Who gives a Graham?

Jeanne Ruddy Dance
Open Studio Showing
Friday, January 8, 2010
Performance Garage
1515 Brandywine Street
6:00pm

Despite the global economic crisis and the constant strain and restraint held on our city’s artistic resources, Philadelphia has maintained the ability to boast a vibrant and expanding dance community. The scene, like most art groups here, has had its ups and downs with larger theaters struggling to make ends meet and smaller, newer theaters barely making it to the infant stages of development. Grants for non-profit 501 (c)(3) organizations are not only far and few between, but the requirements are becoming more demanding and the competition has augmented because of this. While there are tremendous amounts of opportunities for some of the burgeoning dance troupes, the audiences are dwindling and many companies have to rely on touring ventures despite the break-even standard when it comes to financing a traveling show. Independent artists don’t have to rely on the non-profit umbrella as much as years past, but still, dancer’s salaries alone can eat up a grant faster than you can say “5, 6, 7, 8”.

There are a few independent artist who were able to overcome most of the initial hardships that a lot of choreographers and artistic directors are facing. Now they have reputable companies that are technically the juggernauts of the industry but still struggle with keeping their business afloat, being kept alive by the foundation support that is their main source of income.

Jeanne Ruddy is one of those performance makers that is virtually a shoe-in for funding in Philadelphia. Since the inception of her Performance Garage nestled between 15th and 16th street on the now gentrified Brandywine Street just north of Chinatown, Ruddy has managed to oil a machine that cranks out great dance performances and serves as a hub for artistic advancement and achievement. The ex-Graham company member has one of the most successful dance studios/companies in the city.

The renovated garage is a comfortable, arty space with paint scabbed exposed brick walls with a platform Marley dance floor placed in the center of one of the garage areas. Adjacent to that, there is another dance studio, more true to form, with a barre and mirror at the front and Marley dance floor throughout. There is a modern Ikea-ized kitchen and two bathrooms next to that, and the office sits center stage between the dance studio and the larger dance space that sits in the garage area. The huge garage doors have been refinished in a industrial style with expensive looking (teak?) wood, with small windows near the top. The space is carpeted and there are risers on one side of the dance platform. There are also “mirrors” in the space, makeshift mirrors that are mylar-covered boards on wheels that can be placed in front of the dance space to make it more rehearsal friendly. There are a few paintings and dance photographs scattered throughout and the whole place has the feel of a creative workshop.

This evening’s studio showing was a behind-the-scenes look at Ruddy’s newest work, Lark, to be presented during their spring season. We were to be treated to a techniques class demonstration, a talk about the musical creation for the piece, a demonstration of the choreographic process and a showing of a few excerpts from Lark.

Studio showings are becoming commonplace in the dance theater world. Not only to increase revenue to support the work, but it is also a good point of contention when a company is seeking funding. Studio showings are vehicles that address the issue of community outreach. By exposing potential audiences to works-in-progress, the company is engaging them in the artistic process, thus creating a foundation for learning and inclusion.

Not only is this good for marketing and development, studio showings are an important ingredient for a choreographer to manipulate their canvas in order to express their ideas to the fullest extent. By gauging an audience’s reaction and seeing the work performed without any of the dancers’ usual inhibitions during rehearsals, the choreographer can get a feel of the overall picture instead of concentrating on small parts of a work at a time. It can encourage the dance maker to change a certain part or add something new. It’s a valuable learning experience for all.

Many younger choreographers are utilizing this technique to improve their artistic development. Studio showings are the equivalent to a playwright’s staged reading. Even the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival has developed a new program with which to showcase works that are being developed. There is this new philosophy of coercing dialog in order to expand the art outside of its orthodox context.

With Lark, not only is Ruddy working hard at developing new techniques of development, but within the art, she has taken a step out side of her Martha Graham box and has started to work on something very much out of her element while sticking to her roots. Lark is much more free-flowing and patient that some of her previous works.

This may be due to the fact that she worked off of her composer’s cue. Usually she will have an idea and basis for choreography before the music is selected, or she will use music for the idea, but focus more on the choreographic elements. This time, she asked her music composer, Ellen Fishman-Johnson, to develop score for her piece and she was to add the choreography based on what she created.

Fishman-Johnson developed a well-rounded and versatile set using the examination of air and breath as the basis. She used audio recordings of the dancers inhaling and exhaling and added the sampling to live instruments in order to create this harmony of voluntary and involuntary sound movement.

This created a palette for Ruddy to make her dances. Since it was her first time concentrating on musicality, she began with mocking gestures with her dancers. The dancers were asked to walk around each other, exclaiming what it is they liked about their style of dance. During the course of this exercise, Ruddy mentally recorded the movements that the dancers were doing with their hands. She added on more technical phrases and developed the movements for the choreography from there.

She showed us this process during the studio showing but first she showed us a sampling of a Graham technique class. She pointed out many of the body positions and breathing techniques that are utilized. She also had us stand up and instructed us on how to do a balance movement exercise, explaining to us how difficult it is. After the technique exhibition and the choreographic process, she sat down with the musical composer and talked about the process aforementioned.

Then it was on to a preview of the work. The first thing you notice is that much of the dance is not as Graham-like as one might expect. It isn’t as emotional and dramatic as some of the Graham technique that Ruddy has used so many times before. The sporadic nature of the music seems to have rustled Ruddy a little bit, causing her to create less patterns and choreograph more freely. The dancers seemed as though they weren’t really being challenged and a few of them looked bored.

While there was a lot of beauty in the routines and some great partnering, there was a definite lack of passion exuding from the dances. Some of the phrases were noticeably not synchronized, but it gave way to an individuality that is rarely seen in the Graham world. Perhaps because all the spectacle was stripped down and there were no lighting cues and props, the display of dance was watered down and not as inspired. Ruddy is good with exuberance and presentation; this piece doesn’t speak to the business of show as many of her past works have. Still, it is always nice to see someone so in love with the old school break out of their comfort zone and try something new and advanced. You could even see her struggling to grasp on to the future in the silver costumes she conceptualized. A nice leap forward, a big step backward, a fall and a recovery.

In this city we have a tremendous amount of young dancers and choreographers who believe in the power of post modern dance and they refuse to give up on discovering new innovations. The pioneer will never die as long as art is alive, and oh so many deaths it has overcome! While we are all trying to be the next new thing, we cannot deny that our predecessors gave us valuable tools and technique for us to build our own foundations. As much as we hate ballet, we still get all warm and fuzzy when we go to see “Swan Lake” and every time we go to a Graham class, we get all nostalgic and remember why we fell in love in the first place. No matter how far we go, we will always remember and respect where we came from.

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