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July 1, 1999


This diary was written during the rehearsal of the 1999 concert for Dance as Ever.

I began writing the diary on Day 4 and a hard drive crash on Day 35 prevented me from finishing the diary until the Tuesday after the performances. At all other times, it was written on a daily basis, except the few days when circumstances forced otherwise. The diary was hosted, also on a daily basis, at Ballet Alert!, a web site run by Alexandra Tomalonis. I’d like to thank her for her part in its existence, which includes the original request to do it.

The diary was arguably a proto-blog written before blogs and blogging software became common. I wanted to give it a permanent home on my own website and it seemed logical to present it in blog form. This work was done November 16-19, 2005. This entry from 11/19/2005 is deliberately misdated to place it first. The dates of the entries are correct, the times of the entries are not known, so are set to just after midnight. I have corrected some grammar and punctuation and also inserted some hyperlinks to make use of the medium, but the content has not been altered from the original. It seems strange to leave comments open on journal entries more than six years old, but as an experiment and in case people have something they wish to ask or add, I'll leave the comments open for the time being. UPDATE 1/12/06: Feedback turned off.

I dislike being a Grinch, but I found out by happenstance that this diary was being used as teaching material without my permission or knowledge. I understand the impulse, but I'd like to emphasize that I do not relinquish any rights to this original material by placing it on this blog. If you wish to use these writings for a purpose other than personal use (reading and the printing of a single copy), please contact me for permission and/or licensing.

July 28, 1999

Day 1

The first day of rehearsals is always the hardest day. I usually can’t sleep the night before from being wound up so tightly, and until the first step is choreographed, there is always the small voice asking, “What if this one turns out to be really stupid?” I’ve chosen to take the bull by the horns for a few reasons. The piece we’re beginning with, Scherzo Fantastique, to the music of the same title by Josef Suk, is the one I feel I have the loosest grip on conceptually. But it’s also the only one for which I have a full cast assembled at present (I’m still looking for one man - and it hangs over my head like any undone task) so it’s what we must begin with.

I walk into studio; Frances is already in the dressing room, blastingly air-conditioned in the intense heat of this summer. We sit down and chat. I like the small talk at the beginning of rehearsal; it calms me, and helps me to get to know the dancers. Most of my choreography comes from judgments and assessments of the dancers as people, as well as how they move, so the chat is more necessary than the trivia it seems. Adriana arrives next and then Mary (Morgan won’t be here today, but will join us tomorrow.) The dancers introduce themselves to each other (they all know each other at least tangentially) and we begin.

Without a full cast I always feel tentative, not liking to set any step on the person not doing it. Worse still, I really don’t yet know what this ballet is about. There are several different aesthetic palettes possible on a continuum ranging from La Valse to The Absinthe Drinker out to Brides of Dracula. I’ll only know by throwing a few steps onto the canvas, like Jackson Pollock making a Rorschach test, and analyzing the splotches.

I’ve used this music before, and I didn’t like what I did, the music was too strange for the conventional waltz piece I made, I caught the music’s beauty and sweep but missed its oddities. The first question I needed to address was how to portray the strangeness in a way that still acknowledged what was beautiful in the music, and that these dancers could do. I had hired ballet dancers, and it’s a waste of time and resources not to respect their process. One difference between ballet-trained dancers and modern-trained dancers is that modern dancers tend to work from the inside out and ballet dancers work from the outside in. Modern dancers ask about intention and style early on in the process, ballet dancers tend not to be comfortable with those questions until all the steps have been set, then they will add coloring to them.

The music is a sumptuous waltz, so we start in the simplest place possible, with a balancé en tournant, a step commonly used in most ballets containing waltz music. We do the step as it is usually done, then vary it by altering the arms slightly so that they curve delicately in front as if imploring. This establishes a palette for the ports des bras and épaulement of the work early on. I then ask the dancers to do the waltz step at half time or slower. This answers an important question, I know that I want the ballet, like the music, to be beautiful yet strange, but strange in what way? The possibilities seemed to me to be either to be strange in behavior or in incongruities (disrupting the expected flow of movement or tempo.) The second of the two relies less upon the dancers and more upon me, so I opt to try it. Setting a dancer moving at unnaturally slow speeds against a group of dancers moving at the tempo set by the music provides the slightly disorienting effect I am looking for.

Work proceeds that day, but in fits and starts and somewhat uncomfortably. The only one I’ve worked with before is Mary, and we’re quite comfortable with each other. Adriana is very even keeled, Frances eager to get things right, but they still don’t yet know how I work, my vagueness throws Frances slightly, even though I assure her that at this preliminary stage of choreography, there is not yet a right or wrong way to execute what I’ve asked for (and generally in the vaguest terms.) Because this is not the full cast, and because I’m not yet sure what I’m doing, I am loath to set any steps as choreography, and so am building movement phrases without the music, not even playing it until more than an hour into the rehearsal. I simply throw out ideas at random for the remainder of the rehearsal. They’re not choreographed to music, but will be compared with it after, to see which are appropriate. Some, like a lengthy phrase with immense sweep, are ready for almost immediate incorporation, others, like an almost mimed phrase denoting entrapment will be thrown out.

July 29, 1999

Day 2

Happily, the first day’s random explorations produced decent results. I’ve found that like the Rorschach analogy above, the first day’s work on a piece I am unsure of is also like shooting arrows. I don’t worry about hitting the target on the first arrow. I shoot twenty arrows one after the other, look at the target and see which ones hit. Sitting down and listening to the music in the morning and dividing it into sections makes the task manageable and I can also sense the throughline of the dance. The main waltz theme recurs five times, after the fifth (right near the end) a completely new (and ominous) subject breaks out that the composer gave no hint of previously. It’s part of the strangeness of the music. I realize that in order to make sense out of the end of the music, or more properly, to justify its accompaniment to this dance, the choreography will provide foreshadowing that the score doesn’t. Each of the iterations of the waltz will be slightly more disorienting than the last. I feel much better walking into rehearsal, as I have some idea on what I need to work on.

I now work as I often do when I feel surer, in chronological order. The music begins with an introduction before the main theme enters and I deal with it in a similar fashion, as an atmospheric prologue to the action, setting dancers rushing or slowly walking across the floor. At one point they stop their action in unison and all turn to look back at an object unseen to the audience. “That’s creepy,” Morgan says. I guess I’m getting the effect I wanted.

Morgan is the dancer I’ve worked with the longest in the group, since 1996, and a favorite of mine, just for the natural beauty and singularity with which she moves. She’s not a textbook dancer, but there’s something about the lushness of her movement that makes her compulsively watchable to me. Her back is also extremely flexible, and I realize how much of this dance is going to be based upon a pliant upper body. I warn her not to take all the movements into her lower back full out during rehearsal, because I’m going to be using that exaggeration, and if she does it over and over full out, she’ll be at the chiropractor’s by the end of the month.

In the middle of June, I had done six hours of work in the studio with Morgan and Mary, making isolated phrases to videotape and show to the designers, so they could have an idea of the overall style of the new ballets. One of those phrases gets incorporated, with changes, into the first occurrence of the waltz subject. It’s a particularly lovely passage of music, so I try to use a long, lush phrase here, knowing that at later repeats I’ll need to do something less viscerally satisfying. A transition is choreographed (using material taken and varied from the introduction) and then the second repeat of the waltz is choreographed to a combination of a phrase made in June and the sweeping phrase I made yesterday. We’re about two and a half minutes into the 16 minute piece, and on our way.

July 30, 1999

Day 3

Frances had to leave early the day before, so is trying to learn the phrases she missed, and it’s frustrating her. If one is self-producing, all types of ancillary management skills become as essential to survival as artistic talent. Managing and adapting to schedules, and dealing with the dancer’s needs, complaints and insecurities are daily events, and there’s more than small satisfaction in handling them with successfully and with grace. I choreograph a transitional phrase for Frances with jumps in it, and she’s trying so hard to show me she can do it accurately that the musicality of it eludes her. She seems convinced this is a black mark on her, I just tell her to go away and work on it, and that it will be fine later on. The musical cue where to do the phrase eludes her for the rest of the day. It was a treacherous cue, I choreographed a phrase isolated from the music and then told her that a jump in the middle of the dance phrase had to be at a certain note at the beginning of the musical phrase, and she’d have to work backwards to figure out where to start. At that moment, I bet she fiercely wished she were dealing with a choreographer who worked with counts. I count music so eccentrically that I refuse to count in rehearsal, not wishing to waste time on having the dancers decipher my counts. I’ll do the phrase in front, with one of the dancers counting behind me. We then set the phrase to those counts. It may also vary slightly in translation, but I enjoy that part of the process. If something is lost in the transition from my head to their bodies, I’ll let them know. Often, their miscomprehension of what I requested is an improvement upon it.

Another transition is set for Adriana and Morgan, made from sections of the phrase Frances just danced. Then a section for Mary. I smile at her as she listens to the music to which she is about to dance. “You’ve given me the dinky phrase again!” she laughs. Mary is a tiny redhead, and the day before I had set a step for her that she decided she had to do on “the dinky phrase,” laughing that small dancers always dance to the dinky phrase. Hearing the next phrase that comes up in the music, an eccentric little waltz in a high register, I know she has to dance it, as a private joke between us. The phrase, a balloné followed by a pas de bourree and a chassé en tournant is interesting as the timing mutates slightly as we do it, on the first few attempts, the chassé begins the phrase, as I demonstrate it again, the balloné more naturally accents the opening of the phrase. It’s almost like watching an oddly shaped piece of a puzzle rotate and wiggle into the correct spot.

Mary was laughingly chided by another director “You’re not a dancer, you’re an actress masquerading as a dancer.” Mary is actually a rather nice dancer, and thoroughly ballet trained, but unlike many ballet dancers, she needs to approach repertory theatrically rather than technically. The advantage to this for me is that it helps me to clarify what I’m thinking and what the dance is doing, because she needs and wants to know. I ask the dancers to show me what we’ve done up to this point, so I can see what it is. As they do it, the dance’s qualities become more fully formed, like shapes emerging out of a mist. “You’re not dancing with each other. You’re each dancing with an imaginary partner.” I instruct them. I had made a phrase with an imaginary partner in June, and that had been the original impetus of the dance. I had such trouble with the men I had worked with last year that I decided to do a piece without men, that the partners would be imaginary. Even with that conceit, I hadn’t realized that it would be the controlling impetus of the atmosphere of the piece, a sort of tenuous connection with reality and the fantastic. When watching the first five minutes of the work, I knew that that idea would be brought to the fore and others discarded. We have just less than six minutes completed when we break for the weekend.