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.