I’m working differently in the Lab than I have ever worked before. I find myself exploring more patterns and vocabularies and I am deferring less to story. Story is hugely important in musical theater and I certainly will never abandon it. But I am hoping that in trying my hand at more non-literal ideas I can free myself from the “givens” of story and allow my dances to take their own shape. Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I’m trying to see what happens if I have no predetermined notion of how a piece should be constructed. Well this is certainly easier said than done. Every step of the way I fight the urge to produce a slick product for an unseen “boss”. Sitting with the discomfort of not knowing or not seeing a result is something that is so foreign to me it often makes my stomach turn.
This past week I came upon a challenge that I have never experienced before. Ever. I brought in what I thought to be an almost rudimentary piece of music with a very strong pulse and modern feel. I told the company that we might simply explore walking patterns to this music. Now, those of you out there who have trained in dance know just how difficult “simple” things like walking and running can actually be. They really are deceptively tricky elements. So I bring in this music with the driving beat and I ask the ladies of the company to walk to it. To my horror, they can’t collectively find the beat… they can’t keep a consistent, unified rhythm. How could this be?? These are some of the most talented dancers in the city. What’s going on? I am stymied. I am stuck. I have been a tap dancer for 34 years and I can explain pretty much any rhythm to anyone. How can this music be interpreted any other way than the way I hear it? Nevertheless…What I hear so clearly in this music is not what all of my dancers hear!! We all feel like we have entered the Twilight Zone of dance. We get as far as we can that rehearsal but we eventually stop. I don’t pick this number up again for quite a few days and, in the meantime, the women have banded together to work on the material. However, after days of practice, it is still no more solid. How can this be?! This was a piece of music which I had planned on using to explore something conceptual, yet here I was stuck trying to figure out how to get my dancers to just…well… walk!
I feel myself getting scared. Testy. Confused. Frustrated. Resentful. Angry. Judgmental. Self-judgmental. Defeated. Ashamed. Resistant. The list of emotions that I felt within the course of one rehearsal was a mile long. And I am quite certain each dancer felt it, too. Here we all were encountering a problem that no one in the room could resolve! Not one of us could put our finger on exactly what was happening. Why was everyone hearing the music so differently and so inconsistently? It was confounding and, as you might imagine, it was a severe artistic road block.
The questions began to arise: “I’m halfway through…Do I want to give up on this?”, “What would happen if we had a show tomorrow night and this was our music? What would I do?”, “Why can’t the dancers hear what I hear??”, “Why can’t I communicate what I want to the degree that will make this clear to them?”, “I am wasting these dancers’ time”, “I am wasting my valuable time I could be using to explore other more complicated things!”, “Do I present this piece at our showing on Monday? If so…what do we present? A bunch of talented dancers walking off the beat??” , “Do I change the concept?”, “Do I work to mask the problem?”….”WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!”
These are types of experiences that keep choreographers awake at night.
It just so happens that my family is in town this week. My brother is a graduate of Oberlin conservatory of music and is a very talented musician and composer. So I asked him: “Will you listen to this song and tell me how you hear it?” In an instant it was clear. He heard it exactly as I did! His response came in seconds: “It’s so clear! They can’t hear that?! ” I turned to my parents. “Can you tell me how you hear this?” Suddenly, the water became murky. My mother instantly felt the music differently than we did. What I mean by this is that she felt the accents -the downbeats – were in different places in the music. Same with my father. He felt the song the way my mother did. Now my parents aren’t exactly trained dancers but I tested other songs with them and we all heard those the exact same way. My brother and I listened more closely to the music. Although we could understand what our parents (and my dancers) felt, we argued vehemently against their version. This went on for, I kid you not, a good two hours. We sat there playing the music over and over trying to decipher why the hell we all heard something different. After careful dissection (including some fancy transcribing) my brother finally figured it out!! It was very easy to interpret this recording as though the off-beats were the downbeats. That’s how I heard it and that’s how I was inspired to choreograph to it. But here’s the funny part: Once my Brother figured it out… he could no longer hear it the way he did originally. He could not erase what he knew to be the musical “truth”. He could barely remember how to feel the song the other way.
There’s a very famous drawing that is a test of peoples’ perception. Perhaps you’ve seen it?:
Some people instantly see a young woman facing away. Others see an old lady with a hooked nose and a prominent chin. And sometimes, if you can see one you truly cannot see the other. Even when someone points it out to you. “See the chin is right here? This is her eyelash…and the hooked nose?” As fate would have it, I found a piece of music that operates the exact same way sonically. You either hear it one way or you hear it another. Or… more correctly… you either feel it one way or you feel it another.
So… where does that leave me with this dance? The answer is, I have no idea. As the choreographer I want to see a certain interpretation of this music, but how hard am I going to work for it? I don’t know yet. But what I do know is that if I’m feeling this much anxiety over a creation in the Broadway Dance Lab, how would I feel if a director were watching? What if I had chosen this music to present in a concert in a few days and had no idea it would pose this problem? What if the composer were there in the room influencing my musicality? In those instances, the anxiety wins. In those instances you do whatever it takes to cover up the problem. To solve it with the tricks you have in your back pocket.
But what if I didn’t have to worry about creating the product? What if I could take the time to truly explore the nature of this sonic anomaly and mine its unique traits? Rather than settle for the lowest common denominator solution that perhaps dumbs the piece down for my dancers, what if I am able to exploit this musical choice to its fullest? What could I create then and how could that inform my work moving forward.
I may not have the time this Lab Cycle to solve this the way I would like. But if it weren’t for the Lab I never would have discovered this phenomenon. I never would have even been aware of it. Something in my psyche led me to this music out of the hundreds of other songs I could have chosen to work on. Maybe it led me there so I could learn something, not just produce something. With The Broadway Dance Lab I hope to remove for other choreographers the panic that I felt working on this material. To provide a space where discoveries like these can be used to inform and serve creators of dance…not cripple them.