The Technique of Technique

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In an email conversation a year ago with my good friend and fellow choreographer Winifred Haun, I made-up a modern dance class description.  Wini and I share a love for dance real-talk and were lamenting (or, rather, mocking) the endless class descriptions we read and were unable to explain – filled with flowery language that makes dance technique sound like an out-of-body cloud floating adventure, filled with academic jargon, rainbows, and across the floor combinations.  We were at a loss.  I wrote:

“Join Lizzie Leopold for dance class, wherein she will warm you up and then make-up movements that you will learn. It will likely be sweaty. Most of the time Lizzie will demonstrate badly, although musically, as she expects you to improve upon her ideas with your own physical expertise. Although Lizzie has studied lots of different dance techniques, her class is filled with her own personal preferences for no other reason than she likes them best – big plies, quick changes of direction, fifth position, falling over, and port-de-bras reminiscent of the back stroke. She would be lying if she didn’t admit that her class directly served her own choreography.”

It was a joke.  It is a joke.  But sitting down to write an actual description of my modern dance technique class (as I prepare to teach my fall classes at Northwestern University and open company class with the Leopold Group), I am plagued by the task.  Justifying the exercises I choose and the movements I string together is daunting, and forces me to think about what I am actually trying to teach. Steps? Ideas? Ideas through steps? Ideas about steps? Embodied ideas through steps?  Ideas about bodies doing steps?  This list could go on forever.

The goal is not for you to dance a certain way. The goal is for you to take control of your moving body.  Dance technique is an exploratory language. We are practicing together in order to make our bodies more legible and versatile, not to master individual steps or poses. It is about preparedness.

I am still slaving away at an actual class description.  There is so much context, historical and biological, to account for.  But in the meantime, here’s my favorite “class description” to date.  I think I will include it in my syllabus…

Written by Sister Corita Kent, a student of John Cage

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student: Pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher: Pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined: this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything. It might come in handy later.

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Don’t Mind the Man Behind the Curtain

I give you the newest Leopold Group set piece.    Can you guess what this is for and how it works?  This will be the wizard in the wings for our newest dance, Enter Elizabeth. 

Well, the real wizard is Rightech Fabrications who dreamed this up.  Adding this to the list of dance company collaborators – industrial designer/engineer.

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Design by Rightech Fabrications

Who wants a giant toilet paper roller?!  But really, can you figure out how this will work?  Stumped??  Better buy you tickets for the Harvest Dance Festival on Friday Sept. 26th and find out!

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Shark Week

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In honor of shark week, I wanted to answer the age old question – “What is your dissertation about?”  Well, in fact, it’s about a shark – a very specific two ton shark.

In 2004, British artist Damien Hirst sold a work entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991, pictured above) for $12 million. The work is a fifteen-foot tiger shark taxidermy, mounted as triptych in an enormous glass vitrine.  The shark sculpture floats in a greenish solution of formaldehyde, mouth wide open as if caught in mid-swim and mid-meal.

Actually, my dissertation is about contemporary dance licensing practices (hehe) and intersections of art-making and business structures. But it turns out the Hirst shark is my favorite referent for the entire conversation.

The shark fell apart, literally.  The solution got murky and the shark’s skin got wrinkled and green, and then a fin fell completely off.  The curators tried to help by pouring bleach into the tank, but..welp…that was not a great idea.  Eventually, the entire shark had to be skinned and the skin was stretched over a weighted fiberglass shark sculpture.   This didn’t look quite right so there was an entirely new shark caught and displayed (twice, at least).  Hirst, not trained in taxidermy, never touched any shark.  He directed its display.  Also, the shark is hard to move.  It’s big and heavy, as you can probably imagine.

So, dance licensing.  Dance is in a constant state of decay, steps lost through failures in memory and incomplete preservation technologies.  New bodies are constantly needed to keep the work visible.  The choreographer directs stagers and rehearsal assistants, but often never sees remountings first hand.  (It may not be taxidermy, but dance repeteurs certainly have a technical skill different from those who make the dances.)  And well, $12 MILLION DOLLARS FOR A SHARK, A GREEN MOLDY SHARK! To put it simply, ascribing monetary value to art can be bizarre.

I spend my days thinking about how the lessons of a $12 million stuffed shark help me understand the worth of choreographic commodities.  This is, of course, the short/simple answer, but…hey…you asked! Happy Shark Week!

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AOL INSTANT MESSAGE, APRIL FOOLS!

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Before she was Laura Vinci de Vanegas she was ‘phattyinatutu.’

The screen names that you thought the world had forgotten have resurfaced.  AIM handles instead of names today. Check out the artists’ page to see who named themself  ‘QTwitDaFlyyBootie.’

What was your AIM name?

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Stages of Staging

There are five stages of grief, ten stages of death, three stages of labor, and (I will argue) six stages of choreography.

1. The Conceptual Stage: Most of this stage occurs in the shower or the car.  In this stage I’m full of exciting ideas about colors, themes, titles – big overarching concepts.  This stage has no concern for budgets, schedules, or even gravity.  Wonderfully impossible things happen here.

2. The Sweaty Stage: This is the stage wherein I start making steps with my dancers.  At this point I have most likely lost sight of my conceptual day-dreaming and am just making movements.  It is at this point that I get preoccupied with innovation (trying to make a ‘cool’ step).  It’s a sweaty time but not always an artistically-driven one.  In its best iteration, this stage creates the language through which the work will be communicated.

3. The Crafting Stage: I now take the ‘steps’ and set them to music and in relation to one another.  At this point I’m usually feeling pretty good about what has emerged.  The dancers are beginning to take on the movement as their own, meanings begin to bubble to the surface, and all of that shower thinking starts to pay off.  It seems that Borat might explain this one best. “King of the castle. I have a chair. Go do this. Go do this.”

4. The Cleaning/Editing/Panicking/Polishing Stage: In this stage all of those fuzzy feelings disappear, making way for some hefty self-doubt.  You are too far along to go back; after all, the show must go on. The dancers have mastered the tasks you have given them and any short comings are wholly your own, as choreographer.  You make small changes, add costumes, add set pieces.  In this stage, I usually long for the simplicity of sweaty rehearsal clothes and dance studio settings.  The theatrical elements (lights, stages, make-up) always surprise me, even after a decade of this.  They always start out feeling false, artificial, creating an unnaturally distancing between me and my dance.  They feel vain… There is usually more shower-thinking in this stage.  For me, this is the scariest stage – and when successful, the most rewarding one.

5. The Performance Stage: Like Adele Dazeem tells us, this stage is about letting go.  In this stage, the dance is no longer solely yours.  Be selfless and let the dancers and the audience have their gift.  Step back and hope that all your hard work has manifest something worth thinking about.  And if it hasn’t, be grateful that you tried and then try again.  To the best of your ability, be honest with yourself about what worked and what didn’t work.  This stage is about watching, appreciating, and flowers.  Bring your dancers flowers.  But also this: you can point and laugh at a flower, but it will still bloom and grow and be beautiful.

6. The Recovery Stage: Nap. Read books. Go see other shows (dance and otherwise). Be a part of the community at large.  Make coffee dates with interesting people. Goto yoga. More naps. And pretty soon, without much thought, your morning shower will again be fully of ideas.

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Re-Blog (so good I needed it again)

In late 2011 I asked my friend, lighting designer, technical director, and all around thoughtful guy Joshua Paul Weckesser to write a blog for our website.  In conjunction with a show we were working on, I asked him “what is dance?”  In a few short weeks we will present a new and improved version of Lips of Their Fingersa work that premiered on that 2011 show.  And with that in mind, I am revisiting Josh’s blog and the question at large – what is dance?  Enjoy his brilliant musing below, and then buy your tickets and help us answer the question in person (March 28-30, 2014!).

WHAT IS DANCE? by Joshua Paul Weckesser 

(originally published September 2011)

I’m going with a few big ideas and then, most likely, discard them immediately. This is the internet, it is my right. I work in dance, it is my habit. Years ago I worked on plays. It was a time, hard to believe now, before cell phones and always-on internet. Even then I was drawn to the real thing, where the simulacrum would not do, to these places where the public comes and sits, the lights dim, the hush and then. And then.

I read Ibsen, I saw Checkov. I quote Shakespeare while watching football (“I hate it, as I hate hell, all Patriots, and Brady”). But all these words, words, words were not enough. Our crown prince said it himself, “can this cockpit hold / the vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” No, we can’t. Not when the cineplex is down the street, not when the television is in our living rooms, the very internet in our pocket. There are always words coming at us, and so few of them can grab our attention and fill us with wonder, with disgust, with shock, confusion, elation. Most of the time they settle comfortably into the white noise that is the sound floor of our lives.

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That is the thing about dancing. You can’t be driving and watch a dance. You can’t be making dinner with dance on in the background. It demands your attention. The only way to consume it is wholly and completely. Which is why bad dancing is so painful to watch, the failure is so complete. There’s no reprieve. The theatre doors are closed, exiting is awkward, as is checking your phone. You have to sit and watch. The other edge of this sword is that amazing dance condenses all of your life into this moment, while your eyes land on that wrist and it flicks here and then rests there. “Of course,” you think, “There it is.” And it has always been there. And a moment later it’s gone.

Chances are though, if you’re reading this blog, you already know all this. But the choir is the easiest group to preach to.

I read once that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And my first thought was, “Oh, I’d love to see a dance about architecture.” Something so passing, so fragile, so dream-like reaching out for something so solid and seemingly-permanent. The analogies between an elbow and a grand staircase, an ankle and an elevator. The dissonance between what is meant and what is seen. Writing about dance seems about the same.

All of this comes out of Lizzie saying, “You can’t sit with dance the way you sit with a painting.” Comes out of Melissa resting on Nicole’s knee, desperately maintaining her composure while the ground literally shakes beneath her, frantic and then still, trying to do something while someone tries to stop her from doing that thing. Comes out of Laura at the head of a line holding her pants to her right, everyone revealed in the leotards and hidden in the dim floor lamps, the tension rising, the pants dropping, the music starting and the moment has passed. Delicious and sweet, like a remembered candy, like a remembered first kiss.

It comes out of turning a brickwall into a backdrop; transforming a wood floor with a patch of astroturf. Of writing lighting cues on a brand-new console. Turning half a plot and some units on the ground into a fully realized design, a cavernous room into a theater. Of the stress of sitting next to the choreographer throughout the whole run. I press a button and, hopefully, something beautiful happens. If not, there is little I can do. Powerless, I can only watch, perhaps weep, and on this show look to my right into the shock and loss on the face of the prime motivator of the event. It’s a feeling of almost sweating, of sitting up straight for an hour and a half. Standing by and then going. Surely, there are other ways to live, but I do not care to know them.

What is dancing? I don’t know. I never will. That’s why I keep coming back. My thanks to the Leopold Group for asking. For being comfortable in the question, in the doubt, in the incomplete answers. If someone was to ask me, “What is dancing?” I would like to take them by the wrist to this show, sit them on those bleachers and say, “We don’t know either, but watch. The journey is the important part.” Like all great mysteries one answer leads to new questions. Here’s what I can say for sure: You can watch it on the internet, but something that is amazing you turn to your friend and say, “Man, I’d love to see that.” Because the seeing isn’t complete until you’re there hearing the zipper work, the bare foot sound on the astroturf, the ever-present breath, images serve only to whet your appetite. After it’s over you’re left with wonder, like a vanishing dream. You can’t hold onto it, only moments remain, only a feeling. And it feels, oddly, like coming home because we are such stuff as dreams are made of. And we, like the dance, will vanish into air (into thin air).

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Rinse, Wash, Repeat

Yesterday in rehearsal we had a great conversation about pacing and output.  Actually, it was more of a debate.  To patiently wait for inspiration or to treat artistic output like any other job and do the work – daily, hourly?  If you have been keeping up with the Leopold Group over the past year, you clearly know where I stand.   Do the work.  Be willing to experience the productive failure. Learn the lessons. And then do better.  But don’t sit around and wait for divine intervention.  Rather, don’t sit around and wait for anything.  Go out and do.

Of course there is more gradient to the debate than just stillness or action.  Both modes of being are important, important complements to one another.  As a matter of fact, I may have overdone the ‘doing’ and underdone the stillness this winter.  But alas, that’s a lesson I could have only learned by doing.

The dance that we will present in three weeks is my very own choreographic deceleration.  It begins big, loud, and busy – like my last few months.  And as the piece goes on, it simplifies and reveals itself through stillness and subtlety.  It clears the stage, quite literally – removing costume pieces, sets, and finally dancers.

When the show closes I will  find a quiet place of stillness and do the work of waiting.  But that’s just it…the waiting itself is still the work.

 THERE IS ‘DOING’ EVEN IN THE UNDOING. 

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A Love Story

In summer 2011, I first saw her dance.  She performed this crazy, falling over, throwing herself all over the place solo dance and I was smitten.552752_446029158763965_1563544160_n

A year later I invited her into our rehearsals.  She accepted.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

She came to rehearsal with no incentive and no promise of performance and worked her butt off.  She learned everyone’s steps from the back of the room and bravely stepped in when she was asked to.  As we probably all know, understudying is one of the hardest things to do well (both mentally and physically).  She did it with grace, skill and happily.  We all liked having her around more than a little bit :)

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In August I was short one dancer.  I was making a short work that needed an even number of performers (duets) and I texted her VERY last minute.  She gave me an enthusiastic YES and I was tickled.

As that show closed, she stopped me in theater.  “I want to be in the Leopold Group.” Welp, that’s the biggest compliment a dancemaker can get – a dancer whom they respect wants to dance their dances.

This is the story of how I fell in love with Cara Newman.  And we lived happily ever after.

The End.

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Pacing

I’ve done a pretty crappy job of pacing myself this winter.

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2014 has already brought about Archipelagoa week-long research trip to Ballet San Jose to watch a mounting of an Ohad Naharin work called Minus 16, a performance at the Pritzker Pavillion, and a residency/performance at Oakland University wherein we taught classes, set a work, and performed ourselves.

In the midst of all of this I had grand blogging plans.

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I wanted to write a blog about the amazing week leading upto Archipelago, wherein new friendships were born and Packy (our musician) confessed to finally “getting” modern dance and then (on our last day) participated in warm-up – hanging upside down from Matthew McMunn’s feet.

I wanted to write a blog about my mind-numbingly awesome week in San Jose where I played the role of scholar successfully and watched a beautiful dance be born again.  Where I observed, studied, and noted an amazing audience participation section and then was chosen to participate in rehearsal and couldn’t find a way out of the awkward picture that I knew I was painting.  I was both the object and the observer and it was gloriously frustrating.

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I wanted to write a blog about Vision, Faith, & Desire II (which I’ve lovingly subtitled, Back in the Habit), wherein beautiful dancer/choreographer Annie Beserra graciously took on my solo  Aftermath. I wanted to write this blog about ‘firsts’ – Annie was my first choreography teacher ever when I was a Cherub  (a summer program) at Northwestern and Aftermath was the first dance I ever made (in 2004 at the University of Michigan).   Worlds collide!

I wanted to write a blog about our crazy, sleep-less week at Oakland University wherein we taught, rehearsed, and performed all day and then stayed up all night in a playroom hosting tea parties and staging baby dolls in the bathroom to scare whomever was in the shower.

I suppose when my life is full, my blog is empty :)  Thank you for your patience in my digital absence.  And take a deep breath with us as we gear up for one more spectacular show to end this crazy marathon winter – Witness, March 28-30. (and then we’ll all nap for a week.)

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Tutus and Lasers

Ten years of dancemaking has created quite an accumulation of stuff.  There are two lime green chairs, a couple of lamps, rolls of marley, rolls of astro turf, nearly 100 glass jars, nearly that many leotards of various colors, a handful of tuxedos, brown pants, black pants, blue pants, dresses, sweaters, sports bras and bike shorts galore, a bag full of sparkly deely boppers, a giant red curtain, white tutus and colored tutus, a beed curtain, Christmas lights, extension chords, and the list goes on.

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Each item is a dance that I made, or a dance that I almost made, or a dance that I wanted to make.  Each piece reminds me of a theater or of a particular dancer, her initials usually inscribed on the inside tag.  The initialed tags tell a story of dancers that came and went, of dancers who married and changed initials.  It’s a closet full of my most cherished memories.  But the thing is, it’s not a closet at all.

Apartment living does not leave much room for all of the Leopold Group paraphernalia, so my father has graciously housed all of it in his factory for years.  He makes titanium coils and racks and I make dances; the tools of our respective trades live side-by-side – tutus and laser cutters, lathes and leotards.  The Leopold Group costume closet is actually a titanium fabrications factory.

As I was rooting through the boxes today, pulling items for our show this weekend, I was fantasizing about space.  I think all dancemakers fantasize about space – affordable and available rehearsal space, empty store fronts as dream dance studios, and well, storage space.  But I came to the conclusion that I like where my stuff lives. I like the proximity of lycra to aluminum.  I like the idea that my dad is a maker of things and so am I.  I like that our tools share a room – tutus and laser cutters co-habitating.  Untitled-1

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