Symposium on “Inheriting Ailey: Featuring a New Work by Matthew Rushing”

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Symposium on Yale Dance Theater’s spring 2015 project, “Inheriting Ailey: Featuring a New Work by Matthew Rushing”

 

Forming his company in mid-20th century, Alvin Ailey promoted African American cultural forms while simultaneously embracing multiculturalism. Ailey looked both to the past and the future in dance, just as Ailey dancers Matthew Rushing and Renee Robinson carry his legacy forward for the next generation.

The symposium will gather together Yale faculty and artists to explore what it means to create new work in the 21st century out of the musical, embodied, and political histories that Alvin Ailey mobilized in the 20th.

With Yale faculty Elizabeth Alexander, Daphne Brooks, Jonathan Holloway, Matthew Jacobson; visiting professor Constance Valis Hill; and Renee Robinson of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Moderated by Nathalie Batraville, GRD ’16

The Fleeting Formality of Trisha Brown

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I’m writing in the thick of winter in New Haven, CT, where the inimitable dancers of Yale Dance Theater (YDT) are immersed in our spring 2014 project on the Choreography of Trisha Brown. We face leftover snow banks, slushy pools of dark water at every street corner, invisible ice on the sidewalks and abnormally cold temperatures. Inside, with enough effort, heat is produced and the rehearsals begin, led by our fearless Trisha Brown Dance Company rehearsal director, Iréne Hultman.

 

Mentioning such peripheral detail as the weather that YDT dancers confront getting to and from the studio may seem irrelevant, but it feels important to describe the environment that surrounds these rehearsals when working with a choreographic style like Brown’s, which demands attention to real, felt forces. Moving around in New Haven’s wintry landscape heightens the awareness to the physical forces that act upon the body–an effect very similar to learning Brown’s choreography.

 

One aspect of the movement research in Yale Dance Theater’s project on Trisha Brown explores the intersection of natural forces — non-human forces — in synchronicity with human choice. Working with the actual weight of the leg, the arm’s momentum, or a sense of falling that actually falls, before it catches. How choreography assumes form in Trisha Brown’s work can be a mystery even to the one dancing, for it’s not derived through the deliberate shape making of classical ballet, or the muscled, energetic attack of many modern dance techniques. The more you attack her movement, the more it evades your grasp. Brown’s forms come into existence through profound acceptance of the relationship between one’s body and the physical forces acting upon it. The basic outline of a movement may have a corollary in classical technique – something like an arabesque shows up, for example, in her 1979 piece, Glacial Decoy, which I performed in 1998 as a member of White Oak Dance Project. But the way a dancer reaches that intention-filled “position,” or perhaps a better word is mechanics, is entirely different.

 

What you will read in the blog that follows is a series of experiments–the dancers’ collective play with words and ideas, an effort to find corollaries (or divergences) to Brown’s aesthetic in writing. This blog is a space for the dancers of YDT to ruminate on the process they’re going through, and in doing so to permit Trisha Brown’s style to inspire language. It’s a raw space filled with fragments of collective thinking–a place in which the dancers’  writing ponders, tracks, and illuminates compelling aspects of the work.

 

I’ve been trying to articulate for myself how unusually derived I find form to be in her choreography, and I find myself failing to find the words. Partly because it lives in the experience of doing the work, and partly because it’s elusive–like cotton candy, or a cloud, which has form that quickly disappears once intruded upon. A year after Trisha Brown’s retirement from her own company and announcement that she will no longer produce new work, YDT’s project to embody and document her ideas in whatever language possible feels more urgent than ever. Just as clouds eventually disappear, so may her fleeting forms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vertiginous Akram Khan

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The Akram Khan phase of our 2013 project has begun, and YDT dancers are stepping up valiantly to learn an entirely new repertory. Aspects of kathak and European contemporary dance flicker throughout. This 21st century cultural synthesis makes the mind and body whirl.

Let me attempt the impossible task of describing the movement qualities of Lali and Young Jin, the dancers who are here to teach Khan’s work, because in their bodies lies some of the logic of his craft:

Young Jin strikes space. He strikes and then softly retracts, creating the effect of a laser that flashes brilliantly and departs, leaving a shimmering residue in its wake. You suspect you saw the light, know it existed, however nothing remains except the patterns seared into your cornea, until the next strike occurs. Mythic warriors populate the opening of VERTICAL ROAD (2010), one of the pieces they are teaching YDT. Young Jin’s warrior is evasive. His inner tension is so inner it startles when it appears.

Lali also dances with sharpness and inner tension but hers manifests with a different quality. She dances with the attention of a matador before an agitated bull. I realize this sounds clichéd—she is after all Spanish–but the analogy is apt. Lali simmers, percolates, and boils, accumulating tensions and releases that remain just under the surface. She burrows furiously inside the phrase when she demonstrates and once completed asks the group with throaty good cheer, “And how is it?! How did it go?!” Hers is the poetics of fury at once light and dark.

Both dancers are riveting to watch, and both have aspects of “Akram” in their bodies, as Lali says. Lali noted to the group last night that Khan’s movement is too fast to perform without great economy of energy and purpose. You must know exactly where your hands are going, exactly where your weight is and what the rhythms are, keep the movement close and yet expansive, and always find connections. The dancer must strike and rebound with all the elasticity of a viscous rubber strap.

After focusing the first three rehearsals on opening material from VERTICAL ROAD, last night the dancers taught a section from Akram Khan’s KAASH (2002). Lali explained that it would be more “kathaky,” which seemed like it might offer some relief from the intensity of VERTICAL ROAD. Not so! The KAASH phrase felt even faster–long quick lunges to the side that plumb impossible depth of plié, followed by split-second rebounds to upright. The arms, stabilizing pendulums of support, direct and redirect the legs, serving as a kind of release valve for the pressure on the thighs, a way to support the body before the next nosedive toward earth.

The KAASH phrase they taught comes in three versions: “normal,” “simple,” and “double.” “Normal” includes a whiplashing action in which the arms ripple like a piece of cloth up and around the head, swing forward and out to the left, then swing back to the other side to indicate and retract like a piston at a ninety degree angle to the floor before circling and swirling back up around the head to repeat. The head responds with its own purposeful direction—up, forward and left side, right side, back up to the sky, forward and left, then other side, then back skyward. I can’t write fast enough to describe it. No choreography I’ve danced has made me this dizzy. Certain sections actually make me feel nauseous–light, not unmanageable, definitely disorienting.

According to Lali and Young Jin, the precise mobility of the head, expressivity of the hands, swift redirections, and heart-skipping tempos come from the kathak influence in Khan’s work, qualities which heavily informed his early pieces like KAASH. To hear two dancers who have been intimately involved in his creation process over the past decade describe it, his choreography runs along a spectrum, from more “kathaky” to more contemporary dance-y, and his methods have evolved over the past decade from the year KAASH premiered in 2002 to more recent works such as VERTICAL ROAD.  

Khan has explained in early interviews that he opted not to work with classical Indian trained dancers, but rather contemporary dancers to whom he taught kathak principles, allowing them to be “confused” by the jumble of influences until their bodies began to sort it out, just as he has done in his training.[1] Lali and Young Jin were with the Akram Khan Company for nine and seven years respectively—they are among the dancers to whom he refers, and their bodies accompanied Akram in figuring something important out about the integration of dance forms.

Comfortingly, Young Jin told me that it took them a long time to learn the movement for VERTICAL ROAD. It didn’t make sense at first. Only after hours of repetition and finessing did they arrive at the physical virtuosity they’re sharing with Yale Dance Theater. As I dance in the rehearsals and observe the YDT dancers, I can feel this slow development—from the panicked energy of encountering new ideas to something that begins to resemble greater fluency. The world doesn’t stop spinning, but at least I know when to expect the vertigo.

Three weeks and twenty-two rehearsal hours hardly allow for perfection, but it does allow for deeper-than-surface understanding of Khan’s ideas: our own version of being tossed into his vertiginous confusion and eventual discovery of logic through the body.

 

 

 



[1] Burt, Ramsay. “Contemporary Dance and the Performance of Multicultural Identities.” Akram Khan Company website, 2004. Web. 15 April 2013.

 

Akram Khan Showing

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Yale Dance Theater: Akram Khan Showing

April 30, 2013 
8 pm
Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School Theater
117 College Street, New Haven, CT
 
For reservations visit: http://yaledramacoalition.org/ydt2013
 

Join us on April 30 for Yale Dance Theater’s culminating performance of the semester featuring the work of Akram Khan. In mid-April, Akram Khan Company dancers Eulalia Ayguade Farro of Spain and Young Jin Kim of South Korea will visit Yale for a three-week residency, during which they will stage Khan’s choreography on YDT dancers. In the April 30 showing, YDT dancers will perform excerpts of Khan’s work from 2002-2010. 


Akram Khan is one of the most acclaimed choreographers of his generation working in Britain today. Born in London into a family of Bangladeshi origin, he began dancing at seven and studied with the renowned kathak dancer and teacher Sri Pratap Pawar.
 Khan began presenting solo performances of his work in the late 1990s, maintaining his commitment to classical kathak as well as developing modern work. Khan is currently an Associate Artist of MC2: Grenoble and Sadler’s Wells, London in a special international co-operation. He recently choreographed a section of the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. His work has received numerous awards and tours worldwide. 

The Akram Khan Company residency concludes YDT’s semester-long investigation of cutting-edge contemporary dance spanning both sides of the Atlantic. The first half of the project focused on the work of Brooklyn-based choreographer Reggie Wilson and his company Fist and Heel Performance Group. For more information on Yale Dance Theater’s spring 2013 project please visit: 


YDT’s spring 2013 project is sponsored by the Arts Discretionary Fund in Yale College and the Lionel F. Conacher and Joan T. Dea Fund, in cooperation with the dance studies curriculum, Theater Studies, and Alliance for Dance at Yale. 

 

Dancing, Writing, and Arts Research

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Yale Dance Theater is an arts-based research project. One thing this means is that our research methods are experimental and reshaped according to each new project. It also means that the research coevolves with the studio practice: we allow the experience of learning a choreographer’s technique and repertoire to shape our questions.

Our focus artists for the semester, Akram Khan and Reggie Wilson, investigate through their choreographic practices cultural syncretism, hybridity, globalization and the transnational passage of expressive forms. These issues preoccupy cultural studies, anthropology, dance and performance studies. Leading rather than following theory, these artists invent what might be construed as post-postcolonial practices as they go.

Reggie, our first artist, borrows liberally from postmodern choreographic strategies and deploys anthropological methods in a kind of retro-nod to American artists of the mid-20th century, and then conjoins and redefines those tools for the 21st.

But these historical connections rumble on the distant horizon, far from where we are at this moment in time. Five weeks into Reggie’s residency, the students are absorbed in mastering his steps: 1, 1, 3, 4, 4, 6, 7, 7, 9, 11, 11, 12 one phrase goes, built on the structure of a fractal.

The first half of this year’s project differs from our past work in that the choreographer is on hand during the rehearsal process, guiding the inquiry. We have spent significant time with Reggie discussing how to ask questions from the perspective of physical experience. Another meta-theme that has moved into center stage is the integration of dancing and writing.

Over the six years that I have known Reggie, we’ve talked more about writing than choreography, which says something about the peculiarities of our relationship, as much as the investment we both have in coming to terms with the interaction between these practices. When we disagree, it usually boils down to semantic differences and personal predilection. I’m a dance artist who writes. Reggie is a choreographer who does not.

He explains that his choreographic brain and his writing brain are separate. When he writes, he produces grant applications—speculative artist statements and intentions of process that prematurely fix an investigation. He stores his writing brain with his administrative brain: he must budget, calculate available dancers and other funders, timelines, and space needs. Words and numbers commingle to project experiences into the future that may or may not happen. At its best, grant writing gives birth to reality through a supreme act of imagination. For Reggie, that language is not creative. To choreograph, he must shut it off.

He also maintains, and here I do not disagree, wariness of the privileged, authoritative position conferred on the written word in American culture. In the countries he travels to for his research, gestures, songs, rhythms, and dances bind communities, preserve histories, and shift political power. In many of these places, language has historically been imposed, a site of misinterpretation by outsiders.

However, for all of his ambivalence, in talking with him I find that Reggie’s way of being resembles that of a writer. He reads extensively to gather ideas, theorizes about his work, remains acutely attendant to the ethics and outcomes of contemporary practice, and understands the importance of critical reflection. His research-into-practice dances read to me like solidly crafted essays, mini-manifestos that collect, redistribute, and re-fix cultural forms according to his vision of equality. The title of his 2010 creation, The Good Dance: Dakar/Brooklyn, created in collaboration with Congolese choreographer Andreya Ouamba, displaced written language—the Bible—with a dance. His obsession with the written word comes so full circle as to suggest intense love. I would speculate that a writer lies sublimated within his choreographer’s identity. Choreographer means, after all, dance-writer.

I can hear him disagreeing with me. Correcting my interpretation of his ideas—fixed on this page, as it may now seem.

Writing about movement is an infamously difficult task. A swift imagination and firm grip on poetic language helps, as does the ability to transpose rhythmic meter between mediums. Actually dancing informs these skills. Many choreographers are also writers. The writing serves overlapping and divergent functions. Some artists write to insert their voice into the historical record. Other artists theorize ideas in writing they feel they cannot fully articulate in movement. For an artist such as Ralph Lemon, writing is another art object. In his books, he gathers images, reflections, and interpersonal encounters that shape his performances, without documenting or trying to replace them.

The overlap between dancing and writing lies mainly in the unfurling pathway of ideas produced through the practice: ideas come into being through the doing. One cannot embody choreography or write a blog post without passing through a process.

YDT’s approach to dancing, writing, and research is also a work-in-process. There are no requirements for the writing aside from the number: two posts during Reggie’s residency and one reflection post after it ends, and the same for the Akram Khan half of the project. The dancers are encouraged to approach the material from their own experiences and studies, to find creative angles, stay close to the movement ideas, and play with language. The blog posts are our “raw data,” which we sift through later on reflection.

Despite his antipathy toward writing, Reggie would like his work to be written about, delights in the writing the students have done so far, and understands the value for an artist who works in performance to enter the archive through multiple perspectives. Together, we have been shaping an approach to dancing, writing, and research. This is what we agree on:

The writing does not replace the dancing. Rather, the practice of dancing exists in its full, embodied presence. It feeds and directs the language. The best writing vibrates with the same emotionally resonant presence as a good dance.

Writing also possesses a power of dissemination: YDT dances locally, while our blog travels globally. When we resume the project this April, we’ll work with two dancers from the Akram Khan Company, Eulalia Ayguade Farro of Spain and Young Jin Kim of South Korea. We won’t have UK-based Akram Khan in the flesh to debate these issues with us. We can only hope he will read and respond to our blog.

 

Spring 2013 rehearsals begin

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YDT 2013 commences January 16th with the first rehearsal of Reggie Wilson’s residency. Rehearsals run Wednesdays and Saturdays through late April. Click on the Rehearsal Schedule tab for more information.