Jody Sperling - Time Lapse DanceJody Sperling is a dancer, choreographer and dance scholar. She is the founder and Artistic Director of Time Lapse Dance. This is Jody's blog.
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Author Archive: Jody Sperling

The City’s Intricate Ballet

I’m re-reading Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities. This should be required reading for city-dwellers. Written in 1961, the book is partly an attack against a certain kind of city planning (espoused by Robert Moses et al) that was devastating the urban landscape. But mostly it’s a celebration of urban living. Here’s a wonderful passage about the city’s “intricate ballet”:

“[The city's] order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance–not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.” (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, New York, 1961; p.50)

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Reflections on 10 years of Time Lapse Dancing

Preparing for our 10th-anniversary season (Feb 19-21 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center), has put me in a retrospective frame of mind. Of course I’m excited about the program’s two premieres, but I’m also psyched about revisiting some older rep. I decided to interweave two dances–the trio A Leg Up (2007) and my solo Cheap (1999)–which, although made years apart, were both inspired by early films of variety dancers. It’s been fun splicing together alternating scenes and revamping my decade-old tricks. We’re also bringing back condensed versions of Ghosts and Bang for the Buck, both from 2008. But alas, we can’t bring back everything. My favorite saying about dance (courtesy of the late Richard Bull) is: “Here today, gone today.” Our dances may be gone, but fortunately we’ve got a lot of nice souvenirs. Here are a few from the digital scrapbook, 1999-2009.

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How do you write down choreography?

Example of "Joyous Movement" in Labanotation

As a choreographer, the number one question I get asked is: “How do you write down a dance?” It’s surprising to me how often this comes up. In itself, the question reveals a a literary way of thinking about choreography, as something that can be written. It’s also akin to the question my actor-friend is frequently subject to: “How do you remember your lines?” While there are notational systems for dance (eg. Labanotation), they are extremely complex and too cumbersome for “everyday” use. Labanotation certainly has uses, mainly as a tool for those recording and reconstructing master-works (visit the Dance Notation Bureau), but this is not how choreographers generally “write” their dances.

When you say “write” a dance, does it mean: 1) How do I make choreography up? 2) How I teach choreography to dancers? or 3) How do I document choreography for posterity? I hear all of these things.

my notes on aerial choreography

The way I start to make a dance is to build “vocabulary,” i.e. steps or movements. (See  Vocabulary Test post) For example, for “Ghosts” some recurring moves are 1/2 Umbrella, Disc, Pac-Man, Herding, Dervish, etc.. Naming the moves help us both to clarify the shape of the action and to remember it later. Sometimes I have fun making a movement cheat-sheet, matching names with my squiggly drawings. The second phase of choreography is creating movement sequences that correspond to a structure, whether musical, conceptual or narrative. Sometimes I’ll write down the sequences, but very often I do not.

Whatever notes I have in my purple-and-orange book serve only to jog my memory, but would be completely meaningless to anyone else, except maybe the original cast. My scribblings are not “writing” and do not express the choreography, even if they help me indicate it. When it comes down to it, fundamentally, dancing is NOT writing. It is, like an oral tradition, passed down body to body. Choreography is often generated communally. My dancers contribute to “vocabulary building” — you could say we are developing a common “language,” but that is perhaps a linguistically-biased way of thinking.

Choreography resides in the dancers’ bodies. And it lives there, exerting influence via muscle memory, for years after the original performance. For this reason, reviving a work with the original cast can be surprisingly quick — an entirely different experience from mounting the same work on new bodies. It’s in teaching a new generation the “vocabulary” that you realize all the things you didn’t “write” down. All the nuances of expression, idiosyncrasies have to be learned from scratch, re-invented, not just remembered.

So how do you record all these nuances? With video, of course. So that is probably the easiest and truest answer to this choreographer’s FAQ. Video. Duh!

more to come on this topic . . .

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Rehearsal Shots from SLAM

Just wanted to share these photos from rehearsal earlier today. I love the contrast between the angelic Rachel Salzman (aerialist) and the gritty SLAM space. David Gonsier took the photos which came out great, despite poor lighting.

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Loie en l’air @ S.L.A.M.

I’m working on a new piece that takes my Loie-style explorations into the air. This is possible courtesy a grant from the “Emerging Artist Commissioning Program” at the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (aka SLAM). It’s quite an experience to rehearse at SLAM. The space is open to the community and at any given time there could three simultaneous activities on the two enormous trusses and the flying-trapeze rig. During our first rehearsal, “Obama girl” was shooting a video of Elizabeth Streb and company. While we were testing out harnesses, we tried not to attract the attention of the film crew. If the chaos is not distracting, it’s stimulating (and inspiring) to catch glimpses of flying bodies on trapeze, aerial silks, lyre, straps, you name it.

It’s taken a while to devise a costume and rigging system for this project. One issue is how to keep the wires and the costume from interfering with each other. Aaron Verdery, Streb’s rigger, helped us set up a pulley system so I can manually raise and lower aerialist Rachel Salzman. Now that we’ve got the mechanics in place, it’s time to figure out the dance! The first step is to develop the vocabulary. Here’s a few clips–early in the process–that show some Loie-esque aerial moves. More to come!

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Wiseman’s “La Danse”

Paris Opera Ballet rehearses Nureyev's Nutcracker in "La Danse"

Paris Opera Ballet rehearses Nureyev's Nutcracker in "La Danse"

Having read in the NYT that Frederick Wiseman’s “La Danse” was one of the “finest dance films ever made,” I was set up for disappointment. What the movie has to offer is a sequence of beautifully-shot scenes of Paris Opera Ballet dancers rehearsing repertory. It gives you, literally, a top-to-bottom view of the Paris Opera Ballet, showing a rooftop bee-keeper and fish swimming in flooded underground passages. You get glimpses of people serving food in the cafeteria, seamstresses sewing ornaments on tutus, a janitor mopping the theater. The intention, no doubt, is to make you feel like you are there. The film certainly conjures up a sense of place but, unfortunately, it lacks coherence and narrative thrust.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Make-Up and Transformation

Recently I’ve experienced the transformative power of make-up from a dual perspective. On my journey to India in October, I saw a demonstration of Kathakali, a ritual dance-theater from the state of Kerala. Kathakali performers typically apply their make-up in front of the audience before the drama begins. Tourists, myself among them, get to watch (and take pictures) as the actors perform the preparation ritual. Painting their faces with brightly colored dyes, they assume the guises of characters from the dance-drama. The effect is is one of total transformation. The actor is unrecognizable in his mythic persona. The dance itself involves exaggerated facial expressions, executed with rhythmic precision. The elaborate make-up is integral to the characterization and also enhances the perception of the expressive movements.

A couple of weeks later, I found myself in Montreal as the subject of an Art Nouveau makeover. My own elaborate hairdo and make-up were for a video shoot arranged by Moment Factory, a multi-media installation company based in that city. The idea was to make video projections of me dancing “a La Loie” which will be included as part of the Fête des lumières in Lyon, France this coming December. The projections will be large-scale, so the organizers wanted to make the face and overall effect quite dramatic. Loie herself embodied the spirit of Art Nouveau, so the makeover was period-appropriate. As inspiration, the office wall where I was being “done” was adorned with images of Nouveau-style women: trailing locks of hair adorned, seemingly spontaneously, with garlands of flowers. After three hours in the hands of make-up artist Laurie Deraps, I had abundant hair-extensions, false eyelashes, faux flowers and pearls artfully arranged in around my hair and face. Looking in the mirror, I saw myself transformed into a fantasy from another century.

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India, Memory of a Spectacle

In October, we performed in front of our biggest audience ever — 65,000 live spectators and a television audience estimated in the hundreds of millions. For real!

Jody in India

I was invited along with seven Time Lapse Dancers to participate in the opening ceremonies of the Champions League T20 international cricket tournament in Bangalore, India. We were just one of the acts which included appearances by the singers Chaka Kahn, Shaggy and Jamelia, as well as (among others) the daredevil-kung-fu Shaolin monks,  four male acrobats, about hundred Indian youths forming lotus flower formations, a laser light show and fireworks.

So what does it feel like to perform for so many people? Certainly I had nerves before hand, but once we were out there I felt strangely calm and alone. Because the arena is so vast–over 100 meters in diameter–I was far away from the fans. And, as I stood on a small platform apart from the rest of the company, I was literally in my own isolated sphere. This was violated only by the over-eager camera man whose head collided with my sticks several times during the spinning sequences.

Once our first number was over, we had the fun of watching the rest of the show from the arena. The finale, which we never rehearsed with the actual music, was an improvised free-for-all with the entire ensemble. Such a glorious moment, whirling under fireworks as the crowd roared, enjoying the spectacle and anticipating the game to come.

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Raw Footage, Cape Take 1

We haven’t edited this footage yet, but Linda Lewett did such a fabulous job shooting me improvising last month at Vassar that I wanted to share this whole take before we chop it up.

The music is Quentin Chiappetta’s percussion-only “click-track” version of “Anitra’s Dance” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. Lighting is by David Ferri. Recorded at Vassar College, August 8, 2009

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First Video from Vassar

Towards the end of our recent residency at Vassar College, I arranged for videographer Linda Lewett to shoot an afternoon of rehearsals. The idea was to generate footage for a series of short videodances, each one to explore a visual idea. This first piece more or less follows the opening choreography of Forms of Dilemma, the stage work we are developing. This clip shows the exact same sequence for which I described and named each movement in a previous blog post. Now, you can see the same moves under David Ferri’s exquisite lighting and from multiple camera angles. The overhead shots come from one camera positioned in the catwalk above the stage. Krissy Tate, who is one of the dancers in the piece, also did the editing with my over-the-phone direction.

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