Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Fine Art Of Imbuing Motion With Meaning

Born in 1879, Rudolf van Laban studied sculpture at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and established a choreographic institute in Zurich at the age of 45. In 1928, he published "Kinetographie Laban," which has since evolved into labanotation and become the primary tool for documenting a choreographer's creations for future generations of dancers.

It is largely through the use of labanotation that many great dance pieces from the past can today be performed on stages around the world. The great Kenneth MacMillan (who served as Principal Choreographer for the Royal Ballet until he died in 1992) created numerous ballets which remain active in today's repertoire. One of his greatest works (choreographed to Sergei Prokofiev's 1938 score for Romeo and Juliet) premiered in 1965 with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn as Shakespeare's famous star-crossed lovers.

In the following clip from a 2007 performance at the Royal Ballet, Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo perform the famous balcony scene pas de deux from MacMillan's version of Romeo and Juliet.

Two groups which have helped to catalogue and document the musical dance numbers created for Broadway musicals are Dancers Over 40 and Lee Becker Theodore's dance troupe, American Dance Machine. Designed to be a "living archive" of dances created for Broadway shows, ADM paid tribute to the work of such theatre choreographers as Michael Kidd, Ron Field, Onna White, Bob Fosse, and Peter Gennaro during its 1978 run on Broadway.  In the following clip, Gwen Verdon introduces Joe Layton's choreography for the "Popularity" number from 1968's George M!.

Originally choreographed by Michael Fokine in 1905, The Dying Swan has become closely associated with such famous prima ballerinas as Anna Pavlova,Natalia Dudinskaya, Alicia Markova, and Maya Plisetskaya.

Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832) is remembered for suggesting that "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Perhaps that is how a keen awareness of ballet history, a passion for performance tradition, and a solid grip on labanotation combined forces to create this hilarious spoof of The Dying Swan performed by "Maya Thickenthighya" of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.

Choreography (which is defined as "the art of designing sequences of movements in which motion, form, or both are specified) is one of man's oldest art forms. Often found in primitive societies, choreography was used in tribal rites of passage, as well as rituals related to hunting, fertility, and agriculture.

In Hawaiian culture, the hula combined chanting, song, and dance as a means of communicating a long cultural history and passing it from one generation to another. In the following clip, Ke Kai O Kahiki's performance at the 2010 Moku O Keawe International Hula Festival offers a classic demonstration of the hula's powerful storytelling capability:

What happens when choreography is inspired by a clash of cultures? Or a loss of one's culture? Two films recently screened at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival offered fascinating insights.

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There's a neat homophonic trick hiding in the title of Christopher Woon's new documentary. Despite the presence of a silent "H," the words "Among" and "Hmong" sound very much alike. The reason Among B-Boys was chosen as the film's title rather than "Hmong B-Boys" is called marketing.

Poster art for Among B-Boys

As the film's production notes explain:
"Among B-Boys is a documentary film about the Hmong-American youth community, and how the Hip Hop dance form of B-boying or break dancing fits into their lives. The film builds a meta-narrative starting with the Hmong families' refugee experiences and the origins of the Hmong B-Boy in California’s Central Valley B-Boy scene. The narrative continues as later generations navigate secondary migration, higher education, their changing family structures, and simply growing up. Just like the rest of the B-Boy/B-Girl world, many of these Hmong youth are on a quest for respect and even fame through their skills. In this search for success in the Breaking world, these youth must strike a balance between their Hmong and B-Boy identities. They also wrestle with the viability of continuing to dance into adulthood. By exploring their love of Hip Hop and B-boying, they empower themselves by developing their own ideas of history, community, and self. This film is a unique insight into the construction of a Hmong-American identity.
Among B-Boys was created as Chris’s personal inquiry into the intersection of Hip Hop and Asian-American identities, having grown up with a less ethnocentric and more pan Asian-American sensibility. His concern was with the lack of examples, especially growing up in the 1990s, of Asian-American images in Hip Hop media productions. While acknowledging Hip Hop’s roots in in the culture of an Afro-diasporic New York City in the 1970s, there was a disconnect in media projections of Hip Hop and the growing plurality of Hip Hop’s practitioners. Among B-Boys has become a bridge of understanding as a group of youth might adapt and adopt the aesthetics and ideologies of Hip Hop as its own."

Adaptability is often cited as the key to survival. Among the points I found most interesting about Among B-Boys were the following:
  • As in many immigrant communities, it is the first bilingual generation that starts to assert itself as leaders. 
  • The B-Boys in Woon's film demonstrate no qualms about learning a popular dance skill and making it their own.
  • Although keenly aware that their careers as break dancers may be even shorter than those of ballet dancers, the Hmong B-boys in Woon's film have found a way to use break dancing to give their newfound identity as Asian-Americans a unique strength and personal meaning.
  • Because many of these dancers have younger siblings, there is a sense of urgency that future generations be taught how to break dance at an early age (whether in their garages or living rooms) in order to provide them an activity to which they can dedicate their teen years instead of joining a gang.
Like many films about the impact of the arts on young minds (Mad Hot Ballroom, Louder than A Bomb, Most Valuable Players, and Shakespeare High), Among B-Boys has some fascinating, funny, and poignant moments. Here's the trailer:

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First introduced to audiences in the 1910 Broadway musical, Madame Sherry, a song composed by Karl Hoschna featured Otto Harbach's famous lyric:
"Every little movement has a meaning all its own.
Every thought and feeling by some posture can be shown.
And every love thought that comes a-stealing
All your being must be revealing
All its sweetness in some appealing
Little gesture all its own."
In so many ways, that lyric explains the art created by Suzushi Hanayagi over a career lasting seven decades and split between Japan and New YorkRichard Rutkowski's new documentary, The Space In Back of You, looks back on the 20-year period during which Hanayagi was a close artistic collaborator with playwright/director Robert Wilson.

Poster art for The Space In Back Of You

Hanayagi's early training in traditional Japanese dance was followed by several decades working in modern dance as a performer, choreographer, and teacher. While the film includes insights from artists such as Anna HalprinDavid Byrne, and Molly Davies, it is very much a tribute from Robert Wilson to honor the woman he considered his friend, partner, and artistic mentor.

Shots of the elderly, wheelchair-bound Hanayagi living in a special care facility in Osaka (where her mental and physical strength has been sapped by a combination of old age and Alzheimer's disease) offers a stunning contrast to the vitality of her early years when she participated in the Judson Dance Theatre or when she later worked on Wilson's operatic project with composer Philip Glass entitled The Civil Wars: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down.

The film also follows Wilson as he works with some dancers to create an homage to Hanayagi to be performed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Here's the trailer:

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One of the greatest send-ups of ballet can be seen in Fantasia (the groundbreaking piece of animation released by Walt Disney in 1940). With its chubby-chasing zeal, Disney's comic treatment of the Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda (the 1876 opera by Amilcare Ponchielli) never fails to elicit plenty of laughs.

Seventy years later, technology has added so much depth and clarity to animation that we often take its strengths for granted. The recipient of this year's Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film uses a fetching combination of computer animation, miniatures, and 2D animation to bring William Joyce's delightful story, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, to life.

Co-director Brandon Oldenburg drew inspiration from 1939's The Wizard of Oz, 2005's Hurricane Katrina, and the silent films of Buster Keaton to weave a captivating tale about the never-ending love affair between books and book lovers. What's fascinating to watch is how the film's choreography (these books have legs) gives so much movement to a story that is really about the magic of literacy.

I tip my hat to Moonbot Studios of Shreveport, Louisiana for creating a charming piece of animation -- a work in which ideas dance and books become heroes. Enjoy!

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