Toni Bravo is herself a fusion of different cultures, so why shouldn't the dances she creates be the same? "I am part Italian, French, Spanish, and Mexican-Indian," says the choreographer who directs Kinesis Dance Theatre Projects, "which gives me four ways to view the world. I have gone to India -- that is why I've been working with the Bharata Natyam dancer Anuradha Naimpally -- and in doing so, I have been able to get to the roots of the movement that better expresses why or how I feel the Latin world has developed. Sometimes I choreograph moves from India or Africa, which better defines my Spanish background, and that I translate into my modern dance version of the movements. In that way, I can touch my culture a little bit more clearly, as opposed to me saying it is just a modern dance." Bravo is part of a new generation of Austin choreographers who are expanding our concept of dance through the combination of movement styles and traditions from across the globe and throughout the ages. With access to just about every form of dance ever produced, from the Hindu temples of India before 5,000 BC to the ghetto streets of New York City in the 1970s, these artists can fuse the ancient and the modern, the Eastern and the Western, the traditional and the experimental, to create new dance forms that are diverse and multicultural in every sense of those terms. Dramatic modern dance phrases meld with slick hip-hop dance moves. Salsa combines with Indian classical dance in the context of Balinese music. Contact improvisation, modern dance, and yoga furiously whip together to deliciously wicked tango music.
This week, when 39 local dance companies and their 500 dancers descend upon the Texas School for the Deaf for the second annual Austin DanceFest, audiences will have the opportunity to see many of these new forms in performance, to see the talking and moving history book of global dance forms that reside right here in Austin and catch a glimpse of a new century of innovative dance that these choreographers will derive from sharing the dance.
Chris Valentine, the impresario of DanceFest, says that fusion is a natural outgrowth of the festival, which features different local companies performing together in mixed programs. "Last year, in bringing the dancers together, I saw a lot of them sharing ideas," he states. "That is actually part of the reason behind the dance festival: to bring the dance community together. And in doing so, they tend to pick up what others are doing and to start working together on future projects. For example, Toni Bravo produced Neworks last May at the Ballet Austin studios. This eclectic production was the culmination of a 10-day workshop that offered master classes in flamenco and African dance."
Why blend flamenco and African dance? Or modern dance and theatre? For Bravo, the answer lies not only in her emotional concerns and personal history, but in the desire to find the fullest expression possible. "There are several things that cannot be said with only one dance vocabulary or another," Bravo explains. "Since our work is narrative-based, we try to talk about social issues we are concerned about, such as society and political situations for women and children. Sometimes we feel we need to express these through a different medium, so we use the spoken word, as in acting. We use theatrical movement often in developing the silhouette of a character, the mannerisms, and the walk of the character. We use projections of film or transparencies for flight to show images that can evoke a deeper meaning of the idea that we are trying to portray. Other times we use technique that brings together the origins of ethnic dance."
"I have one thing to say about the word "ethnic,'" says Anuradha Naimpally, Indian classical dancer and director of Tanjore Performing Arts in Austin. "Many times, myself or someone from the Middle Eastern dance tradition is called an "ethnic dancer.' I believe every dance is ethnic, because it comes from a certain culture. I think every dancer draws their inspirations from their own background and where they live currently. If you were in India, ballet would be considered ethnic dancing. It just depends on your relative position to where you are at the time. Now, even in India, the Bharata Natyam dancers and other classical artists are fusing other styles of Indian classical dances together on their own. They are doing experimentation with foreign artists and also with the themes and the music. We are no longer using traditional music. I use a lot of funky music sometimes, or I will just experiment with voice. Even the themes are changing: We will take a traditional story and revisit it and make her a woman of the Nineties. What might have been a mythological take on a character completely changes within the context of life today. A lot of that is happening in India today. I think the traditional has been done over and over again, and now people are saying, "Okay, now what is next?' There are so many possibilities."
Maintaining an ongoing collaboration with each other has enabled Naimpally and Bravo to explore the possibilities of fusion between Hispanic and Indian cultures in a variety of ways. "Toni and I have been working together for several years," Naimpally says, "and we have done all kinds of things. Initially, we juxtaposed the two styles of Indian classical and Latin dance together and kept each style intact. Then we started learning each other's movement vocabulary, so we would mimic each other, exchange costume themes and musical themes. Now we are getting more into the cultural traditions and religious traditions to see how many things are similar or different. For example, in Hinduism, all the classical arts are linked with religion. In the Hindu temples, the dance was used as a form of worship and so was music, and painting. If you look at the temple sculpture, all these arts were used to show the glory of God. By the same token, the artist, by showing the glory of God and dedicating herself/himself to the art, the study of the art, and the practice of the art, became a spiritual pursuit as well -- a path to salvation. This is very different from the Judeo-Christian tradition. We are working on these cultural themes right now."
World cultures aren't the only cultures being linked by Austin choreographers today, however. High dance culture -- e.g., ballet and modern -- and low dance culture -- e.g., avant-garde, popular, commercial, and vernacular -- are getting fused by Elaine Dove and Tracy Saddler of Outside the Box. "The piece we will be performing at DanceFest is called Play, which got its roots in club dancing," says Dove. "It's techno, reminiscent of the kind of club music we used to go dancing to in the Eighties -- of course, it happens to be trained dancers and not club kids doing it. Because of our backgrounds, it has turned into a fusion of nostalgia and modern dance vocabulary and some funky choreographed movement. We are having a lot of fun with it. When Tracy and I started to work on this piece, it didn't take too long before we realized that we weren't having any fun trying to make a modern piece. It seemed a bit dry. So I said, "Look, we're calling ourselves Outside the Box, so why don't we just get out? Like all the way out. Just stop even doing this.' But at the same time, we realized we just didn't want to throw away what we had learned. There was some thought about building on what we learned and allowing ourselves to play, which is why the piece is called Play."
Asked how they came up with the name for their company, Dove replies, "Part of the whole point was to get outside of this idea that you have to do what everyone before you has done before you can possibly do anything new. And conversely, getting away from the idea that everything has to be absolutely new in order to be interesting. Neither of those extremes is true. Dance is really a human art, and it happens as a combination of experience and innovation. So there is always going to be some amount of traditional information, some amount of personal experience, and a certain amount of experimentation. We just want to allow all of that. We are not so interested in pursuing that characterization by being a modern company or modern dancers. We are really just interested in dancing and having some fun doing it, which seems to be part of the point that gets lost when you start trying to experience art. There is some kind of aspect where human beings take themselves too seriously, and that is something we are always working to let go of."
Allison Orr, former member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, also weaves playful humor and personal stories into her choreography, as her piece for DanceFest makes clear. Titled Shoe Dance, the theatre-based solo performed to music by Patsy Cline features Orr trying to organize her 80 shoes onstage. "It's a three-section piece that explores through abstract movement and personal story, my own relationship to shoes," Orr enthusiastically declares. "When I was a little girl, my dad had this rule that we had to wear house shoes in the house, and that never quite worked out for me. So I talk about that in the dance, and I tell that story while I am dancing. Also, my whole life I have had a hard time finding shoes that fit. I have narrow feet, and I always had to go to several stores and do all these special things to get shoes to fit. I could never quite get the right pair. Even as an adult, I still can't get exactly what I need. So the piece is choreographically layered with thoughts such as, "Why can't I have exactly what I need?' I was always thinking about excess in a way -- how I have so much but then don't have quite what I need. And then there are many parts of the world where people just have one pair or two pairs of shoes. What I do I need to become comfortable? Where does the excess line begin?"
While Shoe Dance finds Orr on a stage, it's not where she prefers to work. She'd rather be outside the theatre, where she likes to fuse dance with people who don't think of themselves as dancers. "I did a project last year, Dances for Dogs and People Who Walk Them, that was a series of short dances performed by dogs and their owners in a downtown Washington, D.C., park. That is the kind of work I love: out in public spaces, using dance to get people together and to create collaborations you wouldn't expect to happen." She adds, "Modern dance being influenced by other dance forms is certainly happening and it definitely excites me. I feel like it really helps us connect with people who wouldn't necessarily want to see modern dance or have anything to do with it. It is helping us in terms of growing audiences and getting more people involved."
For some Austin choreographers, however, the impulse toward fusion isn't always consciously directed. Kathy Dunn Hamrick, artistic director of the Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, acknowledges fusion as part of her choreographic work but maintains that "for me, it is more of a subconscious fusion. My interest in contact improvisation and yoga, plus my ballet training and what I learned from the people that I studied with, influences my work. You tend to carry your past experiences with you whether you adhere to them or not. I know I do. It is really ingrained in your brain. Also, my style is definitely a fusion of what my body likes to do combined with my traditional training. It has definitely become a fusion of my own experiences and other modern dance styles, plus contact improvisation and yoga."
Karuna might be far removed from Kathy Dunn Hamrick in terms of style, but the Middle Eastern dancer shares Dunn Hamrick's interest in the inner impulses toward fusion. Karuna began her dancing journey as a serious ballet dancer, after which she attended the Julliard School in New York to study modern dance. That led to her discoveries of contact improvisation and integrative movement modalities such as yoga, t'ai chi, and the works of Gabrielle Roth and Emilie Conrad Daoud. When she entered Middle Eastern dance, it was through Sufi meditation practice, for which she feels "very fortunate." She says, "I was dancing to slow movement synchronized with breathing and learning the vibrations and undulations from the inside out. I danced with my eyes closed for a really long time before I considered coming out and performing as a belly dancer, which is part spiritual practice and part performance. Once I did come back into performing, I started to blend things and fuse them. I did a full-length concert last September. That was my first full-length work blending a lot of styles. I actually started to study a little bit of Kathak, East Indian dance, because I've got that East Indian feel and Spanish, like flamenco. So I am not a pure Arabic dancer, but I am deeply in love with Middle Eastern Dance and the music."
Commenting on her traditional ballet and modern dance training, Karuna says, "Having been a Western-trained dancer, I am so grateful for ethnic dance, the earth base of them, the bare feet and the rhythms. In Western dance, a lot of what you are dancing is melody. You dance in the melodic line. In Middle Eastern dance, Indian, or Spanish, you are really doing the rhythm, and in Middle Eastern it is in the hips. You can really get very intricate in what you do with the hips and the rhythm. Then you bring the melody into the rest of the body. So you have these separate lines going at once. Also, I have a background in music, so that really is exciting to me. And it is endless; the possibilities are endless."
Keep that in mind as you attend this year's DanceFest and see an array of outstanding artists bring you the world through a whirl of traditional and unconventional artistry. You'll be witnessing the beginning of a new century in dance right here in Austin.
Barbejoy Ponzio is a dance historian who will be presenting an interactive lecture titled "Illuminating the Dance" as part of the DanceFest Speaker Series. The lecture will be held Saturday, Jan 22, 7:30pm, at Cafe Dance. Admission is $10. Call 451-8066 for reservations.
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