Philly to Paris Opera Ballet and Back
By Lisa Kraus
A recent Inquirer article equated Philadelphia with Paris and the Ben Franklin Parkway with the Champs Elysées. A stretch, I thought. But then, standing at Logan Circle and looking up the stately Parkway toward the Art Museum is not so unlike standing at the foot of the Boulevard de l’Opéra and looking up toward Palais Garnier, architect Charles Garnier’s Opera building. You know immediately you’re staring at a venerable cultural institution, rich in tradition and artistic gems.
When I received a call from Carolyn Lucas, Trisha Brown’s choreographic assistant, asking whether I’d like to set Brown’s dance “Glacial Decoy” on the Paris Opera Ballet, I’d been doing relatively humble things with dance, and from my Blue Bell kitchen inwardly leapt with joy. With the kind endorsement of my husband and children, I spent five and a half weeks among the “rats” of the Opera (apparently so-called because of the sound their shoes made clicking as they rushed along the long corridors), and also among its “étoiles”, it’s stars. Having earlier in the year seen the Degas show at the Philadelphia Art Museum and the Nils Tavernier film “Étoiles de Ballet de L’Opéra de Paris” at the “Motion Pictures” Dance/Film Festival at the Prince, I was primed to enter their world. Paris isn’t new to me. I’d danced “Glacial Decoy” there at the ever-humming Pompidou Center in 1979, the year the dance was made. It’s a city with profound respect for culture, and has been widely supportive of American dance. I’d been back over the years, to teach workshops, to perform my work in lofts, at the old American Center and in an wooden-beamed and stone theatre made of a converted factory “Le Regard du Cygne”. Later, on a family trip while we lived in nearby Holland, I remember holding my then-toddler son on my lap as he napped in the afternoon sun on the quai by the Seine. So much for sightseeing! As the children got older, together we visited the Paris of open air markets, tour boats, elegant playgrounds and carrousels. This trip would be the grown up version. New laptop in hand, I passed through security in Philadelphia and into the netherland of travel.
My hotel room looked out on the Square des Innocents, a Renaissance square with a towering fountain as its centerpiece. Here civic life flowed with the rhythms of the day. Drinking my morning tea I’d hear the whoosh of pigeons and clatter of feet on the way to work. The late afternoons and weekends were full of skateboarders and strolling pedestrians, ambling through this central spot, close to the old les Halles market and the 14th century St. Eustache church. I watched the sun move over the rooftops, the clouds change their formations. Like Philadelphia, the lowness of much of the building keeps the scale human. Most mornings, looking out on the Square, I would sit down to write about what had transpired the day before. I had known from the outset that I would want to write to share the experience and to clarify it for myself as it went along. I published the musings on “Decoy Among the Swans”, an ongoing web log. *
Here’s an excerpt from the very first work day:
“Day 1: I picture the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet in my mind’s eye after watching seven of them hard at work for five hours in our first sessions. Their attention is complete. Their intention to master the movement challenges is unquestioned. They have enormous discipline. And extraordinary grace. In learning Glacial Decoy they will also be taking on awkwardness, unexpected qualities, a kind of curious transformation. I begin speaking in French, showing photographs from the new book, “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue”**. The dancers are intrigued by the information I share on the history of the work, the collaboration between Brown and Rauschenberg.
In New York, Trisha had pointed out movement concerns that she had: finding a well-aligned parallel, articulation of the spine, ability to initiate from all parts of the body, and the ability to transfer weight solidly and simply. I explain that we will be training in these fundamentals basic to dancing Decoy along with learning the outer form and that as we progress the two will come together to make the dance completely danceable. What is fundamental? Falling. And rebounding into levity. Yielding. Performing movement in an uninflected way. Simplicity. Lack of adornment. A use of hands straight as a board or held in little O’s, without the accustomed lyricism of curves and separated fingers. A foot that is neither flexed nor pointed, arms that trail like ribbons after a catapulting torso. Movement executed directly like a hunter’s arrow,on a straight mission somewhere. Catching the updrafts, plunging, hurtling through space.
We start lying on the floor. They are able to relax and go with feeling, breathing, rolling, shifting, slowly slowly rising. They crawl. They have an appetite for release. As I see pleasure spread on their faces, I think what a momentous thing it is to have the ballet world eager for these experiences that are so basic to the post-modern tribe of dancers.”
The central image of Glacial Decoy is of 4 equidistant dancers stretched along the width of the stage, parallel to the proscenium. As the dance veers right and the dancer furthest to the right disappears offstage, a dancer is pulled on from the left, and vice versa. This implies an endless line of dancers stretching way beyond the wings. This effect is echoed in Robert Rauschenberg’s set of towering black and white photographic images filling the back of the stage space, moving in a continual procession from stage right to stage left. Combined with his pleated white silk gowns, the effect is cool and classical, as formal as any ballet. But then, Decoy is danced in silence and is full of utterly un-balletic movement.
My job involved helping the dancers let go of their accustomed way of holding their upright posture, of the shapes they were used to, of their way of going “out” with their expression to try to connect with the audience. Time and time again I tried to find ways to help them “Be”, to find deeper support and further transparency. “Do Less Feel More” became our motto. We worked with “marking” movement in order to dance it without too much muscular effort or emphasis. We worked on tipping the body sideways and getting accustomed to allowing falls to happen. We worked on softening through the limbs and torso, and becoming more physically receptive.
Similar with learning any new skill, the dancers could retain the new approaches as long as were working in a measured way, focusing on one element at a time. As soon as we began layering on other kinds of awareness, learning to remain precisely equidistant from another dancer for example, their accustomed more forceful way of executing movement would resurface. It was like the circus trick of trying to keep lots of plates spinning simultaneously on the tops of long poles. There was the movement plate which often involved more than one direction or gesture in any given moment, there was the spacing plate which required that you step over your mark at this moment and none other, there was the performing quality plate which was highly changeable, at times rushing with a gust of momentum, at times placid, or “invisible”, graceful, or again explosive. Getting it all to hang together would take loads of practice.
Still, by the end of two weeks they had learned all the Quartet material, quite an achievement, and we celebrated with high tea at Ladurée, a decadent patisserie! One of the dancers had sampled every last item on the menu and counseled me to get a “plaisir sucrée”, a sugared pleasure. That it was.
The next phase of work was teaching the central duet with Diane Madden, who joined Trisha Brown Dance Company (TBDC) a few years after I did, was rehearsal director for fifteen years, and gave a workshop at Susan Hess studio not long ago.
“Day 12: It was Diane’s job as rehearsal director to bring dancers to an understanding of the movement and relationships. Her eye and ability to clarify intention are wonderful! She sees detail with a jeweller’s eye, the way the weight is in a foot or how the trajectory and angle of a hand determines the way the next move will unravel. For me it is an education in how to look very, very closely, not taking one moment for granted. There is much close quartered dancing, many moments where as Diane put it “you are the wind blowing off the other person’s movement”. The timing and spatial relationships are intricate – one “pops” arms which cues the other’s leg fold, one introduces a movement a hair before the other gets to it, one shaves the space in front of and behind the other as she moves through. There’s a lot to take in for the dancers.”
We became aware of how dancing in such proximity was completely foreign terrain. The dancers needed to practice yielding into contact so we brought in our arsenal of exercises that relate to being in shared space, among them Simone Forti’s “New York Walk” and Nancy Topf’s “Passing through the middle”. It felt great to introduce the work of other seminal artists this way.
By chance, one morning in the hotel, I ran into William Yang with whom my program at the Philadelphia Fringe alternated last fall. He was performing in the Festival d’Automne. And his piece, heavily dependent on text and shown with opera-style subtitles, was very well received. We exchanged email addresses and later I sent him the poem “Idiomatic” by Billy Collins with these lines:
clouds fly across the “face of the earth,”
(as we call it in English)
And still I sit here with my shirt off, daydreaming –
“juggling balls of cotton,” (as they like to say in France).
After Diane and I finished teaching the duet together and combing through all the movement to find ever-clearer renditions, Trisha Brown came into the process, fresh from her Company’s performances in Cannes. For the final ten days leading up to the performances, she and I guided the dancers. What was fascinating to me was how she viewed this work of hers from twentysome years back. She was able to tell us the names of images that were in her mind for the moves – Japanese Fisherman, Polar Bear, Throwing a Wet Towel. But her current concerns are in a wholly different place – making dance with opera and to Dave Douglas’ jazz rather than in silence, performing movement with its momentum slowed or broken to highlight shape and clarity of relationships. Whereas I tend to most value her fluid and weighted movement quality, she kept bringing us back to a razor’s edge precision in all areas, her wish for “simplicity” and cleanness being paramount. Perhaps this has to do with working in really grand halls and wanting to have the complexity of her material be completely readable.
The last days leading to performance had their share of obstacles - fatigue, sickness, and injury among them. There was at the same time the thrill of mounting the work on the Opera stage, a good bit larger than the usual floor area Decoy is performed on. Rauschenberg’s black and white images of peculiar and broken down Florida scenery contrast wonderfully with the red plush and gold of the grand space. The dancers in their gowns are every bit elegant ballerinas but also subverted, lured into a wobblier, less predictable and stable stance.
On the morning of the premiere, Luc van Loon, the Opera’s Technical Director takes Trisha, me and Tricia Tolliver the technical director on an expedition to see the bowels of the Opera , where the Phantom had his lair. There really is a “lake” under the great building, and although you can only see this shallow reservoir of water in one uncovered spot, you can see fat carp swimming in it!
And from the web log:
Day 25 “At the top of the building we exited a door that we had been passing for weeks on the way to rehearsal to go out on the roof. With the exception of a few modern buildings, Paris is usually no more than 6 stories high so we had a commanding view in every direction. It is euphoric to be up there with the golden lyres gleaming and winged sculptures and the round lyre-encircled cupola rising still further behind us. The fact that our work is really finished made it all the more delicious. We traipsed down narrow stairways and back up, following roof lines to end out at wonderful promontories. Took some classic tourist photos, Eiffel Tower conveniently in the background.”
The premiere performance turned out to be a great one. The Paris Opera Ballet dancers are workmanlike, reminding me of Eleanor Roosevelt’s saying “A woman is like a teabag, you don’t know what’s in her until she gets in hot water”. These women rose to the occasion by dancing powerfully, with pure presence. There remains some question about the relationship of the Opera performances with those of the original. My conclusion is that the dance has been hybridized to include some more balletic ways of moving that would never be combed out. Not a bad thing, just requiring a mindset that welcomes such change.
I arrived back in Philadelphia just in time to take my daughter to the Nutcracker at the Academy of Music. Seeing the gas lamps outside, the plush red velvet eats, the horseshoe shaped, gold-ornamented theatre I thought “Philadelphia…Paris…yes… maybe they were on to something.”
*The web log has been adapted into an article focussing on the progression of teaching in the Summer/Fall 2004 issue of the Contact Quarterly. Contact CQ at 413-586-1181 or e-mail: contactqcrocker [dot] com
The complete log with touristy side trips, trivia and more personal process is at www.decoyamongtheswans.blogspot.com
** “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961—2001,” edited by Hendel Teicher. Addison Gallery of American Art, Philips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, 2002
By David Brick
In the fall of 2003, I had the privilege of attending the Balkan Dance Platform in Bucharest, Romania, (made possible with support from the Trust For Mutual Understanding and Dance Advance of the Pew Charitable Trusts). In just a few days I had the pleasure of watching about 20 different performances—the highest dance to waking hour ratio I have ever experienced. There is something profound about watching that much dance in so short a time. One really gets to think about dance in terms of dance, not the objectified category of dance. Its more like the act of reading. Reading happens all the time in my life. At any moment of any day I may read a book, a newspaper, a magazine. I don’t have to make an appointment to read a book or circle a day on my calendar two weeks ahead of time. I am surrounded by writing. It is easy to think in the language of writing. In a year, even though I am a choreographer, I read many more works of art than I see dances of art. But seeing so much dance everyday in Bucharest — dance on top of dance and next to more dance — began to shape my consciousness around dance so that after a short while, my thoughts were dance and dancing. I thought in the language of dance for whole stretches of time, without trying. Normally this only happens in the studio, where I have rituals and techniques that bring me to the consciousness of the language of dance. It was a deeply rewarding delight to be immersed so fully in dancing at the Balkan Dance Platform.
We are told it is a nascent contemporary dance scene in the Balkans, blossoming with the recently found freedom to do whatever you want, artistically. And indeed it seems that dancers and choreographers there are doing whatever they want to do as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the people making money. And in that sense, the whole dance atmosphere had a wonderful, unruly DIY feeling. This was not a dance scene that was growing at the margins of, and fed the crumbs from, some more legitimate, state or intelligentsia sanctioned dance form. This seemed to be an atomized dance scene at the edge of nothing, exploding in all directions at once. Reading the many performances I saw as a single whole, I witnessed the genuine assertion that any given dance aesthetic was of equal value to any other. And what’s more, a single aesthetic was often difficult for me to discern within an individual dance. Bits and pieces of various approaches to dance making and their signature aesthetics would bump up against each other, innocently it seems, within a single work. The lack of hierarchy of dance forms, both among the different dances and within individual pieces, was one of the most exhilarating things I witnessed at this festival.
In this context it was easy to think about some fundamental questions for myself as an artist: Why do I make the kind of dances I do? Why do I make dances that look the way they do? What about movement matters to me? What is meaningful about any movement of the human body? What is pleasurable and what is meaningful about seeing technique on display? What isn’t? For the last couple of years I have been thinking a lot about what constitutes a whole in a dance work that I make. What kind of devices, techniques, and approaches can I use to take a piece from a beginning to an end in a progressive way. In this inquiry I am rejecting a use of literary kinds of narratives in order to create meaning that accumulates over the course of a dance. And I am also rejecting the approach of so many of my (postmodern) mentors who felt liberated by collaging sets of images and associations clustered around an idiosyncratic question or formal concern. Being away from my specific dancing life and yet surrounded by dances full of various dance strategies and proposals proved to be a rich environment for thinking about the artistic questions like this that are nearest and dearest to my heart.
It was a joy to engage with my colleagues in many animated discussions about the art of dance. And not just my Philadelphia companions, Leah Stein, Bill Bissell, and Susan Hess with whom I gorged on nonstop dance talk. It was also an education and a pleasure to talk with artists and dance people from other parts of the world. In fact it was down right eye-opening. In one conversation I had with a Portuguese choreographer who became a fast friend as we bounced from performance to performance, she said, “Oh you Americans are so obsessed with technique. You dance beautifully of course, better than anyone else, but the dances don’t MEAN anything!” Who knew this point of view existed? I certainly didn’t and in so many ways my thinking about making dances was enlarged by witnessing and hearing about work that wasn’t defined by the historical and aesthetic assumptions of my own local and national dance community.
One strain of work that was particularly interesting to me in the festival concerned what I would call “the life of the body.” A few different pieces had this theme running through them. In these works a particular technical approach to dancing didn’t seem to matter as much some kind of display of “bodiness”. Activities, relationships and movements invoked a sense of labor and sensuality in the bodies performing on stage. Acrobatic acts with precision timing might coexist with pedestrian moments of simple movement— someone blowing gently onto the bare shoulder of someone in front of them. I liked these works very much, especially their proposal that any kind of activity or performance was appropriate as long as it engaged this question of what it means to live inside our bodies.
The event was very well organized, with up to 12 performances every day that had buses whisking us between elegant theaters and funky spaces, and yet the whole thing had the lovely, dynamic energy of a DIY community. There was a bustling, naturally inclusive democratic energy to the concerts as provocative, thoughtful work would share space with work that was truly awful. And there was an unmistakable emphasis on the life of the growing art and the lives of the artists. I had an ongoing sense of the pursuit and investigation of dance forms as a spiritual concern. Like so many contemporary dance practitioners, there seemed to be a sense of mission, of spiritual searching that went hand in hand with inclusive, democratic, social values. To me, a valiant humanism and a profoundly democratic urge were on display in the Balkan Dance Platform. And it comes as no surprise that contemporary dance serves as the site of this activity even against the backdrop of Romania’s recent history of brutal, corrupt and bumbling capitalism. Not to be corny, but I felt that it was in dance, and the wide open terrain of contemporary dance in particular, that the true expression and research of democratic values was taking place.
It was striking to me how populated this festival was by people who really cared about the art of dance. For one thing, the festival was full of artists like myself whom Cosmin had made a point of inviting to the festival. It wasn’t dominated by large presenters and marketing concerns or the sense that the motivation for the platform was to create an arts market. Everyday there were forums in which the previous days’ artists discussed their lives, works and concerns in wide ranging, open, public forums. In addition to the artists from all over there were foundation people and administrators from small arts organizations who were genuinely interested in the art of dance and the state of the form. Many conversations I heard or participated in revolved around questions of connecting different dance communities. Or, for example, how the increasingly interconnected, international world of contemporary dance is creating a proliferation of aesthetics and an acceleration of investigations by choreographers who are influencing each other. This kind of conversation seemed more the norm, as opposed to, what hot thing was being discovered to be presented by whom.
In the end, my Bucharest experience left me feeling more energized about dance, more engaged in questions of choreography, and excited to connect with other artists around the world who have been drawn to working in the realm of contemporary dance. And for this experience I am deeply grateful.
By Leah Stein
In June 2002, I traveled with my assistant manager Anastacia Wilde and Philadelphia dancer/choreographer Mathew Meehan, to Bytom, Poland for the 9th annual Silesian International Dance Festival directed by Jacek Luminski. This trip was made possible with support from the Trust For Mutual Understanding and Dance Advance of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The festival is a reminiscent of a mini-ADF, on a much smaller scale, Dancers and teachers of dance ranging in ages come from many European countries to study intensively for two weeks, see performances, and enjoy the hub of the festival atmosphere. The festival performance program was quite varied and included a range of Companies and artists of all genres. A highlight for me was seeing Eiko and Koma performing around a huge tree outside the theater surrounded by a ring of audience members. Some audience were riveted, others drifted about, a few may have left. I so much enjoyed having the choice of where to be, what to notice, and appreciating the creation of the audience as circular. This was not typical for Polish audiences yet their was a receptive response.
There is a long standing tradition of physical theater and puppetry in Poland. I noticed a clear influence of this tradition on the contemporary dances I saw in the festival. I was also struck by the speed of the dancers.
There was an intensity in the dancing, regardless of the phrasing and tempo that reminded me of an internal motor going no matter what. Even with more released dancing (which was quite rare to see), the dancers had a quickness without being frantic that interested me. This may be the influence of the folk traditions seeping in, or simply what is in the Polish “cultural body.”
The 30 students in my two-week workshop were curious, open, receptive and hungry for improvisation. Many of the basic ideas of improvisation were new to them. The openness to listen and respond outside of set choreography challenged their expectations over and over. An interesting twist was teaching with a translator which is a whole dance in and of itself. Every time I gave a direction, the whole class would stop and listen, interrupting the flow of the dance. Plus the translator was taking the class. It was interesting to see what actually did translate without the use of language, and what did not. There was often confusion, but this often gave way to humor and new discoveries.
The culmination of the class was an on-site performance along a small side road by the main theater. There were walls and buildings, garage fronts, grass sidewalks and an open lot that were all part of the performance. During rehearsals we had people looking out through the windows down below to see what was going on. During the performance, someone came to park their car and the dance was taking place in the way of the garage entrance. They sat there, and waited, in the midst of the dancing until the performance ended. Everyone appreciated this unplanned element. I found local musicains to work with the group, some young percussionists as well as a Russian mother/daughter violin/viola team that I heard playing on the street and invited to be part of the piece. They were a bit confounded in the beginning, but once we broke the ice and they saw how the piece developed, they added an wonderful voice of tradition.
“Off the Main Road” was a stretch beyond the familiar for the participants and yet they worked hard, were focused, enjoyed the challenge and came through full force in the end. One thing I noticed was the strong “group mind” and ease with which everyone collaborated. I would give a small group directions and let them solve some choreographic problem on their own. The process went smoothly. I sensed an absence of the “star mentality” there and also less eager to stand out as an individual. I saw the “American” in me in new ways. I saw that I have a strong investment in my individual vision that is informed by the cultural reward of individuality and innovation. I also saw my relationship to landscape as something perhaps “American” that I hadn’t really identified before. Ultimately though, I reveled in the abiliy to communicate beyond language and cultural identity, to dance and to engage in the creative process of dance making in a new context.
I had the opportunity to perform with Gus Solomons jr which was another example of crossing traditions, genres, and generations in a completely different way. We developed a score in one rehearsal and then performed an improvised duet that moved us as well as the audience. This opportunity for me to travel to another part of the world, meet a legendary American artist and find a common mind in the moment was a highlight. It was very interesting that here, in the states, Gus and I would appear to have very little in common, and there, in Poland, we found a perfect context to connect. I think that this is one of the most rewarding and nourishing experiences for me as a dancers and performer and movement artist, the experience of connecting through difference, through contrast, through unlikely combinations, and finding meaning below the surface that allows for new understanding.