Polishing Elephants

On Finishing a Dance

When is a work of art finished? When the words "The End" are typed? When the brush is set down? When it's first performed for the public? In some cases, yes. But in many instances, perhaps most, a work of art will be reviewed and revised many times before its creator considers it complete. The refinement of a work of art is a complex process, one which may find the artist incorporating input from outside sources - editors, directors, audiences, spouses - or taking the piece in directions in revised versions never explored in the original. One artist with recent experience in both areas is Jose Luis Bustamante, associate artistic director of Sharir Dance Company and the recipient of a 1995 Choreography Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. At a company performance in February, Bustamante presented a new dance, Where Are the Elephants?, as a work-in-progress. In the time since, Bustamante has continued developing the piece, and this week, he offers an expanded version when Sharir performs with Repertory Dance Theatre at UT's B. Iden Payne Theatre.

Where Are the Elephants? focuses on the circus, that strange, sometimes magical home of wild beasts, daredevils, and fools. The choreographer had strong memories of the circuses of Mexico from his youth, and he felt an urge to translate the spirit of what he remembered into dance. He was not, however, driven by feelings of nostalgia.

"It was inspired by my childhood memories," Bustamante says, "but in the sense that when I look back at that now, I see how interesting a structure a circus can be. It can hold many different things, some of them very dissonant. The circus is a big community that seems very diverse. You have the handsome trapeze artists and the clowns and bearded ladies. Everything seems to be there, and there is something about the energy of the circus that holds them there.

"Then the circus as a kinetic event is very interesting. When you go, regardless of whether you like it or think the animals stink or whatever, when the elephants come there is a definite kinetic feeling, this slow walk, and you wonder if they're ever going to get past. Then there are the acrobats, who have a different kinetic feeling, then the trapeze artists, who have this tension about them but also a slow swinging movement. The circus is a rich source for inspiration for movement. So in my mind all of that translated into different subjects for the dance."

Bustamante was not far into work on the piece when he realized the subject was greater in scope than he had imagined. "We had been working on it for four or five weeks" he recalls, "and I found there was a lot of room for exploring the subject. A circus can be very large. I kept having images and didn't feel that it was a work that was finished. I wanted to go on and explore other areas." He opted to proceed with a preliminary presentation in February, with more work on the piece to follow.

Initially, the piece was composed of five sections, ranging from two-and-a-half to six-and-a-half minutes, performed to, Bustamante says, "very idiosyncratic music: some of it is classical, some traditional." The response to the piece was positive, he says: "There was a lot of laughter. Most of these pieces come out very funny. The two words we hear most are fun and funny."

Bustamante acknowledges that whimsy wasn't the only mood of the circus he sought to evoke. "Part of me wanted to explore that edge to these characters, for instance, the clowns. Historically, there is the clown that is hit by tragedy or sorrow. Then there is the aspect of the circus that is a little bit scary, the part with freak shows or sideshows or that deal with the amazing or the strange." But the response assured him that his piece was at least "true to the spirit of the circus."

He resumed work on Elephants, only to have the piece take an unexpected turn. "I happened to be at Texas French Bread and I saw a kid with a yo-yo. I was considering objects I wanted to work into the piece because I was looking for a motif. I was thinking, Where did he get that? Terra Toys, he said, so I went to Terra Toys, and that was the last yo-yo they had. Then I see these little elephants made out of wood, so I get them, then I see these little balloons. I brought the balloons to rehearsal, and we did so many things with them and had so many laughs it was unbelievable. I realized, I need to speak to this. So I started exploring... they call them twisties. They're balloons that blow into elongated shapes and you twist them into animal shapes or whatever. The dancers and I got into exploring what we could do with those." The balloons became objects for juggling, props for clowns, arms. "We came up with four sections that involve the balloons and use them in different ways."

That means virtually half of the version of Where Are the Elephants? being presented this week is new, testament to the radical changes that can occur as a work of art is revised. The artist behind this particular work is pleased with its development - "I feel now that it's a little more rich, that the sections are threaded together in a way that I consider to be the best order," he says - but is he ready to proclaim the work finished? Don't count on it. "I still believe the piece could grow," Bustamante says. "In the future it can be a very good shell for other pieces. The theme of the piece opens itself up to more and to different things. And the structure is such that it could accept other developments. Maybe a few years down the line..." and the choreographer begins spinning images of dances about animals, of dances by other choreographers, of a piece that is ever evolving. When is a work of art finished? In this case, maybe never.

"What is it they say?" Bustamante asks. "`And the band played on'."

Where Are the Elephants? will be presented by the Sharir Dance Company April 28 & 29 at the B. Iden Payne Theatre on the UT campus.

Hay's Heart
Fifteen individuals squat on a bare stage, each perched on a brightly colored balloon. They try to settle their backsides on these fragile eggs and can't quite do it, their forms teetering from side to side, buttocks sliding to and fro, ovoids of flesh against ovoids of plastic, pressing together, each giving in its own way. Into this company of hunched, uncertain hens comes a single upright figure, a smiling woman in a pink tutu who dances among the squatters, a merry rebel.

So begins my heart, a dance developed out of Deborah Hay's most recent large group workshop and a departure for the internationally renowned choreographer. In place of the enigmatic, ambiguous movement that has characterized much of Hay's past work, my heart features - embraces even - movement rich in meaning, emotion, and whimsy. In a silent, meditative group, a man abruptly breaks into a series of loud raspberries, a symphony of farting sounds. A dozen people stand in a line while a woman in cat's-eye sunglasses and bright, flowered blouse moves among them uttering Italian phrases and waving her camera. A community gathers for a wedding. A body is pushed onstage by a company of kneeling mourners. A figure plays with a stuffed toy rabbit, its fur darkened and worn from the touch of many hands over many years.

In a series of short sections, my heart offers a collage of images of community and individuality, the reassuring foundation of the group and the joy of solo expression. The work ends with the 17 performers each taking a turn around the stage, running in a circle, like a circus horse. As you watch this parade of solos and see each dancer transcribing that same circle alone, each looking so distinct and moving in such a distinctive way - this one with brown hair, that one with gray, this one fleshy, that one thin, this one male, that one female, this one at a trot, that one at a full-bore run - there emerges the beautiful and wistful idea that though we may always be a part of some group, though we may all tread the same path, the path from cradle to grave, each of us will always be apart, a separate creature, traveling down that path in his or her own way, following the dictates of our own individual hearts. - Robert Faires

my heartwill be performed April 27-29, 8pm, at the Temple Family Theatre in the Helm Fine Art Center, St. Stephen's School.

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More by Robert Faires
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