Decoy Among the Swans
The dancers described it as “de vagues”- the waves - the ups and downs of a process. After ebullience we have much more discouragement on all sides, more overload, more frustration. Habitual ways of punching out movement or holding tight resurface, even after repeatedly combing through with corrections and reminders. Diane remarked that there is a kind of folly to the project – we are trying to get these dancers to learn how to do what we have worked many, many years to be able to do. Everyone knows they are great dancers but they still would require a lot of time to truly understand this new way of moving. Now the time begins to feel short. I am reminded of the quote I needed toward the beginning: “if you need to get somewhere quickly, slow down”.
Yesterday I came up with a theme for our work – Do Less, Feel More. In the last few warm ups we have repeated the same sequence of meridians stretches which are easy actions that bring attention to all the crucial elements of the way we’re asking them to move. They are going through the sequence almost on their own, listening, tasting. It’s such a personal and interior process it’s hard to really know how much it works for them. But their focus seems good and their bodies can soften. They seem to understand that there’s a real quest at hand which requires deliberate focusing of attention on things they have always ignored.
One pleasing thing is that they are increasingly able to find “rides” and let themselves go with our improvisations. They have never been asked to do movement based improvisation, rather they have sometimes been given a theme (“be this chair” was their example) and asked to dance that. But this is totally new. Diane gets them moving large in space and interacting with moments of contact. The fact that after less than 3 weeks they occasionally hurl themselves through space is quite something.
Now we have a break of 3 days. It’s much needed. I'm headed for Holland on the high speed TGV train so instead of Grands Boulevards I'll be seeing canals.
Phase Two started with the introduction of Diane Madden into the mix. In the first session we began as usual with a series of stretches and easy actions that work the necessary components and awarenesses for the work (sequencing, yielding weight, clear parallel, falling, separation and mobility of parts and use of breath). Then we looked at where the quartet is now, with an eye to determining the cast for once and for all. Two pairs will alternate doing the central duet, a very demanding part. And two more dancers will dance the “side duet”, a part that is also demanding but less non-stop. The decisions about who will do what came easily, people had already jockeyed themselves into those positions when we ran the piece. Brigitte Lefevre, the director of the Ballet, said that she thinks people are quite conscious of how their dancing is relative to each other.
Diane and I get to teach the central duet together - she teaching the part she has performed on and off since 1981 and me teaching the part I created two years before that. There is much close quartered dancing, many moments where as Diane put it “you are the wind blowing off the other person’s movement”. I had thought that learning the initial material, because it's a re-spliced variation on the quartet, would be easy. Wrong. The timing and spatial relationships are intricate – one “pops” arms which cues the other’s leg fold, one introduces a movement a hair before the other gets to it, one shaves the space in front of and behind the other as she moves through. Figuring out how to go about transmitting the crucial information took a bit of doing. Diane and I alternated teaching our parts to two people each with having them work the interrelationships. We refer back to the video (of us dancing it in ’81) and to our live dancing to get the interactions. There’s a lot to take in for the dancers.
It was Diane’s job, as rehearsal director for the Trisha Brown Dance Company for many years, to bring dancers to an understanding of the movement and relationships. Her eye and ability to clarify intention are wonderful! She sees detail at every turn, the way the weight is in a foot, the passage of a hand which determines how a next move will unravel. What is the foundation that makes a movement possible. For me it is an education in how to look very, very closely, taking not one moment for granted.
As the moments of proximity require a yielding, Di pointed out how often dancers coming to Trisha’s movement are baffled by the unusual sharing of space. She demonstrated a very upright stance, or slight stiffness that she was seeing on the part of the dancers and then a more yielding one, the kind called for. The dancers exclaimed that the former was how they are called on to be in all their ballets and modern dances. So Di and I plot to provide more experiences of yielding skin to skin, dancing in confined space. Both of us bring exercises learned long ago and remember who exactly taught them to us. So present with us in this Paris Opera Ballet adventure are Simone Forti and Nancy Topf, represented by “Passing through the middle “ and “the New York Walk”.
At the end of rehearsal on Day Eight the dancers are grumpy, not knowing how casting will go. They are afraid that some of them will end up just as understudies, not performing for sure and I haven’t gotten straight answers about that from the powers that be. So it makes things a little tenser than I’d like. Still, we finished learning the quartet today and some of the material we started learning last week is settled enough in their bodies that it’s starting to go out of whack, with timing variations and changes in emphasis. I remember “combing through” details like that to the point where it was enough already, but on it went. So we will no doubt do the same. I actually begin to be concerned about how you keep the liveliness through this kind of long and intensive rehearsal period. Having the piece premiere just when it’s ripe and trustworthy is an art in itself, like timing the opening of a good wine. We need to do just enough rehearsal but not beat anything to death. That’s a rare quandary given the more often pressured timing of preparing for production.
After conferring with Brigitte Lefevre, director of the Ballet, we concur that having the dancers alternate roles is best. There are 11 performances scheduled, after all. That means everyone will get to perform.
Our outing to Laduree to celebrate learning the whole quartet was all we had hoped for. The surroundings are trompe l’oeil marble, green and black, with rich polished woods and gleaming silver tea service. My choice of dessert, a suggestion from Muriel who declares herself with pride to be a true gourmand and has sampled everything on their menu, was a “plaisir sucree”, a sugared pleasure. Yes it was. Then there was an assortment of “macarrons” which are about as far as you can get from the coconut macaroons familiar in the U.S.. They are heavenly rounds of light meringue with crushed almond and a variety of fillings so you must try the pistache, the rose, the raspberry. Caramel is the winner and all roll their eyes in delight. The dancers said they had never celebrated in that way after learning a section of a piece. Sometimes they go out after a premiere. It was definitely wonderful for our “esprit de corps”. We got to know much more about each other. I learned more about the sacrifices they (and their families) have made to train in the school of the Paris Opera Ballet and follow their path. They asked me about my politics, how I feel about George W. Bush. So of course I launched in on a tirade and they all sat, nodding.
On Day Nine an encouraging note - the dancers are reporting “spacing out” and finding themselves having just executed a slew of movement without having been conscious of what it was. I told them that’s exactly where we want to get, to where the body knows the material that well.
We worked the spacing thoroughly. They are challenged to do two things at once – perform the deeply felt movement and work with conscious mind to keep exact spatial appointments. I likened our practice to someone with a bow and arrow, knowing where the bull’s eye is but generally hitting wide of the mark. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Actually these dancers are masters at that. They really are perfectionists and will not be satisfied with their performance until who knows when. They have the idea that generally they have vast improvement to make whereas I see them as being off in some details but generally on the mark regarding their feeling and comportment. They are driven. And much of that has no doubt to do with the Paris Opera Ballet ranking system which is perpetually competitive. They are beginning a period where they will work on a solo to perform that will determine whether or not they move up in the ranks in the next year. This is called the "concours" and it's very stressful for them. It means that after our long rehearsal day sometimes the toe shoes go right back on. I can't see how this will help our efforts....
Beginning the duet with Diane Madden
We made a deal. The dancers asked me if I was a gourmand. I told them I love delicious things. They suggested that we finish rehearsal early one day and go for pastries at le Printemps where there’s a branch of Laduree, a very fine “patissier” I promised that when they learn the whole quartet we’ll do just that. They were playfully eager to learn a lot after that, walking around imitating having a macaroon instead of a carrot in front of the nose.
We are starting to clear away balletic reflexes. One such, a moment where a twisty jump finishes, was looking stuck and wrong. I saw that the feet were fixing at the end and realized that everyone was automatically pointing the toes in a clear coupe coming down from the jump. Once we eliminated that, the movement looked like Trisha.
These dancers are looking magnificent and it makes me wonder about premises in training. All those years at the European Dance Development Center I was party to fierce arguments about what technique best serves dancers who wish to be available to many forms of choreography. The last 5 days in the studio blow me out of the water. I think it possible that these dancers will do a Decoy as good as Trisha Brown Company itself. And I don’t know that any of them have training other than ballet. We have done a crash course in use of breath and weight but this steep learning curve is being mastered in a wondrously short time.
The basic job is to learn this set material and all the interrelationships in space and time and to know the movement deep in muscle memory. This can only be accomplished through repetition over time. You can repeat with differing numbers of people, or with differing lengths of sections, with stops, or with sailing all the way through but fundamentally the job is to do the same thing over and over and over again. With material this demanding, the dancers are tired and saying “one more time” becomes onerous. So…today I declared that we would try Sir Laurence Olivier’s advice. He said “if you want to know your lines really well, practice them double time”. Decoy looks amusing double time (well, maybe not quite double, that’s probably beyond what’s physically possible). The dancers were exhilarated for this reason: there is no chance of spacing out, total concentration is required, which, in turn, is liberating. What a surprise! The fact that they could do it meant too that the material is really sinking in.
I appreciate it that our schedule permits my providing all kinds of contextual information for the dancers which I think creates a further sense of dedication and richness. We are looking at the wonderful photographs in “Trisha Brown: Art and Dance in Dialogue” and discussing Trisha’s varied areas of investigation. Our crash course in release work is completely put to use and discussion of the performance aesthetics at the time of Decoy’s creation help them understand their stance as performers in the work. It seems as though any aspect of my understanding from decades of dancing can be called into play at any moment. It’s extremely satisfying to do such a transmission.
Celebrating the first leg of the journey
On Day Four we were given a large space for a change, as several other dances weren’t rehearsing. The two very large studios under the main cupola of l’Opera are named for Nureyev, who directed the Opera Ballet from 1983-89 and continued working with them until his death in 1993, and Serge Lifar, the famed Diaghilev dancer and director of the ballet for nearly 3 decades. Every studio is named for a luminary. “Zambelli” was apparently the first “etoile” or star of the Ballet. We have no etoiles in our cast or "premieres danseuses", the level below, but we have six "sujets" and one "coryphée". These are the middle levels. Quadrilles are the lowest. It is the etoiles who get starring roles, so that is what everyone aspires to. The code could have posed a question in regard to casting but because they're almost all sujets it's a non-issue.
We are a bit more than halfway through learning the Quartet material which is what I am charged to teach them in the first two weeks. The central image of Glacial Decoy is a line of dancers equally spaced and parallel to the proscenium. They perform this extended unison phrase of continually changing states initiating from unpredictable places in the body: swooping, gliding, leaping, swinging limbs and executing a range of idiosyncratic “public and private gestures”*. As the dancers move toward stage right, a dancer is pulled on out of the wings at stage left and traveling the other way, it happens vice versa, implying an endless line of dancers. This echoes Robert Rauschenberg’s continually shifting images that glide from stage right to left throughout the piece. Up until Day Four, we hadn’t looked at the spatial relationships because the round space we have been in wouldn’t permit it. But with room to stretch out we jumped in. The dance began to look like itself. I was truly awestruck at moments of great beauty and astonishing unison in the dancing. I think these very sharp dancers are cottoning onto what this is all about much more swiftly than was expected.
I told them so. I thanked them for their great dedication of spirit, effort and energy. And we finished the day with a lovely whole body hands-on exercise similar to massage – a treat before our one, much needed, day off.
Following rehearsal I dashed to the Opera Bastille to see a production of Henry Miller’s “Le Sourire au pied de l’echelle” which translates literally as “the Smile at the foot of the ladder”. Who knew that Henry Miller wrote a play for children? It was billed as for 11-year olds and up. Wouldn’t you know, this was very sophisticated theater for kids! The main character is a clown, so there are wonderful acrobatics and foolery in the circus scenes. The theme is about private and public personae, dreams and coming into focus with oneself. A very large “audience” of child and adult singers wonderfully costumed in black and white both animatedly loves and rejects the clown. The music was created for the production and extremely playful and loose but with recognizable circus themes. Most astonishing was the audience response at the end. The bows were as fancy as anything in the piece, giving the audience a long sequence in which to appreciate all the performers. And when the bows were done, everyone just kept clapping in rhythm. For a long, long time, saying to me: this is new, this is adventurous and well done and we like that.
Having lived for nearly a decade in Europe, I am very conscious that the level of support for the arts is impressive, both in terms of funding and in peoples’ conviction about the arts’ importance My first day in Paris last week I happened into a free public concert at the church St. Eustache that was utterly mobbed. I went in, not knowing what the music would be. In honor of Veteran’s day it was the orchestra and chorus of the Army doing a very challenging and exquisitely played concert including Vaughan Williams and Barber! And then, today at the Pompidou center, people of all ages were enjoying a wonderfully done comprehensive survey of the works of Jean Cocteau including a screening of two rarely seen films and some of his erotic art in a separate area clearly marked as being possibly offensive to young or sensitive people. How refreshing!
Paris is still an art paradise it seems.
*Trisha Brown as quoted in Yvonne Rainer’s article in “Trisha Brown: Art and Dance in Dialogue, 1961 - 2001” pg.49
I have found a new and perfect use of the raked stage! Start uphill and roll down. At the beginning of the two separate work sessions and the end of the day we are working specifically with weight, imagery, articulation and sensation. Rolling is great training in sequencing, yielding through all parts of the body to gravity, and articulating all parts individually or in concert. How often are ballet dancers asked to roll down the hill of a raked floor? Jamais (never)!
To warm up again for the second session we do a new form which I’m calling transformations. Knowing the kind of qualities I want them to better embody, I improvise, repeating actions and letting them transform so that it’s a seamless nonstop flow of easy actions that drop, swing, throw, breathe, twist, and squiggle. I have my back to them, they are not being watched and they don’t need to look at anyone else or be concerned about how they look. If a movement leads in a slightly different direction for them, they can pursue it. I am a reference point for movement principles and actions that are good to practice. So far it is great fun, liberating and helpful. I make reference to certain revelations of both the transformations and the floor articulations as we are learning Decoy.
By the end of Day Two we had covered the first 90 seconds of material. That’s a good chunk to run and I think they were relieved to feel we are really getting somewhere, like racehorses who need to run a bit.
It is continually astonishing to work in the building of the Opera. Walking into our studio down very long and circuitous hallways with highly polished wooden floors, you pass though a kind of catwalk with windows on both sides looking out over the roofs of Paris, Sacre Coeur and the towers of Notre Dame. This is almost as high as you can get in l’Opera. The studio, Chauvire, is under the eastern cupola. Huge lion heads guard the entrance and ornamental carving is everywhere. The studio itself is round with round windows all ‘round. There's a parallel studio like that on the western side and several levels below, the architect Garnier had a special ramp built for the Napoleon III so that he could be driven directly to the door by the royal box, avoiding possible assassination attempts.
The theater itself is a riot of red velvet and gold. Round also. Somehow intimate for a space that seats about 2,000. The lighthearted splashing color of Chagall’s false ceiling, painted in 1964, contrasts wonderfully with the heavy ornamental carving and light fixtures. Chagall has painted scenes from many operas, naming them and their composers as well as famous Paris sights. On the façade of the building the composers’ names are emblazoned as well. The entire building is newly refurbished with its crowning symmetrical winged sculptures regilded. It has been compared more than once to a wedding cake!
On Day Three we decided to save full out dancing for specific times so as to conserve energy and muscles. My teacher, Chogyam Trungpa said something to the effect of “if you need to get somewhere quickly, slow down”. That was our approach and we did indeed learn the requisite amount of material faster. The tone of rehearsal was more low key and spacious. As it turned out the material itself had islands of calm. The previous day’s section was full of extremely quick shifts of direction and gestures. In contrast the third section sails a bit, repeating itself a little with swinging hips and hands moving at a leisurely pace.
In truth, for a ballet dancer unused to less inflected movement, the concept of “marking” is a way into finding the smalls “rides” and ease of Trisha’s movement. I realize that some of why they were quite knocked out and sore after the first two days is that they have been dancing demanding movement with about twice the force it actually requires. “Marking”, the idea of doing movement clearly in space and time but with less emphasis, is a very suitable teaching technique here.
At the end of Day Three we did a hands-on exercise that probably came from Paul Langland long ago. Similar to Alexander work where parts of the body are supported and given direction with great sensitivity, we worked with the heels of the hands into each others' pectorals and scapulae, pressing between the two to raise and loosen the shoulder area. The weight of the raised arm is then caught underneath, then teased out, gently lifted and directed all the way down to the fingertips. The ensuing sensation is of a draping and very freely moving arm. When the dancers walk and turn again with these arms, they have the right kind of streaming responsiveness. I asked them to give the sensation a name so we could refer to it easily. Muriel said “Monkey”. And so they are monkey arms now. At the European Dance Development Center through the 90’s Tony Thatcher taught Alexander technique to all the students and his monkey exercise, which was a slightly forward tipped, bent kneed position with just such arms, was legendary!
Day One: I am picturing the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet after seeing seven of them hard at work for 5 hours for the first time. Their attention is complete. Their intention to master the movement challenges is unquestioned. They have enormous discipline. And extraordinary grace. At the same time “Decoy Among the Swans” is a fitting title for this writing not just because that’s literally what we’re doing, bringing the piece Glacial Decoy to these lovely dancers but also because they themselves are taking on awkwardness, unexpected qualities, a kind of curious transformation.
I began speaking in French, showing photographs from “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue”. They were intrigued by all bits of information I shared on the history of the work, the quality of collaboration between Brown and Rauschenberg, the goals we have in tackling it together. Trisha had pointed out movement concerns that she had during the auditions: finding a well-aligned parallel, articulation of the spine, ability to initiate from all parts of the body and the ability to transfer weight solidly and simply. I explained that we would be doing a training of these fundamentals basic to dancing Decoy along with learning the outer form and that as we progressed the two will come together to make the dance completely dance-able.
What is fundamental? Falling. Falling and rebound into levity. Yielding. Also a curious quality that we saw a great deal in just the first 40 seconds of material - perhaps it was the years of research into pedestrian movement and task-oriented performance that created an ability to perform movement in an utterly non-inflected way. As though some things that take place are invisible and others are given emphasis – the clarity of a sudden shape arising and dispersing into a stream of clear but unemphatic movement.
Simplicity. Lack of adornment. A use of hands straight as a board, or held in little O’s, without the accustomed lyricism of curves and separated fingers. A foot that is neither flexed nor pointed, arms that trail like ribbons after a catapulting torso. A head that can flop any which way. Movement executed directly like a hunter’s arrow – on a straight mission somewhere. Catching the updrafts, plunging, hurtling through space.
In New York, Diane and I had mused that these dancers would have no problem covering the larger stage area, knowing they are used to great leaps and bounds. It is so. Laurent was crowned a space eater which I translated for her as “gourmand de l’espace”. She looked as if I’d handed her a bouquet.
Our beginning was just lying on the floor. I told them I would bore them and that we would repeat simple things many times. And they were able to relax and go with feeling, breathing, rolling, shifting, slowly slowly rising. They crawled. They had an appetite for release. And as I saw pleasure on their faces, I thought what a momentous thing that is, to have the ballet world eager for these experiences that are so basic to the post-modern tribe of dancers.
Learning the actual movement was not simple for them. The outer form can be had relatively quickly with the exception of some very complex disjuncture of upper and lower body. Like 2 simultaneous melodies. But they puzzled over the performance qualities, the momentum. Perhaps I can ask them later “let the dance do YOU!” It is not like executing something, it is more like getting on a roller coaster and going for a great ride.
Day Two: I met the more human side of these dancers who are in a constant competition for rank and role. Decoy is no exception. We began rehearsal watching the videotape of a performance in 2000 at the Joyce Theater with Vicky Shick and Diane Madden in the central roles. The dancers found the piece beautiful and exciting yet daunting “like a mountain”. Very contemporary. Seeing the tape gave motivation. At the same time they were doing their math. There are two central dancers in Decoy, two who have substantial roles for the “side duet” and quartet and one who makes only a very brief entrance. That totals 4 real parts, one “walk on”. Seven of them were chosen at the audition and are now working very hard on the material. Who will get to do what? Who will be an understudy and not necessarily perform? In that climate, with that uncertainty, we had our first little breakdown. They had been on total overload toward the end of work on Day One. One of them quietly said something to that effect and after I understood, we stopped learning anything further and continued running what we had. On the second day they were sore from working in parallel and accessing a movement range from the torso that is not called on in their other work. They get splits in their feet, uncallused because of always wearing shoes. These things they all find “normale” and they troop on.
The meltdown happened as were working on a small intricate moment where the hands and feet are out of synch. We repeated it many times and then made ready to move on. A dancer ended up in tears. She had been left behind, uncertain how to execute the movement, not in the habit of saying anything to anyone. They told me that usually the rehearsal director does not speak in dialog with them at all. A more open process is unfamiliar. And because there are seven I can’t with a sweep of my eye be sure that everyone has all the small details just yet and still cover the amount of material we need to get through each day. The intention is to comb through the piece several times as we go along to catch whatever is off. So we slowed down.
Now it is clear that although they learn very fast and are extraordinary dancers, even on the level of outer form, doing this work for them is like learning to walk for the first time. Each step is a very big deal.
On a new use for the raked stage and on the wondrous building of l’Opera.
Working in the Trisha Brown Dance Company studio is like going to an empowered space. The architecture is a fitting reflection of the work taking place there. A light, large realm of possibility, the materials are chosen with great care – cement-looking fiberglass sheets in the bathrooms with shiny hardware attaching them, slabs of beautiful wood simply suspended from the walls as seating, high ceilings that seem to float upward with “up light”. No muss, no clutter. Occasional groupings of scene storage or practical objects, some hidden behind stainless steel garage type doors. And, as the perfect ornament, glorious photos identifying the "product" of this unique warehouse.
Enter the Glacial Decoy reconstruction project, that is, mastering the piece again to teach it to the Paris Opera Ballet. Diane Madden has not danced parts of Decoy for 3 years and retains it as though it were only a week back. I (Lisa Kraus) haven't danced most of Decoy for about 20 years and in the last 6 weeks have slowly, bit by bit “reprogrammed” my body to run it.
The process of relearning something that was so fully in the muscle memory is like revisiting a long lost friend. There is instant recognition when a moment is correctly executed. It “feels” right. It sings too, joyous with exhilaration at the unbridled power and refinement and quirkiness of the material.
I had 6 weeks like that, staring at a video monitor just biting off small pieces and trying first to puzzle out what on earth they were until gradually what had seemed opaque and in some cases unrecognizable became second nature. Second nature deep on the level of nerve firings.
Right there is something I was amazed at in working with Diane. All her years as rehearsal director for the TBDC have honed her analytical abilities and her ease in deconstructing material. She possesses the ability to work with muscle memory AND to slide easily forward and backward in material, like winding a rewinding a video in her own mind to find exact spots of concern. For me, dancing the mucle memory is like diving underwater. To analyze I have to come up for air. The pieces all make sense in sequence but don’t exist as easily apart. For Diane, any moment can be easily held up to the light, examined, placed back in context without skipping a beat.
This ability to work with precision formed a basis of discussion – she expressed concern with how creating a version of Glacial Decoy that is danced with perfect spatial relationships and perfect unison has dampened the fire of the piece. With many “appointments” to keep, the dancers were so conscious of every angle and step that they found it hard to “dance” the material as fully. This will likely form a pivotal part of our work.
The dialectic of an abandoned, weighted kind of moving that is the result of attending to real physical forces with a spatial and gestural accuracy and specificity that can be reproduced in all the dancers creates a unique kind of tension. It seems that one or the other of these poles is bound to win out. In the earliest versions of the dance the spatial device of 4 equidistant dancers sliding in and out of the wings was at times less than perfectly executed. The movement regarded in slow motion is exact in terms of impulse but not always exact in terms of gesture or the resolution through the limbs. Small differences in the angle of an arm or leg, the exact execution of a “schnurkel” (a Yiddish word equivalent to squiggle) abound. Yet the dancing is extremely full, dangerous almost in its intensity and commitment.
The most recent performance is softer, less radical, less charged. And far more perfect.
There are so many aspects of Glacial Decoy that are not native to a ballet dancer’s vocabulary. There are many fundamental physical usages that are simply not in the ballet lexicon and it is my intention to work on those usages parallel with learning actual material so that as our process goes on there can be an accumulation of “aha” moments. “Aha” – a dancer recognizing an internal motivator for what was just a shape.
Decoding the components that make the way of moving in Decoy possible is like looking at my own alphabet.
I asked Trisha what her wish was for the ballet. What aspects of Glacial Decoy would she like to see come forward in the Paris Opera performances? Her response, as her responses so often do, delighted me with its total unpredictability. She got up to execute one of the quirkiest moves in the piece, a kind of woman-batting- away-a-swarm-of-flies type move. And she said “these things”, NOT the ones you might see in any dance class. The she demonstrated one more conventional move. I pointed out that that “conventional” move is swiftly followed by a punching jab at the air and a weird slip from a momentary hand perched on the knee. But her guideline, to emphasize what is highly idiosyncratic, is a wonderful starting place.
And so we begin!