Posts Tagged ‘dance’

Photo: Holger Rudolph.
A performance of “La Grande Phrase” by French company Campagnie Didier Théron. The idea is to share the fun of dance and draw in new audiences.

I love reading about serious artists reaching out through humor. But what is going on in the picture above? One kid is watching the playful performance and wearing a big smile. Everyone else is looking in another direction with solemnity. Bad choice of illustration?

Celina Lei reports at Australia’s ArtsHub that the “French dance company Campagnie Didier Théron will soon land in Adelaide to upend expectations of dancers’ bodies with a dash of humor.

” ‘Dance!’ Usually when kids hear this cue,” she writes, “they immediately start wiggling their bottoms and shuffling their feet – circling, hopping and swinging their arms.

“But often as we grow, we grow more hesitant, our movements become more restricted and choreographed in fear of embarrassing ourselves. So what if to dance is to be silly?

“Wearing colorful inflated suits and roaming across streets, parks and city centers, La Grande Phrase (The Big Phrase) is a dance-work series by Montpellier-based Campagnie Didier Théron that explores ways to upend stereotypes of what a dancer should look like or do.

“The self-taught dancer and choreographer Didier Théron tells ArtsHub that the work was born from a journey of experimentation and collaboration with international artists and dance companies, allowing dancers the freedom of movement while wearing suits inflated with air. …

“Théron points to the German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), as well as Venus figurines of the European Paleolithic period, as inspirations for these dramatic bodily forms. The movement of dance and the flow of air within the suits further activate these forms.

“After touring in cities around Europe and taking out the 2013 Grand Prize of Setouchi Triennale in Japan, the company will bring three dancers to WOMADelaide (SA) this March where ‘any space shared with the audience becomes a performance space.’

“In the same way that contemporary visual artists are continually challenging the notion of a hushed, white-cube gallery, dance with a splash of humor can provide multiple access points for different audiences.

“From the time of Charlie Chaplin, who pulled off every sequence with full comic relief, to more recent contemporary experimentations such as the UK’s New Art Club combining dance with stand-up comedy, there are plenty of examples where humor can support choreographic expression.

“Théron says: ‘This project always surprises me in the reactions of the people and how they receive it. The first time we performed it outside was in a suburb of Montpellier. It was not easy to have a cultural artistic project in this area, but we crossed this line with these characters and everybody was laughing or smiling.’

“Taking this performance [onto] the streets also offers the dancers greater freedom, and the audiences more opportunities to interact, adds Théron. …

“Roving performances were also something that had a great impact on Théron as a child, from the very first time he encountered a ritualistic dance parade in his grandparents’ village in the centre of France.

“He says: ‘That was the first dance I saw and members of my family were also dancing (only men at the time), but it was very powerful and filled with a deep joy. This performance allowed me to reconnect with this memory.’ …

“What the company hopes to bring to the audience is an invitation to think about dance and dancers’ bodies ‘beyond the norm,’ and perhaps at some point share the joy of movement.

‘There is something in being this character that [gives] us permission to do many things. I think it’s a real positive body and filled with possibilities that we can experiment with all the time,’ concludes Théron.”

More at ArtsHub, here. No firewall. Funny pictures.

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Soccer and Samba

Photo:MB Media/Getty Images.
Brazil’s players celebrate by dancing the samba after their win over South Korea. 

Is it my imagination or is there new excitement in the US over the World Cup this year? We have never been prominent among soccer teams, and that’s changing. Also, we have many immigrants and naturalized Americans from big “futball” nations. So there’s that.

In any case, it’s been fun. Suzanne and Erik and the kids each picked a team at the start, and three of them have had to swallow their disappointment and choose a second favorite. Suzanne is still standing.

Every soccer country has its own way of reacting to wins and losses. Not many are subdued. Today’s story is about the form that Brazilian soccer celebrations take.

Ed Aarons opens his story at the Guardian with a player’s memories of games in the 1930s.

” ‘I was afraid of playing football [soccer] because I had often seen a black player get struck on the pitch for committing a foul,’ said Domingos da Guia, a defender who played for Brazil in the 1938 World Cup. ‘But I was a very good dancer and that helped me on the pitch. I invented the short dribble by imitating the miudinho, a form of samba.’

Roy Keane did not like it but when Brazil’s players – and the coach, Tite – celebrated scoring against South Korea in their last-16 victory on Monday by performing Richarlison’s trademark pigeon dance, they were following a historic tradition that represents the very soul of the Seleção. Samba, which has its roots in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo via the African slave trade, and football were adopted by Brazil’s working classes just as Da Guia was making his international debut in 1931.

“According to Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the distinctive style of play Brazil has become known for comes from the indelible link between the two:

‘In football, as in politics, a feature of the Brazilian racial blend is a taste for bending the rules, an element of surprise or frills that calls to mind dance steps and the Capoeira.’ …

“When a 17-year-old Pelé and the winger Garrincha inspired them to their first World Cup victory in 1958, the song A Taça do Mundo é Nossa – The World Cup is Ours – left no doubt about the vital importance of music to the team’s success. …

“According to legend, the celebrated samba singer Elza Soares fainted in the stands at the end of Brazil’s 3-1 win over Czechoslovakia in the final but recovered in time to perform a song in honor of her future husband Garrincha in the changing room.

“Pelé was among those to pay tribute to Soares in January after her death at the age of 91, describing her as a ‘legend of our music, historic, genuine, unique and unparalleled.’ …

“The tradition of celebrating goals with dance routines is generally a more recent phenomenon that has not been restricted to Brazilians. Roger Milla’s corner flag wiggle at Italia 90 and again at USA 1994 were inspired ‘by his own imagination’ according to the Cameroon striker, while Papa Bouba Diop celebrated his goal against France, the holders, in 2002 by removing his shirt and performing a mbalax dance with his Senegal teammates. But after Bebeto and Romario’s cradle-rocking routine in 1994 that was a tribute to the former’s newborn Mattheus Oliveira – now 28 and playing in the Portuguese second division – it is Brazil that has always had the strongest tradition to uphold.

“ ‘Dance is the symbol. We symbolize the joy of scoring a goal. We don’t do it to disrespect, we don’t do it in front of the opponent,’ said West Ham’s Lucas Paquetá after the South Korea match. ‘We get together, you can look. Everyone is there and we celebrate. It’s our moment, we scored the goal, Brazil is celebrating.’

“For Vinícius Júnior, who scored the first goal against South Korea, the criticism will have had particular resonance. In September, the Real Madrid forward was accused of not respecting his opponents and told to ‘stop playing the monkey’ by Pedro Bravo – a leading agent and president of the Association of Spanish Agents – on live television after celebrating his goals by dancing. …

“ ‘They say happiness upsets. The happiness of a black Brazilian successful in Europe upsets much more,’ Vinícius wrote. ‘Weeks ago they began to criminalize my dances. Dances that are not mine. They belong to Ronaldinho, Neymar, Paquetá, [Antoine] Griezmann, João Félix and Matheus Cunha. … They belong to Brazilian funk and samba artists, reggaeton singers, and black Americans. Those are dances to celebrate the cultural diversity of the world. Accept it, respect it. I’m not going to stop.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, riots break out after the World Cup loss to Portugal.

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Body Percussion

Photo: K. Linnea Backe.
Leonardo Sandoval of Music From The Sole uses body percussion in dance.

Music is everywhere. You just have to listen for it. Children know. Most of them make music out of pots and pans before they can walk. I have pictures of my children and grandchildren sitting on the kitchen floor surrounded by everything they pulled out of the lower cupboards and getting ready to drum a joyful noise. You may have pictures like that, too.

Brenda Dixon-Gottschild at Dance Magazine writes about a kind of percussion that’s even more accessible than your pots and pans.

“Crash. Bump. Thump. Thwack. Whack. Knock. These are a few of the many synonyms of the word ‘percussion.’ All of them are appropriate when we look at the ways world cultures use the body as an instrument. …

“Clapping, stomping and striking body parts from head to feet in rhythmic or repetitive ways is a timeless means of human interchange, whether for pleasure, protest, entertainment, ritual, healing or survival. Hand- and body-clapping children’s games accompanied by sung or spoken rhymes are common around the world. … Enslaved Africans used body percussion as furtive communication — fearful of its messaging potential, plantation owners prohibited the use of drums, and to sabotage this taboo, the Black body became the drum.

“The juba dance, brought to the Americas in Middle Passage — the grueling sea journey of Africans captured from their homelands to live enslaved on foreign territories — was performed during plantation gatherings. In this dance of prowess, one person entered a circle of movers to exhibit their extraordinary variations on jig, hop and jump steps and was joined by a second dancer as the outer circle alternated rotating and remaining stationary. Pattin’ juba, the juba dance accompanied by clapping hands, chest and thighs, and the juba song — composed of short, rhymed verses that seemed like nonsense but carried double meanings — were ingenious later adjustments made to accompany the dance and send messages when drums were banned. Pattin’ juba further morphed into the hambone, a variation that centers on body percussion and is performed standing in place or seated, while retaining the original rhythm of the dance. …

“For Rennie Harris, legendary hip-hop concert dance choreographer and artistic director of Rennie Harris Puremovement and RHAW (Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring Works), hambone was second-nature: ‘I don’t remember exactly when I learned or who taught me. In fact, I don’t even remember seeing it or being introduced to it — I just remember doing­ it,’ he says. ‘I was 7 or 8 years old; this was on Master Street in North Philadelphia. We used to sit on the stoops and challenge each other, doing the hambone, seeing who could do it the fastest, cleanest. It was a summer pastime. We sang the song, as well. Being older, I’d run into people who still do it, so it’s kind of interesting and cool. We’d add parts of it to dance steps. I didn’t learn the history of it, pattin’ juba, until later in life.’ …

“The basic hambone beat got a second life in the world of popular music. The 1950s R&B legend Bo Diddley made the five-accent hambone rhythm famous as the Bo Diddley Beat, a recurrent riff that has been appropriated by many white rock musicians.

“Tap dance, another style of body percussion, has impacted almost every culture. Using toes, heels and the full foot in rhythmic fashion goes beyond any one era or continent and includes traditions as diverse as African American buck dancing, Irish step dancing, English clogging and South Indian bharatanatyam.

“Beyond those traditional examples, the complex, polyrhythmic fusion of tap, combined with hambone-inspired body percussion, has proliferated with present-day artists across continents. The South African gumboot dance was transformed into a performance mode from its goldmine workforce origins, where it was created by Black miners as a sly replacement for conversation, since the white mine owners exacted harsh punishments for verbal communication among the workers.

“Other spinoffs include ensembles like Colombia’s Tekeyé; The Percussion Show, from Egypt; and the U.S.-based Music From The Sole, which draws on Afro-Brazilian influences. These artists transform a combination of tap and hambone to a glorious, millennial sensibility through the lens of hip hop and jazz.

“The art of flamenco includes a special kind of tapping — zapateado — as well as body-percussion elements that resonate with hambone.

” ‘Flamenco was being born in the mid-19th century. Certainly, by the 1902 arrival of the cakewalk in Spain, Black dance cultural motifs were transmitted, and flamenco artists expressly emulated Black American dance,’ says Dr. K. Meira Goldberg, author of Sonidos Negros: On the Blackness of Flamenco. “New forms that were created in explicit response to competition from Black artists in Spain emphasized percussive footwork, and over the past 30 or so years flamenco footwork techniques are increasingly influenced by tap and hip hop. It is fair to say that other modes of body percussion (hambone, or making percussion by snapping fingers, clapping hands or hitting hands on various parts of the body mixed with footwork) are also increasingly emphasized. Flamenco is always ready to absorb new performative ideas, and these ideas are reinterpreted and reinvented: In Spanish, the saying is “Llevarlo a tu terreno,” or “Make it your own.” ‘ …

“Indonesia has its share of corporeal clapping traditions as well. The Saman (‘dance of a thousand hands’) of the Gayo ethnic group of Aceh, Sumatra, is known across the island and performed by large groups to celebrate special occasions. Dancers sit on the ground with their legs crossed or folded beneath them, torsos upright. Though there are also mixed-gender performances today, ensembles had traditionally been separated by gender: Women do gentle tapping or patting on chest and thighs accompanied by hand-clapping, singing and rhythmically moving the torso and head, while the men move vigorously and their taps become slaps. …

“Exploring body percussion reinforces the understanding that everything we humans create has roots in something that went before. Even the most sublime innovations have a precedent. … The concealed riches of ‘the before time’ have become available on a global basis, thanks to social media, YouTube, streaming platforms and international touring by artists of every origin.

“Interestingly, hip-hop movements and music act as a unifying factor crossing cultural, class, racial and economic divides, transgressing differences, blurring boundaries and allowing a current generation of artists to travel beyond the assumed limitations of their genres, to try new things and experience other realms.”

More at Dance Magazine, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Everybody Dance.
Summer dance participant in Los Angeles.

There are certain kinds of opportunities that are taken for granted in higher-income families. Being able to participate in sports that require equipment, tutors, summer camp, music and dance and art classes, college. Mary McNamara writes at the Los Angeles Times about a dance class that gets lower-income children and families thinking that opportunity might be possible for them, too.

“We could all use some good news these days, and that’s what Natasha Kaneda offered when she said [‘You can’t be scared when you’re dancing’] to her Jazz I class of 8- and 9-year-olds. …

“She was reminding them to stay focused even if something went wrong during a routine — to resume their dance without fear. She said it quickly, almost as an afterthought, but it should be on a T-shirt, like the Everybody Dance LA! T-shirts these kids were wearing.

“Practicing for their upcoming spring recital, these boys and girls could be part of any dance program. Well, maybe not any — their execution of steps exhibit grace, precision and energy, and their teachers, though unfailingly patient, are not about to let an imperfectly pointed toe or lethargic arm movement pass uncorrected.

“Whatever the skill level, the courses at Burlington studios, part of the building that also holds Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, are so instantly familiar they could be anywhere.

“Except that … for kids living below a certain income bracket, dance class is too often an impossibility. Clothing and lessons cost money; access to those mirrored rooms, even the ones at the local Y, is often out of reach.

“The dancers and the parents at the Burlington studios … wouldn’t ordinarily be taking pride in last summer’s performance with the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Dance Project, or preparing to send all of their graduating seniors off to college.

“Yet here they all are, part of the Everybody Dance LA!, an almost-too-good-to-be-true program founded more than 20 years ago by a grieving mother who believed that things should not remain unequal — and that you can’t be scared when you’re dancing.

“In 1999, 13-year old Gabriella Axelrad was hit by a car while biking in the Grand Tetons National Park. After Gabriella died, her mother, Liza Bercovici, found herself unable to simply return to her life as a family law specialist. Instead, she decided to commemorate her daughter, who loved to dance, by creating a program for low-income children. She would employ top dance teachers at professional wages and emphasize excellence and life skills along with creativity and collaboration.

“Bercovici’s biggest fear when she opened the doors to those first classes a year later, in the ballroom of the renovated Sheraton Town House hotel near Lafayette Park, was that no one would come.

“ ‘I looked out the window and saw this huge crowd,’ she says now. ‘I thought it was people wanting to rent apartments in the [low-cost] building. But it was people who had come for the dance classes.’

“What started as 35 children in 12 extra-curricular classes grew to more than 5,000 served by in-school, after-school and summer camp classes; in 2014, Everybody Dance won a 2014 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

“Many students enter the program when they are 4 or 5 and stay until they graduate high school; a few, like Zuleny Ordonez and Kimberly Gomez, returned to work for EDLA!

“ ‘When you’re a low-income family, there’s a stigma about asking for help,’ says Gomez, now a teaching artist with the program, who joined the staff as a dance site coordinator after graduating from UC Irvine. ‘The teachers here gave us someone to talk to, someone to listen to us. I would be here from right after school until 9. Change in the car, do homework here, it was my second home.’

“Ordonez works here as teacher’s assistant while taking classes at Santa Monica College. ‘I was very hyper as a child and my mom found this,’ she says. ‘I grew up with the other students here.’ …

“Bercovici realized she could do even more good if she ‘had the kids for eight hours instead of two.’ So she founded the Gabriella Charter Schools; in 2015, she stepped down as Everybody Dance’s director, turning it over to Tina Banchero, a former dancer and artistic director of Dance Mission Theater’s Youth Program in San Francisco. Banchero has run it ever since. …

“EDLA! lost about 1,100 students during the peak of the pandemic. For those who stayed, dance class, like everything else, went virtual. ‘We pivoted to online in less than two weeks,’ Banchero says. ‘I was so proud of everyone.’

“Children across the country were trapped at home for more than a year, struggling with online learning and isolation. But Banchero’s students, Banchero’s families, have had a harder time than most. For low-income, urban families, COVID-19 has been particularly devastating. Many parents lost their jobs and many of those who didn’t continued to work in person. Cramped housing, which often included multiple generations, left little space for kids to study, much less dance.

“ ‘We had kids dancing between two bunk beds,’ Banchero said. ‘But it was so important for them to turn their cameras on, see our teachers and other students, and dance. We had a number of kids who were struggling with depression. So many of our families lost a loved one. …

“ ‘I realized how much l love my job during that time,’ Kaneda says. ‘Because when I ended my Zoom class, I would feel happy for the first time that day.’ “

More at the LA Times, here.

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Video still: Millicent Johnnie Films.
Filmed by a drone, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar dances in Lafayette Heritage Trail Park in Where Water Is Not Thirsty.

The shut-in days of the pandemic made changes in everyone’s life and work. Many kinds of artists accepted the challenge to their own work and responded with bursts of creativity that made use of weird circumstances. Today’s article addresses what some choreographers did.

Zachary Whittenburg reports at Dance Magazine, “On a bright but chilly day in April 2022, choreographer Biba Bell and composer-director Joo Won Park premiered A DREAM IS A HOUSE for remembering the future. Created specifically for the McGregor Memorial Conference Center in Detroit, the hourlong performance by 21 dancers, nine musicians and Park embraced architect Minoru Yamasaki’s prismatic jewel box of marble and glass, built in 1958.

“Taking advantage of the faceted atrium’s unusual acoustics, Park’s original score for electric guitar, percussion and eight laptop computers emanated from small amplifiers distributed throughout the skylit room, whose tall panels of teakwood resonated with every whisper and rhythm. At one point, the entire ensemble of dancers rushed from one end of the space to the other, as if the McGregor Center was a cruise ship rocking and rolling in turbulent seas. Cloud cover during the 3 o’clock performance brought somber qualities to the action, but, when repeated at 5 o’clock and lit vividly by the setting sun, it was an ascension.

“Every dance is site-specific in some sense, but, in a warming world changed by war, political upheaval and a pandemic, some choreographers forgo traditional venues entirely. Whether their work is about climate change, social dynamics, systemic oppression or community vibrance, they’re all drawn to the friction between moving and staying in one place.

“ ‘Sites outside of a dance studio are fields of infinite potential that can be very generative as places we have relationships with,’ says transmedia artist d. Sabela grimes, a professor at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, who grew up on California’s central coast and attended UCLA. While he lived and worked in Soweto, South Africa, and Philadelphia, grimes maintained a connection with the Leimert Park Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, where the community weaves performance — both planned and spontaneous — into daily life along Degnan Boulevard. …

” [During the pandemic] ‘I can’t explain to you how important it was, how valuable it was, how special it was, to be in public space with people making music, to see them dancing, to be in communion and fellowship,’ grimes says. …

“ ‘The streets continue to be a driving force and wellspring of knowledge production and transmission,’ he says. One night reminded grimes how performance can be not only site-specific but a way to bring the essence of one place to another: TOB, a band that plays go-go, a variant of funk music specific to the nation’s capital, played Leimert Park Village from a stage on top of a bus booked by Jolly and Long Live GoGo DC. Dancing ensued. ‘I had no idea so many people from Washington were living in L.A. … It literally was like the spot turned into a street in DC.’ …

“At a May 2022 work-in-progress showing in Chicago of reorientations, by SLIPPAGE resident artists Kate Alexandrite, who is white, and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Ayan Felix and MX Oops, who are Black, Alexandrite wore virtual-reality goggles while the other three interacted and made eye contact. The four artists might technically have shared space, but, experientially, Alexandrite was often somewhere else. A large screen periodically displayed a live feed of video from inside the goggles, revealing to the audience where Alexandrite ‘was.’ …

“As a choreographer of mixed European and Moose Cree First Nation ancestry, Starr Muranko’s work as co–artistic director of Raven Spirit Dance in the Canadian city of Vancouver is informed, she explains, by Indigenous values.

“ ‘A lot of our research is land-based and takes place outside,’ says Muranko. ‘Even though the work might eventually end up on a stage, it’s often rooted in a particular place or in going home.’

“For a piece titled Before7After, about seven generations of Cree women, Muranko traveled to an island in the Moose River in northern Ontario, 500 miles from Toronto. ‘The idea that I wouldn’t go back to the land for that project made no sense. How your body moves is influenced by certain surfaces, by the land around you, by the temperature, by the climate, by the time of year.’

“After developing material on location, Muranko and her collaborators sometimes return to the studio, where ‘we then have that landscape and that map within our bodies, as well as within the space. It’s not a “blank studio” or a “blank theater.” It’s where that river is, where that mountain is.’

“In creating The Sky Was Different for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Season 43: A Virtual Homecoming, the company’s 2020–21 virtual season, company alumni Jonathan Fredrickson and Tobin Del Cuore collaborated with Hubbard Street’s dancers on a 50-minute film, shot in and around the 1938 home and studio of architect Paul Schweikher in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg.

“ ‘For me, site-specificity is about utilizing a space by being aware of it and letting it dictate what happens,’ says Fredrickson, a choreographer now based in Germany and a guest artist with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. ‘The house itself was a character, this body in which the dancers were its organs, its bloodstream, its brain, its heart. The narrator of the piece was the house itself.’ In long, meticulously choreographed takes, Del Cuore’s eye-level camera glides through the house’s rooms. …

“Fredrickson choreographed a solo for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Jamar Roberts in director Bram VanderMark’s I Carry Them, produced by Jacob Jonas The Company. Released in May 2022, the five-minute film uses an editing technique called cross-cutting to move Roberts from place to place, while his fluid dancing continues uninterrupted. …

“Site-informed performance can be a way to raise awareness of threats to a community’s existence, says Millicent Johnnie, founder and CEO of Millicent Johnnie Films and chief visionary producer at 319 productions.

“In 2013, Johnnie and her collaborators, including New Orleans–based companies ArtSpot Productions and Mondo Bizarro, won a Creative Capital Award to develop Cry You One, which addressed the impact of climate change on wetlands in southeast Louisiana. …

“Johnnie says that Cry You One asked the question ‘What happens to art and culture that’s tied to land when that land disappears?’ After premiering in St. Bernard Parish, the project toured for two years, bringing with it the artists’ embodied knowledge of its source.

“Sometimes, site-specific research plants seeds for works that bloom elsewhere. During the four years Johnnie lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she would often visit the Tijuca rainforest­ to write, improvise movement and develop studies for future projects. When Toshi Reagon, then the festival curator for the Women’s Jazz Festival at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, paired Johnnie with Ethiopian American musician Meklit Hadero, ‘that wasn’t intended to be a site-responsive work,’ Johnnie says, ‘but there were certain sounds and textures I kept hearing in Meklit’s music that paralleled sounds and textures from the Tijuca rainforest. That helped me create and build the world that I needed to improvise with Meklit.’

“Johnnie recently collaborated with Urban Bush Women founding artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar on Where Water Is Not Thirsty, responsive to Tallahassee, Florida’s Lafayette Heritage Trail Park and Lichgate on High Road, and captured on video by a camera built into a remote-controlled drone. …

“Dance companies large and small pivoted to site-specific, digital filmmaking as part of their pandemic responses. … Time will tell whether major dance institutions continue such location-based experimentation.” More at Dance, here. No firewall.

If you love dance, consider signing up, here, for short, free videos from the summer dance festival Jacob’s Pillow, in the Massachusetts Berkshires.

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Photo: DiverseAbility.
After leaving academia, Alice Sheppard “began exploring the techniques of dancing in a wheelchair and learning how disability can generate its own movement.” 

An unusual and dramatic entertainment took place in Chicago in May. It was the brainchild of Alice Sheppard, a fearless risk taker in a surprising sequence of careers. Today she is a choreographer, but as recently as 2004, she had never considered that dance could be compatible with her disability. According to DiverseAbility magazine, “she was a professor in medieval studies at Penn State.” Then a dancer with one leg dared her to try a dance class.

Lauren Warnecke says of Sheppard at the Chicago Tribune, “Alice Sheppard does not shy away from a challenge. In devising her latest dance, ‘Wired,’ she and her Bay Area disability arts company Kinetic Light had to first write the rule books for wheelchair aerial dance.

“Kinetic Light’s mission is to create art that centers disability. Sheppard and the rest of the company are disabled artists who make work for disabled performers. Key to that vision are questions and advocacy around access — who ‘gets’ to dance and who ‘gets’ to watch or experience art? Since the company’s founding in 2016, Sheppard’s work consistently explores the intersections of disability, race and gender. ‘Wired,’ premiering May 5-8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, is no exception, though it’s the first of Kinetic Light’s growing catalog to incorporate aerial dance.

“Actually, the first step for Sheppard was to read everything she could find about barbed wire. Sheppard, a dancer, choreographer and scholar with a doctorate in medieval studies from Cornell University, devoured the literature on this sharp-edged, steel wire’s fraught history.

“The initial spark for ‘Wired’ came from a visit to the Whitney Museum, where Sheppard viewed Melvin Edwards’ 1969 barbed wire sculpture, ‘Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid.’ …

“It led her down a barbed wire rabbit hole. Sheppard’s source material lends multiple metaphors to what has become her latest multimedia dance piece. Indeed, few pieces of steel are saddled with so much context. Barbed wire is primarily a strict form of forced separation, used in trench warfare and applied in the United States as a means of keeping incarcerated people in, for example, or livestock in and intruders out as ranchers in the American West increasingly claimed land as their personal property.

“Throughout the piece, the dancers wrestle with this unwieldy, unforgiving object, their bodies enclosed by a tangle of wires and barbs. As she continued to explore, Sheppard knew ‘Wired’ had to be an aerial dance. …

“Having never studied aerial dance before, Sheppard and Kinetic Light company members Laurel Lawson and Jerron Herman started from scratch. With support from some 30 artists and engineers with backgrounds in rigging, automation and flight, Sheppard, Lawson and Herman took to the air. …

“ ‘We are not the first disabled artists to fly, by any means,’ she said. ‘There is, of course, in circus arts, a deep and rooted history of disability and flight. That’s not random or new. And there’s a history of disabled dancers also doing aerial work in the UK, New Zealand and the U.S. Part of that history and legacy is to recognize that flight isn’t random. It is perfectly within the tradition and the culture for disabled dancers. What is new here is the construction of the show. It’s not a circus.’

“The process for ‘Wired’ started at Chicago Flyhouse in late 2019. Before the dance and other artistic elements could even begin to take shape, Kinetic Light was faced with huge technical considerations.

“ ‘Before we could even get to “here’s a pretty dance, here’s the choreography,” ‘ she said, ‘we had to get to, “how does this thing fly?” ‘ …

“Lawson, who is also an engineer, assisted in developing the chairs and harnesses needed for her and Sheppard safely ascend into the air. Company member and dancer Herman completes the cast of three and has yet another setup. Herman, who has cerebral palsy, dances sections of ‘Wired’ with a girdle-type harness used to suspend him above the stage. …

“Sheppard reiterated that she and Lawson are not the first disabled artists to fly ,,, but they are the first disabled dancers in the U.S. to explore a thorough compendium of techniques, which includes low flying on hard lines and bungees, as well as flight patterns suspended from joystick-operated, motorized cables. The pandemic enabled Kinetic Light to make connections with then-unemployed entertainment workers with expertise in automation who would not otherwise have been available.

“In a way, ‘Wired’ serves as a primer on wheelchair flight.

“ ‘Understand, this is not actually documented,’ Sheppard said. ‘There are no books. There are no teachers … All of these questions that are easily available to non-disabled aerial artists because there’s a history and tradition here — we just had to figure that out bit-by-bit.’ ”

More at the Chicago Tribune, here.

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Photo: Jonathan Atk/Cunard.
“Boundless as the Sea” is a new piece created for Cunard cruises by Owen Horsley from Shakespearean love scenes, including Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Several of my friends are back to taking cruises now that Covid appears manageable. Today’s post is about some new entertainment offerings on cruises. I enjoyed reading about them about as they bring to mind the “Royal Viking Singers and Dancers!” that our family got such a kick out of on our one cruise, 1990.

Siobhan Burke reported in January at the New York Times about a very modern dance group taking to the high seas. And Emma Powell had a Daily Mail story about Cunard Lines tapping the Bard.

Burke wrote, “On a late-summer night, three choreographers greeted friends at the New York opening of their latest show, exchanging hugs and chatting through masks over the blare of pop music. Neon projections in the theater, a nightclub-like space called the Red Room, exclaimed ‘Welcome to the Show!!’ Cocktail servers wove efficiently through the crowd with trays of drinks, as nimble as the dancers who would soon take the stage.

“It could have been one of the many clubs or theater spaces where the choreographers — Ani Taj, Sam Pinkleton and Sunny Min-Sook Hitt — had performed and presented their work over the past decade, as members of the Dance Cartel, a group founded by Taj in 2012 and known for its exuberant, open-to-all, party-meets-performance live events.

“But a few features set this space apart: the screen outside the entrance beckoning ‘Sail Into Something Spectacular’; the fluorescent signs reading ‘PORT’ and STARBOARD to mark stage left and stage right; the enormous pink inflatable whale onstage.

“How had the artists landed here, on a 2,770-passenger luxury cruise ship, which on this particular night was docked in Manhattan, en route to Miami? Among the three of them, they have choreographed for Broadway, television, opera, music videos, museums and other arenas. But as Taj said when they recently got together for a video interview, a foray into cruise ship entertainment was ‘not something any of us expected to be on the timeline of our careers.’

“ ‘We definitely had a moment of: A cruise ship — did they get the right people?’ Pinkleton said, recalling his confusion when he and Taj, who are represented by ICM Partners, were invited by their agents to pitch a show to Virgin Voyages, a new adults-only cruise line founded by the British billionaire Richard Branson. ‘I think we had a very narrow idea of what making a show for a ship would mean.’ …

“Dance shows on cruise ships typically take place on proscenium stages, for seated, stationary audiences. … In the group’s first and signature work, ‘OntheFloor, which Taj and Pinkleton directed, dancers maneuver around and among a standing audience, their irrepressible energy an invitation to join in. …

“Still, she and Pinkleton answered the call for a pitch.

“We said, ‘Yeah, we’ll accept that challenge and come up with something that surely won’t fly,” ‘ Taj said.

“ ‘We were like, “This seems like a fun exercise,” ‘ Pinkleton added, ‘and dared ourselves to present a pretty authentic version of what we would like to make.’

“That exercise, which began in 2017, has now become a full-fledged, hourlong production aboard the Scarlet Lady, the first Virgin ship to set sail for paying customers.”

Funny article. See it at the Times, here.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail reports, “The Royal Shakespeare Company has teamed up with British cruise line Cunard to take the Bard’s work out to sea as part of a three-year partnership.

“Voyagers on the Queen Mary 2 will be able to enjoy several pieces during transatlantic crossings from Southampton or explorations around Norway’s fjords.

“One such performance is ‘Boundless as the Sea,’ a brand new piece created by Owen Horsley from Shakespeare’s iconic love scenes including Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. …

“Workshops will be on offer as well as events ‘where the actors will perform their personal favorite sonnets and speeches, and answer questions from the audience.’

“The Queen Mary 2 will also host touring exhibition, ‘Digital Diorama: An Augmented Journey Through Shakespeare’s Stratford,’ with some of the RSC’s most popular productions including Hamlet, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It screened in the on board cinema. … The first voyages will run from May 29 until August 12 and then again from September 15 to November 13.”

More at the Daily Mail, here.

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Photo: Ivan Petrov.
Kyiv-born and -trained ballet star Ivan Petrov is working with ballerina Alina Cojocaru to help dancers whose lives are in upheaval since Russia invaded Ukraine.

It’s been interesting to see how many different kinds of groups are pulling together to help Ukraine since Russia invaded. College alumni groups, small towns, chefs, former military, athletes … the list goes on.

When I was reading today’s article on the dance world’s efforts, I was surprised by an observation about how ballet-world organizing after the death of George Floyd affected the speed with which dance folk are taking action today.

Sarah L. Kaufman reports at the Washington Post, “Amid the constant air raid sirens and shelling near her home in Kyiv, 17-year-old Polina Chepyk tried to fill her days with dancing.

“Her ballet school had shut down, so she stretched and spun in the apartment she shared with her parents and 8-year-old sister, Anfisa. Chepyk used the back of the sofa as her ballet barre.

“But lying in bed in the dark, she could not tune out the war. ‘At night you can’t control your feelings,’ Chepyk said in a recent phone interview. …

“Since early childhood, she had devoted herself to perfecting her pirouettes and learning excerpts of the great ballet roles. When war came, she feared that the world of music and grace she longed to inhabit was gone. …

“Yet the international ballet community has swung into action, led by the New York-based organization Youth America Grand Prix. Russian dancers Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev, who began their careers at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet before emigrating to the United States, founded YAGP in 1999 to help students gain access to the world’s most selective ballet schools, through scholarship auditions. But since the war in Ukraine began, YAGP has been tapping its network of dancers and educators to help nearly 100 Ukrainian dance students (and often their entire families) flee danger and continue their art, by placing them in training academies throughout Europe. …

“Suddenly, Chepyk found herself packing a suitcase with leotards, tights, bottles of her mother’s perfume and ‘every gift my parents ever gave me, for remembering them.’ …

“After a five-day journey, she arrived March 21 into the embrace of a Dutch family with two girls. Chepyk said she has become ‘their third daughter.’

“And she has resumed her beloved dance training at the Dutch National Ballet Academy, where she is in the highest level. …

“The war in Ukraine has hit the tight-knit ballet world hard, and dancers have responded with an unprecedented storm of activism. Ukrainian ballet students and professional dancers are being taken in by far-flung academies and companies, swelling their rosters. Dancers are converging across borders for star-studded fundraisers. …

“Ballet is a profoundly international art, as well as a communal one. It depends on continuous, daily interaction with fellow performers, who are typically drawn from all over and who work together on a uniquely intimate physical and emotional level. …

“The ballet world’s rapid mobilization in support of Ukraine was prompted by something much more recent, according to Lynn Garafola, a dance historian and author of La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern. She points to the Black Lives Matter movement as helping set the ground for solidarity.

“ ‘Black Lives Matter primed the ballet community for self-interrogation,’ she said. ‘It responded in a very strong way with a lot of thinking and discussion, across the board, trying to establish new norms for diversity and inclusivity and equity. So people were already thinking in ways that were more ethical. And that’s what has come to the fore here.’

“Echoes of BLM lie in the questions that dance artists have been asking themselves since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Garafola said, such as: ‘What can I do about it?’ …

“Romanian-born ballerina Alina Cojocaru, formerly of the Royal Ballet, and Ivan Putrov, a Royal Ballet principal from Kyiv, trained together in the Ukrainian capital as children. Before joining the Royal Ballet, Cojocaru danced professionally in Kyiv for a year, where one of her first partners was Artyom Datsishin, ‘a tall, very quiet person and very talented dancer,’ she said in a recent video call with Putrov from London. Datsishin later became an internationally known star of the National Opera of Ukraine. Two days after the Russian invasion began, he was hit by shelling, and he died three weeks later of his injuries.

“Datsishin’s death, which made headlines around the world as an especially poignant symbol of the war’s brutality, helped spur Cojocaru and Putrov to organize the Dance for Ukraine charity gala. … The gala came together in two weeks, and was an easy sell to their colleagues. ‘We already knew so many people from all over the world. We are just one phone call away from someone in Cuba, France, Germany and America,’ Putrov said.”

Read more at the Post, here.

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Photo: The Guardian.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Rina Hanzawa is one of thousands of women around the world who have taken up Ori Tahiti, the traditional Polynesian dance.

The joy of dance is international. It’s fun for me to see, for example, that Shagufa, raised in a conservative Afghan community and now a student at Brandeis, is adding belly dancing to a repertoire that has long included golf.

Meanwhile, around the world, many people are discovering the fun of a Polynsian dance form once banned by colonizers. Tiare Tuuhia has a story about that at the Guardian.

“Wearing intricate costumes made of plants and adorned with tropical flowers, the women look spectacular. While their torsos remain completely still, somehow, impossibly, their hips are moving in circles so fast it’s almost a blur.

“These women are performing traditional Tahitian dance, or Ori Tahiti, in Tahiti’s annual cultural festival, the Heiva. And they’re not alone. Thousands of women across the globe, from Mexico to Japan, are doing it too. …

“Ori Tahiti is a broad term that encompasses the many traditional dances native to the island of Tahiti, performed by both men and women. The most well-known is the ote’a, a very fast, hip-shaking dance performed by women. Another is the aparima, which features slower, more graceful body movements. …

“ ‘In my eyes it is the most beautiful, powerful, sensuous and expressive,’ says Tumata Robinson, a renowned Tahitian choreographer, costume designer and founder of acclaimed dance group Tahiti Ora.

“ ‘I think Ori Tahiti is very complete, you know. It’s fierce, but also elegant and powerful, graceful, feminine when we dance,’ [says] says Moena Maiotui, one of Tahiti’s most beloved professional dancers, who has traveled around the world performing, teaching Ori workshops, and sharing Tahitian culture. YouTube videos of her dancing, both solo and with the dance group Tahiti Ora, have racked up millions of views. …

“Self-expression and connecting to nature are what Ori Tahiti is about for Rina Hanzawa. Born and raised in Tokyo, Hanzawa discovered Ori Tahiti in her early twenties.

“ ‘I went to dance school and I found Ori Tahiti there,’ says Hanzawa. ‘At the time I had no clue about Tahitian culture. But I fell in love with Ori Tahiti when I tried it.’ …

“What started as a casual hobby soon became an enduring passion, which led to her competing at a national level. Hanzawa now lives in Australia, where she has set up her own Tahitian dance school, Tai Pererau, in Sydney’s northern beaches. …

The arrival of Europeans in French Polynesia, along with their religion and laws, saw Ori Tahiti banned or repressed for close to 100 years.

“At the end of the 18th century, dance was banned by European missionaries, who labelled it immoral. Then, in 1819, the Pomare Code, a set of laws laid down by the Tahitian monarchy, forbade traditional dancing outright. In 1842 the French protectorate allowed dancing – but with so many conditions that the practice was still repressed.

“It was only in the 1960s that the church began to lose influence and traditional dancing really began to be revived. During this time the first modern dance group appeared on the scene, led by Madeleine Mou’a.

“Damaris Caire, author of a book titled Ori Tahiti: Between Tradition, Culture and Modernity, says: ‘Little by little, by doing dance shows at hotels for tourists, Ori Tahiti became popular – even if the local population initially struggled to accept it.’ …

“Despite a rocky past, Ori Tahiti has today become a way for Tahitians to connect with their ancestors, their land and their language. It is a celebration of a cultural identity and pride that was almost lost to colonization. Now, it has become one of Tahiti’s best exports.

“Hinatea Colombani, a Tahitian cultural expert and director of the Arioi culture and arts centre, says it is particularly satisfying to see Ori Tahiti become popular in the very countries that tried to stamp the practice out two centuries ago.

“ ‘For me it’s a revenge, because they celebrate our culture,’ she says. …

“This year, the Heiva Ori Tahiti Nui international 2021 – Ori Tahiti’s biggest competition – had to be held online due to the pandemic. However, it still managed to attract competitors from 12 countries and territories, including two new participants: New Caledonia and Switzerland. …

“ ‘It was really a superb experience,’ says [Ginie Naea, a dance teacher at the Te Ori Tahiti school in Geneva]. ‘We danced in front of Lake Geneva and the mountains; it was just magic. The best part of the competition was actually the preparation and team cohesion that it necessitated – a connection that’s created when performing. There is a real bond between Ori Tahiti dancers, a real family that is created around the same passion.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Lin & Jirsa Photography.
An example of India wedding choreography as shown at Maharini Weddings.

This is a fun story about the way entertainment has taken over weddings. Although our own family’s weddings have included Swedish customs (e.g. when the bride makes a trip to the ladies room, all the woman go kiss the groom) and Egyptian customs (e.g. a belly dancer with lighted candles in her hair), some families in the southern part of India are really going beyond the beyond. Mujib Mashal and Suhasini Raj reported the story for the New York Times.

“Weddings in India’s south, particularly in the coastal state of Kerala, have transformed into a festival of color — and dance, lots of dance.

“Unlike those in the north, weddings in the south used to be subdued affairs centered on a feast that, at best, would occasionally include a live band. Now, the ceremonies draw on the latest entertainment from across the country, including the breathtakingly fast rhythms of Tamil and Telugu dance music, and the colorful costumes and drumbeats of Punjab.

“Dr. Sheha Pfizer’s wedding had something extra. …The ceremonies in Kerala have become so colorful that they are the talk of the town and viral discussions online. There is the favorite Punjabi dhol drumming, but also troupes that perform Egyptian, Mexican and Sufi dances — all with lavish outfits. People hire water drummers, pole dancers and acrobats.

“About 60 percent to 70 percent of the weddings in Kerala now include choreographed dances, said Mayjohn P.J., a former wedding singer who started a wedding management agency, Melodia, a decade ago.

“Mr. P.J. has no doubt about what has fueled the transformation: social media. Couples find inspiration for their weddings on Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest, before posting their own ceremonies onto the same platforms.

“Wedding planners, part of an industry that brings in tens of billions of dollars every year in India, offer video and photo packages that are tailored to get clicks. The packages, usually costing $2,000 to $5,000, include an ‘Instagram teaser’ and the ‘wedding highlight,’ essentially your own five- to seven-minute blockbuster film.

“The most ambitious ones incorporate the narrative tricks of Indian soap operas for emotional effect, and deploy the latest technology — steady cams, drones and lots of musical special effects — to create the climax of a techno concert. …

The lingering pandemic has also brought changes to weddings in India’s south, where the peak season runs from December to February.

“Health regulations limit capacity to 200 people (as opposed to as many as five times that in pre-Covid times). So families have turned them into multiday affairs of smaller ceremonies — inviting a different set of guests for each so that everyone feels part of the celebration.

“Perhaps the busiest man during the wedding season is the choreographer Manas Prem.

“He has been commissioned to choreograph 500 wedding routines in the coming months. Most of them are small, and Covid has forced much of the training online.

“His frequent challenge is older relatives who get cold feet when they see the audience. ‘They get shy and they don’t want to do it,’ Mr. Prem said. ‘Then I have to fill the gaps.’

“Both Dr. Pfizer, 25, and her husband are Muslims. Their wedding was a display of Kerala’s largely seamless diversity. Her childhood friends performing for her wedding were a mix of Hindus and Christians. …

“Dance runs in Dr. Pfizer’s family. Her mother was a dancer. One of her grandmothers performed with a folk ensemble in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The bride started training as a dancer even before kindergarten — a large stretch of it under the tutelage of Mr. Prem. Pictures of competitions when she was younger adorn the walls of his small dance studio. …

“As the guests took their seats in the hall for the evening ceremony, the dance troupe changed costumes repeatedly — a Sufi entrance with the groom, a Punjabi bhangra number that included a cameo by the bride, a mash-up of the latest hits where the dancers displayed their hip-hop moves. Another group, all women, performed a traditional Keralan Muslim dance, oppana, a hip-hop dance in jeans and T-shirts, and a flamenco-inspired routine.

“In between, the tall wedding singer, wearing a turtleneck and chic glasses with transparent rims, entertained the crowd. He announced the bride’s first entrance.

“The heads turned to the back, where Dr. Pfizer, surrounded by the female troupe of dancers, beamed with excitement in a dazzling ocean-green dress paired with stunning jewelry. Mobile phones came out for pictures. Music blared as the dancers shimmied and snapped their fingers, parting the aisle for the bride.

“But before the bride had climbed the stage to take her seat, someone realized that the main camera that films the ‘wedding highlight’ for YouTube and Instagram wasn’t set up yet.

“The bride and the dancers had to go back to their starting point at the entrance and do it all over again.”

More at the Times, here. Lots of great pictures.

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Dance at a Powwow

Photo: Linda Dulan.
In July, the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hosted its 42nd annual powwow at New York’s Queens County Farm Museum. Seen here, an old-style men’s dance.

I’ve always wanted to get to the Narragansett tribe‘s summer Powwow in Rhode Island. And I will do it yet — never mind how busy summer gets.

In today’s post, Dance magazine whets my appetite even more with wonderful pictures from a “dance powwow” in New York State.

“Over the course of three days in July, the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hosted its 42nd annual powwow at Queens County Farm Museum. Founded in 1963 by members of the Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago and Kuna (San Blas) tribes, Thunderbird is the oldest resident Native American dance company in New York, and puts on the city’s largest powwow, drawing dancers from more than 40 tribal nations for a series of performances and dance contests, as well as crafts and food stands.

The next morning the mother showed the women how to make the dress, showed them a special dance and sang a very special song for them. Sure enough, her daughter got well.

Dance Magazine joined [a] sunset bonfire to capture some of the competitions, and asked Thunderbird director Louis Mofsie and company dancer Michael Taylor to share their insights on the place of dance within the powwow.”

They write, “The powwow is a social gathering where we get together to dance and sing, to meet old friends and make new ones. Originally a Western/Great Plains tradition, it does not have any religious or ceremonial significance — our religious and ceremonial dances and songs are restricted and closed to outsiders.

“Dancing is the major activity. Over the weekend, there are dance competitions and also what are called intertribal dances, where the dancers from all tribes are invited to participate. Our bonfire each evening during the gathering is there to help us travel back in time to the days when we had no spotlights. It reminds us of our past, our connection to our heritage and how it has survived through all our hardships to this day.

“As Native American people, we start dancing at a very young age. Dancing at powwows is how we learn the different styles of dances and what they represent. It helps us to connect to our roots and reinforces our awareness of who we are. It also reminds us that Native American dance is the original dance in America—and is still alive today. …

“Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance. This dance dates back to around 1945, right after the Second World War. Native American women and men had volunteered for the armed services and traveled all over the world. During their travels they observed how the women in many different countries were dancing. When they returned home, they decided to introduce a different style of dancing. Traditionally, the women did a very slow, graceful movement around the outer edge of the dance circle, and the men would be doing more vigorous movement on the inside. The Fancy Shawl Dance is much faster in rhythm, more vigorous and permits them to dance on the inside of the circle. The women wear shawls with very long fringe along the edges, and as they move, the fringe reminds you of the feathers that the men wear. Although the women do not wear the feathers and bells on their legs like the men do, their footwork and movements are very similar.

“Men’s Fancy Dance. They say this dance also originated around the end of the Second World War. When the men returned home from the war, they also wanted a more vigorous style of movement. Fancy dancing is much faster than traditional men’s dancing. Each of the dancers tries to create as many fancy steps as they can while keeping time with the singing and drumming. The men wear feathers with ribbons attached to each end, and they carry dance wands that are decorated with ribbons and feathers.

“Women’s Jingle Dress Dance. This dance tells the story of its origin. There was a mother who had a very ill daughter. One night she had a dream, and in it she had a vision: She was told to show the women how to make a special dress with little cones or jingles on it, show them how to do a special kind of dance and sing them a very special song. If she did all these things, it would help her daughter get well. The next morning the mother showed the women how to make the dress, showed them a special dance and sang a very special song for them. Sure enough, her daughter got well. The dance started out as a healing dance but has come down to us as one of the more popular competition dances at the powwow gatherings.”

I never thought about it before, but why should any community have an art form that never evolves. I love the idea that indigenous people who returned from WW II incorporated new influences into traditional dance. More at Dance, here.

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Photo: Colorado Public Radio.
Cherish Ross is with FLOW, a sign language interpreting agency that specializes exclusively in performing arts.

So many interesting kinds of jobs in the world! And the luckiest people are the ones whose work aligns with what they love doing. Consider those who interpret for the deaf at concerts.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim has a cool story at the New York Times. “On a recent afternoon in a brightly lit studio in Brooklyn, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were filming a music video. They were recording a cover version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ but the voices that filled the room were those of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who made the song a hit in the 1970s. And yet the two men in the studio were also singing — with their hands.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer; Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is, thanks to seven deaf family members, a native speaker of American Sign Language. Their version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is part of a 10-song series of American Sign Language covers of seminal works by Black female artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an arts streaming platform.

“Around the world, music knits together communities as it tells foundational stories, teaches emotional intelligence and cements a sense of belonging. … As sign language music videos proliferate on YouTube, where they spark comments from deaf and hearing viewers, the richness of American Sign Language, or A.S.L., has gotten a broader stage.

“ ‘Music is many different things to different people,’ Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actress and dancer told me in a video interview, using an interpreter. Wailes performed ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 2018 Super Bowl, and last year drew thousands of views on YouTube with her sign language contribution to ‘Sing Gently,’ a choral work by Eric Whitacre. …

“A good A.S.L. performance prioritizes dynamics, phrasing and flow. The parameters of sign language — hand shape, movement, location, palm orientation and facial expression — can be combined with elements of visual vernacular, a body of codified gestures, allowing a skilled A.S.L. speaker to engage in the kind of sound painting that composers use to enrich a text.

“At the recent video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed out of a large speaker while a much smaller one was tucked inside Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes, so that he could ‘tangibly feel the music,’ he said in an interview, with Kazen-Maddox interpreting. Out of sight of the camera, an interpreter stood ready to translate any instructions from the crew, all hearing, while a laptop displayed the song lyrics.

“In the song, the backup singers — here personified by Kazen-Maddox — encourage Knight as she rallies herself to join her lover, who has returned home to Georgia. In the original recording the Pips repeat the phrase ‘all aboard.’ But as Kazen-Maddox signed it, those words grew into signs evoking the movement of the train and its gears. A playful tug at an invisible whistle corresponded to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. Primeaux-O’Bryant signed the lead vocals with movements that gently extended the words, just as in the song: on the drawn-out ‘oh’ of ‘not so long ago-oh-oh,’ his hands fluttered into his lap. The two men also incorporated signs from Black A.S.L.

‘The hands have their own emotions,’ Primeaux-O’Bryant said. ‘They have their own mind.’

“Deaf singers prepare for their interpretations by experiencing a song through any means available to them. Many people speak about their heightened receptivity to the vibrations of sound, which they experience through their body. As a dancer trained in ballet, Primeaux-O’Bryant said he was particularly attuned to the vibrations of a piano as transmitted through a wooden floor.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant was a student at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington in the early 1990s when a teacher asked him to sign a Michael Jackson song during Black History Month. His first reaction was to refuse.

“But the teacher ‘pulled it out’ of him, he said, and he was thrust into the limelight in front of a large audience. Then, Primeaux-O’Bryant said, ‘the lights came on and my cue happened and I just exploded and signed the work and it felt good.’ Afterward the audience erupted in applause: ‘I fell in love with performing onstage.’ ”

Find information on things like the role of ballet training in ASL interpretation, the impact of the pandemic, and Egyptian Arabic Sign Language at the Times, here.

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Photo: Library of Congress.
Maypole dancers at the Bavarian Celebration of Spring festival in Leavenworth, Washington.

Since 1889, May 1 has been recognized as International Workers’ Day around the world. But a much more ancient May 1 tradition involves dancing around “maypoles” to celebrate spring.

According to Wikipedia, maypole “festivals may occur on May 1st or Pentecost (Whitsun), although in some countries it is instead erected at Midsummer (June 20-26). In some cases the maypole is a permanent feature that is only utilized during the festival, although in other cases it is erected specifically for the purpose before being taken down again.

“Primarily found within the nations of Germanic Europe and the neighboring areas which they have influenced, its origins remain unknown. It has often been speculated that the maypole originally had some importance in the Germanic paganism of Iron Age and early Medieval cultures, and that the tradition survived Christianisation, albeit losing any original meaning that it had. It has been a recorded practice in many parts of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, although it became less popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the tradition is still observed in some parts of Europe and among European communities in the Americas.”

Olivia Waring and Jack Slater offer more details at Metro. “As today is the first of May, communities across the world might be getting on their sunny day best and heading to dance around a maypole – a tradition which is around 600 years old. But what does dancing around a maypole on May 1 involve, and what does it represent? Here’s all you need to know.

“Dancing around a maypole involves a group of people taking a colored ribbon attached to it and weaving around each other, often to music. Traditionally the dancers position themselves in pairs of boys and girls before beginning their routine.

“The dance creates a multi-colored pattern which creeps steadily down the pole. The dancers then reverse their steps to undo the ribbons. This is said to represent the lengthening of the days as summer approaches, but the significance of the pole itself is not really known. Some communities have a permanent maypole up all year round on village greens and in squares. …

“In Austria and Germany, the maypole is known as a ‘maibaum’, is painted with Bavarian white and blue stripes and is erected (sometimes by villagers) in the middle of a village. This may be accompanied by a procession. …

“Though not always held on May 1, maypole celebrations also happen in the States, Malta, Scandinavia, Canada, and Italy – with Italians using the pole to celebrate International Worker’s Day, too. In other countries, including Sweden, a maypole is referred to as a Midsummer pole and is a part of their annual Midsummer celebrations in late June.”

Watch the video below to see how the weaving works. Trust me: it takes many rehearsals to get those ribbons to lie flat and smooth. More at Wikipedia, here, and at Metro, here.

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Photo: Associated Press.
Marc Raibert, founder and chair of Boston Dynamics, with an Atlas robot that can dance with near-human fluidity.

We can probably all think of discoveries that initially seem frivolous or peculiar and later turn out to be important to humanity. So perhaps we shouldn’t laugh too much about a robot dancing to Motown. Who can tell what will come of it?

Rodrique Ngowi writes at the Associated Press (AP), “The man who designed some of the world’s most advanced dynamic robots was on a daunting mission: programming his creations to dance to the beat with a mix of fluid, explosive and expressive motions that are almost human.

“The results? Almost a year and half of choreography, simulation, programming and upgrades that were capped by two days of filming to produce a video running at less than 3 minutes. The clip, showing robots dancing to the 1962 hit ‘Do You Love Me?’ by The Contours, was an instant hit on social media, attracting more than 23 million views during the first week.

“It shows two of Boston Dynamics’ humanoid Atlas research robots doing the twist, the mashed potato and other classic moves, joined by Spot, a doglike robot, and Handle, a wheeled robot designed for lifting and moving boxes in a warehouse or truck. …

“[Says Boston Dynamics founder and chairperson Marc Raibert], ‘We didn’t want a robot doing robotlike dancing. We wanted it to do human dancing and, you know, when a human dances, the music has a beat and their whole body moves to it — their hands, their body, their head,’ he says. …

‘It looked like the robot was having fun and really moved with the music. And I think that had a lot to do with the result of the production.’

“Teaching robots to dance with fluid and expressive motions was a new challenge for a company that spent years building robots that have functional abilities like walking, navigating in rough terrain, pick things up with their hands and use attached advanced sensors to monitor and sense many things, Raibert says.

“ ‘You know, our job is to try and stretch the boundaries of what robots can do, both in terms of the outer research boundary, but also in terms of practical applications. And I think when people see the new things that robots can do, it excites them,’ he says.

“The advanced Atlas robot relies on a wide array of sensors to execute the dance moves, including 28 actuators — devices that serve as muscles by converting electronic or physical signal into movement — as well as a gyroscope that helps it to balance, and three quad-core onboard computers, including one that processes perception signals and two that control movement. …

“ ‘We’ve gotten calls from all around the world,’ Raibert says. ‘We got a call from one of the sound engineers who had recorded the original Contours performance back in the ’60s. And he said that his whole crew of Motown friends had been passing it around.’ “

More at AP, here.

A dancing Atlas robot at Boston Dynamics.

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Photo: Christian Kuntz
After Gurdeep Pandher
became a Canadian citizen in 2011, he traveled across the country, dancing bhangra with people of all faiths and finally settling in the Yukon because it reminded him most of his village in Punjab.

I liked today’s story about bringing joy through dance. I especially liked learning about research showing that differences drop away when people move in unison.

Sara Miller Llana writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “He has led firefighters and police officers to the rhythms of bhangra – a centuries-old dance that hails from the farming fields of Punjab. He has danced in front of Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa and amid crashing waves of the country’s Pacific Coast.

“But these days, Gurdeep Pandher has more fans than he ever has – by posting videos of himself dancing in the snow-covered forest behind his cabin near Whitehorse in Yukon, Canada’s northwesternmost territory.

“At this time of year, it’s not until about 11 a.m. that the sun comes out, filtering through the trees and drawing him outdoors. ‘It looks so beautiful, to me it looks just like magic,’ he says. ‘I do feel like I live in a winter wonderland.’

“On the winter solstice last month, in a bright blue sweater, an orange turban, and brown snow boots, Mr. Pandher posted a new video of himself doing what he calls a ‘happy dance’: arms raising to the sky, knees as high as they go, and the broadest of smiles. …

“Bhangra began as a farmer’s dance in Punjab to celebrate a good harvest, but it’s found its way across the globe, from trendy DJ fusions to entertainment on basketball courts of North America. Mr. Pandher has been dancing it since he was a child, and he says there’s no surprise to him that it’s caught on – for its upbeat sounds and its core value of joy.

‘If you’re dancing bhangra, and you are not happy, that is not bhangra, even if you are doing all the moves perfectly,’ he says.

“That’s why he believes his videos, one after the other, keep going viral during the pandemic, when there is so much darkness and heaviness.

“ ‘There’s a Punjabi saying that when there’s a lot of darkness, we value brightness more. And I’ve noticed that, a lot of the sort of people who never cared about watching my videos before, like lawyers, or politicians, or diplomats, are sending me messages,’ he says.

“ ‘Before maybe they didn’t feel like something light was professional, or important, but now in these difficult times they realize the importance of someone dancing to create happiness, someone who’s preaching that kindness is important, what our ancestors from centuries have been preaching.’

“He’s not the only one feeling a new buzz around bhangra. Harshjot Singh, who founded Power Bhangra with his wife in Montreal, is these days offering popular bhangra fitness classes over Zoom. It’s a physical workout, but he says it’s also the culture of bhangra that he believes keeps his students – who span Canada and even North America – signing up. ‘You have to smile, it’s just the rule of the dance. And as students learn about it, slowly and steadily, it just comes naturally.’ …

“Peter Lovatt, the author of new book The Dance Cure, says that dancing, unlike just plain fitness, has four key benefits in the realms of social, thinking, emotions, and the physical – which, fittingly, spell STEP.

“All of those areas are suffering during the pandemic, and everyone benefits from things like physical activity or disconnecting from the Internet. But there is something especially compelling about the synchrony of dance in today’s climate. ‘When people dance in synchrony, it increases how much they like each other,’ Dr. Lovatt says.”

More at the Christian Science Journal, here.

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