Category Archives: Dance

Returning to “La source”

Four historic performances of Arthur Saint-Léon’s ballet La source, spanning 150 years, illustrate how—through the sacrifice of a feminized nature—the work represented the biopolitics of sex and race, and the cosmopolitics of human and natural resources.

In 1866, when La source debuted, the public at the Paris Opéra may have been content to dream about its setting in the verdant Caucasus, its exotic Circassians, veiled Georgians, and powerful Khan. Yet the ballet’s botany also played to a public thinking about ethnic and exotic others at the same time—and in the same ways—as they were thinking about plants.

Along with these stereotypes, with a flower promising hybridity in a green ecology, and the death of the embodied Source recuperated as a force for regeneration, the ballet can be read as a fable of science and the performance as its demonstration.

Programmed for the opening gala of the new Opéra, the Palais Garnier, in 1875 the ballet reflected not so much a timeless Orient as timely colonial policy and engineering in North Africa, the management of water and women.

Its 2011 reinvention at the Paris Opéra, following the adoption of new legislation banning the veil in public spaces, might have staged gender and climate justice in sync with the Arab Spring, but opted instead for luxury and dream.

Its 2014 reprise might have focused on decolonizing the stage or raising eco-consciousness, but it exemplified the greater urgency attached to Islamist threat rather than imminent climate catastrophe, missing the ballet’s historic potential to make its audience think.

This according to One dead at the Paris Opera Ballet: La source 1866–2014 by Felicia M. McCarren (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020; RILM Abstracts 2020-54905).

Above, Eugénie Fiocre in La Source, depicted by Edgar Degas circa 1868; below, an excerpt from the 2011 production.

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Filed under Curiosities, Dance, Performance practice

The dervish sound dress

The dervish sound dress is a piece of wearable technology inspired by the sacred experience of the whirling dervishes of Turkey.

The garment is a body instrument that emits musical sounds when the wearer moves in it, as well as triggering a haptic vibration response. It emulates the vibrations that are felt while a musician plays an instrument, and the emotional response that the musician and a performer such as a dervish feels.

The construction of the dress involves a variety of sensors that perform according to how the sound is triggered by the movement of the wearer. These determine the output based on the rotation of the dress using gyroscopes, accelerometers that measure the speed of the dress as it is turning, and flex sensors that trigger sounds when the arms are in certain positions.

The sound design component relies on organic sound samples of the classical Turkish ṭanbūr recorded by a musician and manipulated in computer music design software. This gives the garment a unique edge by functioning as a computer digitized representation of an instrument that is activated by motions of the body. The sounds are triggered using algorithms created in Max Cycling ’74 software. These patches will detect a threshold of movement by the wearer before a sound is triggered.

This according to “Dervish sound dress: Odjevni predmet sa senzorima koji emitiraju zvuk i haptičkim odzivom/The dervish sound dress: A garment using sensors that emit sound and haptic feedback” by Hedy Hurban, an essay included in Muzika–nacija–identitet/Music–nation–identity (Sarajevo: Muzikološko Društvo Federacije Bosne i Hercegovine, 2020).

Video documentation of the dervish sound dress is here.

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Ora Watson, buck dancing fiddler

“I was born a-dancing” Ora Watson used to say, and indeed when she was barely old enough to stand she would try dancing on her mother’s lap at church when the music started. Watson’s father, an expert old-time musician, was also a great buck dancer, and she recalled picking up steps from him.

A farmer, mother of four, and veteran of several old-time and bluegrass bands, Watson could raise the energy on any stage by playing fiddle and dancing at the same time, often to her favorite fiddle tune, “Ragtime Annie”. In her youth she won several dance competitions, including at least one Charleston competition, and old-time buck dancing aficionados could spot the Charleston’s influence on her footwork.

This according to “Ora Watson, Watauga County’s senior musician: ‘Music keeps me young!’” by Mark Freed (The old-time herald XI/1 [October-November 2007] 16–21; RILM Abstracts 2007-29464).

Today would have been Ora Watson’s 110th birthday! Above and below, holding forth in 1993, when she was 82.

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Contemporary African concert dance

The discourse surrounding contemporary concert dance in Africa is complex. Writings on the practice suggest that it could be considered both a neocolonial imposition and a contributor to processes of decolonization.

The growth of contemporary dance in Africa was stimulated by the establishment of an inter-Africa dance competition in 1995 by a French-sponsored dance biennale, which at the time was called the Choreographic Encounters of Africa and the Indian Ocean, and has since been renamed Danse l’Afrique danse!

A major controversy about contemporary dance was caused by the departure from the organization soon after its first event of one of its key instigators, the Ivorian choreographer Alphonse Tierou, in protest against the imposition of French artistic criteria by competition judges.

Tierou’s philosophical tenets for contemporary dance in Africa, which had guided the artistic activities leading up to the launch of the competition, were sidelined by the organizers, who set rules that insisted that entrants present new forms of dance that should not be associated with ideas of African tradition, but which still retain motifs or signifiers which a Western audience would perceive as being African. Both African choreographers and scholars feared the competition was a form of cultural neocolonialism.

While these justifiable concerns persist, there is an emerging academic discourse that promotes the ownership of contemporary dance by African choreographers and dance artists. Observing developments in contemporary dance in Nigeria, Chukwuma Okoye suggested that contemporary dance is undergoing a process of indigenization, arguing that when a foreign dance form is absorbed into a society on the terms of the people in that society the resulting practices cannot be considered a mere copy of the form that was appropriated.

This according to “James Mweu & Kunja Dance Theatre: Contemporary dance as African cultural production” by ‘Funmi Adewole (African theatre XVII [2018] 3–22; RILM Abstracts 2018-60720).

Above and below, Kenya’s Kunja Dance Theatre, a case study in the article.

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Maguy Marin’s posthuman “Cendrillion”

Grotesque masks replace powdered noses, blushed cheekbones, and false eyelashes. Padded suits expand thin body lines. The doll costumes in Maguy Marin’s Cendrillion (Cinderella) push the boundaries of late 20th-century Western ballet aesthetics. Simultaneously, they raise questions about the ballet dancer’s role as subject and object onstage.

Combined with Prokof’ev’s Zoluška score, Marin’s characters, movement, and costumes expose and challenge multiple layers of dancer objectification. Situating the choreographer’s tactics within a feminist framework illuminates how Marin’s radical strategy centers on posthuman philosophy, paradoxically suggesting that a ballerina, through her thingness and cyborgian relations, can function outside of object-subject constraints.

This according to “Maguy Marin’s posthuman Cinderella: Thingness, grotesquerie, and cyborgs” by Mara Mandradjieff (Dance chronicle XL/3 [2017] 374–92; RILM Abstracts 2017-56181).

Today is Marin’s 70th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from productions of Cendrillion.

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Jack Cole’s double bind

Jack Cole is often called “the father of theatrical jazz dance”, and “Cole technique” has strongly influenced both film dance and American theatrical dance generally. In his heyday he was one of the most powerful choreographers working in Hollywood, with contractual control over the movement design, camerawork, costuming, lighting, and editing of his dance numbers.

Cole’s status as an “invisible” gay man is crucial to more than an understanding of the satiric, parodic, or camp elements of his film work; it is also a necessary precondition for his particular mode of deployment of so-called Oriental dance practices.

Cole engaged the double bind that both women and men are prisoners of gender roles. His use of the body’s physical beauty to stand for more than spiritual power combined the theatricality and spirituality of Denishawn, the voluptuousness and intensity of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Oriental and other ethnic dance styles. His approach to dance and gender had profound effects on mid-20th-century hegemonic dance culture.

This according to “The thousand ways there are to move: Camp and Oriental dance in the Hollywood musicals of Jack Cole” by Adrienne L. McLean (Journal for the anthropological study of human movement XII/3 [spring 2003] 59–77; RILM Abstracts 2003-42184).

Today would have been Cole’s 110th birthday! Above, a portrait by Carl Van Vechten from 1937 (public domain); below, the Denishawn parody “Greek ballet” from Down to earth (1947).

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Transformational grammar and the foxtrot

Chomskyan transformational grammar provides a useful framework for a semasiological analysis of the foxtrot.

The foxtrot follows seven transformational rules; three are optional rules that account for certain variations that may occur while dancing at a club or in the studio while choreographing a dance, and four rules are obligatory. One rule involves gender agreement in proper foot choice, and three rules establish the relationship to the foot-placement structure and the slow-rhythm structure.

These few rules generate all the foxtrot steps one can produce: 1. Rhythm Transformation (optional); 2. Chasse Support (optional); 3. Walk Support (optional); 4. Slow-Rhythm Foot Position Junction (obligatory); 5. Gender Agreement (obligatory); 6. Direction/Turning Junction (obligatory); and 7. Foot/Direction Junction (obligatory).

This according to “A phrase-structural analysis of the foxtrot, with transformational rules” by Edward A. Myers (Journal for the anthropological study of human movement I/4 [fall 1981] 246–68; RILM Abstracts 1981-24274).

Above, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; below, a brief documentary.

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Capoeira’s hidden history

 

Capoeira, a Brazilian battle dance and national sport, was brought to Brazil by African slaves and first documented in the late 18th century. The genre has undergone many transformations as it has diffused throughout Brazilian society and beyond, taking on a multiplicity of meanings for those who participate in it and for the societies in which it is practiced.

Three major cultures inspired capoeira—the Congolese (the historic area known today as Congo-Angola), the Yoruban, and the Catholic Portuguese cultures. The evolution of capoeira through successive historical eras can be viewed with a dual perspective, depicting capoeira as it was experienced, observed, and understood by both Europeans and Africans, as well as by their descendants.

This dual perspective uncovers many covert aspects of capoeira that have been repressed by the dominant Brazilian culture. The African origins and meanings of capoeira can be reclaimed while also acknowledging the many ways in which Catholic-Christian culture has contributed to it.

This according to The hidden history of capoeira: A collision of cultures in the Brazilian battle dance by Maya Talmon-Chvaicer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008; RILM Abstracts 2008-708).

Above, capoeira performers in São Paulo (photo by Fabio Cequinel licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0); below, capoeira performers in Salvador, Bahia.

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Filed under Black studies, Dance, South America, Sports and games

New Year’s fertility dances

During New Year’s celebrations, transplanted Northern Thracian farmers perform fertility rites to coax a bountiful harvest from the earth.

Three forms of the important wedding dance type συγκαθιστό (syngathisto)—which is seldom seen outside a matrimonial context—are performed during New Year’s rituals; two of them, ντιβιτζήδικoς (divitzīdikos, “camel driver’s dance”) and κατσιβέλικος (katsivelikos, “gypsy’s dance”), employ phallic objects and involve improvisation. The three forms differ in style, kinemics, and morphokinemics.

This according to “Structure and style of an implement dance in Neo Monastiri, central Greece” by Rena Loutzakī, an essay included in The 16th symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology (Studia musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae XXXIII/1–4 [1991], pp. 439–452; RILM Abstracts 1991-3233).

Below, a divitzīdikos from Thessalonikī.


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Frank Zappa and classical music

 

Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.

Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.

This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4 [2000] pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).

Today would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday! Below, conducting his G-spot tornado in 1992 with Ensemble Modern and dancers Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert.

Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat

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