The Tuning Project

The improvised movements of Julie Nathanielsz and her dancers were full of refreshing surprises

Arts Review
Courtesy of Derrick Fore

The Tuning Project

Hancock Ballroom,
811 E. 41st
Jan. 17

The morning before I attended The Tuning Project, I read a review of a new painting show at MOMA, in which critic Peter Schjeldahl mourned the end of painting's era in the sun, a result of our "image-sickened society." The ubiquity of video, I thought, causes a similar affliction. The Tuning Project, for which dancer-choreographer Julie Nathanielsz brought in improvisation guru Karen Nelson to work with a group of local dancers, was antidote for that tiresome predetermination that we succumb to every time we click "play."

The performance, the first of three unique showings, took place in the modest brick-and-beamed ballroom on the Hancock Golf Course at four in the afternoon. Weak sunlight beamed in through the windows (judging from the stream of passersby, it was a lovely day for golf), and a large hearth adorned one wall. Warm yellow dominated the color palette in the individualized costumes, the wood floor, and the light, intensified by two electric lamps sitting on the floor and moved ad hoc by the performers. Warm and eclectic like the costuming, the soundscape was made by Henna Shih-Han Chou, with an assortment of objects and instruments, as well as by each dancer's calls of directives: "pause," "reverse," "repeat," and so on. The calls are part of a practice developed by Lisa Nelson (no relation to Karen), called Tuning Scores, which aims to help performers "tune" to one another as a musical instrument is tuned to the orchestra. The pausing, reversing, and repeating encouraged reflection on the choices that had come just before. My favorite call was "report," which elicited the performers' simultaneous in-the-moment responses to what was happening, which seemed to include real-time confusion, dissatisfaction, and physical distress.

The seven improvisers have painstakingly learned to accept movement impulses that fall outside the norms of the dominant culture, which tells us that sit, stand, read, and react are more acceptable than squat, perch, listen, and initiate. In truth, their movement was most familiar to me as what I spend much time telling my children not to do: fitting oneself into a windowsill or lying underneath a stool turned horizontally. At one point during the performance, Nathanielsz noticed the electric cord for a lamp coiled on a windowsill, picked it up, dropped it on the floor, and moved on. Near the end of the performance, when Chou's cello ended up on the floor with a couple of the dancers around it, I was a bit worried about what would happen to it. It came through unharmed.

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Julie Nathanielsz, Karen Nelson, Henna Shih-Han Chou

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