Thursday, May 22, 2008

Keeping it Live

By Paul Gordon Emerson

Music first, dance second? Music second, dance first? 

Most of the time its not that important, because the music is on a disk (or tape, or computer or what have you) and is therefore the same every time. That sameness is very important, because the body gets accustomed to tempo, tone and timing. A lot of the time dancers will tell you that "getting movement into their bodies" is also about getting the music into their bodies. The dancers equivalent to circadian rhythms. 

If you're going to dance on stage to a disk, then its simple. But live music on stage transforms a performance. Its compelling, charismatic and often breathtaking. But its also problematic. Most of the time though the live music comes into rehearsal long after a dance is finished and usually just a few days before the premiere, putting a strange burden on both the musicians and the dancers. The musicians either have to turn in a performance that is almost identical to the recording -- which hamstrings the musicians -- or the dancers have to adapt to the musicians changing timing, tempo and/or inflection -- hamstringing the dancers. 

For "Folksay" one of the cardinal rules established by the reconstruction team was that the music for the work had to be live from the beginning. That's expensive, and at first I was skeptical about being forced down that path. Four days into rehearsal its clear that this was the smartest thing that could have happened. 

Today -- Thursday -- I sat in on the first part of rehearsal, which was done to CD. It was one kind of rehearsal -- productive, but in some ways predictable. Then, in the afternoon, the musicians were in the room and the dance was transformed. Musicians watched and responded to dancers and dancers to musicians. And Folksay came alive.  Greg Halloran, who is leading the restaging, made a great decision, and that was that some parts of the dance wouldn't even be run without the musical team in place. 

Had "Folksay" been done in the normal manner where the re-staging took place to tape, the dance would not have succeeded. It is a remarkable reminder that wherever possible you bring in the entire artistic team from the start. Its more important given that the music is folk, where part of the point is the freedom of interpretation. The dancers get used to that, and learn to that, and thus are positioned to succeed to that. 

Part of the making of this particular masterpiece clearly was the involvement and investment of the musicians --- and that this dance is always done to live music. A remarkably smart decision in 1942 and ever since. 

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