Saturday, May 31, 2008

An Appreciation: Part One

by Paul Gordon Emerson

Late spring is always a time of transition. Usually it surrounds a graduation or a wedding, but dance companies live on something of an academic calendar as well, and as we head into June there are people of exceptional grace, talent and, honestly, brilliance preparing to make changes that will take them out of our day-to-day CityDance lives. The loss each departure will bring is enormous, and I wanted to take a moment to offer an appreciation for them as those days get closer. 

The most vital contributor to this blog has been someone whose name, until now, has appeared nowhere on it. Every bit of video -- the stuff that has made this something special -- has been filmed, written and edited by Ludovic Jolivet. The magic of seeing dance on a blog, as opposed to just reading about it, has been conjured by him. His understanding of how to tell a story is rare under any circumstances, but in dance, and in dance on film, its unique to my experience. Ludovic has always understood that what matters is life, the heart and the spirit, and that dance is a vehicle for our humanity. He is a choreographer, a dancer, a visual artist and perhaps the most deeply honest person I have ever met. His work has an unfettered genius to it that has made several of his dances all-time favorites at CityDance concerts for 9 years. 

Ludovic has transformed CityDance, and the lives of the people he touches, subtly, and as a colleague I have never had anyone in this field from whom I have learned more. Ludovic understands the camera as a voice, not as an end. He crafts art through experience and through a well-earned combination of hope and sadness that transforms mops into people and people into props of larger societal machines. His art is the story, and inside that story, the love he bears for the things he speaks to. 

We live in such a process-oriented, outcome-based society. Life in America in the 21st century is predicated on deadlines and deliverables. Dance companies are no different. We set goals and milestones and then step on the gas (or bio-diesel) to get to the other side. We make dances on deadline because that is the nature of our world, and we do so knowing that those deadlines may upend the very art that is the reason we are here. Some things cannot be done by 5pm. Ludovic not only understands that risk, he rejects it. Faced with a choice of making work for us on a deadline and locking in to office hours he simply said "that's not me," and left the cushion of CityDance's regular employment. Normally that's just a change in daily destination. But for Ludovic, who is in the US on a CityDance visa, it meant, potentially, a change in continent. He chose the change in country. Rather than surrender a sense of what it means to make what he believes in, and knowing that his inspiration doesn't work on a calendar, he stepped onto an immigration ledge. It drove me nuts. But opportunity, and obligation, are different for every person, and what I saw as his opportunity he saw as his obligation. 

If art is about integrity, and about inspiration, then the leavening agent in it is courage. Ludovic has shown me, and all of us who know him, have seen his dances, watched his films or just encountered him at random, an unrestrained, and deeply personal, courage for as long as I have known him. It is something I am reminded of every day, and far too often found myself wanting in. 

We rarely come upon people who change our worlds by their quiet determination to be who they are regardless of the risks. Most of us do not face the choice of a job in a country they want to be in or a ticket out because they cannot be the artist they are by having to live under deadlines and objectives. CityDance has been graced by one such person since a crazy June day in 1999, and we are richer for it in ways that permeate everything we do. 

Fortunately, the world is such that, even from France, Ludovic Jolivet will always be a part of our world here, whether in the form of return trips to make dances, videos made across the internet or detailed guides on the right technology for the right moment. But that distance will be felt deeply by all of us, and by me most of all. Moral compasses cannot be bought in stores, and integrity comes in unexpected ways. We are at our best when those stand close by. Ludovic's departure in just over a week will make more distant these things. Its on us, his colleagues and friends, to impart what he shares and to take it in and then give it back to others. But you can never replicate an original, and that is Ludovic. 

Take a moment and scroll back through those videos below. There's an artist behind them.  

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Directing Process

By Greg Halloran

I set dances via the Labanotated score. Labanotation is the written language of movement. I interpret the symbols from the written page into movement for the dancers. Directing via Labanotation is a unique art form. It takes years of study, just as becoming fluent with any other language, and can sometimes become time consuming interpreting the score. I have always enjoyed both my analytic and artistic sides so early on I enjoyed my Labanotation training. I enjoy choreography but I will never be known internationally for my own works. In directing from the score, I can play a major part in bringing world renowned choreography to life.

The process of reconstructing (or restaging) dances from the written score is different for each director. I personally don’t like to restage dances that I am not familiar with or from choreographers I am not accustomed to in their styles. I have reconstructed dances from choreographers such as Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn and Charles Weidman to more current choreographers as Clay Taliaferro and Victoria Uris. I am more prone towards the Humphrey/Limon style but having danced in Folksay in 1989, and having the privilege experiencing Sophie Maslow in her coaching of this production, I felt comfortable in restaging this work. I am experienced in interpreting the older styles of modern dance from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. I find this a fascinating time in modern dance history as American choreographers strived to develop modern dance accessible and about the average person. It is also a very different way of moving which can be beneficial to current dancer’s training. Current choreography often doesn’t tilt or twist the torso the same as historic modern dances.

I guess what I enjoy most about reconstructing dances from the Labanotated score is the insight a score can bring to a particular choreographer. I can’t think of a more intimate way to understand a choreographer’s life than reading one of their dances. I can read history book after history book but to fully live a choreographer’s dance from the Labanotated score brings me closer to a choreographer than any other written material can. I always experience a personal bond with each choreographer I reconstruct. I know I am responsible for bringing their love, choreography, back to life. This is something that can’t be taken lightly.

In conclusion, I find directing from the Labanotated score a fascinating research field. I have directed an average of one dance per year for the past nine years. I was lucky enough to study Labanotation and directing with my mentors Odette Blum and Lucy Venable before they retired from teaching. I guess, in my little way, I am keeping historic modern dance available to today’s audiences and am happy society appreciates all generations of modern dance today.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


By Paul Gordon Emerson

Barring a set of devastating changes on the planet or society, someone, somewhere is going to be looking at what dance to reconstruct for the 2042-2043 season sometime in 2041. Chances are they'll look at the archives of works designated American Masterpieces (on their implanted servo-LIB [for library] that connects them to the world database through a thought-link). They'll come upon "Folksay," because it will meet the centenary criteria. And they'll see...?

As a company devoted to history and reconstruction, something we have to take into account in re-staging dances is that we too are historians -- on both sides of the timescale. What we do today becomes the archive for tomorrow, and how we document what is taking place right now determines the success of what someone very likely not born yet does in 2042 to say "here's a bit of America 100 years ago." No one dancing that dance in 2042 will be able to talk to Sophie Maslow or any of the original cast members. The video that we are referencing today will have long-since deteriorated to a point where its useless -- and the only chance of finding a VHS player will be in the Museum of Video and Film in Shanghai (no, there is no museum of Video and Film in Shanghai --- at least not yet) and there's no chance it will work (they don't work now, why should they work then). And besides, the video we are referencing today, which was shot in the 1980s, looks like bad Star Trek footage just after Kirk flips open is communicator and says "beam me up Scotty." 

So, what will they find when the decision to do "Folksay" comes up at the artistic staff meeting? These questions should determine the processes we use -- and it must inform the way we look at how we conduct interviews, what camera angles we use, how many cameras we use, how the footage is catalogued, how the video is stored and to whom it gets sent. They must guide how we manage long-term media -- right now that media is the DVD, but these things will be frisbees in 5 years, and in a decade or so there won't be computers with them or players for them available at Circuit City. The best prospect right now is all-digital storage, archiving footage on a server which migrates data each time an operating system is updated or a drive system is upgraded. It has the advantage of ease of access across the internet. 

But the irony here is, in part, that what is written will remain vital. Words, in print or online, will likely last. So will the paper on which the Labanotation is stored. But someone has to continue to understand how to read that notation, and that takes study. But words don't translate into dance. Images do -- but they have to be images that move. And, most fundamental, people who have "been there" have to stay involved. When I look at the room today, the process of constructing "Folksay" is succeeding because Lynn, Greg and Abby have a life-history with this work and with this artist. Greg noted that he danced "Folksay" many dozens of times. Who in CityDance will assume that mantle -- to get so far inside the work that they are qualified some day to coach a reconstruction? 

When Alice's head rings in 2041 and some 25 year old on the other end says "we're thinking about reconstructing a dance you were in in 2008," how much will someone who will then be in her mid sixties remember? Will we establish a chain of people who, like the great oral historians and the great cultures of our past, will hand down the actual experience of these dances to one another, preserving history as it has been preserved throughout time? And if so, who will start that process? It lives in the Graham Company, and in the Ailey Company, and it lives in the long-storied ballets. But what about all the rest of the work? 

We can, and maybe we should, be putting all our dancers in motion capture suits and creating fully realized 3D versions of all these works -- things that you can go to and watch at every angle -- from the ceiling to the floor, the front to the back -- to understand all the spacial relationships. But it is still a human art, and Gollum, Iron Man and the Panda notwithstanding, it needs to be seen as a human art. 

These are questions we are obligated to ask, and obligated to answer. Its too easy to get caught up in the "what we have to do today and tomorrow" and forget that tomorrow is just over the hill -- just like 1942 is just behind the last hill -- and that its on us to be the next conduit to preservation. If we don't, we've just satisfied ourselves, and forgotten our descendants. And that's not the point behind dancing. 

Folksay video entry 03: Labanotation

Folksay video entry 02

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. 

Folksay video entry 01

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reflections on Reconstructing a 60 Year Old Dance

by Lynn Frielinghaus

Dance reconstruction brings into play so many aspects of recreation; previous knowledge of the piece from performers and audience viewpoints, labanotation, musical scores and last but not least the memories of the rehearsal process in which the dancers were involved. This includes the manner in which the choreographer worked, the rehearsal atmosphere and, most importantly, the choreographer's discourse on the intent and meaning of the piece. What is the idea that is behind the movement and how does that chosen movement reflect the idea? To be able to understand the intent of a dance, it is best if one can work with the original choreographer, but in dance reconstruction that is usually not possible. We have tools available to us to recreate the movement... videotapes, dance notation, musical scores etc., but the essence of the choreographer is often lost.

As a dancer who worked decades with Sophie Maslow, my job in reconstructing her dance "Folksay" is to keep her vision alive. I must bring to the dancers learning her choreography for the first time, a picture of who Sophie Maslow was and how she approached her work and her life. I need to show the history behind her dance and why its topic concerned her. It is important to point out the subtle and simple way she moved, the integrity behind each and every movement and why she never wasted a single moment with superfluous gestures. In short, if the dancers can understand where the dance came from and a little of who the choreographer was, the reconstruction will have a heart and soul to it and won't look like movements dredged up from decades past that have been pasted on to today's dancers. To understand the dance and feel it's purpose, breathes life into the reconstruction.

I don't think the aim in reconstructing a dance is to "get it right". That is to recreate every movement as it was. Taking into consideration the different way that dancers train today in comparison to 60 years ago, "getting it right" would be almost impossible. No, better to understand the intent, the idea, the motivation behind a dance, learn the basic style and technique of the movement and then bring it together with today's dancers contributing their own experiences. In this way a reconstruction will not only enlighten an audience to the past and give dance a historical context in which to be viewed, but also bring a fresh dimension to the piece. Dance is an art that is alive in time and space, and to deny the present time in reconstruction would be to deny an integral part. In my experience, an understanding of motivating factors in the creation of a dance, a respect for the past, accompanied with an excitement in the present and a balance between old and new all combine to make a successful reconstruction.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Photo Shoot

By Paul Gordon Emerson

OK, so if you're going to promote concerts, sell tickets and get buzz, you need photographs. Dance companies take pictures of dancers doing insane or elegant or elegantly insane things to get people to go "oooh, I gotta see that." The question is, how insane?

Till now insane was defined this way: August 17, 2007 - Take two highly trained professionals, one house (supplied by Teri and Larry, who had no idea what being on the Board would end up meaning), four one gallon buckets supplied by your local hardware story, one hose spitting water add one extremely expensive camera with a high level of intolerance to things like, oh, water. Go into the back yard of said Board Members house on a steamy Sunday (when most people are eating in their back yard). Get your Director of Marketing and Board treasurer so stand on opposite sides of one or both of said dancers -- either on a chair, a stair, a ladder or some other reasonably unsafe platform). Fill buckets with water. Yell "go." Throw water. Hard. Take photos as dancers get drenched. Watch as, out of the frame, said Marketing Director and Board Treasurer get similarly soaked (not part of the plan but definitely at least as much fun). End result: great and unexpected photos. 

Fast forward to May 1, 2008. In the best traditions of "one-upping" think about the best image for the show "Warmer: Carbon," the follow-on show to the first Global Warming concert (for which the aforementioned water shot was taken). Well, carbon is black. And dirty. And an image about the impact of carbon emissions, which of course is tough since co2 is invisible, has to convey that. OK, so how? Idea found while waiting in the lobby of a hotel: black silica sand like the stuff you used to find in commercial ash trays. Go online. Find said "sand." Order, oh, 300 pounds of it. Have it delivered to the studios at Strathmore. Wait for the emails to come in from the front desk --- "ummm, there's a delivery of, well, sand, at the front desk and its, you know INSANELY heavy. Did you order this and, if so, why? And, if you did, could you please get it off the front desk so we can do work?"

The idea -- pour the sand from a high place on a dancer (better word: victim) and capture all that dramatic bouncing and stuff. Now, when one thinks of sand one thinks of beach sand. But this stuff is more like mica, so it shines. Very cool stuff. Probably insanely toxic, but hey, its art, right? 

Now, the sand really should stick on the dancer (who will now be known as Alice, cause she was crazy enough to say "yes" to the request, which came during her vacation). Hmmm. What should be use for that? Well, oil or something, of course. Nah. We went with vaseline. You know, something that is impossible to get off after you're done. 

This is one of those things you can only do outdoors. Except it was raining Thursday. Hard. While that would have been great for "Warmer," for carbon, not so much. So, you cancel the shoot, right? And reschedule, right? Nah. We moved it indoors. Into the studio. Where we rehearse. 

Cover the entire room with black paper. Put up an elegant screen for lighting, which takes 30 minutes to set-up and which, after its done, you decide not to use at all. Bring in Alice, cover her in vaseline till she looks like a science experiment. Put Betsy -- that Marketing Director I was talking about earlier -- and Dina, our Marketing Associate, on expensive black chairs. Hand them big containers filled with really heavy sand. Have Alice make a crazy set of shapes while all that sand is being poured on her from over her head. Yell "go" (I have a tough job here -- really. Yelling go is exhausting). Take pictures. Of someone being covered in sand --- you know, with all the dust kicking up everywhere around everyone. 

Then clean the whole thing up in about 30 minutes so you can have class. 

Never dull. 

Monday, May 5, 2008

Finding a way

By Paul Gordon Emerson

Of trees, birds and a few metaphors.....

We've been focused on trees for months now. From "Revolution of the Butterflies," the dance Isabel Croxatto has made for us and which is featured throughout earlier video, photographic and text postings on this blog to our commitment at CityDance to create a carbon-neutral office through better practices and through an offset charge payment channeled mainly into the donation of funds for planting trees, trees have been a "thing" with us. 

Apparently they're a thing with most everyone right now. 

That's not a bad thing (well, except for the endless allergens floating around the DC/Metro area now that the "things" are in full bloom). But its a funny thing. Not "hah-hah" funny, but funny in that, as with so many things in Western society we are "discovering" trees and realizing that -- oh, wow, these things are really beneficial. We have this tendency to chop things down, or up, and then, years later, discover them. Its that "Everything old is new again," thing. 

The entire enterprise of "rediscovering" trees is much harder than it at first seems. Major metropolitan areas around the US, and the world, have embarked (there's a pun in there somewhere) on massive tree-planting campaigns. New York is looking to plant a million all by itself. But as it turns out, there's a limited amount of available space in which to do the planting, and where you need it most its hardest to achieve. There's no space, the soil is completely denatured, and the people in neighborhoods without trees sometimes have to be persuaded to accept them. That despite the fact that trees in heavily populated, and cemented, areas tend to yield far more benefit than those planted rurally (that's not including the billion slated for planting in the Eastern Amazon). We are in that crazy place where every tree has a carbon value, a dollar value and a real estate value. Oh, and they're nice to look at, too. 

The birds part: In the past 14 days, randomly, I've seen three astonishing things. All of them have something to do with birds. None to do with dance. Directly.

At 8:15 on a working Wednesday morning I entered one of the biggest and busiest traffic circles in the endless melee of Washington/MD rush hour. This one, at Connecticut Avenue and Western Avenue, represents the dividing line between DC and Maryland. Its a madhouse. 

Pulling up from a side road on the Western edge there was no traffic coming towards me. None. That doesn't happen. Except that on this day there was a woman standing in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. For a family of ducks. One mamma duck and 7 ducklings, who were, somehow, someway, crossing from a nest somewhere by a local church to the center circle, in which there is a fountain to drink from and a pool to learn to swim in. These ducklings were not making their first trip. And somehow not only were they alive, but traffic had stopped for them. In DC. At Rush Hour. Hopefully that has happened every day since, and will happen for so long as they choose to cross. 

Second: the hawk. I live in a house at the crest of the highest point in DC -- in a neighborhood named Mt. Pleasant. I have a south facing deck that looks at the entire southern side of the city. And a few weeks ago that deck had a visitor -- an exceptionally large and remarkable hawk, who appeared to be looking for a meal of pigeon or squirrel, both of which frequent the deck as well. A hawk. In the middle of DC.

Third: the vultures. Aside from the completely ill-informed view of vultures as foul (yes, another pun in there somewhere) creatures, the idea that they thrive in DC is hard to grab onto. But on MacArthur Boulevard the other day there were two, in the median, munching on a breakfast of a squirrel that hadn't made it to the other side. They scavenge, and there has to be enough scavengable food to survive -- and here they were. 

Now -- trees and birds rare and birds doing things seemingly involving a death-wish (as Kathryn said today, people die crossing traffic circles, so what chance do baby birds have). And dance.  The point is that given a chance, life finds a way (to quote, somewhat inelegantly, Jeff Goldblum in, egads, "Jurassic Park"). Trees grow. Birds find a way to coexist with man if man gives them even the most remote chance to do so. And everything is the healthier for it. Birds are a vital indicator of the health of an ecosystem, and as these birds return and thrive, its a measure of what happens when nature is not plowed under at every opportunity, even in the midst of a major metropolitan area.

Its not so different for the arts. Given a chance, given the opportunity to take hold, it does. But it takes effort -- sometimes dedicated and sometimes benign. We plant trees, sometimes over the preconceptions and opposition of those who will benefit most from the planting. We allow birds to live -- not nurture; not help. Just allow. We leave spaces for art and artists, whether in the form of housing in which they can live and studios in which they can work, and they, too, thrive. Sometimes you act. Sometimes you choose not to act, which is in and of itself an act. And things get better. 

Seems simple, but, like the "discovery" of trees, it turns out we have to re-learn it. That's not a cynical statement, but one of encouragement. While we might wish we'd never forgotten in the first place, the point is we figure it out. It just takes someone who will stop in the middle of a four lane road to let a family safely make the journey. 

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Very Funny

By Paul Gordon Emerson

The book is closed on Jungle Books, the road kill show, 2008. 

Final count: 

3 Mowglis
3 Shere Khans
2 Kaas
6 monkeys/wolves

Talk about living the endangered species message. 

The bear survived (turns out they really are the hardiest animals in the land) and has fled to North Carolina and the narrator is planning to burn his costume (except its owned by the Washington Opera, so that's probably not the best way to keep that relationship going). 

Best story: The urban jungle of Pomfrey, Maryland

Only one show was more than 30 minutes away. And it was in Texas (well, Southern Maryland). 90 minutes away, a mad dash down Maryland Route 5. No time to waste. Pull up. Unload. We'd spent the morning getting ready for the show the next day because Mowgli #2 had to be in New York for a court date (Mowgli #1 never even got out of the gate... felled by pneumonia the morning the run started). And, yeah, well, the costumes were still in the lobby at Strathmore. 

ALL of them. 

So, welcome to the urban jungle. The tiger went from a purple velvet to jeans and a red t-shirt (that read "hotter than I should be" -- from of all things the World Wildlife Fund). Mowgli wore shades and an attitude. The "imagination station" was rolling. I couldn't stop laughing. 

Best question: 

"What inspired you to become a writer."

Kid couldn't have been more than 9 and was totally into the story, quite convinced apparently that I really am 143 years old and was just shining. Talk about a future Tony Award winning writer. Of course, I'd like to think I was just that convincing..... But seriously, this is what you live for in doing these shows. 

Best review:

"On a scale of one to five, I give it a five." Jenny. Aged 5; from some school lost to identity in the blur of seeing 3,500 kids in 9 days. 

Best save: Shere Khan III (sounds like a Star Trek sequel)

Friday morning. Last day. Last shows. Mowgli #2 ALSO apparently comes down with pneumonia (evidently a high-risk part for pulmonary problems) and is out -- 30 minutes before we leave for the school. Kate Jordan, who normally lives the part of a monkey or wolf, and who isn't even supposed to go that day, volunteers to be Shere Khan, sliding Shere Khan #1 into the role of Mowgli #2. No rehearsal. She never even studied the part (its a guys part, after all), but she goes rocking out there in front of 700+ kids as the jazziest tiger, with rock star hair flowing and the only real nails the tiger had. Meanwhile Mowgli #3, Ja'Malik, is jamming along and cracking up not just the kids but the cast with all the turns and flips and lifts out of NOWHERE. 

(The stage was also pretty much of a storage space, so there was this big love seat off stage left and the whole first show Alice, who somehow wound up along for the ride with nothing to do, was curled up on it missing only popcorn and a beer to look like she was in the living room of a sit com.)

Best Warriors: Jerome and Maggie

The only two people in the cast who did all 15 shows. 

If the run had gone another week we could have opened up our own Animal Planet MASH unit. And gotten it syndicated. 

But it was a ton of fun to see the kids get completely absorbed into the show. EVERY show we heard from teachers and Principles that they couldn't believe the entire room was silent and totally into it. That was great. 

On to Springsteen and doing "Born To Run" right.