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The Dance Insider Interview, 12-16: Murray Louis
Three Sterling Dances, in One Grand Tribute

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- My interview with Murray Louis began as a discussion of the current state of critical dance writing. We discussed the tools used by critics, such as comparison, metaphor, and descriptive representation. We agreed that writers need to analyze a dance on its own merits, but came to no conclusion on how they should go about this. Critics need to learn more about composition, says Louis, universally recognized as a dean of the craft after more than 50 years of making dances, many of them with the Murray Louis and Nikolais Dance company, which he directed with the late Alwin Nikolais. (Company veteran Alberto del Saz now co-directs the Nikolais/Louis Dance Foundation with Louis.) The master even had marching orders for me: Get thee to Liz Keen's Julliard comp. class.

We exchanged anecdotes and discussed mutual friends from his choreographic and teaching and my design and writing worlds before our rondo came full circle and back to the impetus of our meeting, Boston Conservatory Dance Theatre's Tribute to Murray Louis, being performed tomorrow night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2 at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse.

Philip W. Sandstrom: Let's start with the first piece on the Kaye program, "Schubert Suite," created in 1977.

Murray Louis: I've always admired Schubert's gift for melody -- it was simply extraordinary. I love melody because it allows me to make long phrases of dance. Brahms had the gift for melody -- long phrases, 12- to 16-count phrases. Stravinsky -- (at this point Louis starts singing a section from "Rite of Spring," counting the beats out loud) four-count phrases and you're into something else. With Schubert, I could create long dance phrases and utilize counterpoint. It was my chance to highlight the dancers, something I always try to do, with individual movement that would make them distinctive. I needed something with eight points because, at the time, I had a company of eight. This dance was made to be light, the costumes to be sherbet color, pleasant colors; I organized the piece to be charming, amusing, and pleasant to leave the audience with an up feeling. I thought very much of the audience in this piece. Nik did the lighting with an exciting, uplifting background; the whole thing was up, and the whole thing was lifted. I show off the dancers to the height of their various skills. The kids who had great rhythmic insights, who could do intricate things with variations and rhythms were highlighted; those who couldn't at the start had to learn. This was a piece for the company and a piece for the audience. It always opened the program -- it was up.

PWS: How does 1973's "Index (... to necessary neurosis)," also on the Kaye program, compare to "Schubert Suite"? How, from the standpoint of concept, are the two pieces different, or similar?

ML: 'Index' is an absolute opposite. The music is composed by the rock group Oregon Ensemble. It's a psychological neurosis piece. The heads were skullcaps with striations in them, the unitards are various colors with nerves sewn in, like an anatomy class -- the whole interior nervous system of the body. It dealt with enough of every neurosis, not to get mired in it, just to include into the total. All these little neuroses just build, they blend together, they make sense together, they make no sense together, and in the very end there's this extraordinary unison dance. That's how I end it, I bring everything back to sanity again. I destroyed it all at the beginning and I brought it all back to sanity at the end; that was my progress through the piece.

PWS: Does each dancer have his or her own private neurosis?

ML: No, no, no, the neurosis combinations made no sense. These bits of neurosis stop suddenly: I would arrest things that were going on, or include things out of the blue, and it appears restless, unresolved. Then there would be a solo based on greed, a necessary greed, based on a lot of gimmy, gimmy people that are in this world.

PWS: Did any of the dancers and their personalities lead to you to go a certain way with these neuroses?

ML: No, this is just life. It was all the salespeople I ever encountered, all the people on the street that I encountered. It was myself when I encountered it occasionally, it was everything. It was necessary to get things off my chest. These are just things you have to do to get off your chest and then you can get on with your life.

PWS: Did you identify each neurosis when you were making the piece? Did you want a touch of this neurosis and a sprinkle of that neurosis?

ML: No, what I identified was the speed in which I'd drop it. It began with just swaying. She begins in silence, just swaying back and forth. What Nik did is he put on two different lights, one for her forward motion and a different one for her backward motion, then suddenly, she weaves her way out of that and the music comes in. She starts working and the company starts pouring in.

'Schubert' was linear. 'Index' was all chopped out without an apparent rational. It is made up of a string of dances that were deliberately cut, aborted, before they became something recognizably movement structures.

PWS: How does a dancer count that type of work? If the partial phrases are so disjointed?

ML: The dancers were trained that way; we taught a lot of improv without music. They were taught to work together, develop sensitivity, and anticipate. Re-staging this type of piece is risky -- not everyone can do this type of work.

PWS: When companies license your repertory does the lighting come with the package?

ML: Yes, especially with 'Index,' because I did it with Nik in mind. Normally I didn't provide him with anything interesting to light. I would say to Nik, No, no ice on this, just hit the button. There are pieces for which I just didn't want light intrusion. Because color is such an intrusive, powerful thing -- even light intensity is so intrusive. My God, the things you can do with it.

PWS: Designers have so many things to play with that affect the subconscious; they have to be careful.

ML: The thing is, it's so distracting to the choreography, to suddenly see a light come up -- it just throws you into that area and then you wonder... and your mind gets off the track, dumb things like that.

PWS: There is the danger that the designer can intrude on the composition by making the light envelop more space or less space, which can telegraph a move or create an expectation among the audience; they will expect something to happen in that area. Whereas, if the light just stays on and changes imperceptibly, nothing is telegraphed; the change will be "discovered" by the audience after the choreography makes the change clear.

ML: If we were using a spot of light for a section of a dance, I'd get nervous that the light wouldn't come up when I had to step into it. I'd tell Nik, "That unnerves me -- can't you bring it up a little bit earlier, like the cue before, where it wouldn't be seen? You could then pull things down when I'm in the spot." Whenever possible, Nik would go along with me on this: the light would already be on with other lights so when the time came, and I stepped into my spot, the other lights would go down. That I love!

PWS: That technique makes the cue look like the dancer and the choreography made the light change. Which is the point.

ML: Yes, that they -- dancer and choreographer -- are in command of it, in command of the composition and the dance.

PWS: Tell me about the beginnings of your collaboration with Dave Brubeck and "Four Brubeck Pieces," from 1984.

ML: I was given a commission from the American Dance Festival when it was at Connecticut College, to commission a composer to write a piece of music for me. I wanted to do a very spirited lively thing because that is what I needed for my next concert. If I was going to have an orchestra play it, I really wanted to do it as a finale, to have the whole thing, to give it some weight. I kept thinking, Who composes music, where am I going to find my Stravinsky? I don't know who brought up Brubeck; I think it was Peter Koletzke (at the time, the production manager and lighting supervisor for the Nikolais/Louis company). He said, "Murray, what about Brubeck?" I said, "You know, that's not a bad idea." He is a classical composer, he studied with Milhaud, all his background is based on very solid musical construction. He doesn't just improvise and go on and on and on forever -- he wrote it.

PWS: Yet, it sounds so off-the-cuff.

ML: It's free; he leaves sections where he can add things to it. The structure and the measures are there. I called him, he said yes, and I gave him the counts of the piece, a whole count structure. Then I went on tour and he went on tour.

PWS: The count structure is so many phrases of four, so many phrases of eight, etcetera?

ML: Yes, I gave him a rhythmic structure.

PWS: Choreographers rarely do that anymore, do they?

ML: Right, right, and they know so little about music.

PWS: Is that why, these days, compositions for dance often don't seem to fit the choreography?

ML: Choreographers used to know how the music is composed, how to get into it, how to work against the music. (To emphasize the point, Louis starts to sing and, using his arm as a dancer, shows how he works against a musical phrase in 'Schubert,' which demonstration he then explains:) ... And then I join the phrase at the end. I would play against it, the quartet; the dancers were another voice to make it a quintet. I played them as another instrument in the structure of his piece. In knowing the score, the choreography can become another instrument in the group. You can work within the music and work against it.

ML: At the end of our tours, I got the score from Brubeck, played it, and nearly died. He had composed it in half time. (Louis sings a morsel of the score)

PWS: He made it twice as fast or too slow?

ML: He made it twice as slow, twice as long. Oh, I was in such despair, but he came back and corrected it. Brubeck (and his band of 12 musicians) played it faster and added things, and we did it! This piece (premiering in 1976) was called "Glances."

Later, I was offered a tour, and I asked Dave, Would you go on tour with me, I'd like to do a Brubeck/Louis tour? It would open with "Glances" on tape, because we couldn't afford 12 musicians, then a solo by me to an electronic score, intermission, then curtain up, band (the Dave Brubeck Quartet) onstage, they would play three numbers, and on the fourth number the dancers would come in and stay with the band for the next four pieces.

PWS: So, "Four Brubeck Pieces," which premiered in 1984, was just a part of your Brubeck/Louis tour show?

ML: Yes, it was actually the end of the Brubeck/Louis concert; that was the birth of it. I made it kinetic; I gave everyone variations that knocked their asses off. It's been choreographed in such a way that there is an opening at the end, the finale, for the dancers to do their own variations, because they're fearless. I gave them eight counts, 12 counts, eight counts, however, for them to do their specialty, then I set it (the location of those phrases) and they could do whatever they wanted in those phrases. So they were free -- they didn't have to land on a note or begin on a note. That just builds, as a finale, and then it ends. To manage this improv section, the stage manager would measure the length of improv phrases and flash a certain color light to indicate the end of that musician's turn and the next musician would start. We needed this control because musicians can go on forever -- they never know when to stop!

We toured this collaboration throughout the world for four years.

PWS: Four years! Wow! That's unheard of today!

Philip W. Sandstrom, a contributing writer for the Dance Insider and a contributing editor for 2wice Magazine, is a theater consultant who has worked in production and lighting design, management, and producing.

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