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Flashback, 6-20: Can you do that inverted retrograde slinky again?
Fear and Loathing with the Fungus
Copyright 1998, 2006 The Dance Insider
(The Dance Insider
has been revisiting its Archive.
This article first appeared in the Dance Insider's inaugural Summer
1998 print issue as its cover story, and is today posted online
for the first time.)
WASHINGTON DEPOT, Connecticut
-- You are Maria Schneider, one of your generation's most heralded
jazz composers. At 37 you have already worked with giants like Gil
Evans and Toots Thielemans. "Evanescence," the debut release of
your 17-piece jazz orchestra earned two Grammy nominations. Just
when you think things couldn't possibly get better, you receive
a call from Billy Taylor, the legendary composer and pianist, who
offers you $10,000 to write a composition for a dance company, one
of six collaborations funded by the Doris Duke Foundation for dances
to premiere at the American Dance Festival and the Kennedy Center.
This is your first dance commission, and you have been picked by
the first company to perform its commission -- June 11 at ADF in
Durham -- a company which you have loved for years: Pilobolus, the
dance theater collective whose blend of comedy, athleticism, virtuosity,
and imaginative gimmickry has produced dances that are often side-splitting
and as often breathtaking.
At the first rehearsal,
you behold the Herculean lifts and serpentine body-weaving in awe.
One moment, Tamieca McCloud perches on the head of Mark Santillano.
"Are you standing yet?" asks Santillano. "Yes, but I'm not pliéing
yet." Later, Santillano and Gaspard Louis lift the lissome Rebecca
Anderson, who balances one foot on each man's chest, the three creating
The movement intrigues
you, and you start playing. You watch as your music inspires the
performers to create new labyrinthine patterns. You elongate a phrase
to match a movement, create a motif to match a dancer. A new world
of compositional possibilities opens up to you.
Then comes the second
"You guys were doing
something really cool last time," you begin. "You were going over
each other's shoulders."
"The inverted retrograde
slinky?" suggests Matt Kent, in the same tone as a ballet dancer
might say, "The jeté?"
Wolken, observing the rehearsal with colleagues Robby Barnett and
Michael Tracy, intervenes. "90 percent of what we do in rehearsal
is not going to end up in the piece."
Later, Barnett asks
the others, "Did you like the little thing between Tamieca and Mark
"I liked it," says Tracy.
You are Maria Schneider,
and suddenly you realize that you are not working with one collaborator,
but with a three-headed -- to use Pilobolus's own definition for
its name -- fungus.
"Our kind of mass choreographic
method is a cumbersome process," admits Barnett, who joined Pilobolus
27 years ago, shortly after it was founded by Wolken, Moses Pendleton,
and Steve Johnson in Alison Chase's Dartmouth dance class. (They
were later joined by Chase and Tracy. Pendleton has since departed
to form Momix.) Their brain trust, augmented by the creative minds
of the six dancers, is the oldest choreographic collective. "Anyone
who works with us has to relive in miniature the same process we
have gone through over 20 years, to discover how best to work with
many minds," says Barnett.
"You get the feeling they all want something different, (and) at
a certain point I was letting all those things affect me," she says.
"Then I realized that I have to hear what they say, put it in the
back of my head and then go with my own instincts. "
She has discovered the
fruits yielded by this alchemy. These ten minds are a choreographic
Manhattan Project, the occasional fission a small price to pay for
the creative fusion.
"They've had nice suggestions,"
Schneider reports. "I'll play an idea on the piano and they'll key
into some aspect of it. When I see that inspire them, I'll develop
it." The dancers, too, have moved her. "Because I know what can
come from them, it inspires me to want to bring that into the music.
I have this extra motivation, a visual context." Schneider has discovered
that writing for dance is a natural outgrowth of her approach to
writing music. "A lot of times when I'm writing, I'm thinking about
affecting the bodies of people listening to the music."
Pilobolus, which often
creates the dance first and then commissions a score to attach to
it, has found Schneider the perfect composer to match its musicality.
"We tend to wear our scores more like a cape than a glove," explains
Barnett. "We drape the music across the movement, and we look to
its emotional references more than we do to its rhythmic structures.
Jazz, which is in many cases strongly defined by its rhythmic structures,
has presented problems for us. Much of Maria's music is impressionistic,
with veils of color that we work well with."
"My music is pastoral,"
says Schneider, "not your typical big band music. My influence is
from jazz, classical, music from different cultures, flamenco. In
one section of this piece I have a flamenco buleria."
This diversity appeals
to the dancers. "Her ideas are wonderful," says McCloud, "as is
her eagerness to understand how we work and to work with us without
compromising her own integrity."