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.
The title of this article is the second half of the title of one of the best descriptions of choreography I’ve ever read. Roslyn Sulcas wrote a year-end article in the New York Times summarizing the most memorable performances she had seen during the year. The article is called “Leading Bodies, Stirring Imaginations”, and it begins with a superb description of the art of choreography:
"CREATING a dance involves much more than inventing steps for dancers. It needs a judicious eye for visual and spatial effect, a sense of timing and an instinct for building attention, for varying the mood and creating an overall theatrical arc that draws an audience into the world of the dance. Thinking about my favorite dance watching moments of the year, I realized that they all involved a sense of wonder at the skill with which the choreographers had woven these elements into a whole, making every aspect of a dance feel not just necessary, but inevitable."
Despite the importance of music in almost all dance creation, the world of dance and the world of music are very different. They are different cultures, different economies, often different classes. In my experience, though, the most significant differences are actually the result of differences in perception.
For most of its professionals and for most of its audience, choreography is essentially a visual art, and dancers and choreographers are primarily visual in their perceptions. They react intensely to music, but often as texture more than as composition, the way a fashion designer perceives fabric. Although profoundly inspired by some music, they often perceive it almost as color, but rarely as artistic structure, much the same way that a painter perceives light.
The process of choreography is variable and complex, and several projects ‘ohana Dreamdance has done in the past year, along with the Tenth Anniversary of Thodos Dance Chicago’s New Dances, makes this a good time to talk about that process. Extensions Dance Company, who’s 2010 Showcase is on Saturday, May 29 at the Ruth Page Center For the Arts, will be performing Lizzie MacKenzie’s work “Time Now”, set to two ‘ohana Dreamdance tracks, “Time Now” and “Some Time”. We’ve just finished the choreography mix of our track “What Was Beyond” for Shayna Swanson’s brilliant aerial choreography and performance. Finally, Mollie Mock and Jeremy Blair’s enchanting work “Reflect”, set to our track “Hidden”, premiered at New Dances last year and has just completed it’s first year in the Thodos Dance Chicago repertoire.
But maybe I should explain how I got mixed up in all of this to begin with. I’m a record producer by trade, but like many mixer/producers, I’ve also spent a lot of time recording and mixing projects that I was not producing. Before the development of system-based recording, choreographers like Melissa Thodos had to find a recording studio to put together the music for their works, and that was my first exposure to the world of Dance.
Thodos Dance Chicago celebrates the tenth year of its New Dances series, probably the most successful of the many Dance Company-sponsored programs for the development of new choreography. It’s not uncommon for Dance companies to have a program that encourages their members and guest artists to choreograph in a special developmental program. The Thodos Dance New Dances approach is a much more far-reaching commitment than is the norm, though.
It was back in March that Mollie Mock told me that she and Jeremy Blair would be collaborating in the creation of a work set to the new 'ohana track "Hidden". Ironically, I had recently begun to really notice Mollie and Jeremy when they dance together; there is a particularly bright rapport between them that you can see clearly whenever you watch them moving together onstage. So I was really enthusiastic when I heard that they would be applying the unique way they can work together to setting their piece, entiltled "Reflect".