Amy Seiwert, a Choreographer in the Time | By Marie Tollon

A recent article featured choreographer William Forsythe calling out to dancers rehearsing one of his pieces: “Don’t be afraid to love ballet.” Bay Area-based choreographer Amy Seiwert has no such fear. An intricate love for the world and vocabulary of ballet unfolds in the choreography she creates both for Imagery, the company she founded in 2004, and for established ballet companies who commission her work. If her dances demonstrate a deep appreciation and knowledge of ballet, they also constantly explore and reinvent the boundaries of the traditional art form.

Amy Seiwert's "In the Time" Photo by David DeSilva

Amy Seiwert’s “In the Time”
Photo by David DeSilva

After dancing for 19 years with the LA Chamber, Sacramento and Smuin Ballets, Seiwert is currently a choreographer-in-residence at Smuin Ballet and an artist in residence at ODC Theater. When asked about what it is about ballet that she is so fond of, Seiwert answers: “As a ballet dancer, I loved to explore technique, I kind of geeked out on it. I do have a love for [its] physicality and efficiency. What was interesting to me was to try to use [it] in different ways, add another dimension, another physicality to the body.” Take for example the partnering work in many of her pieces: it appears as a laboratory where the choreographer exposes, distills and expands the range of motions and textures that the ballet form offers. The female dancer fanning a grand rond-de-jambe over the head of her partner in Traveling Alone (2012), In the Time (2012) or in The Devil Ties My Tongue (2013) exemplifies Seiwert’s playfulness with the ballet syntax. This signature move creates a dazzling setting where both bodies function as one entity whose parts constantly readjust to find a harmonious setting.

Hungry for deepening her understanding of the body’s mechanics, Seiwert studied Joseph Pilates’ work in depth. “Whenever you look at what you are doing from a different viewpoint, you get a glimpse of something you didn’t see from the other side,” Seiwert mentions. With movements that integrate the mobility and expressivity of the head, pelvis and torso, hints of modern dance vocabulary appear in her phrasing, infusing the classical ballet form with edge and depth: lower backs contract, chests cave in in Mirror (2013); dancers engage in hinge falls and pleadings in Home in 7 (2011) or In the Time; hands become eloquent in Mirror or in The Devil Ties My Tongue, providing further insights into the psyche of their owners.

"White Noise" Photo by Scot Goodman

“White Noise”
Photo by Scot Goodman

Seiwert’s curiosity for experiencing her craft from different perspectives takes ballet to places it seldom travels. By collaborating with artists from other fields, she brings multiple voices to her work, which thereby resonates with unexpected accents. For White Noise (2010), Seiwert collaborated with German software artist Frieder Weiss. In the piece, dancers evolve in front of Weiss’ real-time interactive video projections. “I wanted to explore the conversation between ballet and technology. I feel it’s not done enough with ballet, it’s done more with modern dance,” Seiwert commented. Video and movements enter in a conversation where both mediums affect each other: at times, the movements seem to reflect the fast-pace and sharpness of the video images and become syncopated, while retaining the gracious fullness of the balletic line. Similarly, the digital pictures on the screen suddenly read as the underlining of the dancers’ skin, recalling photos of cells moving under a microscope.

Another testimony of Seiwert’s venturous spirit is the curation of Sketch, an annual summer series that she created in 2011 as a platform to explore ‘risk’, specifically with ballet. The relationship between music and dance is at the heart of this year’s edition, presented this weekend at ODC Theater. Seiwert commissioned composer Kevin Keller to write a score for her and guest choreographer Adam Hougland. As Seiwert explains, “we were trying not to let anyone lead and instead allow the possibility for everyone to have an input. Adam and I chose three images -we don’t know each other’s images- and we sent them to Kevin, who is writing the music based on the images. He is writing six movements but we don’t know what movement matches which image. We are allowed to put these movements in any order we want.”

For a choreographer who most often starts the creative process with music, commissioning a score represents an additional risk. “It’s a huge unknown variable. I get scared that I won’t be in love with the music,” Seiwert explains. Yet the two other times she commissioned music, the score created an electric texture that the choreographer seized and transcribed into a punchy and invigorating choreography. In Home in 7, a collaboration with spoken-word poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, the sound of pointe shoes hitting the floor partners evocatively with Bamuthi Joseph’s distinct elocution. In that piece, such as in In the Time, for which Seiwert collaborated with a cappella group Ramon and Jessica, a tinge of street dance warms up the traditionally cool balletic lines: sinuous movements of the torso and skidding jumps add electricity and a contemporary flair to the work.

Seiwert (in focus) and dancers  Peng-Yu Chen & Ben Needham-Wood rehearsing "In the Time"  Photo by Scot Goodman

Seiwert (in focus) and dancers
Peng-Yu Chen & Ben Needham-Wood
rehearsing “In the Time”
Photo by Scot Goodman

Seiwert has an eye for the tiny details that sustain an entire piece, and it is both exciting and informative to see her at work. In a workshop she recently taught, she instructed participants to take a few minutes on their own to play with the material they had just practiced, before showing it to the class. With the swiftness and accuracy of an eagle sighting its prey, Seiwert interrupted some: “Can you do this again?” eyeing the place where a transition was missing and suggesting that here a line could be amplified, there a movement repeated. One could witness a mastered sense of composition in her astute observations.

When choreographing for ballet companies who commission her work,  Seiwert adapts her process: “How much we go off on a tangent depends on who I am working with. Sometimes, if you ask ballet dancers who have very little experience working with choreographers who ask them for input, they’ll freeze because they are very trained to be right or wrong. A lot of dancers are uncomfortable risking. I’m never going to go home and make up something and come in to teach it. I am just watching [the dancers’] body and following their non-verbal communication. It goes from me subtly following their lead to shaping.”

Choreographing has allowed Seiwert the possibility to experiment with and refine her voice, an opportunity that she may not have had as a dancer. In the 19 years that she danced, only once did she dance onstage a piece choreographed by a woman. “As a female dancer, you have to subjugate your own voice so much—you have to be exactly like the other girls in the corps and match everyone around you. There’s a lack of empowerment that can happen early in developmental years, and it can really hit on your self-esteem,” she stated in an interview with Dance Magazine.

"The Devil Ties My Tongue" Photo by David DeSilva

“The Devil Ties My Tongue”
Photo by David DeSilva

Puzzled by the reasons why there are not more female choreographers in ballet, Seiwert is curious to see how the recent years’ economic environment might affect the ballet choreographic landscape. “Because of the recession, there were no jobs and a lot of these beautiful dancers graduated from high school and went on to school [which] have gotten a larger influx of ballet dancers. They will have to choreograph in college, and they will have to stand there and defend their opinion.” This is different from Seiwert’s and other ballet dancers’ experience: in the past, they would “get an apprenticeship right out of high school and not say anything. You get into the chorus, and you don’t say anything. This is your path. It’s not empowering.” If Seiwert is aware of the gender disparities in the ballet world, her work has no obvious feminist agenda, as “in terms of showing relationships onstage, who is strong or weak in one moment doesn’t have anything to do with gender,” she says.

With a passion for her craft, a command of the technique, an inventive and collaborative mind, Seiwert constantly invigorates ballet with new and vital accents. Far from the aerial sylphs, princes and fairies of classical ballet, the protagonists of her dances are contemporary men and women who remind us that ballet stands as a vital form to question and investigate issues of our times.

 

 

 

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Aging made fertile: Randee Paufve’s Soil | By Marie Tollon

In contemporary culture, images of the “beautiful” body –infinitely youthful, long and lean- inundate daily life, promoting a cultural standard. The pressure to comply to this constructed norm is heightened in the dance world, where dancers are often subject to early retirement, due not only to injuries and a loss of stamina but also to the stigmas of the aging body.

This situation continues to evolve, in part because of the work of dancers and choreographers who advocate for and incorporate older bodies into their dances. As members from senior centers and mature dancers often make up the cast of choreographer Liz Lerman’s pieces, intergenerationality is one of her signatures. Similarly, in 1998, dance artists Carmen deLavallade, Gus Solomons Jr. and Dudley Williams created Paradigm, a dance company with seasoned dancers who are primarily in their sixties.

Randee Paufve in "Soil" Photo by Pak Han

Randee Paufve in “Soil”
Photo by Pak Han

With her work Soil, which will be featured at the Music Moves Festival, Bay Area choreographer Randee Paufve contributes to the conversation regarding the still meager visibility of aging bodies onstage. Originally an evening-length piece, Soil weaves together five solos that “challenge the notion that with aging we lose endurance. [The piece] takes visible risks in exploring the primitive frontiers of the middle-aged female dancing body… and undermines the invisibility that comes with a certain age,” Paufve explains.

Similar to its title that evokes the natural world, the creation of Soil was somehow deeply organic. Collaborative work and conversations lay the fertile ground for Soil (no pun intended). The dance was born in 2010 when Paufve’s friend and fellow choreographer Kate Weare created a solo for her. In 2011, Paufve commissioned a second solo from Portland-based choreographer Gregg Bielemeier. She was also approached by Frank Shawl, who asked her to take on Flying Over Emptiness, a solo “about the bleakness and fear that the possibility of death inspires,” created for Shawl by the late Della Davidson.

Randee Paufve in "Soil" Photo by Pak Han

Randee Paufve in “Soil”
Photo by Pak Han

Originally conceived as a series of yearly commissions that would culminate in a concert of works to be performed in 2015, Soil precociously premiered in 2013, after Paufve discovered the Swedenborgian Hillside Community Church in El Cerrito. She recalls “[feeling] strongly that Soil belonged there as a cohesive, site-specific show.” The premiere was therefore advanced and Paufve decided to add her “choreographic voice to the mix by revising an old solo for the opening, and creating a new solo for the closing.” A new version of Soil will be performed at Music Moves to fit within the double-bill evening. Weare’s piece is replaced by the much shorter work In Exhale, a solo Paufve choreographed in 2003 for former Trisha Brown dancer Shelley Senter. Music Moves marks the first time Paufve will perform the solo.

If in geology the soil is often considered as the “skin of the earth,” Paufve digs beneath the surface of our being with her piece, unearthing subterranean currents and exposing our tremoring fragility and light. She thereby highlights and expands the infinite possibilities contained within the body, as it moves into age.

Close-Up of a Listening Dancer: A Conversation with Kate Weare | By Marie Tollon

In cinema, the technique of close-up allows the viewer access to the slightest and most subtle emotions undulating across an actress’ face. There is no such similar tool with dance, especially in the context of the theater, although some spatial arrangements, as well as dancers’ ability to project, can provide for a closer viewing and the potential to discern what is happening at the surface of the performers’ skin. By its ability to excavate and make visible what seems to oscillate deep within the human body and psyche, choreographer Kate Weare’s work offers such a close up: her dances often function as a magnifying glass, revealing an inner world.

Leslie Kraus and Luke Murphy in "Drop Down" Photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Leslie Kraus and Luke Murphy
in “Drop Down”
Photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

In Drop Down, a duet which is inspired by tango and which will be featured at the Music Moves Festival, the two dancers appear to be standing at the edge of themselves, listening to each other from every pore. It is almost as if the sound of their body’s internal functions (heart beating, blood pumping, cells opening and closing…) has been turned up in volume. In this sense, Weare’s dances do not only resonate visually, they also communicate the body’s inherent musicality. At one moment in Drop Down, the female dancer stands with her back to her male partner, and drops her head, slowly rounding her back, as if to coil within her own skin. Then, with a pronounced shift, she lets go of the built tension within her spine, which in turn snaps like the cord of a taut bow suddenly released. The movements invoke the ferocious sound of a bone cracking or a tendon snapping. Originally from the Bay Area and currently based in New York, Weare recently answered my questions via email.

Marie Tollon: Still Life With Avalanche, which will be featured at the Music Moves Festival, was previously named The Light Has Not The Arms to Carry Us. Why did you decide to rename the piece?

Kate Weare: The title Light Has Not the Arms… was a play on an original and very graphic light design by Brian Jones – a wonderful designer I’ve collaborated with for years – as well as the name of a piece of music I’ve used in the work. But since I’ve asked San Francisco-based lighting designer Allan Willner to light a new version of the work, the old name no longer feels relevant.

Still Life With Avalanche (again an existing title of a piece of music in the work) feels more apt for where the piece has landed after the newly-made third section influenced the whole. And I like to refresh my perception of work, choreographically and in other ways, to remind myself that where a given work landed artistically is not the only possibility…there are always more options!

MT: When you spoke about the making of Bright Land, you mentioned that you don’t usually work with the music first, as you are “interested in cultivating the musicality that’s already present in the movement or that physicality inherently has.” Can you share how you worked with the score when creating Drop Down?

Leslie Kraus and Luke Murphy  in "Drop Down" Photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Leslie Kraus and Luke Murphy
in “Drop Down”
Photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

KW: Drop Down was developed without music and the score by Katie Down was built later as a kind of backdrop… a sort of underwater, faraway, yet urgent, soundscape. I chose to create Drop Down this way, because the rhythms, the musicality and the intimacy between the two dancers is how they are articulating to us, the audience, what matters about their relationship, and it must be a very alive process (as it is in real tango). The dancers need to listen to each other’s bodies with a lot of concentration to be as immediate, reactive and virile as this dance requires. It’s not only a series of steps to be executed well, it’s an unfolding experience bound by formal structure in which the dancers act and react from the gut.

MT: Can you talk about the use of music in Still Life With Avalanche, which seems quite different?

KW: Still Life With Avalanche relates directly to the music and the dancers are dancing to the music, so to speak. When I’m working with music in the studio, I seek to have a conversation with it (sometimes an argument) so that the movements and sounds might diverge and rejoin, come toward flow and agreement or sometimes pull against each other to an uncomfortable degree. It’s a strategy not to let one medium dominate the other so that it becomes the only lens through which the work is viewed, thereby flattening potential. It’s also instinctually a way to use the music as a collaborative voice in the process… a dialogue unfolding in rhythm, tonality, density, color, speed. Ideally, the dancers are also having a sensitive conversation with the music each night as they interpret afresh in the moment.

MT: You choreographed Triangulating Euclid with KT Nelson and Brenda Way in 2013. You recently set Drop Down and Still Life With Avalanche on the dancers from ODC/Dance, who will be performing both pieces during the Music Moves Festival. Randee Paufve, for whom you created one of the solos in her evening-length piece Soil, is also sharing the bill with you during the festival. Questions of lineage, collaborations and conversations between fellow choreographers and dancers therefore permeate the festival’s program. Can you talk further about that?

Kate Weare Photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

Kate Weare
Photo by Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang

KW: I believe in the vast conversation we’re generating through time and human lineage, especially having to do with the body. At the macro level dancers and choreographers are informing us as a species about what it feels like to be alive, and this long-standing wellspring of research is incredibly rich, complex and surprising.

In one lifetime, I suppose this boils down to interesting artistic relationships. I love collaborating. My voice is loud enough that I know I can collaborate pretty freely, letting my work be influenced by very different voices, intonations, and still sense my own course. I tend to like strong collaborative partners – the intensity of our differences feel challenging and nutritious to me.

I also believe that we have a lot to learn from each other across value systems, modes of performance, techniques and aesthetic stances. I’m not protectionist, and I don’t worry about guarding territory – rather I see the spectrum of movement/performance production as rich terrain to explore… it all deserves respect as representation of human diversity. For instance, I routinely dip my toes in movement forms I know little about or that I’m an amateur with, like tango or hula or contact improvisation or viewpoints or tai chi or whatever, to refresh a sense of risk and unknowingness in my own practice. Lineage, history, and contemporary collaborative relationships are all a means to aim a searchlight on your own assumptions as an artist.

 

 

I Am the Rest Between Two Notes: Dance Heginbotham at the Music Moves Festival | By Marie Tollon

Watching Dance Heginbotham, you might feel as if it is impossible to distinguish the movements from the music, as the two mediums are melded, thus creating a highly singular form. Not unlike an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, this symbiotic approach to building dance appears seamless, and allows the viewer to consider the physicality of sound.

Dance Heginbotham in  "Closing Bell" Photo by Amber Star Merkens

Dance Heginbotham in
“Closing Bell”
Photo by Amber Star Merkens

In Closing Bell, one of the pieces that the Brooklyn-based company will present during its West Coast debut at the Music Moves Festival, a dancer leaps on the silence between two piano notes, giving it breath and materiality, echoing Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem title “I am the rest between two notes.” Likewise, in Twin, another piece on the festival’s program, quirky and digital-like movements alternate with classical gestures creating a highly sensorial landscape in which movements can be heard and sounds felt.

Choreographer John Heginbotham’s musical intelligence possibly derives from piano lessons taken at a very young age, when he developed the ability to read a score. But it also undeniably grew from his work as a dancer in the Mark Morris Dance Group, from 1998 to 2012. “The reason that I ever auditioned for the company was that I loved the way [Mark] used music. He really is very sophisticated in his knowledge. When you are working with him in the studio, you can start to understand how sound can be effectively translated into movement. I worked with him very intensely for a long period of time and I learned a lot, not just about dance but also about music, what makes music from a period sound the way it does, why a melody line from the Baroque period operates a certain way,” Heginbotham shared over the phone.

Closing Bell is choreographed to Central Market, a music composed by American composer Tyondai Braxton in 2009, and inspired by the score that Igor Stravinsky created for the ballet Petrushka. The title refers to the ballet’s opening scene, set in a market place, but also to the failing of financial markets around the world. The soundscape mixes piano, fuzzes, horns, electronic birdsong, brass blares, drums, strings and whistles, prompting music critic Melissa Bradshaw to state: “It sounds like Leonard Bernstein scoring a Disney film… All the elements that were associated with primitivism in Stravinsky’s work – the tributes to birdsong and the circular, cacophonous evocations of the cycles of nature – are put through post-rock and electronic filters.” Heginbotham continues: “I had heard this music a few months earlier, before knowing about the opportunity [of a residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center]. The music is very dark but also very playful, it sounds in some way like a soundtrack, a kind of twisted cartoon, and the music was saying to me dolls, children’s toys in a bad situation.”

Braxton’s music and Heginbotham’s movements share elements of dark humor and cool absurdity. In Braxton’s piece, the juxtaposition of birdcalls with digitally manipulated sounds creates a strange, somehow supersensory environment. Likewise, at the beginning of Closing Bell, three dancers stand in a wide parallel, continuously bending and straightening their front knee. As their back foot rhythmically presses towards the floor, they seem to be expelling the soft buzzing score from under their heels. With rigid torsos and frozen facial expressions, they embody the anomalous clicks and beats of the music and appear as mannequins rocking themselves to oblivion.

Dance Heginbotham  in "Twin" Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Dance Heginbotham
in “Twin”
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Heginbotham’s movements are technical and borrow from contemporary and balletic vocabulary, yet throughout his dances, the choreographer sprinkles a range of the absurd, comical and vital snippets that significantly alter the reading of the work. In Closing Bell, a dancer places his hand above his head, mimicking the ears of a rabbit, inserting childlike and goofy motions in a highly technical and structured piece. Likewise, at one moment in Twin, dancers touching their head and belly recall an exercise of coordination. The transitions are coherent and without rupture, so that the work does not appear like a collage, instead like its own lucid language.

In the same way that Braxton’s music references various styles (classical, contemporary, electronic…) Heginbotham nods to a wide range of movements, from music hall rhythms (dancers walking sideways, arms moving pendulum style, torso leaning forward, in Twin) to the digitally composed walks and gestures of animation characters in video games. In several instances, the dancers show up like haunted dolls, torso and head fixed, eyes wide open, while the arms and legs move in automatic fashion. In this sense, apprehending Heginbotham’s work, one cannot help noticing the imprint of a culture marked by the presence of the screen, whether it is that of T.V., cinema or the computer. Twin‘s lighting often splits the stage in two fields of diffused colors, recalling the composition of a formalist painting circa late 60s early 70s. At another moment, low lights shine on two dancers, creating the subterranean ambiance of a film noir.

Dance Heginbotham  in "Twin"

Dance Heginbotham
in “Twin”

Asked about the reference to screen work, Heginbotham mentioned that they are not always conscious, although he confides that Closing Bell is “inspired by an episode of [Rod Sterling’s] 90’s television show The Twilight Zone, which involves several characters who find themselves in a very strange environment, they have no memory of who they are and why they are in this place, and discover at the very end that they are children’ toys.”

If images are present in Heginbotham’s dances, they are fleeting, anchoring his work in the frenzied pace of contemporary culture. He indeed crafts what may appear as intelligent games where he never lets an image register long enough to fix it with meaning. Changing the tone and vocabulary when you are not expecting it, Heginbotham allows the beat to drop, creating an anxious sense of surprise. Not unlike the fast-paced cuts that became a signature style in the late 80’s and 90’s via MTV, he is able to create these movements on stage as if they were products of the hand-held digital camera. Asked about where this tendency derives from, Heginbotham answers: “Usually I’ll be in the studio working on a piece and I will be on the verge of getting too used to an image that is happening right there and then, and I will want to surprise myself. With every situation, I am trying to think about what the next image is. In general, I would say that timing seems to be crucial. What I have notice is that if I am sitting with a set of tempos for a while, the introduction of a brand new timing is often the thing that will work.”

Heginbotham also evokes the importance of collaborations, notably with visual designer Nicole Pearce and costume designer Maile Okamura -a friend and fellow dancer from the Mark Morris Dance Group who crafts striking costumes. “It is the joy of collaborating with people who are inspired for themselves and are going to bring their own voices to the process… People I work with have very strong imagination,” Heginbotham shares. Another kind of collaboration is at play in Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances, one of which Heginbotham will perform during Music Moves. An original member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and also a designer and illustrator of children’ books, Charlip would draw figures on a piece of paper and send them to dancers. Heginbotham explains: “He sent suggestions and the dancer completed the collaboration by taking shapes from the piece of paper and deciding how to arrange them and how to make the dance. It is very playful and beautiful.”

Using a unique movement syntax, Heginbotham successfully rides the boundaries between worlds, moving from the pedestrian to the concert to the digital without disruption. In the dances presented at Music Moves, is the choreographer commenting on the stark loneliness of individuals whose human sensibility has been devoured by the screen culture? Watching his work, the search for meaning becomes secondary. The pleasure from watching these long-limbed creatures evolving in this atypical and semi-fantastic world takes over.

 

 

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