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New Dance Horizons

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I snagged a ticket to “New Dance Horizons” at The Touhill a few weeks ago through my friend, Saundra. (Thanks, Saundra!) 

It was a pleasant surprise that several of my students were dancing before the show and during intermission, performing a piece called “The Bus” (or “On The Bus?”) which commented on racism and resilience. I have an image in my mind of the end of the piece, in which my student, Chastity leaned into the standing audience, doing repetitive hip rolls (?) in a clump of young dancers, with a determined, calm gaze in her eyes that made her stand out to me. Or when Tobias jumped confidently and eloquently in bare feet, coaxing a younger, little girl member of the dance troupe to perform for him. Or when Eleanor, a compassionate and sophisticated young white teen, vigorously danced the part of the driver of the segregated bus… They were all costumed in white collared button down t-shirts and navy skirts and pants, (excepting Eleanor’s driver’s cap) which to me, conjured the daily grind, the working class, the to and fro jostle of showing up ready and on-time in a world that wears a harsh and hostile face. 

This intimate, full-force performance was an inspiring prelude to three world premiere dances organized around the theme, “Women Who Inspire.” 

The first piece, by Saint Louis Ballet, was a painterly, spiritual, at once visually calming and stunning tribute to the music of Hildegard of Bingen, a “12th-Century German Benedictine abbess and mystic… who composed an entire corpus of sacred music…” The dancers wore variously saturated flesh tones that felt like the gradations of light in a Renaissance painting.

The image that sticks with me is a line of three (?) male/female partners, with the delicate and emotive ballerina balanced by her male partner as she pirouetted, developéd, and contracted in a syncopated rhythm that felt reverent and prayerful. (Hmm… I wonder how a non-religious person would interpret this piece…)

The second piece by Madco, “Art Is a Guarantee of Sanity,” was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, the author of “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness,” who suffered psychotic episodes, among other things, as a result of the disease, Anti-NMDA-Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis. 

The piece was incredible, and very painful for me to watch. It was so riveting, though, I couldn’t look away — in large part, out of plain admiration for the dancers’ athleticism and emotional commitment in the midst of something so physically demanding.

As a drone-like, bluish light buzzed over a dancer hinging, un-hinged-like, to the rhythm of her own loud, anguished exhales, I was struck by a dancer’s ability to express the inner turmoil of a brain so eloquently through the body, through the timing of a breath, the tilt of a walk, and most hauntingly, through intervals of graceful, almost balletic, zombie-esque seated arm movements that convey the numbing effect of high-wattage medication. 

The last piece, by The Big Muddy Dance Company, was called Destino, Roto. Choreographer Stephanie Martinez writes that she was inspired by “many people,” including “the Latino cultural influence my family brings to my life” and texts by poet Gabriela Mistral. It seemed to be the most narrative of the three pieces, and it leaned on a lot of theatrical elements: fire engine red high heels, the Mistral recordings, costume changes… I honestly found it a little confusing, but I’m eager to see more of The Big Muddy.

Just yesterday, one of my creative writing students, Ana, who is also taking dance composition, was exploding with enthusiasm over her ability to create precise formations using Google Slide. Cracks me up — the day before spring break. She’s a kick-ass dancer with blue hair and curves who happens to be a an awesome writer as well.

I was showing my class the movie Dancemaker, about Paul Taylor (she had already seen it) with a list of reflection questions about the creative process for dance/the performing arts versus the creative process for writing. I noticed she was engrossed in her chromebook during the final scene, when Taylor’s company performs a world premiere of a new piece about the transient, exploitative nature of many adult romantic relationships. “Ana!” I called out. “I never get sick of watching this… Can you?” “Eh,” she replied, “It’s kind of formulaic. You know, Mrs. O’Donnell, every dance has a formula.”

I nodded and smiled… What should I have said?? 

Strong and Wrong

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When novice, fourteen-year-old ballet dancers at the high school where I used to teach struck a pose both confidently and incorrectly, the dance department head used to praise them in faculty meetings for being “strong and wrong!”

That’s the phrase that came to mind when I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, Florence Foster Jenkins on Friday night, about a wealthy music lover whose passion for singing and classical music was so strong that it blinded her to her own comically imperfect technique.

In contrast, her husband, played by Hugh Grant, has come to terms with the mediocrity of his acting career, but seems to find redemption in perpetuating Jenkin’s dream of herself, literally trashing bad reviews, screening Jenkin’s concert goers and bribing potential critics to ensure that Jenkins sees herself as a true member of the 1940s New York City music elite.

Streep’s performance was predictably on point, and Hugh Grant played the dapper gentleman convincingly, but the real stars of this movie, in my opinion, are Mr. McMoon, Ms. Jenkin’s diminutive, timid accompanist, played by Simon Helberg, and the costume designer, Consolata Boyle. Both McMoon, with his quivering, fluctuating facial expressions, and Boyle, with her quivering star tiaras that jostle in time to Jenkin’s operatic “hah ah has” and nude mesh stomach overlays that display Jenkin’s sizeable midrift, play up the physical comedy that makes this movie so enjoyable.

And yet, as I laughed through it, it struck a deeper chord: how refreshing it is, when some of the most technically astute dancers starve themselves, and many of the writers the public admires end their lives in suicide, when the phrase “tortured artist” is a cliché we take for granted, and when some of my most talented creative writing students warn me at the beginning of the semester that they are perfectionists, that we sometimes need a laugh-out-loud display of really bad art, delivered with great joy, to remind us that good art, while fundamentally challenging, finicky, and demanding, is about joy, too.

When I think about my own singing journey, it amuses me to observe that the work of most of my voice lessons was learning how to relax my throat. Thinking down when you ascend the scale, yawning exercises, and the like — when I practiced them regularly enough, my range went from 2nd suprano to 1st. A pleasant surprise, the notes I could hit, by simply keeping my throat open.

I suppose that this effort — relaxing into the moment, staying open, to joy, among other things — as much as refining technique, is the challenging work of a singer, or any artist. In that sense, Florence Jenkins truly hit a high note. No joke.

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