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All Over Creation: Surprise, Surprise

Peter Bay's work in 'Solo Symphony' revealed sides of him that hadn't been seen before

By Robert Faires, Fri., July 27, 2012

You don't know me: 
Peter Bay in <i>Solo Symphony</i>
You don't know me: Peter Bay in Solo Symphony
Photo courtesy of Amitava Sarkar

Man, you think you know an artist.

You follow his work, pay attention to it. You note the way he approaches a project, his sensibility, his style, what appears to come to him naturally and what doesn't. And after enough time and familiarity, you come to believe you know everything he's capable of (and not capable of), everything he's willing to show you and not willing to.

Then along comes a project in which this artist takes you somewhere you didn't expect to go, reveals a side you hadn't seen before. And it's a sudden, serious slap upside the head.

That's what Peter Bay gave me two weeks ago – well, not literally, as he isn't the kind of guy to go around thwacking people, even critics. But clearly he isn't above surprising them in the artistic realm, as he proved in Forklift Danceworks' Solo Symphony, a work inspired by his movements as an orchestral conductor.

Now, I'd been watching those movements since Bay took up the baton with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in 1998, and I've spilled a fair amount of ink describing them in these pages. Moreover, since I've observed Bay leading orchestras through musical territories as diverse as Mozart and Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Takemitsu, and spoken at length with the man about his work, I figured I'd gleaned enough to render an informed judgment about Bay the Artist.

But oh, when he stood before those 13 musicians in the Rollins Theatre, I saw sides of Peter Bay I'd not seen before – one side being his front. Bay directs the ASO with his back to the house, so our sense of his expressiveness is largely limited to his gestures: arms bobbing and arcing, one hand thrust forward to punctuate a passage, one opened quickly as if flicking something away. We only ever glimpse his face in brief turns toward the musicians on his sides. But with the orchestra turned upstage here, Bay's face remained fully visible throughout the performance.

Talk about a revelation. You can sense his enthusiasm for what he's doing by the energy in his body and motion, but when you see his facial expressions, that enthusiasm is much more vivid. His eyes gleam with delight, and there's a grin that never fully fades, even during the music's most dramatic passages. His looks reveal how deeply he loves this unique language of rhythms, sounds, and harmonies, and how he isn't conducting from some dispassionate distance but rather from inside the music. You can see how he shares that love with the musicians, how he connects with them, meeting their eyes, his smile conveying his joy in what they're doing, in the music they're making together. In seeing Bay's face as he conducted, I understood for the first time that this was no autocrat on the podium, commanding the orchestra to march in lockstep behind him. I'm certain there are conductors who fit that stereotype, but don't count Bay in their number. The openness of his face, his clear interest in what the musicians do, and his expressions of support mark him as one of the players, a colleague, a collaborator, creating the music with them, despite the fact that he never makes a sound. Seeing that caused me to consider Bay in a new light – indeed, to consider conducting in a new light and to rethink the ways orchestral music is made.

I don't know that I could have understood that had I not been able to see it – but I know I wouldn't have been able to see it had Bay not accepted the invitation of Forklift Artistic Director Allison Orr to do this project. Bay truly put himself out there here, agreeing not just to conduct music in the context of a dance production but to dance himself – to perform choreographed movements without conducting players on a piece of music. In opening himself up to this new artistic experience, Bay left himself very vulnerable, and it showed in the sequences when the musicians set down their instruments, and Bay literally went through the motions without a sound, save for Graham Reynolds' haunting piano. The light left Bay's face, and he appeared alone and lonely. I was struck with an image of God in the void before creation, needing life and the cosmos to be fulfilled. One of Bay's gestures – that quick opening of his hand – suggested the release of a newly formed star into the firmament, and as Bay gently swayed in silence, I had an epiphany of God as a dancer and maker of music. In all the years I'd heard Him referred to as the Creator, I'd never imagined God as an artist. But this gave me an image of that. I don't believe that that's what either Orr or Bay was going for, but Bay's openness and willingness to explore a new creative outlet left room for that discovery.

Explore. Seek out the new. Make discoveries. That's what artists do, and that's why we should never assume we know an artist's limits. As long as the artist is exploring, he has none.

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