Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Bold Sounds of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

One afternoon a few years ago, I performed on the David Letterman show. After finishing, I hopped in a cab downtown, and an hour later was performing with Meredith Monk. It was the ultimate juxtaposition of pop culture entertainment and high brow art, and it was one of the coolest, most surreal days of my life. Today was another one of those days:

Earlier this afternoon, I was screaming my head off at Aggie Stadium during the last 30 seconds of the UC Davis vs. San Diego football game (Aggies won). A few hours later, a few blocks away, I was part of a demographically opposite, though no less enthusiastic crowd, as I joined the Mondavi Center audience in giving the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra a much deserved standing ovation.

Under the direction of conductor Nikolai Alexeev, the St. Petersburg Orchestra began the all-Prokofiev evening with excerpts from the Ballet Suite, Romeo & Juliet. From the robust strokes of "Montagues and Capulets" to climactic anguish of "Romeo at Juliet's Grave" to the impressive finger pyrotechnics of the strings in "Death of Tybalt", the orchestra's sound was superb and textured. I can understand why the Bolshoi Ballet (who commissioned the score after the Kirov backed out) declared it impossible to dance to - Prokofiev's structure is much more unpredictable and complex than the rounder, more accessible ballet music from composers like Tchaikovsky.

After intermission, Alexeev led the orchestra in Prokofiev's slightly less welcoming Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100. The four movements (Andante, Allegro marcato, Adagio, Allegro giocoso) were entrancing as they unfolded, and the bold fortissimo flourish at the end provided an exhilarating punctuation to the evening.

The audience's enthusiasm was rewarded with a pre-holiday treat: an encore of "The Russian Dance" from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite - an energetic fanfare that sent me home dancing.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

"Collapse": Behind the Scenes

Sideshow Physical Theater’s “Collapse (suddenly falling down)” kicked off the Mondavi Center’s Creativity Project on Thursday October 25 and ran through this Sunday November 4. In the spirit of the project, which is meant to explore how artists create work (and, by doing so, to make contemporary art more accessible to audiences), I thought I’d use this space to reveal my experiences as a dancer/collaborator in this performance, and to explore different interpretations for this show.

The Creative Process
I began work on this project in the beginning of September, and at that time director Della Davidson was already juggling many creative activities. She had been exploring movement ideas with dancers Jane Schnorrenberg, Kegan Marling, Kerry Mehling, and Victoria Terrell-Carazo for about a month (Sara Zimmerman, David Orzechowicz and I came into the project around the same time, and Victor Toman came in a few weeks later). She had enlisted Ed Gaible (the script writer) as a collaborator, who had begun some initial scenes inspired by Jared Diamond’s “Collapse,” and who had interviewed the dancers on their ideas about “collapse” and about their rational and irrational fears. She had also begun discussions with several scientists who were hard at work on the LIDAR scans which would become our stunning 3-D scenery.

We began rehearsals with a lot of big societal questions. Diamond’s question, “What were the Easter Islanders thinking when they cut down the last tree on their island?” was a major point of departure. We asked, “How might this question relate to our current concerns about environmental sustainability and cultural priorities?” We sourced images, ideas and events such as the collapse of the twin towers and major bridges (both the physical collapse of the structures themselves and the impact these collapses had on individuals and society); the bee crisis; animal poaching in Africa; social upheaval in Rwanda; the collapse of the human heart from heartbreak; and the collapse of long term relationships.

After discussing many of these ideas, we began physical dance explorations. Davidson set up various improvisation structures where we attempted to wrap our heads (and bodies) around some of these questions through the process of staging and acting them out.

At the heart of the creative process for the dance were the questions:
  • What does collapse actually mean, and how can this be expressed physically?
  • What are different ways in which you personally collapse (i.e. how is the physical expression tied to emotion – how does being tired, depressed affect you physically)?
  • Why do systems collapse: from your body, to relationships with loved ones, to ecosystems, to societies?
  • Can we acknowledge the paradox of collapse: Can collapse be positive? (It creates the need to rebuild, rearrange, reinvent, and rebound.) Can it be energizing?
  • What does this have to do with us (personally and as a society)?
  • What happens to a group when one of its members begins to collapse? How do we support each other? What happens when we chose not to?
The Material
We used these improvisations to create material, which Davidson then shaped and pieced together into the final product. A section of the group dance material which we called “Prayer” dealt with social ideas about what happens to a group when one of its members collapses. The physical manifestation of bodies collapsing can be read literally and metaphorically. The section we called “Falling Man” dealt with our impressions of and reactions to big disasters. We referenced images from Don DeLillo’s book (by the same name) about 9/11, but the collapse of the boxes at the beginning of this section and our reactions to it can refer to any kind of disaster or feeling of Armageddon. Solos emerged from the questions “What are we afraid of?” “What do we do when we get depressed?” and “How do we cope with upheaval in our lives?” They represented our personal responses to some of these questions. The duets were often sourced from the questions “Is there a shelf life to relationships?” “Why do relationships collapse, what do we do to stop that from happening?” “Do those things make a difference?”

The Production Collage
In the spirit of the Creativity Project and Merce Cunningham, we didn’t have much contact with the other collaborators until “tech week” – the week preceding opening night when everyone arrives in the theater to put together the show. The show is therefore the product of multiple artists working simultaneously, but not necessarily collaboratively on the same material. Each artist approached the idea of collapse according to their own interests. Davidson used the above methods to explore her interest in the subject of collapse through movement. Gaible used Diamond’s book and his interests in anthropology, economics and sociology to imagine a scenario where two characters discuss their options given that they are the last people on an island with only one tree left standing. When an anthropologist (Toman) arrives on the island, hilarity ensues as he and the islanders make (often erroneous) assumptions about each other. The scientists used their visual research on natural disasters to create a backdrop for the production. Some of the LIDAR scans (3-dimensional snapshots of landscapes) included imagery from landslides, dam failures, debris flows and sink holes.

The flow of the show ended up feeling a bit like a Greek tragedy where the narrative is advanced by the actors; the emotional content and physical expression of the ideas are articulated by the dancers; and the set, costumes and other elements support these actions.

During tech week we experimented with several different order sequences for the material – some more linear than others, while Davidson tried to create the best possible version which would illustrate our ideas about collapse as a kaleidoscope. Merce Cunningham, a famous modern dance choreographer, used ideas of chance, choice, collage and probability in his work. His practice of collaboration through parallel creation inspired Davidson and “Collapse’s” structure.

Some common questions emerged from discussions I had with friends who came to the show: “What’s with the Black feathers?” “Why did you keep walking towards the light?” “What’s with the repetition?” My friends, annoyed that I threw these questions back at them (“What do you think it meant?”), should be comforted – there are no right answers when looking at art. Images and symbols can be interpreted in many ways (maybe the repetition represented non-linear time or a sense of history repeating itself), but sometimes a feather is just a feather.

Let me know what you thought! What are some of your interpretations?