The Perils of Performing Works-In-Progress
By Lewis Whittington
You better Cut!
Playwright Terrence McNally was in Philly this summer ‘freezing’ his new play ‘Some Men’ by The Philadelphia Theater Company before it premiere’s this fall in New York. He had already dumped two whole scenes before the month long run here and he was mostly making line cuts noting audience responses (such as laughs) for pacing. McNally told me that the audience was ‘the ‘last creative collaborator’ in the process of finishing a work.
It used to be the out of town circuit that tested the viability of a performance, but those days are long gone. In these hard economic times in theater and dance artists have to be inventive about ways to create buzz and otherwise see what works on the public stage.
Also this summer, local dance mavericks Paule Turner and Melanie Stewart mounted their second nEW Festival, which morphed from the previous year into a 3-week confab of workshops and studio experimentation.
The concept culminated in two evenings of public performances at the Drake Theater DanceHouse which showcased the nEW’s works-in-progress. The works shown were not just under- rehearsed, they were conceptually raw, even for an experimental academic. The first night played for 3 and 1/2 hours, the second night was automatically and somewhat desperately, cut by an hour.
Both evenings played to a mostly papered house, with some of the audience thinking the whole thing was a joke and looking for something positive to say to performers they knew who were in the program. One man commented during intermission that he didn’t know how they could even call it dance even in the broadest sense of the word. He felt had because he felt misled by the slick ads.
Many choreographers have used the ‘bare-bulb’ device of exposing in part or in total the creative journey by letting audiences in to see what is usually processed out in the studio (if not the mind) by choreographers before the dancers take the public stage. Part of the purpose is to integrate a Bauhaus exposition of performance by leaving bare the details of the creative process as applied to this disparate group of performance artists.
Without doubt, showing incomplete work is always a gamble. As fascinated as the public can be in backstage oeuvre, onstage they want to see crafted work that captures their imagination. Even George Balanchine’s studio dance exposes are less ‘peeks’ inside his creative mind, than they are stylized sketches set in a studio.
At best, middle-draft choreography can add an academic dialogue to understanding dance theory and performing. On the down side, it can show artists, who are essentially pondering, look like amateurs, leaving doubts in the minds of the audience and possible even dents in careers.
Shake things up
The first nEW in January 2005 was an ambitious statement outside the considerable shadows of Wilma Theater’s DanceBoom! and Live Arts/Fringe. Non-representational and anti-commercial was its point, but not necessarily its encrypted message. They mounted nEW in 2005 that succeeded on many levels as an off-season from Live-Arts/Fringe alternative for ‘new’ dance with the tagline ‘dance driven, artist feuled.’
Pre-Fringe Festival, Stewart was one of the architects of giving artists alternatives to develop and show their work in Philly. Both Stewart and Turner are not only dancer-choreographers and directors of their own companies, they teach as well.
Without doubt, the performers at nEW had balls, taking to the stage en masse with fragmented choreography, squirrelly concepts and cram rehearsals. Of course, Turner and Stewart took the good, the bad, and the ugly in stride and counted the performances as part of their creative development of the nEW on the road to January’s finished works.
The results were that the nEW hedged their bets with only 3 groups surviving to the next round (one choreographer will present two works) in January’s showcase, so this turned into an backyard experimental dance- off. And the survivors were decidedly the more seasoned performers.
Ready for a close-up
In contrast was The Live Arts/Philly Fringe Festival’s ‘Works-In-Progress’ series including the solo section of ‘Tar’ being developed over the next year by Charles O. Anderson. A true choreographic auteur in Philly with such electric works as ‘Body and Soul: Funky Suite’ celebrated black gay writers such as James Baldwin and Essex Hemphill. The docu-dance essayed traditional African dance with authentic house vogue from black gay life.
This year Anderson wanted to investigate Africanist dance heritage of the American Black South vis-a-vis traditional dance lineage from Africa, specifically South Africa. Anderson visited the country last spring and started collaborating with South African choreographer Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe, whose own company is based in Paris.
Anderson ‘s narrative of African- American life in the south (allegorizing racist depictions from the Uncle Remus stories) interweaves Mantsoe’s tribal and ritualized African Dance. Both choreographers are strong storytellers with distinct styles and ‘Tar’ is nuanced, deeply textured cross-cultural fusion.
Anderson began developing ‘Tar’ after his performance at DanceBOOM!’05 which didn’t fulfill him as an artist and in fact resulted in an injury. Mantsoe came to the US to work in studio with Anderson for a month before the Festival.
When Anderson took the stage for the work-in-progress performance Sept 3 at the Painted Bride, the choreography was in sharp focus, precise and liberated. It was a purposeful ‘sneak preview’ of substantive work. Mantsoe, also demonstrated an undiluted African storytelling form and technique which was equally engaging. Together this justified putting ‘a work in progress’ in front of an audience many of whom stayed on for the artists’ audience q and a which says a lot about their work.
Anderson & Mantsoe in studio
Sweltering days in hot dance studios at the CEC didn’t dampen the meeting of the dance minds, as well as bodies and souls, between choreographers Charles O. Anderson and Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe.
He viewed some of Mantsoe’s choreography in the film ‘Shostakovich’ and sought him out to collaborate on ‘Tar,’ in development over the next year. Mantsoe, a South African dance fusionist, who has his own acclaimed company in Paris, will tour and be in residence at Swarthmore College next year.
“I was blown away by how much he and I are relating. I didn’t expect that our histories are very similar. He is descended from a line of Samgomas, Shamans, his grandmother taught him all of these traditional dances.” Anderson said.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to really move like him, I can tell we’re coming together and that we both think movement has to come from a spirit and not just a form.” Anderson broke his ankle in DB! ‘05 and it prompted him to “stay real to what I’m interested in. I can change my style as long as I stay true to my approach to movement. With that in mind, I sought him out. Vincent and I move incredibly differently, but the approach he has makes it ok with me.”
Refining the movement language from both aesthetics turned into a physical, artistic and psychological journey for Anderson. “I went to South Africa to look at dance and study folk tales ÉI wanted to parallel the differences of black South African experience and African American experience. All of that was churning when I met him.” Anderson said.
“My goal is not to look like him or even to become master of his movement style but to enhance my own vocabulary from what I already do. The forms he teaches is Afro-fusion based on contemporary dance styles of the nine traditional dance forms from Southern and Western Africa, as well as styles in contemporary dance there.”
In studio, Anderson was exhaustively constructing technique and phrasing under Mantsoe’s direction for weeks before the festival performance. After the rehearsal he was completely charged by the results of their work “since it’s my idea and I’m structuring it, but he’s adding other layers, so I having a feeling, but he is making me focus so much on the details to understand my own choreography. I’m not operating solely on intuition, I have to articulate on a new level.”