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.
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.
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.
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.