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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.
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
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
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.
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,
ML: Yes, I gave
him a rhythmic structure.
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
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
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