SMU's Meadows School of the Arts dance program is known for putting on really good shows. The college's dance program not only teaches its students form and choreography, it also brings in celebrated guest artists, whose work challenges both the students and any outsiders who can weave their way through the Owens Art Center to the Hope Theatre for a performance. The 2014 fall dance concert, which takes place this week, is no different, presenting a packed evening of dance that includes two world premieres.
The first comes from faculty member Christopher Dolder. Here, Hermann Rorschach meets M.C. Escher. "Handle" is an experiment with the interplay of movement and media that explores how people perceive identity, dimensions, and matter by manipulating the physical properties that audiences often assume are present. But assumptions are dangerous and Dolder wants to stress that. Through the use of video projection, motion sensing, permeable walls, and costumes with actual handles sewn in, Dolder is creating an environment that messes with our senses. Subject will become objects, vertical will become horizontal, and whatever we assume is physical might just be an illusion.
A former Martha Graham Dance Company soloist, Dolder is an expert in dance kinesiology (which according to Google, is the study of the human body in motion, as it relates to dance). He's currently researching new forms of physical data capture in collaboration with the Meadows School's Center of Creative Computation. Read: Dolder has moves offstage too. "Handle" is an extension of that work.
"I have been contemplating this piece for about 10 years. I have always been fascinated with how we as humans physically contact objects and other humans," Dolder says. "The root of the word itself points towards our many uses of the 'hand' from tactile information gatherer, to overt manipulator. How do we handle our belongings, our loved ones, our pets? Dissecting the title further, how do we handle situations, concepts, emotions?"
Additionally, "Handle" explores how research and theories on physical data capture can extend past dance. It is all about the body and how our muscles and our skeletons coexist.
"This project is timely in that it will rely heavily on high performance computing and SMU recently acquired a high performance computer from the Navy," says Dolder. "Eventually students will be able to experiment with their own movement vocabulary in my Physical Data Capture Lab, record the movements, import this physical data into a software application and then create a personalized musculo-skeletal-avatar (MSA) in virtual space."
Dance and the Navy: you wouldn't expect these two things to go together, but Dolder is finding a connection. "The MSA will exist in a digital space that replicates the role of gravity in the real world. Any movements in this space will be directly linked to a pane that displays the kinesiological analysis of the movement. Students may view their MSA from any distance, angle, lighting scenario, etc. thereby allowing for the correlation of the bio-mechanics to the resultant aesthetics."
But "Handle" is a work all on its own, and deals with the relationship between the body and technology. Dolder is utilizing projections to create a visual environment and visual partners. "Contrary to the concept of using dance to affect or manipulate the static quality of video, I am using video to manipulate the perceived physical rules of dance. I have filmed many sequences of movement from a vantage of 20 feet directly above the dancers. I then project the imagery on a vertical wall thus changing the role of gravity by 90 degrees. This inherently will pose an unorthodoxy to the viewer that will hopefully elicit a deeper intellectual engagement with the work."
He is also using motion-sensing technology in an unique way. In his piece, there is a section when two dancers are tethered to a base point like dogs on a leash--a concept that stems from Dolder's childhood growing up in a small town in Northern California. He used to hear dogs barking and howling at night, communicating with each other, and although they never physically met, they still seemed to develop a "virtual" relationship. He is personifying this idea by placing one "dog" high up on a wall stage right and the other is low down in front of a wall down stage left, the furthest physical distance that two dancers can actually be from each other. A digitized visual abstraction of each "dog" is projected on the back cyc and as each gets closer to the other the projected digital image becomes more defined, articulated, and colorized. Although the 'dogs' will never have physical contact they in essence will succeed in having a digital/virtual consummation.
"I see this work on multiple levels...and I'm purposefully not 'spoon feeding' a narrative message to the audience although I have subversively embedded a possibly too subtle call for the questioning of our current human condition...I hope that the audiences laugh, are surprised, are confounded, and ultimately are prodded to review the presented material and create their own personal narrative and interpretation," says Dolder.
The second premiere, "Dancin' Man," is an homage to Bob Fosse. Created by New York-based choreographer/dancer Alex Sanchez and mentee of Fosse's own muses, Ann Reinking and the late Gwen Verdon, the piece has a lot of promise.
A former member of Ballet Chicago and a veteran of numerous Broadway productions, including Wonderful Town and Carousel, Sanchez has choreographed productions for companies nationwide, and his journey in the dance worlds was one that started when he was in high school. "I was always involved with theater at my school and worked with guest choreographers that came to choreograph the musicals or special choral concerts...I picked up very fast and I absolutely loved it. I couldn't get enough. This prompted my choral teacher to point me towards dancing classes...I would sneak out of the house and take dance class once a week. My parents never knew."
While he was taking an adult class at the Lou Conte Dance Studio in Chicago, he noticed a gentleman watching him one day. Little did he know it was Lou Conte himself. After that class he offered Sanchez a scholarship and told him that he had the talent to dance professionally, but that he was raw and needed a lot of training. "At that moment, that's when I knew that dance would be my career. So, I quit community college, told my parents, moved out, and began my journey. I was 19."
In 2006, after the opening night of what would be his last Broadway show as a dancer, the choreographer, Graciela Daniela, came up to him, looked him straight in the eye and told him, "Stop dancing and start choreographing. I was shocked because I didn't even think about going that direction but she saw something in me that I didn't even know was there. She planted the seed and I've been cultivating it ever since."
With his piece for SMU, "Dancin' Man," Sanchez, has made a piece that will entertain, amuse, and hopefully, inspire. "This piece is meant to take you on a Fosse journey...I want people to see that he was more than the sexy choreographer of Chicago and Sweet Charity. He was funny and playful as well. He honored his past and his predecessors while accepting the newest and latest trends in music and dance. Dancin' Man is the title of the piece because it represents who he was at the core. For all his achievements as a writer, direction, editor, and so on...I believe it was his dancing and being a 'dancin' man' that grounded and rooted him."
Also on the bill are two works from Visiting Artist-in-Residence Adam Hougland that expose our need to shed light on matters and how we tend to repeat our past mistakes. Originally premiered by the Cincinnati Ballet, "To the Fore" playfully explores the human struggle to "shed light on things" with the use of lights on long extension cords that become a choreographic element themselves.
What prompted him to bring this piece back for the students at SMU? He wanted to push the talent and technique of his dancers. "I wanted to do something on pointe for our strong ballet women," says Hougland. "'To the Fore' is quite technical but also very grounded and sensual. It's nice to give them an opportunity to explore dancing on pointe without any of the delicate ballerina stuff going on."
"Cigarettes," on the other hand, is not a ballet at all; at least for Hougland. "It was made on classical dancers, but it's about playfulness. With some real tenderness underneath." It has been praised as a "whimsical and witty dance-theater piece," and showcases one female and three male dancers in a look at our attempt to survive the repetition of past mistakes. "We use six versions of the same song to help story the story...and there is an understated sense of play...I guess I'm just trying to say that we don't always have to be so heavy or serious as artists or in life."
SMU Meadows Dance Ensemble presents the 2014 Fall Dance Concert, at 8 p.m. Wednesday - Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; Bob Hope Theatre of the Owen Arts Center, 6101 Bishop Blvd., Dallas. $7-$13.