on dancing while playing the cello (part 3: Performers as Co-Creators)…

A recent piece by  Sugar Vendil titled Performers as Co-Creators at NewMusicBox discusses a current piece using musicians as dancers and brings up many of the issues I’ve discussed in my previous two installments of this on dancing while playing the cello series. The Nouveau Classical Project is developing a piece, Potential Energies, which will premiere in Brooklyn at BAM Fisher on May 29.

A couple years ago the UMD Symphony Orchestra performed Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” from memory, with movement design by choreographer Liz Lerman.

And more recently performed Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” in a similar manner.

The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performing Copland's "Appalachian Spring"
The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performing Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”

What we’re seeing may or may not be a trend towards larger forces attempting to include choreography into live classical music concerts with the musicians as dancers.  Large musical groups doing choreography aren’t a new thing. Nor is having a group of classically trained musicians co-choreographing works designed specifically for musician-dancer-actors: as I mentioned in both previous installments of this series, Tales and Scales has been doing this for over thirty years now while also integrating speaking and singing roles into the mix. What’s interesting is that the conjunction of choreography of live musicians is happening with groups which aren’t specifically designed for that particular function (the UMDO case) or are being created as a new form of artistic collaboration (the Nouveau Classical Project case).

As I mentioned in the previous installments, I almost auditioned for Tales and Scales back in ’96, but decided I wasn’t ready to take that direction.  I had already done a few works choreographing some avant garde music which I also performed during my early Chello Shed days so it wouldn’t have been a big stretch for me then.  In the intervening years I haven’t had a chance to revisit that until my recent performances with Secondhand (specifically the Shiva-cellist/Kali-dancer performance from March 2013) and now with my Interactive Video/Cello/Electronics project, Camera Lucida.

The goal with the Camera Lucida is to start developing pieces in close collaboration with dancers and include me more actively as choreographer/dancer. One of the set pieces I’ve developed for us has made me turn the cello into a percussion instrument which lays flat on a table–percussionists tend to be the most movement oriented of musicians who actually have to figure out how to choreograph while using a vast array of instruments spread out over a large proportion of the performing space. My piece, titled “Before Anesthesia” forces me to approach the instrument more in that manner and as it usually comprises a small segment of our show, I will have to pick up the instrument and move to a seated position (and sometimes back to the standing position) while playing it.

At the end of this video of a performance we recently did with the Blue Moves Modern Dance Company in Nashville shows me playing a sustained note as I slowly pick up the instrument in prep for the next portion where I’m seated and playing. Also, with the interactive video, projection what I and the dancers are doing in real-time, the unintentional choreography of merely playing the cello becomes more pronounced in a way that isn’t as prominent without projection.

As Sugar Vendil states:

It was clear from the start that musicians would need to contribute movement ideas because the musicians knew what their bodies were capable of doing while playing their instruments, and our goal was to create movement that was as natural and uncontrived as possible.

This is obviously going to be a different concern for different types of instruments. I’ve recently started performing the cello in some contexts while using a guitar strap which is a much nicer (and more stable) solution than simply extending the endpin out for a standing position. While I generally hate standing while playing the cello–having the mobility that the guitar strap provides gives me much more room for movement and was the main reason I wanted to adopt using it. Of course, the first time I did use it was with my rock band, Mercy Academy, and many cellists in bands have used it specifically for the purpose of being able to move around or “rock out.” I’ve wanted to do it because I really want to explore choreography in performance–especially with other dancers.

Vendil also says:

Co-creation is something not often explored in the classical genre, and after working on Potential Energies, I’ve been thinking about how the choreographer-dancer process could be applied in creating new compositions. I know that composers and performers often collaborate, but it often seems limited to commissioning and/or sharing ideas about performance execution rather than the creation of material.

I’m curious to see how this musician/dancer grows and seeing it happen with larger forces indicates that something is evolving in that direction. While I’m not sure it particularly useful having musicians choreograph older established works (why not collaborate with dancers more actively since there’s also the trend to used canned music for dance performances) I think the creation of new works with the musicians as co-creators/dancers/movement artists or choreographers can be a vibrant new performance genre.

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Read more posts in my Singing and Dancing while playing the Cello series.

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