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In()Flux: Contact Improvisation & Steve Paxton

I was suspended for a moment on my partner’s shoulder before falling to [the] ground… I softened, spread, and rolled… folding to continue the dance, I caught the pelvis flying toward my chest… As he dove I grounded, finding a one-legged apex of balance held only for seconds… and we continued… For the last few […]

BodyCartography Project workshop/Fritz Haeg’s Domestic Integrities at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

I was suspended for a moment on my partner’s shoulder before falling to [the] ground… I softened, spread, and rolled… folding to continue the dance, I caught the pelvis flying toward my chest… As he dove I grounded, finding a one-legged apex of balance held only for seconds… and we continued…

For the last few weeks on Monday evening,  the Cowles Center Target Studio has played host to participants engaging in contact improvisation, a dance form developed in the 1970s, instigated by Steve Paxton. Often done in duet or small groups, it has been described as an “art-sport,” combining elements of social dance, rules of physics, aikido, wrestling, and modern dance.

“The dancers in contact improvisation focus on the physical sensations of touching, leaning, supporting, counterbalancing and falling with other people, thus carrying out a dialogue.” (Cynthia Novack, Sharing the Dance)

Contact Improvisation (CI) has been alive in the Twin Cities for a long time. HIJACK has been teaching a class at Zenon’s dance school since 2000, and Morgan Thorson has taught a beginning CI class at the University of Minnesota since 2002. Patrick Scully, a pillar of the Twin Cities dance community, is an anchor for contact improvisation. He has been an advocate for the form, its teachers, and practitioners, and he has continued to attend jams over the years. In collaboration with the CI series, he will present a fireside chat on CI’s presence and evolution in the Twin Cities. Former resident Chris Aiken, now an internationally known CI teacher, taught locally from 1989 until 2000 and was the first ongoing contact improvisation teacher at the University of Minnesota. The emergence of this new series feels compelled by the upcoming events with Steve Paxton at the Walker Art Center this fall.

Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson. Photo: Paula Court

I’ve been imagining contact improvisation as a room with many doors. For me the practice of CI is a rigorous commitment to embodied listening, agency, and spontaneity. This practice can lead many directions and be used as a tool to create community, to foster self-awareness, to inform partnering choreography, to understand a three-dimensional body in space, and to inspire nuanced choreographic structures.

The form can be used to inspire or train for performance and as its own performance modality. Within the dance world, improvisation is sometimes referred to as lazy, unrefined, “doing whatever you want,” but now we have an opportunity to reset this idea. Through the CI series and the performances and events surrounding Steve Paxton’s and Lisa Nelson’s visit, dancers and audiences can explore the many layers – physical and intellectual – that contribute to the phenomenon that has endured for more than 40 years. Witnessing the sheer magic that lives in an unplanned moment, executed by individuals with a mature practice in the unknown. In a way this series is readying our pallet for Paxton and Nelson’s upcoming work and his longtime commitment to structures of improvisation within performance.

…pause, I gesture with fingers and knee simultaneously to the body on the other side of the stage, he responds, I respond, then we are together…moving as a two headed, multi-limbed being, surfing pelvis over pelvis, upside down, I’m head over heels and weak in the knees… I’m exhausted, not knowing what might come next, I shout “Go”…and we continue.

To find out more about Twin Cities Contact Improvisation classes and lectures, visit BodyCartography Project’s upcoming events.

Writer Taja Will is a Twin Cities based choreographer, educator and improviser. This year’s WAC Choreographer’s Evening, curated by Kenna Cottman, will include an improvised work by Will and long-time collaborator Blake Nellis.

A Basic Guide to All Things Scaffold Room

Ralph Lemon’s new work, Scaffold Room, is truly interdisciplinary. Blurring the line between performing arts and visual arts, it exists in the white cube of the gallery but also includes ticketed, seated performances. Scaffold Room challenges the ways we usually think about and talk about art, which is part of why it’s so exciting—but it can also be […]

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April Matthis during a residency at MANCC, February–March 2014. Photo: Chris Cameron

Ralph Lemon’s new work, Scaffold Room, is truly interdisciplinary. Blurring the line between performing arts and visual arts, it exists in the white cube of the gallery but also includes ticketed, seated performances. Scaffold Room challenges the ways we usually think about and talk about art, which is part of why it’s so exciting—but it can also be difficult to describe in just a few words.

With that in mind, I thought I’d outline the different forms Scaffold Room will take in the coming week, including set performances and Refraction performances, as well as talks, discussions, and open rehearsals. Attending a combination of these events will enrich and deepen your understanding of the work as a whole.

Scaffold Room Performances, September 26–28

Friday, 7 and 9:30 pm; Saturday, 8 pm; Sunday, 7 pm

Experience Scaffold Room as a 90-minute performance within the gallery, featuring artists Okwui Okpokwasili and April Matthis, along with DJ/composer Marina Rosenfeld. These four performances are seated, ticketed, and have a limited capacity. They will have a different feel and structure from the opening kickoff event, so it’s definitely worthwhile to plan to attend both a ticketed performance as well as Scaffold Room Refraction on Thursday night.

Scaffold Room Refraction, September 25, 5–9 pm

The free opening kickoff event, Scaffold Room Refraction, takes place during Target Free Thursday Night. Refraction is a series of performances that invite a deeper examination of the performance experience, including an unpredictable mix of live music and parallel performances layered across the evening. You’ll be free to roam around the gallery space, and come and go as you please. A cash bar in the adjacent lobby will serve as a place to gather, mingle, and discuss what you’re seeing.

Related Event: Opening Night SpeakEasy Discussion, 7–9 pm

The Scaffold Room SpeakEasy takes place in Cargill Lounge, and is your chance to talk about the work with other people, or just listen in. The SpeakEasy discussion will be led by local artists Jessica Fiala, Caroline Kent, and Marcus Young.

Scaffold Room Refraction, September 27–28, afternoons

Refraction performances will continue over the weekend, with a similar format to Thursday night, but will include different parallel performances. These are free with gallery admission.

Related Event: Gallery Talk with Scaffold Room Creators, September 27, 1 pm

Local poet/performance artist Gabrielle Civil will moderate a discussion with Ralph Lemon, Okwui Okpokwasili, and April Matthis. Also free with gallery admission.

Open Rehearsals, September 19–24

Ralph Lemon and his team of artists will offer an ongoing, behind-the-scenes look at the work as it takes shape via a series of Open Rehearsals. Stop by during gallery hours any day before the opening kickoff to see the artists at work. The Open Rehearsals are free with gallery admission (note: certain times may need to be closed to the public, but feel free to call ahead to double check).

Meditation Film Installation, September 24–28

While you’re here, don’t forget to head over to the McGuire Theater to see Meditation, a 2010 film by Ralph Lemon and Jim Findlay that is now part of the Walker’s collection. Meditation screenings are ongoing, and free with gallery admission.

Wanna Dance with Somebody?

So you think you can dance? In anticipation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas’ performance at the Walker Art Center, Oct. 15–17, Northrop and the Walker are asking you to step up and record your own performance of Rosas danst Rosas for a #ReRosasMN video submission contest! Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal work Rosas danst Rosas (1983) […]

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So you think you can dance? In anticipation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas’ performance at the Walker Art Center, Oct. 15–17, Northrop and the Walker are asking you to step up and record your own performance of Rosas danst Rosas for a #ReRosasMN video submission contest!

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal work Rosas danst Rosas (1983) is a mechanical, sensual, and compellingly emotional choreography that established her reputation as an artist in the post-modernist movement. Believe it or not, the simplicity of the dance makes this work accessible and it can be reproduced by practically anyone (it was even copied by Beyoncé!). De Keersmaeker says all you need is a chair.

Beyoncé, or as many know her as Queen Bey, received a little hoo-ha surrounding the reproduction of a Rosas danst Rosas for her music video “Countdown,” but De Keersmaeker took all of the negative publicity and turned it into a positive creative effort. That’s where you come in. Re:Rosas! The fABULEUS Rosas Remix Project started at the request of De Keersmaeker so that anyone and everyone could recreate Rosas danst Rosas.

In a video message posted on her website, De Keersmaeker said, “You can change the order of the movements, make your own movements… Have fun and I’m a very curious to see the result!” There have been more than 1,500 reproductions of her dance from over 30 different countries, each with their own individuality and creativity expressed.

So, how do you get started? Watch the step-by-step tutorial that breaks down the movements, structure, and full choreography. The contest starts today and runs through the night of October 13. Post your completed video through Vine or YouTube and tweet it with the hashtag #ReRosasMN. The submissions with the most retweets have a chance to win a grand prize package. The package includes:

If you aren’t too psyched about debuting your own performance of Rosas danst Rosas, you can still participate in #ReRosasMN by retweeting a video that has been submitted to the contest. Everyone who retweets a submission will be entered in a drawing for:

  • 2 tickets to Rosas danst Rosas (opening night)
  • 4 drinks while you enjoy the performance

All video submissions can be viewed here. Good Luck!

ReRosasMN

The fine print:
1. Contest open to legal residents of the United States of America.
2. All videos submitted must be original work.
3. All videos submitted must be received between 12 a.m. September 10, 2014 and 11:59 p.m. October 9, 2014.
4. You agree that it is your sole responsibility to obtain all permissions necessary for the grant of rights contained in full contest ReRosaMN Rules.

Choreographers’ Evening 2014: Audition Announcement!

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Kenna-Camara Cottman are seeking choreographers to be presented as part of the 42nd Annual Choreographers’ Evening. Choreographers’ Evening will premiere on Saturday, November 29th at 7 pm and 9:30 pm. All forms of dance are welcome! WHERE: The Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave, Mpls 55403 WHEN: Wednesday, […]

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Photo: Gene Pittman

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Kenna-Camara Cottman are seeking choreographers to be presented as part of the 42nd Annual Choreographers’ Evening. Choreographers’ Evening will premiere on Saturday, November 29th at 7 pm and 9:30 pm. All forms of dance are welcome!

WHERE: The Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave, Mpls 55403

WHEN: Wednesday, August 20 from 6-10pm
Friday, August 22 from 2-6pm
Saturday, August 23 from noon – 4pm

– You will receive a call or email confirming your time slot

– Auditions are in 10 minute intervals

– Pieces are usually 3-6 minutes in length and may not exceed 7 minutes

– DVD and vimeo submissions are accepted, although live performance is preferred

– Works in progress are accepted

– Schedule your audition soon, as slots fill up quickly

For more information and to schedule an audition, please email performingarts@walkerart.org or call the Walker at 612.375.7550

Additional questions may be directed to Anat Shinar at anat.shinar@walkerart.org

Talk Dance: Aparna Ramaswamy on Song of the Jasmine

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists, produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire […]

Song of the Jasmine

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists, produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire podcast here.

I’ve heard the saying, in one form or another, that you should never mix business with family, but that is exactly what Aparna, Ranee, and Ashwini Ramaswamy are doing.  When I sat down to interview Aparna Ramaswamy about her family’s dance company, Ragamala, and their upcoming premiere of Song of the Jasmine, I was particularly curious to hear about what its like to make art with family.  I’m married to an artist (a theater director), and we’ve collaborated a few times. Though we both survived the experience, we’ve learned that although we highly value the others feedback, we do our best work on our own.  There are many examples of partners making art together – even a handful in the Minneapolis dance community (BodyCartography Project and Chris Yon + Taryn Griggs to name two) but the examples that come to mind are couples who have chosen each other as life partners.  However, collaborating with someone you didn’t get to choose seemed unique to me.  When I asked Aparna about her choreographic partnership with her mother, Ranee, she was very direct: “we  create almost every movement together … our bond is so strong, it works for us, and we feel we create much better work together.”   I was also inspired by the family bonds within the company, which includes dancers Jessica Fiala and Tamara Nadel (everyone does more than dance, including grant writing and marketing work); as Aparna says, “to this day, when we tour, we eat every single meal together.  We really like hanging out together.”

A primary inspiration for Song of the Jasmine is the work of 8th century mystic poet, Andal, whose poetry casts the creator god, Krishna or Vishnu, as her lover to signify her deep desire to achieve a spiritual union with the infinite.  Aparna spoke of how Andal’s poetry is a guiding inspiration for this piece, “this idea of the human soul wanting to unite with the divine or the cosmic consciousness, we use that.  We use human love and sensuality as an allegory […] so its a very contemporary feeling that all of us can understand, but really, its this feeling of transcendence and soaring and spiritual union.”

Aparna and Ranee create their work using the vocabulary of the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam.  “For us, tradition is something that we hold very closely.  We are very proud of the tradition we come from, and when we say tradition its a very specific thing.  We come from an ancient form that is codified but within that form we come from a certain school and within that school we come from a certain teacher who comes from a very specific lineage and we are the next part of that lineage.”

I was curious to hear Aparna speak about how, as a contemporary dance company working within this centuries-old tradition, Ragamala stays true to form while creating work that resonates with contemporary audiences.  She likened their years of study of the form to learning a language, “its like having a dictionary.  Its all this information that you have embodied because you have done it for so long […] poets use language very freely to create new work and we create work with many different dimensions and layers that use Bharata Natyam, but that will look very different and feel very different, because of the music and all of the different strategies we’re employing.”  It seems that their collaboration with avant jazz composer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is taking their explorations at the edges of  tradition to new places: “he’s so grounded in jazz and [jazz musicians] have all of these different structures and different ways that they approach music that’s very different from our experience. It just makes one push oneself so much more.”

Bharata Natyam is expressed in two ways, as a more abstract and rhythmic dance and, as a narrative form, through the use of facial expressions, costume, emotion, and word-like hand gestures, or mudras.   Aparna mentioned that audiences’ desire to understand the specifics of the story and the meaning of the mudras sometimes gets in the way of their enjoyment of the work.  Aparna’s response: “When I see contemporary dance I don’t understand all of the inspirations […] but I find different entry points or different things to appreciate or to be challenged by.  It’s the same thing. Just because its rooted in another culture doesn’t mean you don’t understand.”

Jazz + Mine: Sally Rousse on Song of the Jasmine

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and […]

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Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance. Art and photo: Ed Bock

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Song of the Jasmine. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Five dancers in a line on the right facing five musicians to the left; several bells hang at various lengths above the dancers while subtle smoke and lights begin to warm the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center.  I like the lines, the minimalism. I like the small cast, the parity, the program notes that promise “feverish urgency” and “the inverted.”  A teenage female mystic poet. I might like this show more than any other Ragamala Dance performance I’ve ever seen over the past 20 years.

Song of the Jasmine – a collaboration between Minneapolis’s Ragamala Dance and New York-based jazz saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa – cites the writings of 8th century Tamil mystic poet Andal as inspiration. Legend has it that Andal was a sort of foster child, found and raised from birth by Vishnuchitta, a Krishna-focused poet. Brought up with these poems, songs, devotional texts, it’s only natural that the girl would refuse to marry any mortal. Instead, she had a spiritual marriage with a deity of the lord Vishsnu and was consumed into light. Her Nachiyar Tirumozhi, the composition guiding Song of the Jasmine, was Andal’s second and final work, regarded as sacred text on par with the Sanskrit Vedas. She was only fifteen.

One stunning scene has the three beautiful Ramaswamy women in an extended trio that, in variations, seems to tell the story of a girl longing with all her heart to be united with her Loved One, the Divine: He makes her heart beat; He’s like a bee finding nectar in her flowering youth; there is no aroma to compare to that of the Divine; love has invaded her veins.  I think there are snakes, too. And there is compelling floor work, drawing in the sand, writing it all down.  I saw Ranee “loosening the braids of reason” and Aparna dancing the line “my vow to him courses through my body.”  Then, it turns sad, there are tears of unrequited love: “while I pine and sigh for his love, He looks on indifferent.” Teen angst.

But Andal keeps her eye on the prize. Hindu religious aspirations are intense and they do not shy away from seeing their God as Friend, Mother, Child, Self or in this case Lover. Writer Priya Sarrukai Chabbria says in The Autobiography of a Goddess “Andal sings of her individual need for spiritual and sexual congress with her chosen god and of an abundant female desire explicitly sited in the body which, too, is holy.”

The performance had the traditional Bharatanatyam costuming (jewel-colored pleated fabric, bells, red painted hands and toes), and postures (bent knees, arched lower back, slight smile, expressive roving eyes) as well as the percussive marching backwards, articulate mime, and what I like to call “Indian waltzing” in ¾ time. But Ragamala is committed to dynamically weaving their classical South Indian dance form into their American existence. And so much more. I saw some interesting extensions into contemporary movement that includes supple arms and backs and a softness that took Aparna to the floor and somehow back up again like no one else but Hijack’s Arwen Wilder can do. Whoa.

Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy’s choreography and Mahanthrappa’s jazz-Indian music drove each other powerfully and was surprisingly sensual.  The drumming anchors the movements while the sax often leads the narrative. There are star turns by everyone: the guitarist, Rez Abassi, playing really weird stuff; solos for the always joyful Tamara Nadel and incredible lunges and balances from Jessica Fiala. The Carnatic Violinist, Anjna Swaminathan who has been working with Ragamala in recent years, makes it look easy.  (If you’re wondering, like me, whether “carnatic” has anything to do with “carnal” or “carnivorous”, it doesn’t. But Swaminathan does play the violin like she’s hungry).

When the flutist Raman Kalya takes over for a bit it’s amazing how his positions match Ashwini Ramaswamy’s arms and torso, as though she, too is holding and playing the music.

Ashwini is a gorgeous dancer, so strong and exacting with a really satisfyingly flexible, playful neck. Rock solid balance and delightful, every single moment. Aparna — what more can be said about her as a performer? She’s confident, brave, intelligent, and in her prime, yet she shares the stage generously, with a new maturity that is alluring. Ranee, who just won a prestigious Doris Duke Artist Award, is stunning: the most present and hip, just oozing natural experience and knowing. Andal should have lived such a life.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa perform Song of the Jasmine in the Walker’s McGuire Theater May 15-18.

Choreographing Music, Composing Dance: Rehearsing Song of the Jasmine

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa […]

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa and Ragamala’s artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (a mother-daughter team), brings together music and dance, tradition and innovation, jazz and Carnatic music, India and America, and the spaces between.

I visited Ragamala’s studio in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood a few weeks ago to observe a rehearsal of the piece with Mahanthappa and the musicians, many of whom had flown in from the east coast. I came away in awe of the talent, creativity, and collaboration I observed that morning—not to mention the incredible work they were creating.

The Dance

As the musicians practiced at the beginning of the rehearsal, the five dancers trickled in, sitting quietly at the side of the studio and listening. Often, their arms and hands would move as if of their own accord, feeling the music and channeling the movements of the dance. Aparna and Ranee listened closely, consulting each other and their notes, approximating the intricate motions of the dance with their upper bodies as they followed along with the music. Soon, they were up and dancing: slapping the ground with the soles of their feet, spinning in unison, telling intricate stories through their whole bodies—from the sharp movements of their fingertips to the expressive brightness of their eyes. I could feel their excitement at having the piece coming together, the performance approaching… during a break, dancer Ashwini rushed over to show me pictures of the set they were working on at the Walker: hundreds of bells suspended majestically over the McGuire Theater stage.

Founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992, Ragamala Dance performs Bharatanatyam, a type of traditional south Indian classical dance historically performed in the temples of Tamil Nadu. Based in Minneapolis, Ragamala has an extensive history with the Walker. In 1998, Ranee Ramaswamy performed a solo, Where The Hands Go, The Eyes Follow. Presented in one of the Walker galleries, it was four performances of a collaboration with Minnesotan poet Robert Bly, Jim Moore, Janet Holmes, Mary Easter, Coleman Barks, Janet Hirshfield, and jazz musician and harmonica player Howard Levy. In 2004, Ragamala performed Sethu (Bridge) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with Balinese gamelan ensemble Çudamani, and collaborated again with Çudamani in 2009 to perform Dhvee (Duality). Aparna Ramaswamy has additionally performed with Penelope Freeh as part of the Walker’s Momentum: New Dance Works series in 2004, and curated Choreographer’s Evening 2012 with Patrick Scully.

Another Walker-Ragamala connection is Jessica Fiala, a Walker guest blogger and tour guide who has been dancing with the company since 2006. In a short phone interview, Fiala elaborated on the style of Bharatanatyam: based on structured positions and movements, the foundation of the dance is a grounded stance with the knees bent and the feet turned out. Some of the poses and figures in Bharatanatyam are even likened to sculptures, echoing the positions of statues of Hindu gods. But beneath all of the structure, Fiala, explained, there is an emotional basis that informs the movement and expression of the dance, involving every part of the body from the feet to the eyes.

Ragamala artistic directors Ranee and Aparna studied Bharatanatyam with dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli, considered a master of the dance in India. But while they are committed to the style of Bharatanatyam, their art reflects the space in which it is created—as traditional Indian dance in contemporary America. In a Star Tribune article celebrating Ranee and Aparna as Artists of the Year in 2011, Aparna addressed the importance of “[preserving] custom, but with a contemporary twist,” explaining how Ragamala aims to stay true to the tradition of Bharatanatyam, while not being bound by the tradition. Similarly, Ragamala describes itself as “[exploring] the dynamic tension between the ancestral and the contemporary… [making] dance landscapes that dwell in opposition.”

Dance

Aparna Ramaswamy and Ranee Ramaswamy (both in orange) discuss choreography with dancers Tamara Nadel, Ashwini Ramaswamy, and Jessica Fiala. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

The Music

As I entered the studio, the musicians were running through the piece, stopping and starting to discuss certain phrases or make notes on their parts. Led by Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, the band includes Rez Abassi on electric guitar, V. K. Raman on South Indian flute, Anjna Swaminathan on violin, and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam, a type of south Indian drum. On occasion, the instrumentation was rounded out by a smartphone, which produced a drone mimicking a traditional instrument called a tanpura. The tone of the rehearsal was focused, but lighthearted; at one point when the musicians slowed down, Mahanthappa joked, “We all need to hit Dunn Bros early and often.”

The music of Song of the Jasmine is based in the Carnatic tradition, a style of classical music from south India (its counterpart being Hindustani music in northern India). The foundations of this style of music are talas, beat cycles that determine the rhythm, and ragas, musical modes that determine the melodic line (though with notable differences from Western musical modes). The mridangam drum brings everything together: the ragas, the talas, and the rhythms created by the dancers’ feet, which often beat in counterpoint to the music.

So what does an alto saxophonist with an MFA in jazz composition have to do with Carnatic music? For Mahanthappa, born in Italy to Indian parents and raised in Boulder, Colorado, both Indian music and jazz are integral to his art. A defining moment, he explained in an interview with NPR, came after a recital at Berklee College of Music, when his brother gave him a copy of Saxophone Indian Style by Kadri Gopalnath. Through alternative fingerings and modifications to his embouchure, Gopalnath had created an innovative way of playing the tonal modulations present in Carnatic music on an instrument that was not designed for that musical style. The CD, initially intended as a joke, provided a way for Mahanthappa to conceptualize bringing together his background in jazz saxophone with his interest in Indian music.

Mahanthappa’s compositions and performances likewise reflect the influences of jazz and Indian music on his work. In an interview with CapitalBop, Mahanthappa elaborated: “The core of my journey stems not only from musical interest but more from defining and describing my hybrid identity as an Indian-American. It’s always been important for me to treat both Indian music and jazz with the utmost integrity, as selling either short would be equivalent to selling my soul cheaply.”

Music

Rajna Swaminathan, Rez Abassi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, V. K. Raman, and Anjna Swaminathan in rehearsal for Song of the Jasmine with Ragamala Dance. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

“See the Music, Hear the Dance:” Bringing It All Together

The creative union of music and dance in the studio was evident in the steady back-and-forth between dancers and musicians as they composed, choreographed, and rehearsed. Bars of music were deleted and repeated, footwork clarified, and tempos adjusted—in one instance, Mahanthappa even revised a part of the composition to be played twice as fast, to match the feeling of the choreography. Throughout the rehearsal, Aparna maintained close communication with mridangam player Rajna, whose steady drumming united the rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the dancer’s feet.

“See the music, hear the dance” is a philosophy fundamental to the work of Bharatanatyam master and the Ramaswamy’s teacher Alarmél Valli (it is also the name of a show by Valli). Indeed, the raga in Ragamala’s name is no coincidence: literally translated, Ragamala means “garland of ragas”—i.e. Carnatic melodic modes. Music has always been an inextricable facet of Bharatanatyam, in which footwork and melodies, rhythm and danced shapes are closely connected, whether in concordance or opposition. Additionally, the term Ragamala describes a type of medieval Indian paintings, each of which is associated with a raga, as well as a specific poetic verse—an early example of art drawing from multiple disciplines. In its first performance as a dance company, Ragamala took inspiration from these paintings and their corresponding verses and melodies, bringing them to life through dance.

Song of the Jasmine carries on the tradition of interdisciplinary work by uniting music and dance in a productive meeting of minds and creativity. The piece, and the process through which it has been created, is exemplary of the immense creative potential of the 21st century and beyond: collaboration across disciplines, states, and countries; hybridity of genres and identities; and the symbiosis of tradition and innovation.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa will perform Song of the Jasmine Thursday-Saturday, May 15–17 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 18 at 2 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Upcoming Opportunities for Minnesota Choreographers

1. Momentum: New Dance Works 2015 proposals The call for proposals is now open for Momentum: New Dance Works 2015, presented by the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in partnership with the Walker Art Center and the Southern Theater, with support from the Jerome Foundation. The series will run July 9–11 and […]

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Laura Selle Virtucio and Erika Hansen Nelson in Fortress by Leslie O’Neill, Momentum 2013. Photo: Gene Pittman

1. Momentum: New Dance Works 2015 proposals

The call for proposals is now open for Momentum: New Dance Works 2015, presented by the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in partnership with the Walker Art Center and the Southern Theater, with support from the Jerome Foundation. The series will run July 9–11 and July 16–18, 2015 at the Southern Theater.

The Momentum dance series was created to promote the work of an exciting new generation of dance and dance-theater creators in Minnesota. The series enables innovative, under-recognized choreographers to have their work presented by presented by the Cowles Center as well as provide professional development opportunities facilitated by Springboard for the Arts. Momentum seeks out applicants from a full range of styles, cultures, aesthetics, and approaches that represent contemporary dance in the world today.

Proposals are due Thursday, April 25, 2014, by 5 pm.  Refer to the PDF file for eligibility requirements and application instructions.

Attend a public informational session on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at 10 am in the café at Mason’s Restaurant in the Cowles Center to answer all your Momentum questions.

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Kenna-Camara Cottman (center) performs in V6 by Pramila Vasudevan, Momentum 2013. Photo: Gene Pittman

2. Choreographers’ Evening auditions

The Walker Art Center is pleased to present the 42nd Annual Choreographers’ Evening curated by Kenna-Camara Cottman Saturday, November 29, 2014 at 7pm and 9:30pm.

SAVE THE DATE: Auditions will be held in the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater August 20th, 22nd, and 23rd. We are not accepting audition requests right now but times will become available in early July. Check back after July 7th for specific dates and times.

Watch MN Original’s segment on 2010 Choreographers’ Evening auditions:

Urban Experiment in Concert Form

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Thursday night’s ID:ENTIDADES and Na Pista by Companhia […]

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Tiago Sousa of Companhia Urbana de Dança. Photo: Renato Mangolin

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Thursday night’s ID:ENTIDADES and Na Pista by Companhia Urbana de Dança. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments! 

Seven faces greet us in the dark. Sitting upstage in a line spread across the space, light allows us to only see this. A dancer emerges, sinewy and dreadlocked. He begins to move in silence, undulating his tallness and extending his limbs. It is a personal exploration, spontaneous, except that when another dancer joins there is unison, and it feels like a miracle.

This passing off of a solo happens several times, and thus we are introduced to the performers of Companhia Urbana de Dança. Seven of eight are in this first work, ID:ENTIDADES, one female and six male. Clad in black and sneakers, they blend hip-hop and contemporary dance. Conceived, directed and choreographed (with members of the Company) by Sonia Destri Lie, this layering of hip-hop, customarily a solo form, with contemporary concert dance sensibilities is visually arresting, surprising at every turn.

I am especially struck by the unison, moves identical save for some personal practicalities that take precedence like the need to sneaker-scootch another quarter turn or an arm response that differs according to a body’s momentum. These subtle differences combined with the dancers’ stunning individual appearances make for a marvelous statement about coexistence: many in body, one in mind.

Music by Rodrigo Marçal leads the dancers through a soundscape that influences but never dominates. Passages of silence elegantly transition dancers from episode to episode. Just when a visceral build occurs, visually and aurally, things break apart and a new scenario begins. It seems that movement is sourced from the dancers’ natural instincts then codified for group learning. Unison is urbanized, tolerant of dancers’ individualities.

Partnering comes into play but is less effective. Moments of contact feel superficial, and one can understand why given the solo nature of hip-hop. But here is where this hybrid experiment could really take flight. If the dancers could access one another’s bodies down to the level of bone, truly pouring their weight deeply into one another, the inherent visceral experience of this work would give birth to yet another new dimension.

Otherwise I am enchanted, inspired. It is structurally smart, lots of witnessing, watching, framing. Every body is loaded, cocked to explode at any moment. Countenances are at once soulful and suspicious. I fall in love with every one of them.

The second piece on the program is Na Pista. The program notes state that this work sources movement and personal experiences from the dancers. They enter wearing radically different attire, reflecting their personalities. They begin with a game of musical chairs, ending up in a line upstage. Water bottles add to the décor and choreography.

Ironically, while this second piece indicates more “personality”, I feel as if I learned more about the dancers in the first work. Fancy clothes and props are distracting more than anything. I prefer a barer context, allowing the dancers and the language singing out of their bodies to speak for themselves.

It is thrilling to see hip-hop dance merge with contemporary dance composition. Hip-hop electrifies the concert stage and tools like layering images, altering tempo, unison and stage picture show off hip-hop to extremely flattering effect.

Companhia Urbana de Dança performs ID:ENTIDADES and Na Pista in the McGuire Theater March 27-29. 

Performing Lives, Dancing Experiences: Companhia Urbana de Dança’s Marvelous Symbiosis

Companhia Urbana de Dança, founder and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie insists, just sort of happened. At the time of its formation, she had just moved back to Brazil from Germany, where she had studied contemporary dance and delved into the world of hip hop. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she began working on a dance […]

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Tiago Sousa, Companhia Urbana de Dança. Photo: Renato Mangolin

Companhia Urbana de Dança, founder and choreographer Sonia Destri Lie insists, just sort of happened. At the time of its formation, she had just moved back to Brazil from Germany, where she had studied contemporary dance and delved into the world of hip hop. Back in Rio de Janeiro, she began working on a dance project for a fashion show, auditioning B-boys and hip hop dancers. Meeting those dancers, she explained, “was the turning point. I saw so many good dancers, and they had no idea how good they were. In Rio, there was no opportunity, no jobs, so I decided to use my contacts in Europe to try to do something.” She started finding some dancers to form a company — or, as she likes to say, they found her. Companhia Urbana de Dança fully came into existence when a festival director took notice of her work and invited her to the Biennale de Lyon, an international dance festival in France. Along with dancer Tiago Sousa, whom she had met at the fashion show, Destri Lie pulled together a group to perform in Lyon in 2006. The company has changed members extensively throughout its existence, growing through three iterations into the critically-acclaimed group it is today.

Destri Lie has two conditions for her dancers: they must be good, respectful people, and their desire to dance must come above all else. For her, big egos have no place in the company, and a good personality is more important than flawless technique. Tiago explained in an interview: “Our desire to dance is greater than any necessity. We are all intelligent and talented. We could be doing anything else, but we chose dance, and we know that it takes a lot of love and dedication.” Indeed, many of the dancers have gone to great lengths to keep dancing. Rafael “Rafa” explained that after his mother told him he couldn’t keep dancing, he sneaked out of the house to go to rehearsal. In the beginning, the only rehearsal slot Destri Lie could get was from 11 pm to 3 am in a studio that was a substantial commute away from many of the dancers’ homes. Nevertheless, the dancers’ passion and dedication have propelled the group to international recognition.

Part of the genius of Companhia Urbana de Dança is the marvelous symbiosis it exhibits, both in terms of the styles of dance performed, and the company itself. Destri Lie and her dancers each contribute something to the company, creating a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. As she explained in an interview with Time Out NY:

Tiago Sousa said one day during this fashion show rehearsal: “Sonia, you are the only one that can understand our language, and you are the only one that can take us to a different level. If not, we are gonna be the black kids that dance from the favelas. And we are never gonna get respect! We need you, and I think you need us because we will be the reason for you to do something fresh and new. Maybe you will reinvent yourself and do not need to go to Europe again.” […] I already had two dance companies before. It was hard to get support, money and sponsors, and I did not want to go through this all over again. But I said, “Yes! Let’s try.” And here I am.

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André Feijão, Companhia Urbana de Dança. Photo: Anderson Café

But Destri Lie is aware that the fusion of artists and dance styles that exists in Companhia can be risky, especially given the juxtaposition of her background with those of the dancers. A recent New York Times review addressed this delicate balance:

Companhia Urbana de Dança sounds like a bad idea. It is a Brazilian dance troupe composed of young people, mostly men of African descent, mostly from the favelas, or slums, of Rio. But it is led and choreographed by Sonia Destri Lie, a white woman not from the favelas. She is trained in ballet and American and European contemporary dance, yet the works are based in hip-hop, somehow refined. Exploitation, condescension: Pitfalls abound. And yet […] Companhia Urbana de Dança is so wonderful that it seems miraculous.

Indeed, pitfalls abound. Companhia Urbana de Dança dances in a delicate space in which issues such as race, poverty, violence, and gender are, through the act of performance, at risk of alternately being exploited or erased. Similarly, there is the balance in their performance between dance and narrative, with the chance that the background stories overpower the dancing.

Indeed, few descriptions of the company fail to mention the dancers’ origins in the favelas and suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Favela is usually translated as “slum,” and denotes an informal urban settlement in Brazil, often associated with poverty, crime, and drug trafficking. Since 2008, the government has worked to decrease the rule of drug lords in favelas through the implementation of UPPs (Police Pacification Units). Recently, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics have increased international scrutiny over crime and violence in these neighborhoods. In discussing some of the challenges of building a professional dance company through the years, Destri Lie does not deny that the dancers’ living situations often made things difficult — some of her dancers were consistently late, or couldn’t leave their neighborhoods for rehearsal because of drug-related violence, or even collapsed during practice because they didn’t have enough money for food. Tiago, when describing how he started dancing, explained, “I realized that, in my neighborhood, the guys who got girlfriends either danced or carried a gun… I chose to dance.”

But while crime, drugs, and violence, remain issues in Brazil’s favelas, the focus of popular narratives on these negative characteristics of the “morros” (“hills,” as they are often called), allows only for a narrow and stigmatizing perspective on them and the people who live there (indeed, discrimination and prejudice towards residents of these neighborhoods often makes it more difficult for them to find employment). In contrast to many prevailing conceptions, visual and performing arts have permeated some of these neighborhoods—for example, the colors of the neighborhood of Santa Marta, or faces and eyes painted on the houses in the Morro da Providência neighborhood. Favelas are where funk carioca music originated, as well as dances such as passinho, which has gained international recognition. In Morro dos Prazeres, a favela near the center of Rio de Janeiro, MTV built a high-quality soccer field to film a Brazilian TV show. There are schools, hospitals, and libraries in the neighborhoods. Cidade de Deus (inspiration for the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name) even has its own form of currency.

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Morro dos Prazeres, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan

Companhia Urbana de Dança cannot erase the influence of its multifaceted background stories. Yet Destri Lie is cautious of creating performances that focus solely on the favela origins of the dancers. As she explained to TimeOut NY, while discussing the second group of dancers she worked with in the company (2006–2008):

I knew that to have a dance company with black dancers that came from the favelas and so on, I should be careful. Not with them, but with others: the media, the press release and so on. I did not want to use them. For me, it was just the place they came from. I wanted respect because they were a good dancers, I wanted respect because the work was good, I wanted respect because we were working hard… I did not want to have FAVELA in bold letters, not the way people use that in their Playbill. First, I wanted to be a dance company and not a social project.

The recent New York Times review concurs: “Ms. Destri Lie, with her artistry, never stresses the obstacles that her dancers have to overcome. But,” the article continues, “that, too, is under the surface.” Companhia Urbana de Dança’s works allow the dancers space to speak for themselves; to masterfully, but subtly, tell their own stories through their dance. While the pieces are choreographed by Destri Lie, each dance is also shaped by the dancers themselves — as she says, “The choreography isn’t mine, I just design it… I take their movement and make it my own, and vice versa.” And as her website describes, “Their social and cultural backgrounds fuel their inspiration and creativity, allowing for intense, genuine, and beautifully expressive movement.”

As the dancers influence the dance, so does the dance influence the dancers. Working with the Companhia dancers helped Destri Lie to revitalize and rethink her work, and through working with a renowned dance company, the dancers gained the respect not only of their families and their peers, but also of the international dance community. On the company website, dancer Feijão explains: “Dancing gave me self-respect, changed everyone’s opinion of me…. It brought up my self-esteem. At rehearsal, I found myself, I knew where to go, when I started to dance… Dance gave me the chance to get to know the world, it gave me direction.” Destri Lie, as well, described how she hopes the company can influence audiences’ perceptions, not only of dance, but of the dancers themselves: “I want them to show the world that being black, poor, Brazilian — third world — and having talent, that they could change the game through dance. And to show them as protagonists of their own transformation.”

Companhia Urbana de Dança exemplifies the innovative potential of 21st-century performance. It seamlessly fuses hip hop and contemporary dance, while simultaneously creating thought-provoking dissonance. It builds global performance with local motivations, encouraging dialogue about both dance and global issues. It is inclusive and inspirational without being exploitative — each piece recognizes the undeniable influence of each company member’s individual story while highlighting, on stage, the power of dance itself.

Companhia Urbana de Dança will perform Na Pista and ID:ENTIDADES Thursday–Saturday, March 27–29, 2014, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

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