Before Francisco Avina and Stephanie Martinez Bennitt were asked by Thodos Dance Chicago to be the guest choreographers for the Tenth Anniversary of the New Dances series, they had already begun the discussion and reflection that would lead to their new work, "Quieting the Clock". The work is inspired by a simple and profound question, or rather, by an endless series of interrelated questions. How does the passage of time effect who you are? As time progresses, what is the relationship between who you are now and who you once were --- and may never be again. As the passage of time changes what you are capable of, where do you find balance, and hopefully continuity, in a redefinition that is gradually forced into your life? Avina and Martinez Bennitt expand their exploration to embrace all of the ways in which identity is defined by the logistics of time, by the pressures of schedule and obligation, and more gradually, of age.
Wade Schaaf's new work "Dancer, Net" was inspired by the concept of French impressionist painter Claude Monet's Haystack series, which "is known for its thematic use of repetition to show differences in perception of light across various times of day, seasons and types of weather" (Wikipedia). Even the title of the work, "Dancer, Net" reflects the conventions of painting, where a work will often be identified by it's subject ("Wheatstacks (End Of Summer)") and the way it is made ("Oil on Canvas"). In "Dancer, Net" Schaaf creates three separate solos, each of which features the same soloist and the same net-like fabric bag. The three solos are performed separately, at different points during the concert program, thereby accentuating the impact of the changing perspective from which an audience will see them. Schaaf's most recent work was a successful large-ensemble piece ("Awakening"), and in turning his creative vision to the more raw, more immediately-apparent movements of a solo work, he is able to explore in detail the many facets of a single subject.
In "Temporary Proof", Brian Hare sets himself a challenging task: to portray the process of personal development, to shine some sort of light on the many different ways that someone becomes who they are. In casting his study for six dancers, he makes it possible to explore a multifaceted look at a single individual, an individual trying, as Hare expresses it, to "become a more accurate version" of who they are. Although the subject of many works in many forms of art, this is an examination well-suited to Choreography, where Hare uses the emotion that can be so evident in movement to evoke an immediate identification with struggles everyone is familiar with. "One of the most powerful elements in dance is what the human body is capable of," Hare observes, "It's not so much that I'm concerned with presenting the dancers as performers for an audience; it's more as if they are extremely athletic, moving ideas that, through their physicality, express the idea that we are all ever-changing and evolving versions of ourselves."
Balance is always an issue in movement, but in "2:00 AM, Delancy St." Jeremy Blair is concerned with a deeper balance: understanding the differences between what we want and what we really need. To set the background for his look at choices and desires, Blair uses the bleak landscpape of the city -- not the bright, money-to-burn, VIP city, but the nothing-you-don't-need part of the city, the city where people stay out all night, but only because they don't have anywhere else they can be. Balance is always an issue in art, and Blair carefully balances the edgy and the melancholy in his movements as in his soundtrack, implying deep, and sometimes dark questions about choices. When are you working, and when are you just selling your self? What would you do for love, and is it really still love if you would do that? When people are bound to one another, what forces can bind them? Balance is always an issue in life-choices, but what happens when choices already made throw everything that follows out of balance?
Jessica Miller Tomlinson was working with Melissa Thodos once when Thodos, while rehearsing a section in one of her works, said "Jess, give me your big technique." If that's a unique way to find the title (and inspiration) for a choreographic work, even more unique is the adventure that Jessica Miller Tomlinson is able to conjure from it. Imagine what can happen when Miller Tomlinson (whose recent independent production with Jacqueline Stewart JMT/JLS featured one inspiring display of artistic confidence after another) does a study dedicated to confidence in art. A remarkable subject for most choreographers to undertake, but Jessica Miller Tomlinson always seems to address subjects that only her uniquely inspired view of the world could imagine, and in "Big Technique" she imagines an inspired tour of the World of Artistic Confidence.
Even in the broad landscape of modern choreography, Heart Strings is unusually bold, bold in the deceptively easy way that Danielle Scanlon plays with the most everyday of ideas -- the clothes we choose. Scanlon finds in that common cloth an intricate tapestry, and she uses it like a lens through which she examines the most individual and private of emotions. Set to a three-section soundscape of gentle, sometimes melancholy instrumentals, Scanlon takes a patient and careful look at the far-more-than-material threads that tie us to our past, to what we once wished for, to what never happened or never happened again. In doing so, she also explores one of the most effective of choreographic techniques, the contrast between a common, everyday action, like trying on a piece of clothing, and the extraordinary grace of the dancers' movements. To see Dance on stage is always other-worldly, but when it is interwoven with the ordinary, its transcendence of the routines of daily experience is even more enchanting.
In her new work "Jiffy Pop", Jacqueline Stewart delves into a concept called "the gaze", which the web site Art and Popular Culture explains this way: "The concept of gaze ... in analysing visual culture is one that deals with how an audience views the people presented." More ominous, and more in line with Stewart's vision in "Jiffy Pop" is the Wikipedia article on "the gaze", which discusses how "the subject's autonomy is brought into question by the projection of her 'identity' on to an exterior object". If that sounds esoteric, wait until you see "Jiffy Pop", where Stewart propels her audience into a front-of-the-roller-coaster ride through the the image-obsessed madness of modern media culture.
Joshua Manculich began planning this work several years ago, building it out of a repeated awareness of how opposing forces in every life bind an individual, limit an individual, prevent an individual from breaking out of -- something. Could be anything, and in everybody's experience, it's many different things, which is why the title leaves both parts of the opposition blank. The essential idea is of determination and endeavor --- because Manculich is more concerned with what a person does about breaking free than he is with the specific challenge that binds them. In doing so, he also identifies one of the unique qualities of choreography among the arts. A painting of this subject, and there are many, would have to be deeply abstract, like music, or else literal and specific, like writing. But in voicing this study in the movements of ten dancers on a stage that is emblematic of their challenge, Manculich's choreography can remain focused while still being inclusive of all similar challenges.
Sharon Joyce Kung, whose new choreographic work “Just Before Now” will premiere this July at New Dances 2010, had an intriguing concept for this piece. In part inspired by the recent passing of her grandfather, and in part by the remarkable life journey of his mother (her maternal great grandmother), Kung wanted to explore some of the rich philosophical ideas of her heritage. Her great-grandmother struggled heroically to bring a young family (including her grandfather) safely out of the chaos of the Japanese invasion of China, settling finally in Hong Kong. Having a clear concept in mind is a great start, but to communicate that concept to those who must make the work with you while you yourself are still working out how to express your vision --- that can be a challenge. In Kung’s case it may have been even more complicated. When a subject is as rich as this, to express that concept in movement requires a delicate balance of commitment and flexibility.
Choreography is one of those arts that is especially difficult to master, because it requires so many different resources for its development. Dancers, music, costumes, lighting, and some place to stage the performance make a challenging list of components. Yet rarely is it creativity or competence in the development of these components that most challenges new choreographers (well, most choreographers). It’s the mastery of the process.