Imaging Sound as Movement | By Marie Tollon

In the first section of Kimi Okada’s Two If By Sea, presented later this month by ODC/Dance at YBCA, one of the two dancers sits upstage left, the other sits downstage right. Isolated in a pool of light while the rest of the stage remains dark, each appears settled on a remote island, a vast sea of possibilities between them. Unable to see each other, they communicate via the sound of their tap shoes clapping the floor rhythmically, in an apparent call and response mode. Taut as the cord of a raised bow and arrow, their body arcs forward, thirsty for the other’s utterance. They delineate the act of complete listening, recalling choreographer Martha Graham’s words: “A dancer’s art is built on an attitude of listening, with his whole being.”

Two If By Sea forms a timely prologue to ODC Theater 2014 Season: dedicated to the relationship between dance and music, it proposes artists and viewers alike to delve into the art of deep listening. What are ways in which music and dance inform each other? How does careful and attentive listening augment the viewing experience, and vice versa?

While performances are sprinkled throughout the season, two festivals -Walking Distance Dance Festival, in its third edition, and Music Moves- will display a wide array of works within a concentrated amount of time: “This season offers many different perspectives on how dance and music can relate,” says Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke. “Music Moves focuses the question of their relationship in a condensed way which is very exciting. One might say the festival uses music to teach us how to look at dance, and uses dance to teach us how to listen to music.”

In their essay Parameters Of Perception: Vision, Audition, and Twentieth-Century Music and Dance, composer Allen Fogelsanger and choreographer Kathleya Afanador note that “the relationship between sound and movement is both a close one and a complex one. The connections are not direct; the mapping is not one-to-one.” Where traditional dance may intertwine movements and sounds in a way where the body is responding to auditory stimuli, artists have continuously explored, torn apart and reimagined the connections between music and dance.

As Fogelsanger and Afanador write:

There has been considerable experimentation in the 20th-century in producing works in which sound and movement seem to be more complementary or even in competition rather than congruent (…) The theory of the independence of music and movement that has been present in American modern dance since the 1950s, traceable to John Cage and Merce Cunningham, rejects imposing a unity (…) The process of de- linking dance from music was finally brought to its logical endpoint with Cage composing indeterminate scores that shared only a common duration with the dance, so that dancers, as Cunningham relates, “could not count on the sounds as cues,” and ‘had to rely on [their] own dance timing to guard the length of any phrase.”

Yet, as the authors pursue:

Whether or not relationships between music and dance are intended by their creators, viewers will inevitably attempt to construct connections between experiences that are coincident in time according to the Gestalt principles of perception (…) It has been shown that even when the intention of congruence between the auditory and the visual is removed, congruence can still be perceived and in fact very likely will be perceived (…) As [Robert] Mitchell and [Matthew] Gallaher conclude, “simultaneous presentation of visual and auditory stimuli (e.g., dance and music) may enhance the experience of a match between them from only a few similarities.”

How can we further explore the specific nature of how sound and movement relate and/or integrate? How do artists approach their scores in relation to the choreography? And how does the dance make one see the music, how does the music make one listen to the movement?

BODYTRAFFIC's Guzman Rosado and Miguel Perez in Richard Siegal's "O2JOY" Photo by Christopher Duggan

BODYTRAFFIC’s Guzman Rosado and Miguel Perez in Richard Siegal’s “O2JOY”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Touching upon the capacity for both senses to feed each other, Linda Hodes, founding rehearsal Director of Taylor 2, said of choreographer Paul Taylor’s innate musicality: “I hear music differently after I’ve heard it through his eyes.” Movements can change the perception of a sound and vice versa. Richard Siegal’s o2Joy, performed by BODYTRAFFIC at ODC Theater this past fall, featured music by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, and The Oscar Peterson Trio. The dance added new layers to the familiar tunes. As the dancers leaped through the stage or performed a quick savvy step, one could visualize the elasticity and playfulness of the music, in ways that would not have been possible if the music had not been accompanied by the movements generated by the performers. Similarly, in Gregory Dawson’s 808 KICK revised, presented at the 2014 Black Choreographers Festival last weekend, the sound of crashing waves emphasized the fluidity and texture of the performers’ movements.

Aside from the musical score, other layers of sound participate in the experience of watching and listening. From the coughs of fellow audience members to the audible breath of performers, one can explore the soundscape of a performance and how it enhances or disrupts one’s apprehension of the movement language. Some choreographers also explore the inherent musicality of the body and accentuate its capacity to make sound: clapping, rhythm making with body parts, spoken text add layers to an existing musical score. Bliss Kholmyer’s Snapshots of Longing, also showcased at the BCF last weekend, incorporated silence, which allowed the viewers to measure the absence of music and its visual weight within a piece.

Tegan Schwab in Garrett + Moulton Productions "A Show of Hands" Photo by RJ Muna

Tegan Schwab in Garrett + Moulton Productions
“A Show of Hands”
Photo by RJ Muna

When using live music, some artists incorporate the musicians’ physical presence into the choreography. In one section of Garrett + Moulton Productions’ A Show of Hands, presented at the JCCSF last October, the dancers carefully removed the instrument of three members of the Friction Quartet, who were performing on one side of the public performance space. To the sound of the remaining cellist, the dancers lifted the musicians’ bodies in the air, proposing a literal reversal of the traditional notion that the music supports the dance.

Similarly, Kimberly Bartosik’s You are my heat and glare, performed at New York Live Arts last February, showcased a duet between vocalists Gelsey Bell and Dave Ruder. Making their initial appearance in the lobby outside of the performance space, Bell and Ruder sang in unison while they gradually moved through the audience, and led viewers into the studio where the rest of the dance was to unfold. The two singers weaved in and out of the piece, offering a light texture to the intensity of intimacy portrayed by the movements. In a recent interview, Bartosik mentioned that she was not “looking to choreograph [the vocalists] or transform them but considering the possibility to imagine sound as movement (…) I thought, ‘what if I could make a piece where sound was movement?’ so I’m really thinking about them in that way. They spent a lot of time moving in the dark, where the presence of the body is there but it’s a very ephemeral presence, more about presence of sound.”

Dave Ruder and Gelsey Bell in Kimberly Bartosik’s "You are my heat and glare" Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Dave Ruder and Gelsey Bell in Kimberly Bartosik’s
“You are my heat and glare”
Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Bartosik’s investigation regarding the physicality of sound points to a recent article by German dance and theater critic Esther Boldt, who argues that the relationship between music and dance keeps evolving: “Neither of the two arts is primarily there to illustrate the other one. They enter into a discourse on a level playing field, which opens up a fertile space between the arts. In this a structural transfer takes place, music is thought of as movement, and movement as music. Thus this inter-space reveals new layers of perception and in the structural discourse of the arts it shows both the points of severance and the lines of kinship.”

As artists investigate and reveal the (dis)connections between sound and movement, they creatively occupy and elaborate the nuances of space. Noting the specificities of the conversation between dance and music, we can delve into the artwork in ways that may highlight parts previously concealed. We can observe how the dancer’s body is listening -literally through movement- as a form of navigation and expression, and how artists continue to disclose the many ways in which music moves and gesture sounds.

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