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Movement That Transcends its Meaning: New Work in RDT’s EMERGE

Movement That Transcends its Meaning: New Work in RDT’s EMERGE

A hand placed over your mouth …

A hand covering your eyes … your partner’s eyes …

Grabbing someone by the neck …

Imagine my joy when I get feedback on my piece saying, “Wow, you did a whole dance about the ‘forbidden’ gestures.  That was gutsy.”

Oops … I totally did.

How did this happen?  I didn’t mean to use gestures that I’ve seen a million times before–that have been done so often that they almost don’t mean a thing.

When I choreograph I usually try to keep one thing in mind DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.

What does that mean exactly?  That statement is a lot harder to fulfill than it might seem–it requires that you be fully aware of your habits, your usual choices, your movement style and movement vocabulary.  It means you have to explore new musical choices, you have to break old habits, you have to push yourself to do something you find uncomfortable. It means you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to just do something different than what I’VE done before?  Do I want to do something that NO ONE has ever seen before? Do I focus on a new movement vocabulary?  A new process?”

In this day and age, that’s very hard to do–not all movements are created equal.

Contemporary dancers live in a time that is so saturated with movement that many movements or “moves” are already freighted with associations, ideas, images, or even time and place.  They become a kind of short-hand that short-circuits the creative process. Hence, the forbidden moves …

  • death drop to one knee
  • tricks/leaps/turns that we can see coming because of a preparation, a set up, or a chasse that ALWAYS comes before the trick
  • moves that are made famous in a music video and are then copied by people in every walk of life: for example, The Whip, the Dab …
  • grabbing your head in both hands and moving it in a big circle
  • reaching out into space, grabbing nothing with a pained look on your face
  • a fan kick or side tilt with your who-who-dilly directed straight at the audience
  • any of these moves by the now in-famous Contemporary Eric …

In dance we use the term “movement vocabulary.” And as with spoken language, moves (like words) can come and go, becoming fashionable and then unfashionable. And they can also lose their meaning altogether, just as words and terminology do: Who knows what the word “synergy” means these days (especially when they appear in a business book), or “surreal.” Words actually do have a denotative meaning (you can look them up in a dictionary), but they’re used so commonly (“We need to have ‘closure’.”) that terminology can become bereft of meaning, even leading, in its extremes, to what’s been called “semantic satiation.”

The same is true of vocabulary in movement or dance. There are overused phrases or words that eventually when spoken or performed no longer carry meaning or importance which have been lost over time after they were used repeatedly without focus or intent. In dance, it’s not just mindless repetition that causes this; sometimes the language loses its power when it is tied to the lyrics of a pop song or even just the crescendo of the music.  In fact, these moves can actually subtract meaning from your work by referencing something so common place, so well-known that they become virtually indecipherable.

So why on earth did I use several of them as a motifs for my duet Folie A Duex which debuts this weekend at RDT’s Emerge?

Good question. I don’t know–all I can tell you is, I wasn’t thinking about those moves as stock gestures.

It was about following an idea … a feeling–a state of being–a brief image that popped into my head, months ago, as I was thinking about this duet.

I don’t believe in questioning an idea. I simply work to fulfill that idea, and that idea comes with a movement vocabulary, a style, a series of qualities.  I work to identify those qualities and create movement, partnering, and dance structures that fit that idea.

Yes … my original idea did include these moments of touching, of covering eyes, mouths, necks, check, hips, etc.  But it was the quality of touch that was important.  It was the way the dancer made contact with themselves or their partner that caught my attention … that’s what I was exploring.  It didn’t seem to matter that I’d seen the gestures before.  Obviously, that didn’t even cross my mind.

I guess that like a creative writer, I was exploring movement language in a new way.  I was exploring the quality of the language, these moves in their purest form. They aren’t made in anger, in sadness. They aren’t moments designed to represent tenderness or compassion.

RDT Dancers Ursula Perry and Dan Higgins will perform “Folie A Duex,” an original work by Nick Cendese at EMERGE.

This is a challenge for both the dancers (Ursula & Dan) and myself. We’ve worked hard to coach one another in how we touch each other: the directness of the hand, the firmness of the touch, the way the hand doesn’t caress up the body to the place where it ends. All these gestures, when you look at them closely, have what seems to be inherent meaning.  The most basic arrangement of the duet–a man and a woman–already says so much! Humans are meaning-making creatures and we subscribe meaning to almost everything we see, even when we don’t mean to or know we are doing it.

As choreographer, I want my dancers to be able to perform these gestures, which makes up the work’s “language,” without commenting on them. If I’ve done my job properly, you won’t see the touches as the main goal of the piece. These moves that have been executed a thousand times are a recurring motif that, hopefully, has been used to paint a picture of a feeling, of a moment between two people, a moment that is intangible and diffuse and ghost-like.  A moment that lives openly and allows you, the viewer, to enter the conversation and to add your own meaning. In a sense my objective is to have the movement in “Folie A Duex” transcend the meaning of its vocabulary, something that a poet–whose tools are words drawn from the pool of vocabulary we all use–is always aspiring to.

Come see if I was able to do that this weekend at Emerge–my little duet based around forbidden movements.

Vigor, gusto, zest, enthusiasm . . . a note from the Executive/Artistic Director

Vigor, gusto, zest, enthusiasm . . . a note from the Executive/Artistic Director

By Linda C. Smith

This weekend, RDT presents BRIO … an appropriate title for a concert filled with vigor, vivacity, gusto, verve, zest, enthusiasm, vitality, dynamism, animation, spirit and most of all energy.

BRIO will present five works created by two incomparable artists known as Shapiro & Smith. Danial Shapiro & Joanie Smith, logo_shapirosmithhusband and wife, started collaborating in 1985. Fascinated by the situations and passions which shape our behavior, they made dances about real people, creating metaphors of trust, loss and cooperation. Their work is balanced by a unique blend of biting sarcasm, breathtaking physicality and emotional depth. Shapiro & Smith Dance has a reputation for performing tales of beauty and wit that run the gamut from searingly provocative to absurdly hilarious.  They have earned an international reputation for virtuosity, substance, craft, and pure abandonment.

… they made dances about real people, creating metaphors of trust, loss and cooperation.

RDT became acquainted with the choreographic duo in the mid 1990’s. I was initially impressed with their remarkable method of collaboration and their inventive use of props. In 1996, RDT was able to acquire a short but unique dance featuring items from World War II army surplus.  The work highlights close coordination as dancers leap, catapult, catch and soar with the aid of two vintage blankets. I never tire of watching the daring RDT dancers execute tireless and unexpected movement on the edge of chaos.

"Dance With Two Army Blankets"
“Dance With Two Army Blankets”
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“Turf” featuring dancer, Katherine Winder

When Utah was named as the site for the 2002 Winter Olympics, I began to commission works that celebrated the spirit of human excellence, human effort and human creativity. I invited Shapiro & Smith to choreograph a work that would make a statement about the spirit of friendly competition, ownership and territory. Turf was created as part of a series of Millennium Commissions leading up to the Olympic celebration which encouraged a way of living based on the joy found in effort.

Turf was created as part of a series of Millennium Commissions leading up to the Olympic celebration which encouraged a way of living based on the joy found in effort.

We were heartbroken when Danny Shapiro died of complications from prostate cancer in 2006. Joanie kept Shapiro & Smith Dance going and began creating works on her own. RDT’s association with her continued. In 2013, we presented her Bolero on a concert honoring the strength and courage of men and women in the armed forces. Bolero is a thrill ride of a dance about the dynamic tensions that define the human experience. The dance explores the endless nature of physical struggle, from war to personal ordeal. It is a dance that demands much of those who perform it as it tests the limits of physicality. Bolero is explosive, with the dancers and momentum never letting up until after the final note.

bolero800x400
“Bolero” performed in 2013.

Joanie’s distinctive wit is highlighted in two new acquisitions that put a spin on classic children’s games and nursery rhythms. Jack and Pat-a-Cake remind us that dance cannot only document history, comment on social issues and inspire a dialogue … it can also make us smile. This is a wonderful way to start celebrating the holidays.

"Jack" performed by Tyler Orcutt and Justin Bass
“Jack” performed by Tyler Orcutt and Justin Bass

We hope you’ll join us for a weekend of joy.

Get tickets here>>

Linda C. Smith is the Executive/Artistic Director of RDT.  A founding member of the Company, she now divides her time between preparing budgets for grants and wrangling dancers in the studio.  She also likes to vacuum the RDT Offices.