Peer Pressure: Ravel’s Bolero

In one short week I will premiere The Near Future, a new trio accompanied by Ravel’s iconic score, Bolero.  As a dance scholar, I know that there are three musical scores that fall under the headline “most choreographed pieces of music” – Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, and Ravel’s Bolero.  As a an oft member of the dance audience, I know that I have to keep from rolling my own eyes when I hear one of those three scores beginning – not because they are not beautiful compositions, but because they are almost (or often) a cliché.  Like nerdy eye glasses or denim shirts, you love to hate them or hate to love them (mind you, I own both said glasses and shirt).  As a dancemaker, I have now been seduced by all three  musical compositions.  Oh, the hypocrisy!

Ravel’s Bolero  was commissioned by ballerina Ida Rubenstein and premiered in 1928 at the Paris Opera with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska; the original libretto describes a Spanish tavern in which a rowdy crowd entices a female dancer to leap onto a table, the crowd cheering on her increasingly animated movements. Some say that the endless musical repetition is a result of the composer’s battle with a neurological disorder.  But most agree that, today, “Bolero” conjures up stereotypical images of ballet going flamenco.  Think of the Spanish variation in the Nutcracker, but for 20 minutes…

With all that said, why did I take on this beast?  I know that choosing a score that people are familiar with means that they will walk into the theater with preconceptions about my dance.  They will have opinions about it before it begins.

I chose it because I like how the repetition (Bolero’s melody repeats 18 times throughout the 20 minute score) challenges ideas of time and newness.  I chose it because I love the drama and intensity in the orchestrations.  I chose it because of and in spite of its rich history.  I chose it because taking on a challenge is sometimes more interesting than doing only what I like.  I chose it because of the militant march of the snare drums. Premiering my new work in a concert inspired by Martha Graham, I chose it to join a lineage and also to challenge the idea of lineage.  I chose it with eyes wide open.

“Vision, Faith, & Desire: Dancemakers Inspired by Martha Graham,” the show in which The Near Future will premiere, is about influence.  It puts the ephemeral connectivity of a dance family tree center stage.  What better place to make a Bolero, a composition deeply intertwined with that tree.  Having done my research, I can tell you that there has never been a Bolero  quite like The Near Future.  I’m thrilled to add this work to the list.

Some of my rigorous research below:

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No Shoes, No Pants, No Dance

Some choreographers start with an abstract image, some with an idea.  Some begin with a movement motif and some with musical inspiration.  However utilitarian and unromantic it may sound, I usually start with the concrete, material logistics.  How many dancers do I have? What will the costumes look like?  What do I want the space to look like?  It is an ongoing joke with my dancers to interrupt the first rehearsal to ask questions like, “How are we going to wear our hair?” or “Is this lyrical?”  Yes, I like planning ahead.  I always title the work before I begin…the thing has a name before it’s even a thing.  Not always the smartest working habit, I’ll admit.

 Pants-less rehearsal photo, by Arn Klein

For our new trio, The Near Future, I started just this way.  I knew I wanted to use a square of white marley that had been tucked away in a closet for years. I knew I wanted to re-purpose a red, velvet curtain from our Voyager show in 2010.  And, I knew I wanted minimal, black costumes so I could see dancing limbs in contrast with the white floor and red curtain.  Well, things don’t always go as planned.

Yesterday in rehearsal we tried out the costumes and despite looking beautiful, they have a disagreement with the choreography.  A large portion of The Near Future is floor work, sliding and scooting on knees and thighs, and the squealing sound of bare legs fighting against a sticky floor was almost comical.  Imagine, if you will, Ravel’s Bolero and a cacophony of fart noises.  Needless to say, I ordered black leggings last night.

Turns out being flexible isn’t just about mastering the splits.  Having the answers at the outset doesn’t mean that you can predict all of the questions.  I had a clear idea, but once the dance was finished it revealed a mind (or rather a sound) of its own.  Not falling apart when the art revolts is my lesson here.  For now I have to put on my big girl pants, or rather leggings, and keep on working.

 Pants-less rehearsal photos, by Arn Klein

Pants-less rehearsal photo, by Arn Klein

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The Unfinished Artist

If you haven’t heard from me or seen me lately it is because I have been a studying-machine, as I prepare for my PhD qualifying exams.  Just recently while reading about the simultaneous developments of modernist aesthetics and the modern art marketplace, I came across this incredible Picasso, The Painter and His Model (1914).

 Picasso, "The Painter and His Model" (1914)

Picasso, “The Painter and His Model” (1914)

Apparently at the outbreak of WWI Picasso had a brief, but fullblown return to classicism and began work on this canvas, which he never finished and hid from the public for the remainder of his life.  By this time he was garnering acclaim as a cubist and this painting was a surprise to many.  For me, I am struck by the unfinished artist.  Picasso painted his model, but himself remains unfinished.  His subject is fleshed out with color and depth and contour, but he remains a sparse outline  – head in hands, contemplating his work.

Preparing for our upcoming show, Vision, Faith, & Desire: Dancemakers Inspired by Martha Graham, I owe Picasso a fist pump in solidarity.  I am never finished and I thank him for the reminder.  Whatever I put on the stage does not finish me.  The art and the artist are mutually constitutive.  And if Picasso was working through his artistic identity – classicist, cubist, etc. – then I feel a little lighter about my continued battle for choreographic identity.  I can finish the dance and still be working on the choreographer.

For now, I’m a disciple of Martha Graham and am thrilled to show you what that art and artist look like.  Tomorrow, I’ll paint a new picture of myself.

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