Friday, August 7, 2009

Trust me

At a recent outdoor concert by a Cuban hip-hop group, my friend turned to me and said: "This is quite a spectacle to watch." He was referring to the dance component of the concert -- the hip grinds, the slips and slides, the hand gestures. Anyone who has watched MTV or TV dance competitions has become accustomed to seeing this kind of movement. It's part of our everyday world now. Like the way sports are ubiquitous in the media, dance has started to find a place in the mainstream.

And yet, and yet ... I wonder how many people have actually been to a live dance performance on a stage or, in the case of this blog, at a quarry? And how many of us think: Dance? Dance? I don't get dance.

My answer? Yes, you do. Understanding dance is as easy as watching a Cuban hip-hop singer gyrate onstage. You get it. She's sexy. She's groovin'. She feels the music. It makes sense because you're familiar with what she's doing. You've seen it on TV. Or maybe you've even done it at home. (Don't worry; your secret is safe with me.)

"The more you go to dance, the more you see," said Alison Chase, choreographer for Q2: Habitat, which opens this evening and runs through tomorrow at the Settlement Quarry in Stonington. I asked her how she'd like people to "understand" dance -- what skills do they need to "get" it?

"Trust your own responses," she said.

OK, great start. But there's more you can do ahead of time.For instance: You're at a quarry. The title of the piece is Habitat. There's gotta be a clue in there somewhere.

Also, you can spend a few moments reading other blog entries on this site, OR check out Emily Burnham's recent story in the Bangor Daily News.

The point is: You don't have to go in cold. Or you can. You don't have to think about it beforehand. Or you can. You don't have to know the entire history of dance. Or any of it. But it's also OK if you know all of it.

Follow Chase's advice. You'll get it. Pay attention to whatever draws your eye rather than what you think you should be looking at. You'll feel something. Trust me. Then trust yourself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Well, you can dance

Switching gears now, kids, because, while I'm not done thinking about Shakespeare, I'm moving on to dance for a while. Last week, the giant choreographer Merce Cunningham died at 90 -- if you don't know him, read the comprehensive New York Times obituary by Alastair Macaulay.

Cunningham's death got me thinking about form in dance. A few years back, Anna Kisselgoff -- another great dance writer -- reprimanded me for reading too much story into a dance work. It's about form and movement, she said, not about your silly story-making. (That's a paraphrase.)

But I'm as devoted to narrative as Kisselgoff and Cunningham are devoted to form. So I was thrilled to hear Q2: Habitat choreographer Alison Chase, at the Stonington Opera House in Maine, describe her two Quarryography works as "narrative spectacles."

For more background on the two-year Quarryography diptych, spend some time surfing the Story at the Quarry blog. More succinctly: Chase is working on her second major site-specific choreography at the Settlement Quarry on Deer Isle. She includes professional dancers, some of whom are from her time with the famous dance troupe Pilobolus, of which she was a co-founder. Many others come from the community.

It's that community part that got me thinking about form. We all know professional dancers are trained. Presumably they can move in ways we find pleasing and thrilling. But Joe Fisherman onstage? I'm sorry; I'm thinking he's not going to be my Dancing-with-the-Stars dream guy.

I'm wrong. Chase filled me in: "Those community-and-professional dynamics allow a wider range so that you get a variety of gestural exploration. Because someone isn't a trained dancer doesn't mean they don't have a range of expression. We're always amazed at the power of simplicity. Once we get rolling, it's exciting to see the exchange between non-dancing adults and trained dancers."

In other words, she's not looking for a perfect plie out of Joe Fisherman. She's looking for an "individual expressive quality." And that information helps her shape the overall piece. She finds a dance move where it's least expected and then uses it. Ah, back to form.

That's perfect for Q2 because, as an event, it's happening in an unexpected place: a quarry. Which is where "narrative spectacle" comes in.

"It's about habitat, about who inhabits that space," said Carol Estey, production manager and the Opera House co-founder whose roots on the island go back to childhood. (She's in the picture here rehearsing with Chase.) The people who will "inhabit" the quarry at the sneak-preview-in-development Aug. 7 and 8, and then again in its premiere in 2010 are going to look a little like you and me -- except for those pro dancers in the group. And it's not just because Chase wants to see the unexpected. It's because she has a story to tell, and some of that story comes from the bodies of local residents.

"People have always wanted to perform," said Estey, who is a trained dancer. "People have always wanted to be in things. They realize now they can be, and they don't have to have as much skill as they have to have commitment and desire. They see the possibility."