When I started my piece two weeks ago, I had a general outline of how I wanted the piece to progress and a general sense of the mood I wanted to create. I truly wanted to take advantage of Sketch’s mission to foster risk and innovation. Usually I come in with a specific plan, usually I’m working with large groups and music that drives the piece, usually I have thought out the entire structure of a piece, but usually I have thought less as to what the piece means relying on the music to inform where the piece goes. For Sketch, I threw away all of my “usuals.” I showed up a little nervous that I would be standing around for 3 hours with nothing for the dancers to do, but also a little excited to try something entirely new. Having a jumping off point that the piece had to be inspired by or about words, already gave me a new challenge. Finding the quote “life is too short for fake butter” sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts and ideas about not taking life for granted and not wasting a moment, not just being mindful, but relishing each moment. So instead of coming in with steps and formations, entrances and exits, I came in with a notebook full of scribblings of my thoughts on life, relationships, growing up, feeling alone, feeling a part of something, change, and growth. To my surprise three hours went quickly. The piece came together faster and with fewer bumps than almost anything I had created before. By starting with a single challenge: use your words, and then having the complete freedom to interpret it, Sketch gave me a direction but not a map. I was able to create my own path. Sketch is exactly the environment of challenge all choreographers need, because without challenges, without being taken out of our comfort zones, it is extremely difficult to grow and become more than a one-trick pony. I can only try to express my gratitude to Amy for asking me and trusting me to create for Sketch. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to create a piece using the exceptional dancers of Imagery, and have it performed alongside works by such established and revered choreographers. It has indeed pushed me outside of my comfort zone and into a new place where I simply feel comfortable.
Pictured: Nicole in rehearsal with the Smuin Ballet. Photo by Keith Sutter.Leave a reply
Five years ago, I performed for the first time in San Francisco in Imagery’s SKETCH: New Works program. I was 25 years old and still shedding my bunhead tendencies to embrace a more contemporary movement sensibility. Adam Hougland’s “Cigarettes”, created in just two weeks that summer, proved to be a significant opportunity for me to expand on my classical instincts and employ my natural dramatic qualities. This summer I have the distinct pleasure of revisiting this work that has stuck so poignantly in my body, mind, and heart.
Adam’s choreography resonated with me then and stays with me now because it is suffused with emotional intent. His movement language evokes powerful physical imagery, bringing meaning and purpose to each step. I have always enjoyed creating character and mood on stage, so choreography feels really good to me when I don’t have to just layer emotion on top of an arbitrary sequence of acrobatics. The intrinsic emotional qualities in the music and movement for “Cigarettes” made it come together so quickly and naturally that I didn’t give much explicit thought to my character. In performance, I remember the steps coming vibrantly alive, as if I were dancing them spontaneously as a deep and natural expression of myself. It was an incredible experience and certainly an important moment in my personal artistic trajectory.
The living, present nature of dance means that no ballet is ever danced the same way twice. Of course there are choreographic and musical goals to achieve, but the movement’s texture and quality are always alive and new. I strive to shape and sense my body in the moment with each rehearsal and performance, not to recreate an idealized execution of sequential steps. After a few days spent studying the video of “Cigarettes” from 2011, I had to let go of the images I achieved back then in order to take a fresh approach free of assumptions or affectations. I’m not setting out to embody the physical or emotional state of 25-year-old Sarah, because things have changed a lot since then. I’ve grown and matured as an artist and as a person, and let’s face it, my knees are a little creakier too!
In the restaging process, it’s important to study the physical structure of the piece while leaving room to channel the movement naturally into the body. Ben Needham-Wood and Gabe Williams—both in the original cast—did a great job of interpreting and communicating the work to us in just a few days, and Katherine Wells continues to polish us up with her fresh, intelligent insight. There is always something new to discover in the intricate physical dynamics of dance and partnering, as well as the deeply satisfying minutiae of musicality, and I’m really enjoying the work in the studio this time around.
I dance with three men throughout “Cigarettes”, and to be perfectly honest, this is quite a dreamy cast. I have history with all of my suitors: James Gilmer from the past three SKETCH seasons, Peter Franc from a season at Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Scott Marlowe from a some wild and crazy projects with Imagery earlier this year. We already feel very connected and comfortable working together because of these valuable shared experiences and friendly rapport. This level of trust allows me to feels the steps in a new way, deepen my exploration of character, and begin a dialogue of relationships with the rest of the cast. Although the feeling and sequence of the movement came back to me naturally, with different partners it’s like a whole new ballet. I can’t go on autopilot or anticipate the same sensations from different bodies, and that’s really keeping me focused and present in the work.
I’m exploring a few things to deepen this role and expand my character. I want to find individual physical textures to express my relationship to each man and to myself. With one man I feel trapped, combative, and yearning, with another perfunctory and resigned, and with the third I can be tender, honest, and intimate. The brief moments in which I escape the clutches of my partners to dance alone are introspective pleas as I strive to find myself and hold my ground in the face of conflicted emotional chaos. A simple shift of gaze, posture, or muscular tension can speak volumes, and I find myself making new choices with every rehearsal. It’s quite a treat to have the time and perspective to explore “Cigarettes” again as a new woman, and I’m so excited to share this and so much more in SKETCH 6!Show Comments (1)
Inside Another Skin: Instinct, Collaboration, and Creation
Collaboration is the spirit of the SKETCH series. Through the last five years we have collaborated with nine choreographers, five musicians, two composers, and nineteen dancers. Every one of our thirteen world premiere works has been shaped by artistic collaboration and exchange between the artists. So it wasn’t too far fetched to commission a work this year as a joint collaboration between two choreographers. It’s been a fun, challenging, and engrossing project for many reasons, above all the strong creative leadership of Amy Seiwert and KT Nelson.
The piece, called “Starting Over from the End”, is very much a blend of Amy’s and KT’s voices. Much of a choreographer’s voice is shaped by instinct. Amy has the discerning eye of a ballet dancer, and KT has the human sensibility of a modern dancer. This combination of finely tuned instincts and aesthetics makes for new and unexpected juxtapositions of form, space, and language.
We began the collaborative process with each choreographer generating a gestural phrase with the upper body. Those gestures were manipulated individually by the dancers, then edited and composed by both choreographers together and separately. The dancers acquired each other’s manipulations, combined into partnered or group interactions, and only then applied musicality. Amy most often works very closely with music from the beginning of a creative process, but KT wanted the dancers to find our physicality before exploring the music. While this was unusual for me, it began to make sense as the choreographers mixed and matched the creative puzzle pieces to form the complete work. There were several rounds of editing, and we are still growing in the work with each rehearsal.
Challenges abound in this highly collaborative environment, but in the best ways possible. KT challenges Amy to break with her usual processes and methods in the studio. Amy challenges KT to find new and subtle ways to use pointe shoes. Both choreographers challenge the dancers to problem-solve phrases and partnering assignments. Amy tasks the dancers with seven specific ways to inform our creative manipulations, KT pushes us to create movement through sensation. I am fascinated by what attracts each choreographer in the movement created by each dancer, and how they challenge us to shape our material. I find myself making new choices, acquiring a different sensibility in my body, and sometimes spending an hour or two in the corner of the studio just playing around with something. A simple choice in weight shift, range of motion, or dynamic can open entirely new pathways and possibilities for choreographer and dancer alike. We discover new access points and transitions, adding flourishes of gesture that connect to the work’s movement language. Improvisation and happenstance can become part of the choreography. There are no mistakes, only clues to solve a problem.
This collaborative effort incorporates the instincts of all the dancers as well as the choreographers. SKETCH dancers must possess versatility, openness, and a well-tuned instinct for movement in order to be good collaborators. I am amazed by how unique we all are in our training, experience, body types, and personalities, and how these elements lend themselves to highly individualized personal style and movement instinct. This instinct shows itself in a dancer’s muscular dynamic – some naturally tend to be long and languid, others strong and deep, quick and precise, or soft and airy. Likewise, instinct shows in a dancer’s tendency to use turns, jumps, extensions, or floor work to differing effects. Executing another dancer’s created phrase can therefore feel foreign, like being inside another skin. Touching and experiencing another person’s instinct through movement can reveal and inform creative navigations in shifts of weight, muscular dynamic, and range of motion.
I have learned more in the SKETCH environment than any other by watching my colleagues work, occasionally inhabiting their skins to become a part of their processes. I’ve experienced the instinctual creations of so many wonderful artists and am happy to call myself a collaborator. I find that dances shaped and manipulated by the artists’ instincts look and feel very personal, which is what I find so special about this collaboration and the spirit of SKETCH.
Day by day we continue to layer nuances of form and timing, and the piece feels entirely original and alive. SKETCH audiences are in for a real treat, and I look forward to sharing this exciting, diverse program in San Francisco, Walla Walla, Bozeman, and New York.
Sarah Cecilia GriffinShow Comments (2)
The Imagery dancers and choreographers have finished up the last full week of rehearsals, and now we prepare ourselves mentally and physically for a week in the theater and a week on tour to Walla Walla. This year’s SKETCH has been a real joy. We have all eight dancers from last year’s project, and that familiarity has brought so much ease, intimacy, cooperation, and laughter to the process. I’m fortunate to have worked with both Adam and Amy in the SKETCH environment in previous years as well, so I’m also familiar with their movement languages and creative processes. In the few days before opening, I focus on adding nuance and thought to my work with the performances in mind. It’s important to find my footing, timing, spacing, and breath, both on my own and with my partners, so that we can develop a cohesive and consistent approach to performance. All of the work continues to evolve on stage, with each performance unfolding in a new way. The greatest joy of performing is the feeling of total presence and immersion in the “now”, the complete trust in the moment and in my body, my partners, and the musicians. It’s a great privilege to have live music in performance, and I’m very excited to begin working with the musicians and to see how my appreciation of the music may change. The energy of an audience also adds an element of communication to the work, particularly in an intimate theater like ODC. The theme of SKETCH 4: Music Mirror is that we are dancing two ballets to the same piece of music. When Amy proposed this idea to the dancers months ago, I was intrigued. I am an attentively musical dancer, and have found few challenges in this process. I’ve been getting to know the music the way I would any piece of music I dance to, and I’ve been learning choreography the same way I would approach any new movement. If anything, dancing (and watching others dance) to the same music in very different ways has made me appreciate a broader idea of what dance and music can be in relation to one another. I feel that I’ve learned the music more instinctively with a depth of perspective informed by two very different approaches. Another way to explain it is with a language analogy. I’m fluent in both English and Spanish. I know that when I speak Spanish, different parts of my brain are working; my thoughts are in Spanish, my inflections and tone of voice change, I use my mouth and tongue differently, and even my body language changes. Movement language is very similar. Both Amy and Adam have very distinct movement languages, and the two ballets they’ve created couldn’t be more different for me. I dance en pointe in Amy’s work, defying gravity and stretching phrases in long, curvy, precise balletic fashion. Her choreography requires a flexible posture and highly articulate feet, and the partnering work is intricately cooperative. Amy relates to the music as a musician (something I’ve always liked about her), carrying around her score and helping the dancers hear the music as it’s written. In Adam’s ballet, I dance in socks, which radically changes my connection to the floor and the way I articulate my feet and legs. His movement feels more weighted, and has a fluid, almost relaxed muscularity, with release and a sense of surrender to gravity underlying moments of tension or stillness. Adam approaches music with the mind and ear of a dancer, so there are some unison sections that we count and others where timing can develop naturally with the movement and may vary slightly with each performance. In these ways, it’s nearly impossible for me to confuse the two ballets simply because they use the same music; my body feels so completely different, and the way I process the music intimately reflects how my body feels. I’m sure a fancy brain scan would show different parts of my brain working for each ballet, much like synaptic patterns with multiple spoken languages. I’m so grateful to have been a part of SKETCH from the beginning, and I look forward to the future. The opportunity to learn and grow in an open and encouraging environment is a blessing that few people enjoy in any career. The creative skills and invaluable lessons I’ve learned from the dancers and choreographers through the past four summers have made me a better, stronger, smarter, more joyful dancer. I’m moving to Portland to join Oregon Ballet Theatre just a few days after we return from Walla Walla, and I feel that SKETCH has given me a great advantage in approaching new work and repertory work in the context of a larger company. Thank you, dancers, choreographers, audiences, and supporters. And thank you, Amy, for taking a chance on me.Show Comments (3)
Week three!!! (Little known fact about Amy: if she reads three exclamation points, she imagines the writer wagging their respective tail.)
What a journey so far! Having now spent a week with Adam’s creation it’s safe to say the dancers have a feel for the challenge of two dances to one song. Here are some of the benefits that I have experienced so far:
+ The musicality is more developed. Because we have been listening to one score for over 100 hours, we are beginning to understand its’ nuances and how we can incorporate our dancing to fit different stylistic elements within each segment. Because of the complexities Kevin has composed, every time I listen to the score, I discover new things about either the rhythm, dynamic, or melody. This makes the process all the more artistically satisfying:there is always more to learn!
+ The voice, style, and intention of the choreographers are so developed that it’s almost impossible to confuse the two. This helps prevent confusion when we run each dance. It is rare when we accidentally switch dances midway through the song because Amy and Adam have structured their pieces so well that we have no room to second guess our actions. There will be days that because the movement is so different, it sounds like another score entirely.
The challenge that this has provided has given everyone a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. When friends and family of mine come to see a show they usually comment on the amount of memorization needed to accomplish a piece. “So much movement, How do you remember what goes where and when?!” This added challenge is a gift to push ourselves and answer the question “can we do it?”. Like bob the builder, Imagery says “Yes we can!”
Although I’m usually one to say “Come and Play, Everything’s A-Okay,” there are some challenges to this process that are hard to ignore:
– Musicality is hard to switch between pieces. This is most challenging for synchronized sections where the musicality is spoon-fed to us. Ironically enough those are my most challenging moments but they have turned into my favorite moments because I then get to watch Ben and Katherine and see all the details that I strive to achieve.
– Finding a different atmosphere in the same music. Amy and Adam has different intentions and therefore the mood is unique for each piece. Finding the individual voice is difficult when your inspiration is from the same music. It is making me realize that there is so much influence to be had through the development of a personal story. I love making the story relevant to my life making it a personal experience and therefore offering a realistic presentation to the audience. This has been fun finding motivation in the music and then having to go away from it to find another shade to the spectrum.
I am looking forward to the process and finding new discoveries this week in myself and from those I am dancing with and for. What a joy to be in a place that is motivating, challenging, and inspiring all in one little bundle of sunshine (tail wagging)!!!
July 15, 2014
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Sketch 4: Music Mirror is underway and I could not be more excited. I have been a part of Imagery’s Sketch series since it’s inception in 2011 and every year it continues to exceed my expectations. The dancers get stronger, the work gets more innovative, and the atmosphere continues to exude confidence and joy in every artist that shares in the collaboration.
This is the first time where the Sketch dancers have remained the same from one year to the next, and after only one week of work we can already feel that same, magic bond that grew over five weeks last summer. It is rare to find a company where there are no egos or personal agendas that inhibit the overall progress of the work, but Imagery is exactly that; every artist in the company shares a mutual respect and admiration for everyone else in the studio, allowing us to continue bettering ourselves with confidence knowing that our colleagues are supporting us through every step. Looking around the room and absorbing Private’s incredible partnering, Sarah’s long lines, “The Puppy” Wes’s strength, Katherine’s clarity, Annali’s technique, James’s fluid articulation of movement, and Rachel’s flexibility, it leaves me in awe and inspires me to push my own limits and strive for more.
All eight of us are very different dancers from one another, and it takes an amazing choreographer to successfully highlight those individual strengths within the context of a single, cohesive work. Amy Seiwert and Adam Hougland are two such choreographers. I first worked with both choreographers while I was a Company Artist with Louisville Ballet. I can honestly say that I would not be the dancer I am today without their influence. They are both nurturing and invest completely in their work and their dancers. Each day in the studio with them brings new ideas and insight that helps us dancers to push our boundaries and rediscover our own limitations.
This amazing combination of Amy, Adam, and the eight dancers in the company have become my summer family and I love every opportunity I have to work with them. We are having such a great time already and the work we have accomplished thus far in the process is truly remarkable. I can’t wait to see how this project resolves and I can’t edit to share it with the audience.
Pictured – Ben Needham-Wood and Rachel Furst in 2013′s SKETCH 3: Expectations. Photo by David DeSilva. Rehearsal shot of Mr. Needham-Wood by Andrea Basile.
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Guest blog by SKETCH 4 composer Kevin Keller
“How should we get started?” was the question that Amy Seiwert and I both pondered on the day that we found out about our New Music USA grant. The project was titled “Sketch 4 | Music Mirror”, and the idea was to see how two different choreographers (Amy Seiwert and Adam Hougland) would react to the same piece of music.
I suggested that, since there was no narrative concept or “story” that we were trying to tell, perhaps we should start with photographic images. My most recent project had been a collection of piano pieces (“Nocturnes”) inspired by photographs, and it had gone very well. Since this new work was to be about 30 minutes in length, I thought 6 images would be enough. They should be images that inspired Amy and Adam, and that could be seen as “challenging” to interpret.
Riffing off this idea, Amy suggested that she and Adam could each choose 3 images, and send them to me without showing them to each other. This way, only I would know what the images were. To make things even more fun, we decided that I wouldn’t tell Amy and Adam which musical piece corresponded with which image, nor would I tell them what the titles of the pieces were. This way, they could react to the 6 sections of music without being influenced by me, nor by each other.
With this plan in place, off we went!
A couple days later, I received e-mails from Amy and Adam with images attached. What I found most interesting was that the 6 images had a similar aesthetic when viewed as a set, which I would describe as “spooky”. Each photograph was visually compelling, and definitely inspiring. In fact, I could almost immediately “hear” the music coming from each one.
The music, scored for piano and cello (my favorite combination), was composed in about 5 weeks. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but the project felt easy. Each time I started on a new image, the music just flowed effortlessly. I think this is because the images that Amy and Adam gave to me were so inspiring.
I can’t wait to show the images to Amy and Adam, and tell them how each one inspired the music. But until the premier in July, that’s my secret!Leave a reply