Saturday, May 22, 2010

Elaine Summers: Improvisation with Sun, Moon, Stars - Danspace @ St. Mark's Church, New York City - March 2010"

From March 15th until April 2nd I once more got to enjoy the privilege of being an invited artist-in-residence at the Elaine Summers Dance & Film Company, made possibly by a generous grant from the Kinetic Awareness® Center and private hosts Harriet Bograd & Kenneth Klein, as well as Rachel Cohen / racoco productions

The occasion was the 3-day show "Improvisation with Sun, Moon, Stars" performed March 18, 19, and 20 at Danspace Project @ St. Mark's Church, as part of the series "Back to New York City" curated by Juliette Mapp.

It was a most fruitful experience and I came back, once again, filled with impressions, learning, wonderful experiences, and above all, inspiration that is gradually unfolding to bring me further than I thought possible.

The Concert:

Summers presented a continuous line of development from completely abstract and "difficult" to a very approachable and friendly ending.

film still from "Absence & Presence" 1968-1987 ©by Elaine Summers

The evening started with "Absence & Presence", a film-dance lasting 8 minutes, no sound, projected onto an old-style screen of the type one could once find in class-rooms.
While I thought I was well used to the ways I could enjoy Summers' work, this one challenged me once more: 12 minutes of shots of body parts moving, in black and white silhouettes, completely silent, so abstracted that -semiotically speaking- the movie is indexical, suggesting relationships and sensation, rather than iconic and presenting easily identifiable images from the world around us.

Once again Summers succeeded in challenging ingrained habits of perception, and goes on for 8 minutes, as it seemed to me without regard for dramaturgical development or climax, these seemed irrelevant for this dance. (Summers regularly creates films which are a dance, in extension of the once-hallmark Judson regard for any movement, including so called-pedestrian every day actions as viable dances and art)

Instead of being contained in conventional forms, the film became an experience for which there is as yet no habit, no ready-made set of keys or standards for interpreting business-as-usual. It took me until the third showing to actually get to enjoy the sensations based on what my mind had learned by then.

(excerpt from the original filmdance)

The next item went one step further: "Two Girls Downtown Iowa", made in 1973 during an artist-in-residency at Iowa University (with thanks to Professor Hans Breder, who pioneered the Intermedia Department of this University) again is a silent film-dance in black & white, no sound, and lasts 11 minutes. But this time we can identify see two women dancing together on a street in downtown Iowa in a single shot and single take. The film was recorded on a high-speed camera: when it is projected with a standard-machine, the result is one of equally distributed slow motion.

This movie not only lets the viewer experience the abandon and rush of dancing, which at times is so close to flying in the air, that old dream of mankind, now evoked by sequences of both dancers floating in the air - but it also blurs the distinction between intentional dancers and passers-by of the street: because the camera doesn't move from its opening-shot, when the women leave the frame or become small specks in the background, suddenly the daily pedestrians become prominent, their motions too, slowed down to be enlarged and tasted.
(notice the similarity of this strategy with the first phase of Summers' revolutionary movement approach Kinetic Awareness® where moving one body part at a time, as slowly and as relaxedly as it will go, creates a heightened sense of one's body in movement and a general sense of well-being, literally allowing enough time for sensations to become more clearly perceptible)

The film-dance demonstrates to me an early understanding of dance as a phenomenon of our everyday lives and makes it possible to sense the variations between letting the body move its ways and doing this with a projected goal like e.g. to cross the street, walking home, sitting down etc.

(excerpt from the original filmdance)

"Windows in the Kitchen" filmed 1976 for the famous Kitchen New Music and Video Center in New York City, opens up one further phase: the small-projection screen is taken away by a dancer who comes jumping in with a huge leap in white workingman's overall (courtesy of Thomas Körtvélyessy / Reàl Dance Company) - the next projection hits the large white wall of the altar-side of St. Mark's Church. The film-dance shows the late Matt Turney, long-time member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and student of Elaine Summers for Kinetic Awareness®, moving along the windows of the kitchen, filmed in color (camerawoman: Paula Court) showing several shots and angles of Turney ever so refinedly balancing and lightly shifting her weight as she moves along the windows.
This time there is live-music by John Gibson on the flute, travelling through the space, which opens up the ears after about half an hour of concetrated silence, ... and live-dance in the church space by Douglas Dunn, himself a most prominent 2nd generation Judson choreographer and dancer from the 1970's onward, dances a duet with the larger-than-life projection of Turney: sometimes funny, sometimes purely poetic and stilled in magic, adding the 3rd dimension of actual space of the church and his direct physical energy.

Seeing all together made me understand once again the crucial importance of timing and dynamic-phrasing of energy in space, which is so essential in performance, but especially in an improvisation. His delicacy of listening to his own flow of movements and character and Turney's recorded, visually projected movements, plus Gibson's live flute, formed an experience of sheer magic and poetry, an entire conversation about the ageing dancer, reproduction of a person who has passed away and one who is still alive, here, stillness, listening, absurdity, serenity, and humour.

The evening progressed to a quartet of four women: Dr. Jill Green, Professor of Somatics at the Dept. of Dance at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Meg Chang, dance-therapist and professor in Adult Education, Gabriella Hiatt, and Kiori Kawai who danced an interpretation of Summers' "Crow's Nest" from 1980, to a live-performance of the original music by Pauline Oliveros, sung by a choir of 12 people who were positioned around the upper balcony of the Church.
Here, the score consists of the full-color movie showing Birchtree Forest, Ocean, Desert, and Desert Flowers, again projected against the full wall of the altar-side of the Church.
The dancers interpret the film by partly improvising, partly performing set choices made to certain moments in the movie.
Again, the dance was intergenerational: two of the performers were in their mid-twenties, one in her mid-forties, one in her mid-fifties. All four dancers are following other full-time professions as well, but for this production they worked as professional dancers. And again all the participating media were blended together: projection, colors, singing, movements.

Rather than using the original installation of silk-stripes arranged along a cube-structure, Summers chose to show the movie in larger-than life-size, which made a special challenge for the dancers to use the upper half of the projection efficiently. There were several moments like Kiori Kawai's beautiful still moments where she blended together with the enlarged flowers, or Meg Chang's walking along the image of the desert and riding the waves projected behind her. Gabriella Hiatt performed beautiful arabesques and extensions and Jill Green used her costume of a floating night-gown as an extra projection-screen.
The sound of the chorus singing mesmerized in its clarity and aural opening up of the entire church as a space to be in acoustically.

(excerpt from the performance of "Skydance" at the 2nd Intermedia Festival, University of Iowa, 1984)

Finally came "Skydance / Skytime / Skyweb" an assembly of elements of the original "SkyDance", rearranged by Elaine Summers for the specific conditions of the Church and performed by a total of 9 dancers, including all the previous ones. Following the diversity of styles and approaches which is so characteristic for the overall work of Elaine Summers, this dance was completely unlike her other work: its style, structure, design, and music all had a 1930's feel to it, almost that of a dance-revue, performed to the very exuberant and varied original music of original SkyDance composer Carman Moore, played live by his ensemble: there were narrative elements, romance, humour, conflicts, and again interaction with this time 6 different video-projections.

Some unforgettable moments:
- Kiori Kawai and Kevin Ho, positioned at the very beginning in silence in the niches on either side of the back wall of the church, while Gabriella Hiatt stands in the middle holding up a small blinking light - against a projection of a blue and orange galaxy in the middle and a sun above Ho and a moon above Kawai: strongly reminiscent of the feature-sequence known of Columbia pictures with its iconic woman holding up a torch...
- a passionate, at times nearly romantic duet by the Sun & Moon characters, interpreted with daring contact-acrobatics by Kawai and Ho, echoed later in a mesmerizing duet by dancers Marion Ramirez and her husband Jeong-wong Kim, and finally in a hilarious and original duet danced by Hiatt and Douglas Dunn, both wearing costumes that suggest 1930's style pilot-outfits, with perfect comedian timing.
- stilled, beautiful solos by Elke Luyten and by Meg Chang, both making full use of their very own unique qualities as dancers and their costumes.
- an unforgettable solo by Jeong-wong Kim in which he dances in and out of the performance space, in perfect sync and partnership with the spiralling galaxies on the floor, at times using shades of movements from traditional Korean dancing, moves out of contact improvisation, and his very own incredibly physical talent which surpasses any single style of movement.

- and finally group moments: Dragons vs. Birds, using single characteristic moves for each; the 'comet' section lead by Kiori Kawai holding up a long veil of white tull and followed by the other dancers joyfully running with wonderful impact and childlike abandon on a circle, then cutting across the diagonal from downstage left to upstage right before dispersing again.

Finally, there is a solo section in which every dancer of the evening comes out wearing shiny, glittering, and diversely colored costumes, freely improvising through the entire space with the abandon of eight year old children who enjoy a moment of play, against a projection of recordings from the very first performances of "SkyDance" during the second Intermedia Festival at Iowa University in 1984, ending with running along in a circle and clapping, applauding the audience before taking a final bow.

This happy, magical atmosphere was continued into an "Invitation to Secret Dancers" another long-time classic by Summers, this time directed by Harriet Bograd (who together with her husband Kevin Klein very generously allowed me to stay at their homely and welcoming apartment and providing a space of rest and joy)
The dance was accompanied to an original score composed again by Carman Moore and performed by his ensemble, this time quoting jazz and big-band music from the 1940s and 1950s. White, large helium filled balloons and umbrellas made extra canvasses for the multiple projection of original footage from the performance of "Flowing Rocks / Still Waters" of Summers from 1987 done at Lincoln Center, New York, in a part of the complex that has since then been rebuilt.


In this concert Elaine Summers arranged a large portion of her palette as a choreographer, film-maker, and intermedia-artist, a sample of the sheer range of diversity that she is capable of creating, arranged in an incrementing order from indexic and abstracted, all the way through to participatory and directly inviting.

While there are certain premises underlying all of the dances, e.g. that there is a great emphasis on the moment of actual interpretation by the individual performers, depending on the specific structures and intentions of the dance, helped by the long-term study of Kinetic Awareness® and related body-mind exploring approaches, or the demand that any costume always be body-friendly, not limiting the range of expression of the dancers, Summers defies a single, identifiable look, or method, or certainly any single style or let alone what these days is called 'branding'.
Rather she irreverently and diligently is producing an enormously diverse variety of possible uses of the human individual bodymind to produce unforgettable moments of art and conversation between elements of a performance, be those dancers, media, or the audience completing the event.

It was a tremendously instructive learning experience for me in many respects: choreographic structures in real time and in relation to the individual interpreters, the use of video-projection in a given space with its specific qualities and asthetic challenges and its various possibilities to interact with the actual performing space and the audience's ingrained habits of watching a dance.

Even though my own activities were very relaxed in comparison to earlier, more stressful residencies, my mind was filled with singular and individual moments of being in relation to a reality around me, with a hard-working group of people realizing a vision and spirit of one pioneer and instrumental artist that has created not just one but continuous moves forward in expanding what dance can be understood as today.

credits -
choreographer and filmmaker: Elaine Summers
realized in collaboration with the dancers: Kiori Kawai, Douglas Dunn, Jeong-wong Kim, Marion Ramirez, Meg Chang, Jill Green, Kevin Ho, Elke Luyten, and Harriet Bograd

music: John Gibson (Windows in the Kitchen) Pauline Oliveros (Crow's Nest) Carman Moore (SkyDance SkyTime SkyWeb - and - Invitation to Secret Dancers)

curator: Juliette Mapp, Judith Taylor-Hussey
production: Danspace Project @ St. Mark's Church, with special thanks to Abigail Ramsay and Abby Harris-Holmes

special acknowledgements:
My residency was made possible through a generous grant by Kinetic Arts & Sciences / Kinetic Awareness® Center, the kind hospitality of Kevin Klein and Harriet Bograd, as well as Rachel Cohen / Racocoproductions, with special thanks to Deborah Goldberg, Lily Cohen, and Jenneth Webster.

Kind support in the Netherlands came from: Bruno Listopad / Stg. Disjointed Arts, gallery Mirta Demare International Art, Pauline de Groot /Stg. Dansstudio Pauline de Groot.

I would like to thank all the dancers for their continued friendship and all the interactions we've had, and for continuing to make me feel part of the company in my own right, their continued support and energy, and those many wonderful moments of being allowed to witness them dance.
Dr. Thomas Houser was a delightful and exemplary presence for me during this trip.

Juliette Mapp, Judy Taylor-Hussey, and the staff at dancspace project realized an incredible production assistance and above all a wonderful PR for this evening: as a result, articles and announcements appeared in TimeOut New York, and reviews in the New York Times, as well as several other newspapers.

Finally I would like to specially thank Elaine Summers for the many years of her generosity, kindness, and continued inspirational learning experiences.

Thank you ~ ...

(note as of July 23rd, 2010: several errata have been reviewed and corrected)