to Italy and vicariously experience a private moment with a woman and her dance. Click here to learn more about Joshua's background.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review of "Human Metabolism"...Rhapsody James


The course of human life is a study in cyclical formation and destruction. The fact that human beings enter the world helpless and vulnerable, only to one day return to this state, is a transformative process that affects everyone, regardless of race, gender or background. It is this equalizing nature of humanity that is explored in Rhapsody James' new show, "Human Metabolism," currently presented at Dixon Place Theater in SOHO.

As I was sitting in the theater waiting for the show to begin, I curiously searched the term "metabolism" via Wikipedia. Although I remembered the concept from high school science, I wanted to refresh my memory and see if Rhapsody's choice of title might offer any clues as to what we were about to see. In essence, metabolism is the process by which a life form changes matter into energy, a shift of state from food to fuel. Employing enzymes as a catalyst for conversion, this metabolic process happens quickly, efficiently and consistently. So what change then, does "human metabolism" represent and what is driving it?

The structure of the show was a four-part construct, in much the same way that a classical symphony or concerto is composed of musical movements. Herein, Rhapsody's company, R.E.D. (Rhapsody En Dance) would expand on the notion of "temptation," "lust," "illusion," and "rage/ascension." It stands to reason that these loaded guns of emotion are the metaphoric "enzymes" that propel the human experience towards maturity. They are all moments which exist in everyone's life, and once someone has been touched by "temptation" or "rage" they are permanently altered.

Therefore, "human metabolism" is the manner in which an innocent human infant gradually learns who and what they are. They begin to take in experiences and sensations, eventually creating a fully-formed picture of maturity. In order to achieve this effect, Rhapsody's choreography was highly engaging as a fusion between the contemporary modern world, and the vernacular of street-style, urban commercial dance. I felt that her aesthetic paid homage to many of the traditions of hip hop (formations, frontal presentation, isolations, ticks, waves) yet still challenged the audience to dabble with elements outside their comfort zone.

At one point in the show, a solo female dancer performed a fluid, dance-hall inspired seduction for a group of inanimate busts. These blank faces were constantly being manipulated to gaze in her direction, except for one. This "person" would not consent to her siren dance and all of her undulations were in vain. Try as she might, she could never quite break through and make a connection or get "his" attention. I wanted to highlight this moment for two reasons. First of all, for many audience members, an abstract performance like this would typically be described as "weird-ass, hippie shit" or "crunchy granola modern." However, Rhapsody inhabits a very unique place with the NYC dance hierarchy. She possesses the commercial and "flash" credits that enable her to have a legit voice and loyal following, but also has an uninhibited mind and wild sense of creativity. She creates a trust among her dancers and audience, and presents avant guard concepts in a way that is both challenging AND accessible.

The second reason I found this moment compelling, relates to the idea of vulnerability. More than anything, this young woman, who was so desperately seeking approval and validation, allowed us to see her in a state of free-fall, out of control and grasping for something stable. Another moment in the show, entitled "Broken," explored a young man on the brink of isolation and disenfranchisement. By the end of the piece, the dancer is reduced to tears, loneliness and fear. In total silence, Rhapsody asked for complete emotional nakedness, stripping the emotions raw, real and painful. As visually satisfying as the tightly choreographed sections were, these "other" moments are the ones I remember most. They were the moments that choked my throat, punched my gut and forced me to feel a visceral, "human" reaction.

On a side note, I thought that it was interesting that Rhapsody asked her company dancers to perform barefoot. In a community where status and style are frequently conveyed through "sneaks and snapbacks," asking dancers, who are primarily hip hop trained, to dance barefoot, is revelatory in itself. Again, it requires the dancers to shed the "protection" of a shoe, and open themselves up to the potential of hurt and injury. This notion flies in the face of typical b-boy battle culture, where, under no circumstances, would you let your opponent see you cry….or quiver…or break. But Rhapsody is far from typical. In fact, within the metaphor of "human metabolism," Miss James herself is catalyst for change, transforming the lives of every person she meets along the way.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"Give Me Love"...Kyle Hanagami

Kyle Hanagami represents the next generation of hip hop choreographers, a new breed of dancers who are open-minded and curious about all forms of movement and styles. One minute, Kyle can be seen throwing down fatal beats and accents, and then switching things up smooth and fluid. And then, as if to challenge anyone's doubt as to his versatility, he creates a video like "Give Me Love." This piece is pure, contemporary beauty, with a sophisticated eye for detail and nuance. There are truly only a hand-full of choreographers who have such a solid range of skills, working with equal ability across multiple genres.

MUSICALITY: Sometimes a musician is asked to play a note for all its worth. This level of intensity is known as FORTISSIMO, and the opposite quality is known as PIANISSIMO. These two extremes are the bookends of a musician's spectrum, sometimes they play it LOUD and sometimes it is soft to the touch. In a similar way, dancers have this same range of intensity within their movement. If you are dancing for Justin Timberlake at Madison Square Garden in front of 30,000 screaming fans...your movement will probably be big, loud, bold, and FORTISSIMO. However, this video explores the softer, more intimate end of the spectrum. Look at (2:56-2:58) where Kyle translates the lyrics into simple hand contact that moves up the body from the knees, to the hips, to the chest, and finally to the sky. Its neither brash or presentational...but simply alive and floating on top of the breath. Also, many hip hop choreographers feel the need to choreograph every beat possible. Notice the effective pictures that Kyle creates simply using the first beat of the 6/8 time signature (3:01-3:14) and how it helps spotlight the quick tempo change we see at (3:15-3:17). To vary the tempo in this way, is an excellent example of Kyle's keen musicality and choreographic maturity.

DANCER SYNC: This aspect of SERVINGCHOREO is based on the ability of a choreographer to work within his dancers' physical and technical limits. If a someone were working with a wheelchair non-walking dancer, and asked them to do a split jump...we would say that the choreographer doesn't understand the concept of synching the movement to the dancer's body and ability. This is an important point to make when discussing Kyle's work. The majority of the dancers in this video demonstrate a high pedigree of hip hop talent and vocabulary. This training emphasizes body control and precise isolation, instead of the extreme flexibility and extension that is typical in ballet or lyrical. And yet, Kyle is still able to create a complex, layered texture that is beautiful and authentic within the specific skill set that this group of dancers possess. Look at (1:49-1:50) and notice the round sweeping leg move. In classical ballet we call this a "ronde de jambe en l'aire" (which is French for "round of the leg in the air"), and it is typically executed at or above hip height, with a perfectly straight leg and fully arched foot. The point is, in this context the "classical" or "correct" form of this element would not have served these dancers. Whether it was a stylistic choice, or dictated by physical, technical limitations, doesn't matter. The important point is that Kyle chose a modified version of "ronde de jambe en l'aire" that best served the dancers' body type and ability. It was perfect synchronization!

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: I truly believe that dancers have the ability to say those things that words can never express. There are many times when I experience a situation or emotion which are ambiguous and undefined. However, in those moments of inarticulate writer's block, a physical expression through dance can provide lucid clarity. I felt that the prologue of this video did an excellent job showing the set up and purpose of this project. Dancers who are able to transcend the music-video-commercial-mentality and utilize their talent for a social cause, is uplifting and exemplary. As someone who is active in the fight against breast and ovarian cancer, I have nothing but humble gratitude and appreciation for Kyle's work.

KUDOS to Kyle for honoring human struggle through a deft and touching piece of art. For more info, check out Kyle's Website.