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Notes from a Music and Dance Laboratory


Apollo Belvedere
Apollo Belvedere

A Far Cry with Urbanity Dance presents “Chemistry” at Jordan Hall, January 11, 8 PM, featuring Dancing with Bach, a keyboard suite newly orchestrated by prize-winning composer Eric Nathan, and Stravinsky’s evocative ballet Apollon Musagète. Choreographer Betsi Graves choreographer reports,

Everyone’s nervous. No one is in his comfort zone.

Well, that’s true enough. Here are twelve of A Far Cry’s violinists and violists, lined up across a room in four rows of three, like pieces on a well-spaced chessboard. We’re trying to keep the memorized music of Bach’s Capriccio BWV 826 in our heads as dancers rush around us in all directions, like currents of water. As we reach the end of the opening section, each one of us finds ourselves paired with one particular dancer. Suddenly, there’s a vast amount of kinetic energy directed straight at us. Eyes meet when they can, between the athletic motions going on around us and the concentration we summon up to remember just where the inner voices of the Capriccio lead next—is it the third, or the fifth? Was that a rest? No, that’s in the cello line. OK. Remember that for next time.

Now our eyes meet more meaningfully as the part of the movement where musicians and dancers improvise physically together—and there is an utterly fascinating sense of connection. And disconnection. It’s as if we’re reading passionate poetry to each other in an utterly foreign language. Behind my dancer’s eyes, I sense a vast physical intelligence, and a burning intensity. The gaze would be overwhelming, if I didn’t—somewhere in my poor whirling brain—remember that I, too, am projecting this intensity towards her in a completely different medium. And that it’s as delightfully weird for her as it is for me.

Musicians and dancers are at once more similar and more different than we care to admit. Right now, the musicians of A Far Cry and the dancers of Urbanity Dance are finding out just how true that is, as we rehearse for “Chemistry,” a collaborative project that will hit Jordan Hall this coming Saturday. Urbanity choreographer Betsi Graves has created two brand new works for this show, one set to a personalized collection of Bach dances, the other an utterly fresh take on Stravinsky’s iconic Apollon Musagete.

The Stravinsky… that was a lot of listens

In the first rehearsal for Apollo, I’m treated to a vision of just how subversive of a vision Betsi is willing to explore. Her god has become a goddess – and even has scored a new name “Ayallo” (a nod to Aya Takahashi, the dancer who is playing the part.) Ayallo moves across the stage with feverish purpose, writhing, snaking, and twisting; at one point, during concertmaster Omar Chen Guey’s extended cadenza, she nearly wraps herself around him.

When A Far Cry asked Betsi to choreograph Apollo, it was a difficult process. “Almost freeze-worthy. My body freezes when I think about this music.” She’s intimately familiar with the Balanchine version of the ballet, and wondered: should she reference the original or step in an entirely new direction? In the end, she decided to honor it by taking it somewhere else entirely. Her three muses are all male, and not just that, they all have serious break-dancing cred. Aya spends a lot of time in the air, being lifted by them when they’re not executing eye-popping movements from the dance floor of the hottest club you’ve ever seen. It’s definitely a different vision of what it means to have a muse. “It’s hard… because every time they lift her” says Betsi, “I ask myself – how does that read? Are they supporting her, are they inspiring her… or does it look as if she needs them, because they’re strong?” (In fact, many of Urbanity’s women dancers also regularly lift each other. “Beast mode!” Betsi calls it.)

As the work continues towards its final apotheosis, Ayallo’s role as a tortured creator of art, “a kind of composer” says Betsi, starts to align itself more naturally with the world surrounding it. In the final movement, the musicians stream away from their standard positions, walking in unison with the dancers, inhabiting their world while still playing the music that creates it. This is also, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult task for the players, but a beautifully rewarding one, as our own halting steps begin to reflect Stravinsky’s slow rhythmic uncoiling.

Says Betsi, “I really feel that in the 21st century, we’re moving away from Descartes, away from ‘I think, therefore I am.’ We’ve gotten more adept at inhabiting a negative space, a creative space, together. Let’s be open, let’s see what happens… By the end, Aya is one among many; she’s in an entire forest of people.”

It was so beautiful it was hard for me to choreograph

Saturday’s program begins with a Bach suite, or to be more precise, a patchwork of suite elements; a personalized collection of movements plucked here and there from the keyboard works and re-imagined for string orchestra by composer Erik Nathan. Betsi has choreographed this in a completely different style, using Urbanity’s strong complement of female dancers as a real group unit. This is the work that begins with that chaotic Capriccio, with musicians and dancers thrust into each others’ spaces. (Everyone’s learning curve has no choice but to skyrocket.) But the rest of the Bach relaxes and allows the musicians and dancers chances to make the most of their usual roles, albeit with wistful gestures towards each other from time to time. At the end of one movement, the dancers pivot towards the musicians with hands shaped like hearts in a private moment of communion, or a little “Chemistry” moment,” as Betsi puts it. In another moment, bassist Erik Higgins emerges from the group of musicians to play a cavalier Gavotte in the center of a bubbling knot of dancers.

“I feel more at ease with Bach” says Betsi, and her choreography here reflects a sense of fun that plays with a stylized baroque sense of grace—when it suits her purposes. In one movement, an estranged, bitter, couple ignores each other and scowls over breakfast. But even the chairs (long-suffering Urbanitarians who don’t mind being sat upon) begin to conspire to get them back together, and by the end, they are happily toasting. In another movement, she examines the differences between eighteenth-century courtship and today’s Internet dating scene, moving back and forth between early and modern gestures, including the soloist’s physical repertoire of gestures with her smartphone. (“The butterflies are now electronic.”) Finally, she finds a connection with someone, and the phone is put away. “We had some good laughs creating this one.”

A fascination with baroque dresses also flows through this vision of Bach. (Anyone who’s seen the works of Jiri Kylian recently in this town, as of course Betsi has, knows exactly why) In my favorite movement, one dancer “wears” a living dress, a sort of hoop skirt made of all the other dancers that gently moves with her. Alas, in the B section it develops a mind of its own and falls off, leaving the perturbed individual to make the best of it.  All of that support returns, however, in the final Andante (the beloved BWV 964, originally from the Violin Sonata BWV 1003) which is shot through with images of embracing and shaping. In the last moments of the piece, the dancers turn to the musicians for a “massive hug that brings the two worlds together.” When we saw what that gesture looked like for the first time in rehearsal, my stand partner quietly melted. I did, too.

I want to dance to live music forever and always – Lisa Cole, Urbanity dancer

Not every moment in this production forces musicians and dancers to breathe one another’s air. But I think it’s completely fair to say that there is never a moment when we’re not exquisitely aware of each other. When the principal players in A Far Cry started to visit the Urbanity space, we encountered a feeling of breathless anticipation. I was personally a little surprised by it – until I became aware, in that first rehearsal, of the intensity of the dancers’ relationship with our music. (It was as if we were little gods of music ourselves!) We had sent a recording of us playing the music months earlier, so that they had time to prepare. Several moments in the work that we had taken little liberties with had been lovingly worked into the choreography and the character. Spontaneous moments had become a reality that expressed itself exquisitely in the dancers’ movements. Playing Bach with/for my dance partner for the first time, I realized that in many ways I’d found my favorite listener, or perhaps, my favorite mode of listening.

It’s so easy, in classical music, for the musicians’ movements to get swallowed up in the sublime stillness of the audience. But it’s something entirely different for our practical movements to achieve a level of poetry when expressed through someone else’s dynamic body. And the Urbanitarians say that the reverse is true as well; their expressive capabilities blossom when they have living contact with us. Looking for the ideal “Chemistry” between musicians and dancers might seem somewhat quixotic, but the quest is alive and well, frustrating and utterly fascinating. We’re all searching for that moment of transcendence that comes and goes, the one that Stravinsky experienced years ago when he saw the work of Balanchine and exclaimed:

Finally, I can hear the music with my eyes!

See related review here.

A Far Cry and Urbanity Dancers Rehearse
A Far Cry and Urbanity Dancers Rehearse
Sarah Darling, a violist with A Far Cry, pops up anywhere and everywhere around town in early, classical, and contemporary circles.

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