Collaborators blend dance, music, and story to present Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet
Though Neglia Ballet premiered their Romeo and Juliet in 2008, this marks the first time it will be performed with live music. “There is no comparing a performance with live music to a performance with CD,” says Halt. “The actual sound of the music is so much richer.”
Indeed, the audience and the dancers are more keenly aware of the details of Prokofiev’s score, one of ballet’s most lush and lyrical orchestrations, in a performance with live musicians. “My favorite music is when Juliet has a moment of clarity before her tragic end and at that moment she resolves to do what she has to do. The melody of the bedroom pas de deux, the lovers’ farewell, is repeated but much stronger and somewhat desperate. For me it is the climax of the score,” observes choreographer Sergio Neglia, who is also the production’s Romeo.
Unlike other ballet narratives, which can have sketchy storylines and a variety of musical interpretations, Prokofiev provides a “roadmap” through Shakespeare’s very familiar plot. “The music tells me exactly what needs to happen in Romeo and Juliet,” says Neglia, who like Prokofiev, sticks closely to the original character-driven tragedy. Adds Halt, “Sergio is a great storyteller and is quite remarkable in conveying what he wants. When he demonstrates the character, he is the character.”
Neglia often takes on several of these roles almost simultaneously during his choreographic process, admitting that this can sometimes drive his cast crazy.
More than simply a dance company, Several Dancers Core is a multifaceted organization which includes a variety of performance and community-oriented initiatives. Not only that, it is a conglomerate that operates within two very different cities — Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia. Sue Schroeder co-founded the company with her sister in Houston almost thirty years ago but shifted a portion of the organization’s operation and outreach to Atlanta in the mid-1980′s. Since then, they have produced and presented mirrored programs in each city that still manage to mesh with the two unique communities they serve.
Later this month, CORE Performance Company will present an evening of dance entitled THREE at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex in Houston. The performance will include three works, by three female choreographers, from three different locales.
Sue Schroeder, Several Dancers Core founder and artistic director, took some time to talk with me about THREE.
Tell us a little bit about how the project began for you and the company.
We have a history of inviting outside artists to come in and create original work for us and with us. As this project manifested I was scheduling to take my first sabbatical ever in 29 years. I proposed to the company that we work together to select choreographers to come in during my absence to create. The process of selection started at the end of 2006.
Why three choreographers?
One would have been an evening length; Two would have been contrasting or comparing internally, as well as from an audience point-of-view; Three felt more diverse. A lot of names were brought in. I contributed some, the dancers contributed some. My criteria was that this artist would bring to the company some new information to stimulate how we work and how we process information. Other qualifiers were that there be two international choreographers and one American, and that they be a professional that we felt we could be with for an extended period of time. Each artist was with the company for six weeks and, when you’re around someone for that long, you want to get along. Alicia Sanchez, we knew and had presented her work. Beppie Blankert had taught some workshops for us many years ago, and Polly and I danced many many years ago together with Space Dance Theatre in Houston.
It’s interesting that all three choreographers are women. There have been initiatives in New York City (Project Next Generation and Dancing Through the Ceiling are two programs) that focus on supporting women in the field of choreography. It is a realm often dominated by men. As a female choreographer, have you experienced the difficulties female choreographers face? And did this issue have anything to do with your choice to spotlight female choreographers in THREE?
There were men in the pool of choreographers. We never said we were going to pick three women but we did look back and say, “This is another layer of putting the work near each other.” I am very honored that we can support women in the field in this particular way, though. In certain circles, when competing for a residency or performance opportunity there are times when there is a men’s circle you can’t penetrate. Yes, it can be disappointing but you don’t give up, you just find another way to get your work seen and shown, and acknowledge that’s just part of the business side of the dance world. I don’t think it’s just dance, it’s the art world and, if you take it out further, it’s the regular world. But there is a lot of interesting and powerful work out there made by women.
Your company spent a good bit of time in Holland and Mexico while working on this project. Were there challenges?
When living and working in another culture there’s a lot of adjusting going on. You’re trying to be in the creative process, and you’re very vulnerable, and you’re not at home, and people aren’t speaking your language, and the food is different. It can be challenging and very stimulating simultaneously. Beppie speaks very fluent English. There was still some cultural nuance but not so much. Whereas Alicia spoke very little English. We had to keep a translator going the whole time and that is a very taxing way to rehearse; to make work when you are having to translate someone’s artistic vision from one language to another. The translating surprised us the first time but we knew what to expect and were ready for it the second.
Without giving away too much, can you tell us a bit about each of the three works?
Beppie Blankert’s work Cumulus uses e.e. cummings text interwoven with Charles Ives music. In her work, she is very interested in Ives as a composer. She came in with some things to try and it evolved with the dancers. It’s a physical dance piece that has performance elements. The quartet (three women and a man) speak the e.e. cummings text, it’s not recorded.
Alicia Sanchez’s work, Tus Pasos Encontrados or “Your Found Steps,” narrative elements, but not in a linear way. She does movement theatre and there is text. The women are in high heels. She’s always throwing off the comfort level and that’s exactly how she pushes her process.
Polly Motley’s piece Charmed Romantics, is a quintet. She had movement that she had worked with in the 80′s that she wanted to re-approach — some duet material. And we talked about that because the company doesn’t really do existing work. But she’s got this whole new work and it has a seed from this original movement phrase. What’s luscious about her is that she gets to the pure movement approach through improvisation.
The works are really very distinctive. Polly’s is highly athletic and technical dance with an American post-modern aesthetic. Alicia’s feels very theatrical, with heels, odd props, and theatrical lighting. You get a sense of the Mexican cultural influence and aesthetic. Beppie’s is maybe somewhere in between in that it’s got text but it’s the most unifying text, in a way. I think it will show the company’s versatility in doing some very different work.
Let’s go back in time a bit and talk about SDC’s two-city transition. The oil crisis of the 80′s made it difficult to maintain a company in Houston at the time and so you found a second home in Atlanta. I think most company directors would have just moved the entire operation to Atlanta and washed their hands of Houston altogether. I realize that you grew up here and that you have family here but, is there more to what motivates you to maintain a connection?
We regularly check ourselves in our mission, our vision, and our values to see if the two-city operation serves us. We are so fed by our work in Houston artistically. There is a very interesting and powerful influence from the visual arts community which does not exist in Atlanta and that we can’t get anywhere else. We love what that does for the company itself.
In addition, we have an annual commission from the Museum of Fine Arts. They are so incredibly giving to kind of let us do what we want in the museum and pick the exhibitions we want. We have a similar unobtrusive relationship with the Bayou City Arts Festival and we’ve had a long relationship with the Houston Area Women’s Center. We’re constantly getting to create and perform new work through these really meaningful partnerships, the seeds of which were maybe back there in ’86. Maybe home kept me wanting to be connected, but those partnerships have really thrived for us over almost 30 years.
We’re glad that CORE does so much performing here because we can forgive you for recently luring away two of Houston’s finest male dancers, Corian Elisor and Alex Abarca. Honestly, we’re happy for them. Corian and Alex walked into a full-time position, which is rare in contemporary dance. Many groups struggle to pay and maintain a consistent group of company members. I understand that for the first time, despite this economy, you’ve been able to offer 30 hours per week to your dancers. Is there some secret that other organizations are missing?
We’ve definitely made it a priority. And, I think I probably have a gift that I can look at the business side and the arts side and make some sense of how to speak of it, be passionate, gain support for it, and organize things so that funders can look at us and know that we’re accountable. Having this much history validates us. And, we always give back to the community. Everything we do, we do in partnership with somebody. Those partnerships sow a lot of goodwill, which can get you a lot. It’s not contrived; we believe in it. Our organization operates as a microcosm of a community; it’s not a hierarchy. It’s very much a shared leadership in the organization.
So, after THREE, what’s next for the performing company?
THREE will close out our season this year. The plan for next season is to tour THREE to the home cities of each of the choreographers, Mexico City, Amsterdam, and Burlington, Vermont. We have been simultaneously reworking my most recent work, Corazón Abriendo, which we made in relationship to the Maya in the Chiapas region of Mexico. We will tour that next season as well, going back to Mexico and a few other places. I’ll also be creating a new work called The Point. We have access to the work of San Diego writer, Raymond Federman, who has a very interesting writing style and is a contemporary of Samuel Beckett’s, and we’ll be working with German composer, Christian Meyer.
Performances of THREE will take place April 30, May 1-2 at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Center. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets here. Visit the Several Dancers CORE website for more information.
After premiering an excerpt of her work, Lost and Found, at Big Range Festival in 2006, Teresa Chapman was proclaimed “a choreographer to watch” by Houston dance writer, Nancy Wozny. Chapman, an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Houston, has enjoyed a varied career as a performer, choreographer, and instructor. She is an adjunct artist with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and a member of Travesty Dance Group-Houston.
Along with choreographer and performing artist Leslie Scates and designer Frederique deMontblanc, Chapman will premiere a new work April 3 in the DiverseWorks Theater. The Convenient Woman is a dance-theatre performance that provides a personal and satirical look at our culture’s obsession with conveniences, afflictions of dissatisfaction and discontent, and pursuit of the feminine ideal. Chapman takes a moment from her busy schedule to talk with me about this collaborative project.
Can you describe the circumstances that planted this seed of collaboration with Leslie Scates?
I danced with Leslie in Karen [Stokes]‘ company (Travesty Dance Group) some time ago and I’ve always appreciated her energy and performance abilities. In addition, I am fascinated by her approach to choreography and use of improvisation to create unpredictable patterns. I knew this would be a very small cast, just 2 women and I thought she would be the perfect dance artist to ask to collaborate with. I was right.
Leslie is known, in particular, for her spontaneous dance creations. What is the ratio of choreographed vs. improvisational score in this work?
I think it’s an interesting mix. Some sections begin with set material, then slide into a structured score. We used improvisation to develop a few of the sections, then set the material. We have a number of set movement phrases that can be used in a improvisational score, then other sections are completely set. I really appreciate the freedom to use both. I think people should see the show twice, then tell me what the ratio is!
Were there any challenges in meshing your processes with Leslie’s or did the blending come naturally?
It came naturally I think. We’re pretty open with each other and any discomforts were discussed immediately. We developed it together and let the work be what it wanted to be. We followed our instincts throughout and and think it worked for us.
You have a continued association with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. How have your experiences with them informed your own creative process?
We worked with text throughout the process to develop movement material using an LLDX “tool” called “equivalents.” We would free write on a given topic, then create movement (and accompanying text) based on words and phrases that spoke to us. In many ways we’ve combined thoughts and responses. Sometimes I’m telling her story, sometimes she’s telling mine. Maybe they’re the same story, maybe they’re every woman’s story.
You are also working with video and set designer Frederique deMontblanc on this project. How did her involvement come about?
I was sitting next to her at a Fresh Arts meeting and mentioned that I was looking for someone to design some video for the piece. She said that was something she was interested in. She sent me her portfolio and I was floored! Her work is multi-layered, colorful and fresh, yet slightly disturbing. She was exactly what I was looking for!
We will see you and Leslie on stage. Will there be anyone else out there with you?
Frederique will be on stage creating collages and drawings that are projected onto the back wall. She is the third collaborator/performer and a major contributor to the look of the piece. It’s only natural that we all share the space.
I understand you’ve also collaborated with folks from the University of Houston’s Women’s Studies department. Can you give us a hint about how they have contributed?
Yes, we will also have a small cast of “extras” (non-dancers and dancers) who participate in selected scenes. A friend of mine teaches a Woman’s Studies course at UH and this happens to be a class project for them. Each night we will have a different cast performing tasks, supporting background action, delivering boxes…I’m sure it will add another layer of unpredictability!
You’ve utilized some interesting texts on womanhood and the feminine ideal as inspiration for parts of this work. Without giving too much away, tell me a bit about these books and how you’ve used them as a springboard.
Ideas for this piece started with a book written in 1969 called “The Way to Become the Sensuous Woman” written by “J.” The author, “J” could be a woman or a man! I think the book itself is hysterical, offering tips on where to meet men and ways to please your partner. It got me thinking about all the things we do to make ourselves more convenient for our lovers. That lead to conversations of how we make ourselves more convenient for other people and how easy it is to sacrifice personal needs in the process. While some sections of Convenient Woman are more serious, text from the book have added a bit of comic relief.