chAMPioning new ways of creating | By Marie Tollon

If [dance] is a cognitive act, how is it that you can inspire people to be more creative cognitively? Because we all have habits, we have habits of making. If I were to work with you in the studio, quite quickly I would start to understand what your physical habits were, and one of the things that choreographers have always been interested in is upsetting those habits, disturbing them, perturbing them, making them different.

Wayne McGregor, The Arts Desk, October 2014

Ways of destabilizing and invigorating the creative process, evoked by British choreographer Wayne McGregor in a recent interview, are certainly at play in new collaborative endeavors initiated by several choreographers in the Bay Area and showcased this coming month.

AMP 2014 Photo by Ross Marlowe

AMP 2014
Photo by Ross Marlowe

From November 6 to 9, LEVYdance presents the second iteration of AMP (short for Artists Maximizing Potential), launched in 2012. Through AMP, LEVYdance invites a choreographer and his/her dancers to join the company for a six-week residency that culminates in a performance. In this second iteration, New York-based choreographer Loni Landon is choreographing an evening-length piece for the dancers of LEVYdance and her company, Loni Landon Dance Projects. For LEVYdance Associate Director and dancer Scott Marlowe, “AMP is about creating an opportunity for artistic exchange. Often times I feel that dance companies can become very insular. We created this program as an opportunity to share our creative process and resources.”

Although the first two iterations of the program have involved New York-based dance makers (choreographer Sidra Bell joined the inaugural AMP), Marlowe mentioned that the choice of invited artists is not based on geography but has more to do with aesthetics and ways of working. Yet, these two iterations allow an influx of creative output from artists who are working outside of the Bay Area, reinforcing the spirit of exchange and coast-to-coast dialogues present in other programs such as Hope Mohr’s Bridge Project.

Such collaborative projects allow the dancers to benefit from being exposed to different choreographic voices and ways of working. Marlowe explained that the project helped him “expand [his] tool box of ways to think about making dance and about the body in motion. The aesthetic that Loni is bringing to this project is very different from the aesthetic ingrained in my body from working with LEVYdance for so long. It feels like an amazing expansion of physicality, of ways of thinking about movement, of approaches. It’s been incredibly valuable… This is not about trying to fit into another artist’ set mold of creation or trying to be a chameleon. It’s about expanding what’s already there.” Such collaborations also allow viewers to consider a choreographer’s work and/or the performers’ individuality from a new perspective.

AMP 2014 Photo by Ross Marlowe

AMP 2014
Photo by Ross Marlowe

AMP also represents an alternative to the single choreographer company and a way to navigate resource scarcity in a challenging economic environment. For Marlowe, “it really has become clear in recent years that the [single choreographer company] model is not sustainable in the way that it once was. The funding sources that helped individual artists create on their own are not as extensive as they once were. A lot of funders are looking to artists to reimagine the structure of creating work and AMP is an answer to that question.”

Created to support an emerging choreographer, FACT/SF’s JuMP (short for Just Make A Piece) also nurtures the spirit of collaboration and resource sharing. Led by Artistic Director Charles Slender-White, “JuMP is a commissioning program that seeks to provide and support all the necessary components a choreographer needs to ‘just make a piece.’ FACT/SF recognizes that for a choreographer to work, many things are essential. These include: time, space, talent, money, short and long-term planning, peer support, mentor support, community dialogue, and audience feedback.” JuMP provides the selected choreographer with 50 rehearsal hours, over a 10-week period, and a $1500 stipend, in addition to production support. In this first edition, Bay Area choreographer Liz Tenuto was chosen to work with FACT/SF’s dancers and create a piece that will be presented alongside Slender-White’s work from November 13 to 16. When selecting applicants, one of Slender-White’s goals is to “work with or along somebody who works differently than I do” to expand his own process.

FACT/SF Photo by Kegan Marling

Photo by Kegan Marling

Through the preparation and unfolding of JuMP, Slender-White has opted for collective decision-making and peer mentorship. He consulted with a number of Bay Area choreographers, including Bianca Cabrera, Katie Faulkner, and Ben Levy to understand what they would want from a commissioning program. He enrolled a panel of community members to review the 25 applications the program received. The panel decided on 4 participants who were invited to take part in the JuMP Lab, a 2-hour session where choreographers and FACT/SF dancers could meet and work with each other. Slender-White took into account the dancers’ experience during the lab but also thought about who would most benefit from JuMP’s opportunity: “Some of my colleagues have momentum or money around their work. So I didn’t think that we would provide anything new or useful for those who already have an established track record. We wanted to do something that I thought was not happening here and [offer] more support for one individual,” mentioned Slender-White in a recent conversation.

The spirit of collaboration is also visible in the mentorship that surrounds the project. In this first iteration, mentors Jess Curtis and Nina Haft, who Slender-White chose “because they work differently from each other and differently from each of us” help Slender-White and Tenuto navigate the creative process. “They ask us questions to help us think where the meat of the piece is, and ultimately instigate and push us.”

FACT/SF Photo by Kegan Marling

Photo by Kegan Marling

But redefining ways of making and creating projects that help circumvent dire economic realities come with an administrative and fundraising toll. Slender-White had hoped that JuMP would also help alleviate the pressure on him to create an evening-length work on a yearly basis. But he soon realized that “the program is so large in other ways, it is like moving things from bucket A to bucket B. I don’t want the company to become a producer of a commissioning program solely.” Initially envisioned as an annual program, JuMP may take a different form in the future and occur every 18 months or every 2 years. Slender-White is also curious about the possibility of helping other companies remount work: “I’ve seen a lot of wonderful works lately and I’m always so disappointed that people spend all this time and money, it goes up for three nights and that’s it. Maybe there is a way that JuMP and this new idea can coexist.” Slender-White is also hoping that JuMP appeals to an arts organization that could offer space or resources in the future.

Artistic collaborations such as AMP and JuMP have the potential to fuel creative possibilities and investigate new avenues of making. In a fragile ecosystem, they also contribute to restructuring and redefining the maker’ role. In her Priced Out: New Tech Wealth and San Francisco’s Receding Art Scene, art writer and curator Christian Frock evoked the “devastating impact new wealth is rendering on the fragile infrastructure of San Francisco’s homegrown art scene and its artists” and the massive displacement of artists and arts organizations to the East Bay or other cities. Programs like AMP and JuMP where artists share resources and space might be the way to circumvent challenging economic realities and continue to create in the Bay Area.

As a follow-up to last week’s blog post, German choreographer Sasha Waltz received an ovation from the audience attending the post-show discussion, following her piece “Impromptus” presented at Zellerbach Hall last weekend, when she compared dancers to good wine, getting better with age: “This is the great possibility of contemporary dance, that is different from ballet, that dancers can grow deeper with their body as they age,” Waltz stated in response to a question about her dancers, some of whom have been with her company for over 18 years. Also this article evokes Carmen de Lavallade’s latest one-woman show “As I remember it.” De Lavallade, 83, founded Paradigm, a company which features seasoned dancers, in 1998.

Lessons From Our Elders | By Marie Tollon

Wendy Whelan Photo By Nisian Hughes

Wendy Whelan
Photo By Nisian Hughes

This past weekend marked the retirement of New York City Ballet principal dancer Wendy Whelan, 47. The ballerina with the aquiline profile and sinewy limbs is certainly not ending her performing career. Whelan will tour her Restless Creature, an evening of duets created in partnership with four contemporary choreographers, throughout the US in 2015, including San Francisco in January. The severe demands of the technique on the body lead ballet dancers to retire by 40, so Whelan’s uncommonly long performing career fuels the ongoing conversation about the invisibility of the aging body in dance, which Bay Area choreographer Randee Paufve recently addressed with her piece Soil.

Whelan’s move toward contemporary dance casts a light on the hierarchy that exists among dance forms, of which some allow more flexibility when it comes to performing at a later age. We have only to look at the recent performances of Anna Halprin, 94, Simone Forti, 79, and Pandit Chitresh Das, 69, in the Bay Area. Forti and Halprin performed as part of the 2014 Bridge Project, a program framed around the postmodern lineage curated by choreographer Hope Mohr. During the same weekend, revered Kathak dancer and teacher Das collaborated with flamenco dancer Hidalgo Paz, illuminating the many similarities between the Indian and Spanish traditional dance forms.

Pandit Chitresh Das Photo By Marty Sohl

Pandit Chitresh Das
Photo By Marty Sohl

From his facial muscles to his toes, Das’ whole body participated in sharply asserting the scorching rhythm brought forth by the musicians playing just a few feet away from him. Das will turn 70 in November, yet his body does not seem to have aged, to the extent that he is being studied by sports bio-mechanic scientists. In a recent study, a sports specialist described his heart rate under exercise as “comparable to sprinters or athletes who achieve these levels for short periods during peak performance.” His formidable energy was infectious, even for those seated in the back rows of the Palace of Fine Arts.

With its embrace of pedestrian gestures and disregard for virtuosity, postmodern dance gives more room to the aging body onstage. In The Crone and The Courtesan, Halprin stood stoically before the audience, her face hidden behind the Venetian mask of a courtesan, her body cloaked in a full length Rococo-style golden coat. With a decisive index finger, she pointed to invisible objects of desire, and the assertive gesture was enough to convey that she couldn’t be resisted. She seductively lifted a side of her gown, uncovering an elegantly shaped calf and thigh in white tights. Her hip sways, head and arm gestures have retained their youth, so much so that behind her disguise she could easily fool the audience into believing they were watching a much younger performer. At the end of her performance, as she removed her mask, she gasped and ran to the wall for respite. Was she horrified by the loss of youth? Or distraught at the courtesan’s crimes of vanity? Halprin’s irrepressible boldness and youthful spirit shone throughout the evening, from her talk previewing her performance to the post show conversation.

Simone Forti Photo By Jason Underhill

Simone Forti
Photo By Jason Underhill

Forti, her hair dancing above her like a light white cloud, blended improvised movements and words. She evoked the haunting images of a fig tree in the wind with bleak snapshots of war-torn Syria, the Golan Heights, and California canyons, blending the personal and the political with careful intention. The sincerity and matter of factness that carried through her performance could only come from years of practice and a honed perspective. She managed to transcend the art form, providing an experience as crystalline as water, devoid of the composure that often accompanies presentational dance. The drama her performance communicated didn’t arise from overtly affected sentences or gestures, but instead erupted from the uncanny collision of the softness of her body and gentle vocal tone with the seriousness of what she was communicating.

In Dance, Ageing and the Mirror: Negotiating Watchability, scholar Justine Coupland evokes the question of aging and visibility:

“Dance makes bodies watchable, while ageing has been claimed to make bodies ‘unwatchable’ … All forms of dance that foreground vibrancy, energy and movement may canonically be seen as particular ways of structuring the ‘look of youth’, which is so strongly associated with the capacity to attract admiring gaze. What we might call the ‘look of ageing’ is, on the other hand, associated with a reduced ability to attract gaze; indeed it is associated with a tendency to repel it. We might therefore expect dominant ideologies of ageing to impinge restrictively on the ‘pre-dance’ bodies of potential older dancers – they are already ‘unwatchable’ – and to exacerbate this restriction in the context of actual body-in-dance displays.”

Anna Halprin Photo By Kent Reno

Anna Halprin
Photo By Kent Reno

Coupland ponders whether dance could become a space that challenges common perceptions about the invisibility and “unwatchability” of the aging body. Not all dance repertory makes it feasible for older dancers to perform. Nor do all dance artists want to be onstage in their sixties, let alone seventies or eighties. Forti, Halprin, and Das are exceptions to the norm. But they are a potent reminder that if the body is a vessel of history and memory, a part of our collective and personal culture is lost when only the young and athletic body is presented on stage.

Particle Rhythm: Gilles Jobin’s Quantum at ODC Theater | By Marie Tollon

Energy. Weight. Gravity. These are just a few words and concepts that scientists and choreographers alike may employ on a daily basis. Beyond linguistic similarities, both often share a common purpose: understanding and uncovering what lies at the core of human experience, at the micro or macro level. What are the potential results that may derive from a dialogue between scientists and dance artists? With Synaptic Motion, San Francisco-based dance company Capacitor offered one perspective of the conversation between neuroscience and dance earlier this fall at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Quantum, a piece by Swiss choreographer Gilles Jobin to be presented at ODC Theater this coming Sunday and Monday, provides another example of the fruitful collision between arts and science.

Gilles Jobin's Quantum Photo by Grégory Batardon

Gilles Jobin’s Quantum
Photo by Grégory Batardon

In 2012, Jobin immersed himself in the world of fundamental research and particle science during a 3-month residency at CERN. Located in Switzerland, CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory and the site of considerable achievements in physics and computer science, including the birth of the World Wide Web and the confirmation of the Higgs boson.

During a conversation earlier this week, Jobin talked about the choreographic systems that he has implemented in his work: “These systems, which I call ‘organic organized movements,’ are about decision-taking, live on stage, according to a certain set of rules that [dancers] have to respect.” While at CERN, Jobin was interested in looking for the existence of systems, inside the interaction and movements of particles, that he could use to create what he calls “movement generators.” These generators would form the basis of a set choreography. To explain what he meant, Jobin referred to electronic music: “You put the sound through an engine; with algorithms and a certain number of conditions, it transforms the sound, more or less randomly, depending on the different conditions that you apply.” Likewise, Jobin’s generators help catalyze movements in the studio via the dancers. His role is to create systems that are “efficient and give enough information to the dancers to allow them to compose their own phrases. It’s like an algorithm: you give the instruction to the dancers and they…. bring the results. I work like a programmer. If I think [their phrase] is too imprecise, too loose, I refine my code.”

In conversation with the scientists with whom he was paired during his residency, Jobin learned about other elements, symmetry and force for instance, that he could apply to choreography: “I started to work with the idea that the most important forces are non-contact forces, which is very interesting because in contemporary dance, contact is very important and we use [it] a lot. How do you connect two bodies without contact?” Jobin also remarked that gravity is the main force affecting dancers. The dialogue with scientists led him to realize that gravity itself is quite weak in comparison with other forces, a fact which challenged his preconceptions and encouraged him to “use [it] as an ally, rather than something to overcome.” Borrowing from his research on electromagnetism, Jobin experimented with the idea of applying forces on systems: “There is a section called ‘the elusive duo’ where both dancers are positively charged, like magnets. That means that they cannot touch each other. The contact is impossible.”

Photo by Michelle V. Agins

Photo by Michelle V. Agins

Another scientific finding that inspired Jobin during his residency was the Feynman diagram, which represents particles’ trajectories and interactions. The physicists at CERN taught the dancers how to draw diagrams that captured the material and paths of the choreography.

Jobin’s immersion at CERN also made him aware of the importance of research in the arts: “When you are at CERN, you meet people who dedicate their lives to research. They may find nothing. It’s not about finding, it’s about searching and putting out your research for other people to see and continue what you have started. It took CERN 48 years to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson!” In a lecture at CERN, Jobin related his observation to the dance field: “In Europe, dance is a production-based activity. We don’t research enough and produce too much. But just like in science, we need dedicated labs in contemporary dance. Science shows us the importance of research to find knowledge.”

The choreography of Quantum is not the only element of the piece that stems from Jobin’s dialogue with science. Quantum’s score, by Carla Scaletti, is based on real data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Jobin explained: “The Higgs data has a signature. [Scaletti] grabs that signature and transfers it into sound. The addition of all these events makes the soundtrack very particular and organic.” Beside score and choreography, visual artist Julius von Bismarck’s kinetic light installation occupies the upper plane of Quantum. For Jobin, sound, score and movements exist independently, all in constant movement throughout the piece: “Three worlds mix into each other. The sound comes from under, the lights from above, and the zone in between is where we dance.”

Photo by Grégory Batardon

Photo by Grégory Batardon

Jobin insisted that he did not mean to be illustrative of physics with his piece. His aim was to generate movements, abstract and suggestive enough to elicit thoughts in the viewer. Quantum demonstrates that beyond the complexity and abstraction of scientific or choreographic language, lies human interaction: three male and three female dancers coming together, and apart; finding ways or failing to relate; escaping, searching or finding contact; their bodies drawing elaborate equations in space, for the viewers to interpret and solve.

Blog at