Progress in Work

Artists are sadists and masochists.

Any dancer will tell you without much regret or remorse, that there is nothing like the sweet pain that occurs before, during and after a dance class. The wonderful, pained, glowing grimaces on a dancer’s face after a long, strenuous, repetitive routine creates adrenaline and endorphins much like those found in the speculative “runner’s high” people endure while jogging.

I miss the days of college where my back ached, my arms were laden with stinging pain and it was difficult to climb stairs without wincing. There’s something about that reminder, that physical trophy of determination and achievement. It makes you feel like your work is worthwhile.

And then there are the Ballet Masters and Mistresses (note the S/M connotations). Not only do you spend hours in front of a mirror, staring at your every imperfection, in tight clothing no less, but you have these demanding perfectionists who not only want you to do better than perfect, they are taking their own personal bitterness out on you because you have to live up to what they can’t be or do anymore. Nice teachers are boring. You never learn anything from them. The good teachers are the ones who torment you and make you feel like you’ll never be good enough. They are the ones who make you do push ups and sit ups and make you hold your leg up for an extra eight counts, and just one more eight count, and just one more…

The dance studio aside, once you get out into the real world, there’s the nerve wracking auditions, the impossible grant proposals, the awkward networking. The physical pain dissipates slightly while the emotional pain augments.

For me, the greatest self-torture comes from seeing other’s work. I once had a longer than was necessary chat with one of my theater professors (before I made the leap to dance) about the necessity of seeing art. Writers should read and write everyday. Painters should practice their foundation on a regular basis. Musicians should play their etudes until their fingers bleed. Singers should do their scales daily. Photographers should take their camera wherever they go. Actors should read and go to plays regularly. Dancers must stay in shape. Filmmakers should constantly be in the theater. What we all have in common though, beyond the practice of practice, is that we have to immerse ourselves in our chosen craft, and that can be painful in itself.

When I had this chat with the aforementioned professor (We’ll call him Mr. Red), I was very much 18 years old and kind of lost and wondering what the fuck it is that I was doing at a Catholic college, and how it was going to help me succeed. I had a raging crush on Mr. Red. He wore red a lot (Cranberry actually), was always sharply dressed, smoked cigars and wore fedora hats and he was ambiguously gay, like any theater arts teacher. All flirting aside, we talked about some of the trouble I was having in class. I expressed my concern (read: conceitedness) regarding the fact that his theater arts class was taking a turn for the worst because the majority of the students were more privy to Broadway musicals (“Rent” was on Broadway at the time) rather than the classical theater we were supposed to be studying. He had asked me what was the last play I had seen was, and embarrassed I told him it had been a while, but I was constantly reading plays, and I was inspired to read more thanks to the required readings on his syllabus. I will never forget how he reprimanded me for not seeing theater despite my passion for theater and my desire to become a theater artist. I explained that it was difficult for me to enjoy theater because I am so analytical and I was always paying way too much attention to the technical aspects of the show. He thought it was admirable, but still he insisted that I reconsider my trepidations. I couldn’t say anything else but “Yes sir.”

Still to this day I am busy looking at who is or isn’t spotting their turns, what’s going on in the wings, why the designer or director choose to use footlights, the delays, the mishaps, the costumes, the music…It reminds me of a scene from Velvet Goldmine that is a film “loosely based on” the rise and fall and rise again of David Bowie’s career in the 70s and 80s. There is a scene where he gets booed off the stage and is walking to leave and he starts to hear a band play. There is a character “loosely based on” Iggy Pop who screams at the top of his lungs, is wearing tight leather pants and no shirt, proceeds to pour oil all over his body, then glitter, then he pulls off his pants while flipping the bird to the audience. It all ends in a blaze of fire and his stage diving into the uproarious audience. Later in the film, the main character says something like “I wish I would have thought of that” with a pained look on his face. So inspired, so envious, so angry.

I get that feeling a lot.

Last week I attended the first (for me) Philadelphia Live Arts Festival Second Thursdays Series. It is an informal gathering (or so they say) in which artists that are a part of the Live Arts residency program show their works in progress to a live audience. Other artists are invited, and it is primarily a resource for them to show their stuff to the powers that be that choose the programming for the festival. Underneath the surface, it is a taxing process. While it is a wonderful opportunity for the artist to get ideas on how to better their work based on the audience’s reactions and questions, it’s kind of like being under a microscope. You have to prove yourself that you are doing something worthwhile that people will want to see. You have to make the case that you are doing something innovative and valuable to the Philadelphia (mainstream) arts scene and that you deserve money to produce your work. I think that’s why they serve beer at these functions.

We were first treated to a performance by Charlotte Ford who received acclaim and success working with Pig Iron Theater’s show at last year’s festival. She is working on a new character for a piece entitled “Chicken”. The character is a male, clown-like character, who is charming and raunchy and has a way with the ladies. The entire performance piece was done in an almost vaudeville improvisational style, engaging the audience and getting them involved not only with the jokes, but with the punchlines. It was a nice start to the evening of presentations. Charlotte has an obvious natural ability to keep an audience engaged and amused all with a boisterous, compelling and welcomed intrusion. Even when the Q&A started, she did not break character, and it made the whole experience that much more worthwhile and entertaining. Her experience working in non-traditional theater forms with 1812 Productions and Pig Iron as well as independently, make her well-suited to produce innovative works the likes of which Philadelphia has yet to experience. A fan of Todd Solondz and Christopher Guest and a scholar of clown arts, I expect to continue to see big things from this unique performance artist.

Next up, Nichole Canuso gave us a show-and-tell of her current project called “TAKES”. It is a physical theater dance piece that uses live video of the real-time performance as well as delayed and spliced footage of the piece intertwined with the overall work. The set is constructed out of a light scrim material in the shape of a box and there are sparse set pieces placed in the box. In the video that she showed, there was a lot of improvisation with solo and duet work (her co-dancer/collaborator was Dito van Reigersberg of Pig Iron Theater and Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret fame). The piece aims to engage the audience by placing the “box” in the middle of the performance space so the audience can walk around the “box” and experience the performance from different perspectives. There is more of an idea that is being choreographed rather than dance, but there were some movement variations that were really attractive in their simple yet intricate ways.

Choreographer Marianela Boan showed excerpts of her latest work entitled “Decadere”
(from Latin: to decay). Her piece about the wretched innards of cooperate America and the workforce is the culmination of a year-long collaboration with composers and dancers. It is another multi-media dance theater work incorporating live video, music and lots of props. She started working with her dancers by developing a movement motif based on daily activities seen in office work and expounded these phrases into large, complex dances and interactions rife with physicality and vigor. Despite the seriousness of the inspiration for its content, the work is full of humorous irony and spectacle. She too is vying for a spot on the Live Arts Festival roster, and gave a detailed account of the message she was trying to convey with “Decadere” even though the depiction was quite clear and cohesive. The work is exhausting, clocking in at over an hour of continuous dance and theater with only four dancers, but lends this aspect to the resounding implications of the object she is satirizing. On a personal note, I was happy to see that she had solicited the talent of Scott McPheeters, a Philadelphia-based dance artist whom I have had the pleasure of working with but was unable to utilize his strengths due to the setting of the pieces I choreographed him for that took place in a cabaret environment. McPheeters is a rare breed, not only for his Y chromosome, but he is one of those daring, fearless dancers that can do inexplicable combinations, contorting his body in astounding ways while maintaining a air of gracefulness and effortlessness.

In the end, I was extremely bitter that I wasn’t presenting any work comparable to what I saw that night, but at the same time I was wildly inspired. There was a joy that came with the pain of seeing really good art come to fruition despite the never ending chore for choreographers and artists to find the money, time and talent with which to produce their own shows.

I talked to Boan and McPheeters after the presentation and commented to them on the wonderful variety of achievements that “Decadere” owns. I told McPheeters about some of the pieces I had recently done and what I would like to work on. I explained my difficulties in disposition regarding the way I was going about putting work together. I spoke of scheduling and funding issues of course, but also that I have several unfinished works that I want to finish, but I keep getting distracted and inspired to come up with new ideas altogether.

As mentioned before, I was most recently inspired when I heard tap dancing in one of the studios in the theater where I had my last show. One of the dancers, Kellie, had exclaimed to me that she would love to do a tap piece and that that was her forte. It was not surprising although her concentration was for Jazz dance at UArts. I thought with the last piece that it would be easy to compose something that would be more symmetrical and synchronized with her and the other dancer that was in my piece entitled “Sisters”. Once I got the two girls together I realized that they couldn’t be anymore different, Kellie is a consummate Jazz dancer while Melissa strives at Ballet and Musical Theater styles. And here I was trying to put a Modern piece together, my personal strength. It worked out in the end, but now I know my dancers a little better and can proceed accordingly.

I have Toni who is the physically strong one with the ability to project emotion who does well with modern Jazz and Lyrical dance. There is Meagan who is my Modern go-to. Tammy is the quick and quirky one who is somewhere in between Modern and Jazz. There is Gillian who is the perfect Ballet girl. Melissa excels at Ballet (en pointe even) and is the primary muse for my Burlesque endeavors. Kellie is the Jazz pro who now I know is great at Tap, so I have all the talent I need that runs the gamut of techniques. Now all I need is a boy or two.

I may just go with my gut and start working on these new pieces. I want to choreograph a solo to Tom Waits’ “Down in the Hole” that infuses Modern and Tap dance. And just last night while hanging out with a friend I was supremely inspired by Vivaldi’s Winter I that he was listening to in the car as he drove me home. Both are amazing pieces of music that go well with my style and ideas. With the Tap and Modern number I was looking for a song that was blues-y, had a Negro spiritual feel and that was totally rock-n’-roll. The second piece just kind of happened. I’m going to apply for another showcase in January but for the time being, I have to get back in the studio before the queue gets backed up again. It hurts so bad that I can’t do it everyday.

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