The choreographer Netta Yerushalmy has invented a recipe for her latest work, “Paramodernities”: Take six classic dances. Chop them up. Then tear open the modern canon, with equal parts love and fury.
For her ambitious project, which opens on Aug. 8 at Jacob’s Pillow, Ms. Yerushalmy, 40, has created a collection of deconstructed works by choreographers, including Martha Graham and Bob Fosse. “I started by compiling people’s icons,” she said in a recent interview. “And then I was in the library for a long time: watching, watching, watching.”
What was she looking for? “The point of view of the shapes and what the body was doing,” Ms. Yerushalmy said. “That’s what got me so hooked in wanting to do this.”
Ms. Yerushalmy’s work melds daring ideas with lush movement that makes space for nuance and detail. For “Helga and the Three Sailors” (2014), Ms. Yerushalmy, who grew up in Israel, spent a year studying videos of herself dancing as a young child. She learned that movement and filtered it back into her work. “I did mimicry as a practice,” she said, “rather than making up moves.”
“Paramodernities” is an extension of that. The seed for it was first planted in 2013 when Ms. Yerushalmy deconstructed Vaslav Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for a centennial celebration in Berlin. For the six-part production, which is scheduled to be at New York Live Arts next March, each piece is set, not to music, but to text, read live, by scholars and writers who place the dances within the larger frame of modernism.
The installments are Nijinsky’s “Rite”; Graham’s “Night Journey” (1947); Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” (1960); a mash-up of Merce Cunningham works, including “Rainforest,” “Sounddance” and “Ocean” (1968-1990); dance numbers from the 1969 film of Fosse’s “Sweet Charity”; and George Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957).
In creating the choreography, Ms. Yerushalmy invented a different movement score for each installment. “They’re all a little brainy,” she said with an apologetic grin.
For “Rite,” she printed out Stravinsky’s score — even though she doesn’t read music — and cataloged the movements according to notes; a B-flat, for instance, means a jump. “Revelations” is based on the words of its spirituals. Ms. Yerushalmy assigned movement to phrases like, “fix me, Jesus,” and then wrote them on cardboard, cut them up and put them together randomly.
“I didn’t want to be involved,” she said. “I just wanted to put it in the blender.”
Pamela Tatge, the director of the Pillow, was intrigued from the start. “I’m very interested in finding ways for archival material to live,” she said. “Netta is examining these works today because she is making the case for how these choreographer’s ideologies figured in modernism.”
For the dancer Marc Crousillat, watching cast members — drawn from the contemporary dance world — perform these works has been odd. “But it makes sense,” he said. “All of these dancers who have been around for a long time in the city are engaging in what has been around us in this very endearing way.”
The project is one that “feels like it can go on and on,” Ms. Yerushalmy said. “What about Paul Taylor? What about José Limón, Mary Wigman and Pearl Primus?”
And the project has changed her, too. She regularly attends Ailey and Graham company performances. And she arrived for our interview having just been at Cunningham technique class.
“I have to take class to stay sane,” she said. “But this project brought me to that class. And I was swept in.”
Below are edited excerpts from our talk.
What is this project all about for you?
I’m not making reconstructions, and I’m not doing a dance history thing. I’m trying to make something that doesn’t totally know what it is. In the end, it’s an unstable product.
What has it shown you about yourself as a choreographer?
I’m still figuring that out. There’s the total displacement of my authorship. Who’s making this thing? Is it mine? Is it the scholars? Is it Ailey’s? What is this? I didn’t really tell the dancers what to do. I said, “Here’s the video. Learn it.” So I’m authoring it, but in a very different way from anything I’ve ever made, so that feels destabilizing. I do know it feels worthwhile.
Do you think that you’ll make people look at these dances and appreciate them more?
My assumption is that people in the field are sort of like, why are you re-canonizing the canon? Why do we even say their names again?
Choreographers often rebel against those who came before them. So why are you exploring their work in such great detail?
Because I don’t take any of it for granted. I’m far enough away that it’s like a cabinet of curiosities. I’m not just like, oh, old hat — I know that. And I think it might be useful for the field to have an opportunity to view things in a different way and have a little tension around them. I’m also saying that it’s ours.
I’m not so concerned with keeping the legacies alive, but with taking something for myself and for everybody who’s trained and danced and been in a company. That’s how we learned to dance.
Even if it was removed in some way?
Totally. Early on, we were studying “Revelations” and Jesse Zaritt was very uncomfortable: Why am I, this white Jewish dude in the studio, trying to do all the stuff? By doing this movement, I can ask, “How is this me and not me at the same time?” I can figure out the ways in which I’m intimate with it. And does it belong to a culture or a protected technique that I don’t quite have access to? The whole project has a lot of these tensions. [Smiles happily] It doesn’t quite land.
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