At the conclusion of each semester, the UNCG Dance Department puts on a concert in which students in repertoire classes perform the works that they have been developing and rehearsing all semester. These courses are performance based, and the entirety of the class’s coursework is creating, embodying and perfecting a piece of choreography to ultimately put on the stage.
But what if your assignment was flipped on its head? What if your ultimate performance objective was to leave all of the details up to chance.?
Late dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham developed a style of composition completely reliant on just that, referred to as Chance Dance. Author and former dancer Harriet Lihs describes Chance Dance as a, “semi-improvisational form of choreography in which set movements were rearranged for each performance in terms of the sequence, location and dancers involved.” Dance artist Justin Tornow, 2018-2019 Cunningham Dance Research Fellow with the New York Public Library, presented a collaborative work titled “_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _” at the Spring Dances concert the weekend of April 12, and utilized Chance Dance as her compositional weapon of choice.
Instead of allowing sections of the movement to be rearranged, Tornow elected to allow two elements of the performance space to be manipulated instead- lighting design and music. Over the course of the weekend, the works in this performance will be presented three times, so Tornow and her cast collaborated with the School of Dance’s Technical Director, Chris Fleming, to create three separate lighting sets to accompany the work. Similarly, the rolling of a die before the audience would determine which of three potential songs would be selected for the night.
Standing on the stage before the start of the work, dancers did not know which lighting design would be illuminating them until they were basking in it, and they did not know what music they would be dancing to until the die was rolled and the music was playing.
Preceding the work, Tornow stepped forward to explain that the dance that the audience was about to see would never be performed the same way again- it was a unique experience that each audience member could claim in singularity for themselves.
In addition to these variables, the dancers in the work were taking their movement cues off of each other with complete neglect to the music, so all transitions were discovered in the moment. If a dancer that served as the cue for the next sequence of movement decided to hold a pause longer than they ever had before, the rest of the cast was along for the ride, energetically standing by and stealthily watching for their next signal to move. The work was punctuated with moments of vibrant stillness, which provided cavernous depth to the space as time on the stage stood still.
Stillness served as such a precious vehicle for the conveyance of immense power in this work. There were many moments when the entire cast would appear to be frozen in place, but were rather moving so painstakingly minutely that the audience was absolutely convinced that the dancers had not moved a muscle until they were in an entirely different position. The use of extreme variation in speed electrified the audience the moment they realized that the dancer they had been watching so intently was not at all where they started.
As the Cunningham-esque work drew to a close, the audience was entirely unaware that such a significant portion of time had passed because of the sheer level of engagement that was required of the observer. If you were not paying attention, you may miss the home-stretch of the slow motion transition, a duet happening behind the crowd of standing dancers, or the unspoken signal amongst dancers to break absolute stillness and to move on to the next movement.
These concerts do not typically offer the opportunity to witness dancers making choices in real time; too often those choices have been made months before and all of the anticipatory mystery has been endlessly rehearsed and neatly ironed out of the performance. Cunningham was certainly accessing an untouched level of performance engagement when he asked his dancers to make choices in the performance setting- a truly unfathomable concept indeed- and Tornow has allowed this group of movers to take the same liberties that Cunningham intended at the development of this technique.
To think abstractly and to dance should be a simultaneous occurrence, and seeing performances as thoughtful and abstract as this affirms that we do not always need to begin with all of the puzzle pieces in order to end up with an awfully impactful picture.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment