Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Olive Branches to Monk (Merián Videos)

View from the dance studio at the Liguria Study Center
I have been in residence at the Bogliasco Foundation’s Liguria Study Center in Italy for the past month.  It’s been an enormous privilege to have the time to focus on my creative work.  I’ve been exploring the Ligurian coast, spending a few hours a day in the studio, and I’ve also been making lots of videos. 

The first video project I completed was a videocard for Meredith Monk.   Meredith was my first dance composition teacher at NYU, in 1975.  I loved her and her work and did various intensives with her company over the next few years.  I’ve been singing while dancing in my work ever since that first course.  Pedacito de Cristal, created that year, was the first of many works that incorporated singing.  It was also the first work where I explored drawing from popular Afro-Caribbean dance forms to create concert dance. 

A couple years ago when Meredith was in residence at Bryn Mawr (thank you, Lisa Kraus, for organizing that remarkable week of workshops, film screenings and performances!), I was once again struck by the recognition of how impactful early influences can be.  Even though you move on to other things and forget, they nonetheless become part of you in a very deep, often unconscious, way. While engaging with Meredith's work again after so many years, I recognized the lineage — her work with archetypes, the minimalism, the delicious and superbly satisfying marriage of vocalizing and movement.  I could envision the strong complementarity of her music and the branch dancing. 

Fast forward to last August: Olive Prince and I spent several hours  in  Conwell Dance Theater at Temple University where I teach, exploring branch dancing to Meredith’s music.  In October, at the Liguria Study Center,  I edited the video I took of her performance that day.   Today, I share this with you.

Olive Branch Dances To Monk (Merián Videos)
Because of copyright issues this video is private.  email me if you want to take a look.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Performing in the gardens of Villa dei Pini, Bogliasco

There’s that thing about performance, when you enter a zone, you are aware of being fine-tuned at a particular frequency, you are going with the flow.  I love this experience, this shift of consciousness; sometimes it’s magical; sometimes I enter a dynamic play that’s both generated by me and beyond me. Willing the precise balance of yielding and directing can be energizing, thrilling.   I focus on riding the moment as it demands; quietly, playfully, clumsily, easily, boldly, delicately, fiercely, to maintain connection.  

It was energizing and satisfying to experience this dynamic play in various guises while performing on Sunday in the gardens of the Bogliasco Foundation’s Villa dei Pini, in Liguria, Italy, as part of the City of Genoa’s Festival della Scienza. 

With the branches there is so much to work with: balancing and connecting, weight, line, design, sensed image and memory,  place, weather, temperature, light, sound, nature; time, presence, being in the present, slowing down time — waiting,  stillness.

I designed the first section of the piece to be seen by the audience from far above.  It was uncanny to feel a strong energetic connection to them although they were so far from me. I could feel the dance as a play between my movement shifts, that magnificent place, and their individual imaginations.   

Playing with the audience while walking backwards up the path was also a delight.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Performing today in Bogliasco

This afternoon I will perform in the gardens of the Bogliasco Foundation’s Study Center on the edge of the Ligurian Sea, as part of the week-long Genovese Festival della Scienza.  I will present various videos I’ve created in the past two weeks while in residence at the center, and will perform with branches found along the beach in Bogliasco.  

Branch dancing is different here, the branches are different, as is the uncertain ground and angled sunlight at the edge of the sea. 

Even though I am well aware that every branch offers its own unique dance, it’s been surprisingly challenging to work with Ligurian branches.  Somehow their center of weight is slippery; they defy familiar handling.  They seem rebellious, fiercely independent; I sense something similar in the people here.

In this extraordinarily beautiful place, I feel, and see everywhere, the tenuous balance at the edge of land and sea.  Everything is slightly skewed, perched on rocks, resisting the pull of gravity; humanity densely hovering at the edge.  

Traffic noise jars the soothing organic sounds of nature. The angled brilliance of the sun forces me to lower my eyes, bow down to its great power, seek the shade. I turn from it to meet my shadow. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Branch Dances in the Bronx

Branch Dances in the Bronx still resonates with me as a shared magical break in the midst of everyday reality. The project, organized by Aviva Davidson and Dancing in the Streets, in collaboration with BAAD Bronx, and with funding from PennPAT and the NYC Dept. of Cultural Affairs, brought branch dancing to a new community of artists.  The participants ranged from nineteen-year old novice Niko Rodriguez, to master artist, Arthur Aviles. Integrated with the Bronx group were seasoned branch dancers, Jumatatu Poe, Marion Ramírez, and Beau Hancock.

Branch Dances in the Bronx’s main objective was to teach the branch dance practice to a group of Bronx-based choreographers over the course of three weekends.  The place, BAAD Bronx, was ideal; we were able to warm up and train on the cozy dance floor at BAAD and then practice with branches outdoors on the grounds of St Peter’s Church, where BAAD’s new home is located.  The time of year was ideal as well, not too cold, not too hot.  

We were inspired by the beauty of the spring skies; their  immensity resonates in the body, simultaneously lifting and grounding the spirit. Clouds stream by, brilliant white against intense sky blue. The wind becomes a partner in the dance of balancing the branches. If one is quiet and soft, one can feel it resonate through the body.  Magic. 
Branch dancing is a meditative improvisational performance practice where the principal actions are to pay attention, connect, and respond.   Moving slowly we work on seamless weight shift, no jagged edges.  It’s a demanding practice; it’s a challenge to slow down, stay present, shift seamlessly, wait.

Maintaining stillness over time takes tenacity and will power.  Attempting to meet these challenges feels good. Connecting body/mind/focus and moving into balance and alignment feels good; it has a healing effect on the body/mind. We are reminded of the great wonder of the body which heals itself.  In attending to reality moment by moment, to nature, and the nature of the body, we experience greater power, efficacy, and agency to create what we want. 

There is no difference between practice and performance.   We train by practicing all sorts of sensory and bodily awareness exercises, with and without the branches. On weekend two of Branch Dances in the Bronx, we practiced performing during a 50-minute demonstration in a green space by Westchester Square, in the midst of the annual Fair in the Square sponsored by Westchester BID.   The workshop culminated in a final “formal” performance, on the grounds of St. Peter’s Church, with costumes by Christine Darch and music by Harold Smith.

The performance scores were simple time and action structures to engage in the practice together.  The circle became a powerful place to launch the practice.   We began the performances with 10 minutes of standing in stillness in a circle.  We ended with dancers finding stillness at 55 minutes.  The in-between actions included giving into gravity, leaning into and away from each other, moving in relationship to each other, balancing branches on the horizontal.

At the fair we performed in a contained green space, in the shade of several trees.  Audiences were serendipitous, people attending the fair, passing by.     The practice was so new for the group, and there was so much going on, that participants bypassed the idea of performing and simply concentrated on completing the score, waiting in stillness whenever they found themselves out of the practice. Participants’ commitment to stay present and connected, aided by the contained space, the circle and the wind supported a place of connection, newness, and energetic transformation. Magic.

The final performance had a different sort of magic, supported by Christine Darch’s beautiful costumes, and Harold Smith’s sensitive music.  More practice is needed, particularly in letting go of “performance energy”; it has a way of taking over, pulling us into fantasy and distracting us from the task of staying present.   And yet we had many moments of connection. There was a shared commitment, pride, and spirit of generosity which carried us through.

The several dozen audiences who attended Sunday’s performance were patient and attentive.   It was heart warming to see familiar faces I haven’t seen for a while and to see children mirror our actions.  

Branch Dances in the Bronx:
Directed by Merián Soto
Performed by Arthur Aviles, Marsi Burns, Dorrell Clark, Kharis Collins, Beau Hancock, Nadine Martinez, Stephanie Peña, Jumatatu Poe, Marion Ramírez, Niko Rodríguez, Merián Soto, DaShawn White, Ni’Ja Whitson Adebanjo.
Music: Harold E. Smith
Costumes: Christine Darch
Special thanks: Katie Jasmin and Jimena Alviar

Photos: Jimena Alviar