Monday, December 24, 2012

"Someone Like You"...Melanie Mah

"Just make good art"...I find myself constantly imploring my students to adhere to this maxim for success in choreography. And yet, many would say that it is much easier said than done. I agree that mastery of technique and skillful use of choreographic tools is important, but when it comes to making "good art," nothing trumps honesty and vulnerability. There is a phrase in stagecraft that says "personal is universal" other words, if you allow the audience to see the most intimate corners of your psyche, they will vicariously relate your experience to their own. This creates a moment of magical empathy with the viewer and consequently produces good, truthful art. Melanie Mah is a fearless choreographer, who has the courage to be completely open about the pain, hesitation, frustration, and uncertainty of relationship dynamics. Much like Apple computer products, she is an artist who values design and executes a simple concept with sharp precision and authenticity.

MUSICALITY: There are a number of key moments in this piece that work so brilliantly, I find that they are etched in the forefront of my recollection. Watch how Melanie accurately conveys the longing for attention and recognition (2:01-2:09) using simple head gestures. This synchronicity of movement and music creates a palpable tension between the woman, who is begging her partner just to look her in the face, pleading for him to connect with her eye to eye. In terms of accent and rhythm, Melanie has a natural sensibility in bringing longs and shorts to life. At (2:53-2:58) she creates distinct pictures on the words "this" and "would"...but then allows the movement to languidly melt to the ground on "taste." Finally, the moment at 3:58 may be the most effective image of "hurt" I have ever seen in a dance...the male dancer's hand may as well be a hot branding iron, burning the back of her arm. Simply stunning.

DANCER SYNC: The partnering phrases, as well as the unison group sections, have a fluid cohesiveness that every choreographer should aspire to. Too many times, in an effort to be "original" or "inventive," a novice choreographer will overcompensate and create phrases that are awkward and messy. Melanie keeps the vocabulary fairly traditional, but then executes it with perfection. The unison sequence at (3:27-3:40) is gorgeous flowing example of logical choreographic choices, which allow the dancers to move through their full range of motion and explore the music deeply.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: At the beginning of this post, I talked about the idea of universality. If an artist creates material that is a genuine reflection of their life and perspective, the audience will find the pieces within the work that apply to their own experience. The first time I saw (3:23-3:26) I literally felt my heart sink for this girl. The "hurt" that she is able to convey with her body, falling into her man, and then struggling to stand, is a raw and unaffected take on the emotions "real" people feel in moments of hopeless desperation. I also love the way, Melanie took the time to "set the stage," by assiduously and efficiently creating the characters and establishing the relationship. The little preamble that occurs in the reality of Starbucks, serves to make the internal monologue of the dance that much more effective.

KUDOS to Melanie for demonstrating the "Apple Principle"...take something simple, do it really well and produce a good, sharp product that people can embrace and relate to.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"The Last Goodbye"...Isis Masoud

Mainstream media is particularly adept at categorization and association. "Pink is the new black" or "hip hop is about bling and video babes" are two examples of broad generalizations that actually hold little validity when you dig deeper into the subject matter. Pole dancing, is a excellent example of this urge to classify and stereotype. Despite the fact that pole dancing has a long and dignified history in Chinese and Indian culture (practiced by men and women alike), in the United States, there has been a tendency to sexualize the art form and project a "dirty taboo" onto a genre that requires a tremendous degree of legitimate skill and strength. Isis Masoud is a contemporary choreographer who seeks to enlighten people's perception of pole dancing, and bring attention to the unique possibilities that the vertical element provides

MUSICALITY: According to game theory, whenever you change the rules of a game, your approach and strategy must change relative to the new landscape. For a choreographer, adding the element of a new apparatus ought to inspire a broad range of creative, innovative options. Some choreographers are able to fully explore the opportunities that a new prop affords...and some are not. Fortunately for us, Isis provides an excellent example of a dance that explores this new element completely. Whether its the ability to create circular movement phrases in mid-air or the unique perspective that the pole brings to certain body lines, Isis' use of the pole allows us to see her choreography in ways we are not accustomed to. Similar to the way one feels when walking on a glass window at the top of a skyscraper, looking down through a glass bottom to the street hundreds of feet below...when we see an attitude line or arabesque suddenly suspended above us, free of gravitational constraints, it is a thrilling new experience. On a similar note, the opening phrase from (0:03-0:06) is such a simple, fetal position...yet the chance to see it rotate in motion is breathtaking.

DANCER SYNC: For a performance that is required to defy gravity, the continuous flow of momentum and energy becomes paramount. Looking at (0:40-0:44), Isis creates a logical kinetic flow that begins in a ronde jambe, into a straddle rotation, and resolves in a spiral wrap. This kind of "dynamic logic" is often lost on amateur choreographers, who become so enchanted by a "cool move" or "sick move" that they forget the flow. A good movement phrase ought to animate the dancer with fluidity and logic, never choppy or disjointed. Interestingly, a good choreographer can ALSO create the ILLUSION of chaotic, incongruent movement...while still forming a phrase that makes kinetic sense to the dancer who is asked to dance it. Watch the extended moment from (1:08-1:27) to get a feeling for just how adept Isis is at creating phrases that flow with unbroken continuity...literally a physical, visceral, stream of consciousness. Also, it is wonderful to note, that at the end the video, Isis shares the choreographer credit with her dancers, Marlo and Kyle...this type of generosity and humility is not often seen in the dance world and ought to be recognized!

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: As I noted before, the ability of a choreographer to fully explore a new medium is paramount to the resulting success. As a viewer, I found myself immediately drawn into the story and pictures that Isis creates with the pole. Moreover, I became so throughly invested in the movement and emotional arc that eventually the "pole" seemed to disappear. Call it willing suspension of disbelief, but I began to see the dancers simply levitating and rolling through midair. I imagine it being something akin to seeing ballerinas en pointe for the first time. The skill and technique of the choreographer and dancer, creates an "impossible," yet immersive dream that draws you in and entrances you.

KUDOS to Isis for taking hold of this vertical medium and allowing us to reconsider and appreciate "pole dancing" through her choreographic, artistic filter.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"Amsterdam"...Daniel Robinson

Recently, I have been asked why I have not featured such distinguished choreographers as Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, or Martha Graham. While I have utmost respect for these legends, their work exists primarily on stage, where is is best appreciated live and in person. The purpose of SERVING CHOREO, is to highlight the exemplary work of choreographers who are creating art and content online. The degree to which a choreographer is successful in translating their work from stage to YouTube screen varies considerably from person to person. However, there are some individuals who have boldly embraced this new frontier and sought to choreograph SPECIFICALLY for online appreciation. Daniel Robinson, is one such innovator. As opposed to using the internet as a marketing tool for real world performance, his choreography is intentionally formatted to be enjoyed via small screen. For him, the decision to turn a dance piece into a video project is not a secondary afterthought, but instead, an integral component of his creative process from the outset. Daniel's work is a fantastic demonstration of a choreographer making full use of the online potential for creative perspective, inventive editing, and dynamic pacing. He is a TRUE "videographer" (video-choreographer) since he not only choreographs, but also films, edits, and masters the resulting video content.

MUSICALITY: I had the opportunity to speak with Daniel about his creative process. With regard to musicality, he mentioned that "the music for a dancer is like the map - so it affects the movement of the dancer. I like to use many different kinds of music to get a range of movement quality. During the shoot we constantly discussed the story and where the character was coming from. It was a very collaborative process." Also, when using the camera as a tool for choreography, the ability to edit musically becomes paramount. If you watch carefully from (2:18-2:24) you will realize how precise Daniel edits the imagery of his movement. We see the dancer literally crippling under the weight of being "pushed to the ground." Similarly, the body is seen wrapping the pipe, like a serpentine ribbon, on the word "around."

DANCER SYNC: I am always looking for opportunities to highlight choreographers who have healthy communication with their dancers. Some choreographers are simply beastly when they make certain demands, which compromise the dancer's safety and well-being. Daniel, however, is just the opposite...actively engaging the dancer to find a solution that works in the body as well as the camera. He told me, that their process was a mix of suggestion on Daniel's part, and improvisation on the part of Josh (the dancer). Daniel said, "thankfully Josh lives in the world of improv, so you say an idea, feeling, or image and he's two steps ahead. He never judged anything or second guessed himself - it was purely forward and fearless. He's a true master. When I film and choreograph my dance films I like to let the dancer know they are un-judged and can make no mistake in front of me or the lens." This idea of "there-is-no-wrong" during the creation process is wonderfully empowering to the dancer and allows them to truly invest themselves in the choreography. (On a related side note, I recently came across another video where Justin Bieber's back-up dancers created an impromptu site specific piece in an airport terminal during a flight delay, LOL, dancers are the luckiest folks alive)

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: For the audience, it is always thrilling to see the banal aspects of life, filtered through a brand new perspective. Site specific choreography is one of the easiest ways to achieve this effect. Site specific choreography is created to exist only in a certain place and is generated through research and interpretation of the site’s unique cultural matrix of characteristics and topographies, whether architectural, historical, social and/or environmental; discovering the hidden meaning in a space and developing methods to amplify it. To this end, Daniel succeeds brilliantly. He mentioned that when he is choreographing for a filmed project "there is more freedom and you find yourself taking more risks with ideas and images. In my experience when choreographing a staged piece and then filming it - I fall in love with things from the front and fear going anywhere beyond." When I asked him about choosing to film on the roof, he said that he tends "to film many pieces on roofs, since the views and images are always so delicious. When editing a live performance, it can get monotonous. I like the not knowing of what you'll see. The roof is a magical place." When you watch the piece at (1:13-1:19) you can see an unbroken movement phrase from two different perspectives. The first is in the dancer's vicinity, while the second is from a far, framed by the raw materials of the environment. This shift in perspectives creates a sort of energetic heartbeat that compels the piece forward. Daniel also understands the key element of motivation. All of the images in the film exist for a reason. And whether or not the audience can articulate why they feel the movement is justified, they know subconsciously that it is rooted in reality. To ensure that film is authentic, Daniel studies "story formulas constantly. I am a very big believer in the western story structure. Then the choreographer's eye comes in on the places in between. The movement must communicate quietly with a point of view. The lens never lies. I love them both - dance and film. Perfect Match."

KUDOS to Daniel for embracing the digital medium, not as an extension of the choreographic process, but as a fundamental component of the work, from start to finish. For more info on Daniel's work, please visit DANIEL'S WEBSITE

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Whistling Spider"...Rhapsody James

Hip Hop, as a genre, is currently moving into new, unexplored territory. When the hip hop community was born in the late 70's, it was a subculture that served as an artistic conduit for struggling urban youth, giving them credibility and self-esteem. By the 90's, corporations and media moguls had realized the vast commercial potential that hip hop possessed on the mainstream market, and sought to maximize profits from this street credible revenue stream. But today, a growing number of hip hop artists/choreographers/musicians are looking to elevate the genre beyond a simplistic marketing gimmick. Because hip hop, at its essence, is about artistic expression. Rhapsody James, understands the history, the community, and the economics of the art form...but she also understands the need for purity in expression. As a hip hop choreographer, she seeks to use her choreography as a tool to transcend people's perception of hip hop simply being a vehicle for selling records/fashion/movies. Instead, she is actively exploring hip hop's capacity for creating mood, changing attitudes, and making it accessible to the widest audience possible.

MUSICALITY: In this excerpt, Rhapsody focuses heavily on the amplified clap effects of beats 3 and 7. While this rhythmic pattern is relatively common within hip hop loops, her interpretation of this auditory cue is fascinating. Early in the piece, she introduces a full body hop (1:27-1:28). This subtle image is wonderfully effective in suggesting an insect-like quality to the movement. Furthermore, sometimes she extends this idea by utilizing sequential quarter note runs prior to the accented hits. For example, she might do six, small isolated gestures on beats 1-6 followed by the concrete strength of beat 7. Watch the phrase from (2:05-2:11) to see this technique clearly on display. This is a fantastic demonstration of choreography reflecting (and expanding) the musical structure of the track.

DANCER SYNC: I have spoken to a number of dancers who have worked with Rhapsody, and one of the most consistent things I hear in regard to her work is the notion of synchronicity. Synchronicity is the ability to create movement that "fits" the dancer and feels good to dance. Rhapsody, is a strong believer in the philosophy that EVERY body can dance. She is one of the most inclusive choreographers I know, and seeks to inspire movement in all dancers, regardless of body type, weight, size or shape. She is truly interested in finding the choreography that highlights unique individuality. Notice how she incorporates the natural long and lean physicality of the first dancer's arms and legs to compliment the opening string section. Also, watch how the unison moments work for ALL the dancers, and no one looks out of place or made to look uncomfortable. Even though the dancers are of different shapes and sizes, each dancer is able to dig into the movement with ferocity and attack the phrase with equal intensity.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT: Many people have seen modern or contemporary dance pieces and scratched their heads in bewilderment, saying to themselves, "I just don't get it." On the other hand, hip hop has often become so populist that it leaves nothing to the imagination and becomes almost cheesy and formulaic. However, Rhapsody is a master at creating pieces that are accessible to a wide audience, yet are still able to challenge and engage. This is a very difficult and delicate balance to achieve, and yet she makes it look easy. Theme and variation is one of the choreographic devices that she uses effectively to create this sweet spot. At (1:39-1:44) she introduces a simple phrase that involves hand placement on the floor. And then at (2:27-2:37) she recapitulates this phrase by building it into a frontal unison moment with all the dancers in a line. However, more than this, by skillfully exploring a concept of "spider" through movement, she is able to create a piece of choreography that is accessible to a wide range of audience members, from novice viewers to seasoned dance connoisseurs. If you need any further proof of this, check out what she does with the idea of "ostrich"

KUDOS to Rhapsody for serving choreo that is inclusive to everyone and excludes no one.