Tag Archives: dance

Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones was on the Colbert Report talking about his role in the new musical, “Fela!” “Fela!” is a biographical piece on the life of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

Watch the video here:



Rust and Dust review

Six dancers pour from the sides, back, and front of the stage in a flurry of movement and color. They twirl, leap, and nearly run into each other before they all fall to the floor in complete silence. Hampshire College’s student written and directed play, Rust and Dust, can be defined by its controlled chaos. Moments of sporadic, almost violent movement are met with periods of calm and stillness that leave most viewers in awe of its beauty and meticulousness, and reminiscing of their childhood and what it means to leave it behind.

Rust and Dust tells the tale of a young girl, Bess, whose active imagination leaves her constantly questioning life’s bigger questions through movement and prose. Co-directors and choreographers Kyle Zamcheck and Cassie Mills based the entire production off of personal experiences and texts—the “script” of the play is composed mainly of old journal entries written by Zamcheck’s sister and mother. After trying to write a script to supplement the texts, they realized that letting the journal speak for itself would allow for open interpretation and a more realistic look into Bess’s life. By taking personal entries that were created with the intention of never being seen–let alone performed to audiences–there is a level of intimacy and inclusiveness that one would be hard-pressed to find in a normal play.

“It’s a show about growing up, losing innocence, and learning how to cope with and learn from your desires and impulses,” said Mills.

Metaphor and symbolism run rampant throughout the play—at some points Bess’s confusion and zeal for life are very apparent, but are quickly met with a stark contrast where she is in pain, or has a distinct sense of reality. The rust aspect of the title relates to keys that litter Bess’s home. The keys, out of Bess’s reach, open doors to different rooms, which seem to symbolize new parts of Bess’s life that she’s not yet ready to enter. Meanwhile, the dust takes the form of five ethereal performers who seem to move in and out of Bess’s life, but always scatter when reality sets in. Each speck of dust represents a piece of Bess’s personality, and each one gets emphasized at certain parts of the play.

Part of the experience comes from the richness of the scenery. Costumes are multilayered, full of sparkle, deep oranges, bright blues, golds, and ranged in textures. At the start of Bess’s journey, she is covered in sparkles and layers of iridescent taffeta. As she begins to experience a loss of beauty and innocence, her costume continues to get more minimal and less fantastical. Bess’s journal was a huge, handmade book with secret pockets that revealed yards of lavish fabrics, mirrors, clippings, and little drawings.

Acting, dance, painting, video, and even baking all played a role in creating scenes. Bess’s mother, an artist, actually paints on stage. Sheets were draped and stretched on canvases that projected videos of the moon, trees, creating windows into an outside world that Bess always seemed to be moving in and out of. At one point, cast members hand out Willy Wonka-esque cupcakes for the audience—as Bess is hitting a low point and is over-indulging herself with food and emotion to the point of making herself ill, the audience is able to share with her.

“Bess’s moments of intensity and pain are also the most humorous without it being a satire, where the audience is mocking [her]…it’s more of a relatable thing,” said Zamcheck.

Burning incense and the cupcakes gave the production distinct tastes and smells. The play even incorporates different languages—it opens with the dust calling out to Bess in Hindi; then, in Spanish, and finally in English. Audience members are not just watching the play happen, they are living it alongside Bess. We feel her pain, we laugh at her jokes, and we feel what she feels.

It’s hard to say what an audience member will take from the piece—something so honest and raw is sure to affect people differently Looking at it as a traditional theatre production will most likely lead to confusion and distaste. Approaching the piece without predisposition, however, can be a very rewarding and emotional experience.

“I want it to be a pleasurable experience,” said Zamcheck. “I think a lot of people could relate to Bess in her journey…I knew I wanted this to be a show that children and adults and anyone of any age could enjoy. Younger kids could go in and see Bess as a princess because of her costume, and adults can go in and see the transient quality of that.”

Make no mistake; this is not your average theatre production. Rooted in experimental technique, the production blurs the lines between dancing, acting, and visual art. It was created with the idea of being a series of short vignettes (oriented in both theatre and dance) that would together create a narrative.

To get in touch with the emotions displayed in the story, the directors, choreographers, cast, and crew all had to be willing to improvise. Each member brought his or her own personal take to the stage, creating an atmosphere that was emotionally gripping. There was a level of collaboration and a strong attachment to the text that was visible through the cast’s bodies and expressions, as well as the costumes, set, and sound.  Rust and Dust is not necessarily about a specific plot but rather about emotions, growing, and learning.

“You really get to see how much of a chance people will take with each other when they’re in a vulnerable position and you can see what type of movement people will actually have in their bodies because they’re not focusing on physicality. They’re actually pouring out shapes and feelings. I think it was really beneficial for us to do something like that because you really get to see an intimate and true part of someone [that] they can’t hide,” said Mills.

“We [achieved] what we wanted. It wasn’t traditional dance as I think of it or traditional theatre as I think of it. It existed in a different place,” said Zamcheck.


Le Sacre du Printemps

Still shot from the Joffrey Ballet doing "The Rite of Spring"

First off, let me just say WOW. Igor Stravinsky really knew what he was doing, and it just goes to show that taking risks can turn out great. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” is a piece so powerful and distinct, but also completely adaptable and versatile. Written as a ballet about Russian paganism and human sacrifice, the piece is unmistakable for its sense of barbaric intensity. The pounding, polyrhythmic drums and HARSH dissonance combine so perfectly that if one knew the plot of the ballet, they could imagine the story by the music alone without ever seeing a single dancer.

At the same time, the piece can be used in different contexts and still fit the bill. An abridged and altered version of “The Rite of Spring” was used in Disney’s Fantasia (the 1940 version, not the piece of crap released in 2000). In it, the piece was matched up with bright colors and animations that depicted the dawn of time. It begins with flashes of color, washing together and fading away, like the first signs of life swimming in primordial soup. Later the piece shows the rise and fall of the dinosaurs–meteors come crashing down to the earth, killing the giant creatures as the music’s controlled chaos takes off. While Stravinsky himself called Disney’s interpretation execrable, I think it fits.

There have been tons of ballets set to “The Rite of Spring,” and each one has its own distinct flavor. Having watched several snippets of these dances on youtube, I’m taken aback by how many stories the song can tell. Sure, each dance is connected through a thread of primitiveness that often borders on the erotic, but there is definitely something different about each one. In some dances, the human is emphasized. In others, the choreographer took a more animalistic approach. Some chose to use softer movements while others jerk around in a way that almost seems spasmodic. Try using Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to tell more than one story. It just doesn’t really work that way.

What’s also distinctive about “The Rite of Spring” is that the conductors and players of the piece are in charge of making their own connections to convey a particular feeling. When Leonard Bernstein was directing a student orchestra in 1987, he had an incredible way of using anecdote and physical expression to show the students what he wanted. Of course, if anyone can do that, it’s him–Bernstein’s conducting made even a simple, two-octave, C-major scale sound so powerful and masterful. His use of dynamics and tempo turned what is usually the most boring part of music into something ripe with emotion. Through his conducting, Bernstein explains that a level of virtuosity is necessary in playing but it’s not enough. There is a level of raw emotion that each person needs to feel if they want to portray the piece’s story to its fullest.

Articulating the way music can make a person feel is not an easy task. Words aren’t always enough for Bernstein, and his conducting and explanations are full of guttural noises, jerky and smooth arm motions, and a wide range of facial expressions. His face contorts as the music changes–he grimaces, he smiles, and he raises his brows so high they look as if they might pop off of his face. At times he punches and claws at the air like an animal, and one orchestra member commented on his “erotic dancing” (how a man in his 70s can dance erotically is beyond me, but clearly it got the kid thinking, and that was the point). The fact is, music is visceral, and it seems to almost possess and pass through Bernstein as he conducts. Personally, I think that kind of reaction is necessary for all truly successful music-making. If you aren’t really feeling it, then you aren’t really playing it as hard or as well as you can. There’s rarely a time in one’s life where one can experience something that is both absolutely gut-wrenching and completely beautiful, but “The Rite of Spring” seems to evoke these paradoxical feelings, and it happens without mercy.


UMass Center Series Preview [edited]

Cirque Mechanics in a Birdhouse Factory is sure to draw a crowd

Cirque Mechanics in a Birdhouse Factory is sure to draw a crowd

Put on your dancing shoes and get ready for this season of the UMass Fine Arts Center Series. Circus acts in factories, classical/jazz fusion groups like Imani Winds, and documentaries on Robert Kennedy punctuate this season’s program, but dance performances, ranging from Mexican Ballet to interpretations of Shakespeare, seem to dominate the program. Why? Given the Pioneer Valley’s dance history, the popularity of the Five-College Dance Program, and the widespread phenomenon that is reality dance TV, it’s really no surprise.

The UMass Fine Arts Center Series, established 34 years ago, puts on a collection of performances and exhibitions each year ranging from jazz quartets to circus acts. Center Series Director Kathryn Maguet says she tries to reflect of the desires of several groups of people. She says she has a responsibility to present programs that are relevant to UMass students, on-campus departments, and the people of the Pioneer Valley. Most shows are put on in the Fine Arts Concert Hall, which seats 1900. It was only sold out 5 or 6 times last season, but generally, the series did well enough to end up with a couple thousand dollars in the black.

Financial issues over the past few years like the diminishing allocation from the university and this year’s 25% budget cut, and too many empty seats in the audience (85% of the Center Series revenue comes from ticket sales) have led to some changes this season. This year the series features fewer shows, but includes several acts that are expected to draw crowds, such as the Dan Zanes and Friends Family Dance Party. Specifically, one can expect shows with sweeping genres, large casts, and accessible themes.

“[The Center Series] can cover costs and make a little on dance,” says Maguet. The Center Series usually breaks even and the big audiences that dance shows generate a surplus. This is especially true this season because, according to Maguet, there isn’t another major dance production by an established group going on in a 60-mile radius.

Some potential dance hits are Cirque Mechanics In a Birdhouse Factory (a circus act comprised of world-renowned performers), Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, and the all-male Black Grace Dance Company.

In particular, Maguet is looking forward to the dance performance by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, titled “Serenade/The Proposition.” The performance explores the legacy of Abraham Lincoln through the Civil War up to his assassination using original choreography and music, narration, and videography. It also works to discover what life would be like had Lincoln lived. Maguet calls it “profound and poetic…an outstanding piece,” and says Jones is “at the top of his game.”

The Center Series provides the Pioneer Valley with acts they would not see anywhere, and with dance taking over the program, there may be some concerns about a lack of certain performances, like jazz or classical music. The program does include distinguished acts like the Orquestra de Sao Paulo with Dame Evelyn Glennie (a famous Brazilian classic ensemble and percussionist), Irish musicians Paddy Moloney with the Chieftains, and the Dafnis Prieto Sextet.

Maguet said she prides herself on the fact that there’s not a lot of “cheese” in the program, and despite bumps in the road, the promising acts this season includes shows that the Fine Arts Center Series will at least stay the same in terms of quality.


Contact Improvisation

Contact improvisation is a style of dance centered on using the body as a point of contact where the dancers balance, roll, and move off of one another.

This “Early Morning Contact”  piece aptly demonstrates the sheer strength of the human body and the ease and fluidity with which it moves. Gender roles and assumptions of men’s strength and women’s weakness are smashed as both dancers carry and lift each other with what seems like seamless expertise. The dancers use every inch of their body as a point of contact, be it their shoulder blades, thigh, hips, or underarm. Faulty or jerky movements do occur sporadically throughout the performance but do not hinder the experience or the dance–they add character and further display the human, almost animalistic, element that contact improvisation relies on.