What follows are excerpts from Peggy Baker’s writing for the recently launched DVD and booklet series chronicling The Choreographer’s Trust project. The series is available for long-term loan from Dance Collection Danse (DCD) in Toronto. DCD also holds the Benesh notation scores for the project, which involved six works and twelve dance artists and began in 2002.
Baker writes: “Since 1991, I have dedicated myself primarily to solo work, going into the studio alone each day to train and to explore and develop choreographic material in order to prepare myself, and the dances I have created or taken on, for performance. Approaching my fiftieth birthday I became increasingly aware of the impermanence of my performing life. In the summer of 2002, realizing that unless I passed my dances on, the hard won lessons that were embedded in them risked being lost when I retired, I embarked on an initiative I call The Choreographer’s Trust.
“The word ‘trust’ carries, in this instance, a double meaning. It refers both to the notion of a body of work as wealth that may be endowed, and also to the faith placed in the dancers to keep the works alive and well. With funding generously provided by the Metcalf Foundation, I was able to pass on six dances to two dancers each over the course of four years. In making gifts of these works I was able to give life to the dances that went far beyond my own performances. The value of the dances was enhanced when they became vehicles for the development and expression of other dancers. Further, the work we undertook allowed me to examine the nature of a choreographic score and to explore how individual artistry informs the interpretation and performance of that score.”
We’ve chosen Baker’s essay about the creation of Brute and an accompanying essay on androgyny for publication here. The full set of essays are available for loan as part of The Choreographer’s Trust DVD series through Dance Collection Danse – for more information contact Amy Bowring at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By 1993, pianist Andrew Burashko and I had several short dances in our shared repertoire, including Ten Suggestions by Mark Morris with music by Alexander Cherepnin, and my three Brahms pieces: Brahms Waltzes, Spätstil, and Her Heart. I felt that Andrew and I had something very special going and wanted to move to a more ambitious level with him by creating a full program for piano and solo dancer. I explained to Andrew that I wanted the music to be strong enough to stand on its own as a recital program, and he responded by saying, “In that case, we need to use important music.” He offered me recordings of five or six hugely ambitious works to consider, and I chose a complex, disturbing, and starkly percussive score by Sergei Prokofiev, his Piano Sonata no. 6 in A major, opus 82. I admit to being thoroughly intimidated by this monumental work, but I was shaken and gripped by the music on a gut level.
Andrew gave me a guided tour through the score in one very intense day. We worked at the piano in his home, and he explained the architecture of the score, the development within each movement, and the compositional techniques driving the music throughout the arc of the work. He played each passage in chronological order, sometimes going back to demonstrate connections, variations, or embellishments. He also broke some parts down, playing one hand at a time or counting as he played to point out specific rhythmic figures or shifts of metre. He sang along with the melody line to amplify the sound of it or vocalized on a more guttural level as he played longer and more complicated sequences. He described Prokofiev himself, his history and character. The music had been composed in the throes of chaos, shock, and agony as Europe descended into World War II, and Andrew spoke about the direct relationship between the music and the sociopolitical frame. He described his own feelings about the music, what most impressed and moved him, where it took his imagination, and what he hoped to be able to do with it. He sent me home with several different recordings and a tape of his own playing. We had our work cut out for us, and we didn’t get together again for months.
I did most of my early work in Ivey House at Canada’s National Ballet School, in a tiny studio that had been the parlour of an Edwardian house. At first I wore heavy black rubber-soled shoes, partly to deal with the unusually hard floor, but also because the weight seemed right. After the first week, the shoes had to go. I needed more control and articulation, but I kept a memory of them for a heavy foot drop and for the hard angle of flexed feet. I took the sound of the music directly into my body and the rhythm drove me, collapsing my joints and throwing me down onto the floor. The movement material was strong and convincing, but over the course of several weeks I couldn’t get beyond the first few minutes of the opening movement. I felt lost. I didn’t know what I was dealing with or where I was going with the vocabulary. It all seemed a clutter of shapes and rhythms. As I listened to the music that lay ahead, I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to generate dancing that would come anywhere close to the demands of the complete sonata. And then a book arrived in the mail from my father.
A psychologist and an avid reader, my father was excited by Howard Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner’s 1993 publication, Creating Minds, profiled seven innovators whose creative breakthroughs had each caused a paradigm shift within their field of endeavour: Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Gandhi, T.S. Eliot, and Martha Graham. My father thought it would interest me in general, but especially since Martha Graham had been my teacher. The book was terrific, absolutely fascinating, and beyond the writing something else grabbed my attention. The central focus of the chapter on Picasso was his masterpiece Guernica, painted in response to the bombing of a small Basque town by Hitler’s air force with the cooperation of Franco. I had seen Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art on several trips to New York in the seventies, and Gardner’s book included a preliminary sketch Picasso had made of an injured horse, collapsed and in agony. The figure of the horse looked, for all the world, like one of the broken shapes my body was taking on in the choreography I had underway, and I felt a jolt of recognition and excitement. Here was a masterwork on a huge scale, painted just a few years before Prokofiev composed his Sonata No. 6. I wondered about the possibility of using the painting as a primary reference. My husband offered to check the University of Toronto bookstore for a book with images of the painting, and he delivered to me Picasso’s Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings by Herschel B. Chipp. This amazingly comprehensive book, brimming with historical information about the event itself and detailing the development of Picasso’s painting through every sketch and draft, presented itself as the perfect resource for the development of my dance.
Even before I connected with the painting, I knew the piano would have to be positioned at centre stage. But this left me with only a band of space about twelve feet deep from one side of the stage to the other. Now the idea of the massive cubist painting standing up, framed by the proscenium, presented itself as a model. Yes, I thought, two-dimensional, pushed up onto a flattened picture plane, no depth of field needed. The percussive score seemed to me the aural equivalent of the harsh, cubist images, and the fact that some of the shapes I had already choreographed in relation to the music existed in the painting as well felt almost uncanny. I recognized clearly the figure of the falling man and the agony of the fallen horse in my own dancing, and now I deliberately took the posture of the woman holding the dead child as the final moment of that opening movement. I used an eyewitness testimony of the bombing as my “script” for the second movement, and organized the third movement around the spatial idea of the painting’s central pyramid. Learning so much about a painting that had always fascinated, impressed, and moved me made this creative period incredibly rich and rewarding.
Throughout my entire creation process, the war in Bosnia raged, and at home at the end of each rehearsal day, watching the nightly news, I was saddened to see horrifying contemporary parallels with the subject of my dance.
Andrew and I began to work together several weeks before the premiere. I was worried that the audible slapping of my hands and feet against the floor might disturb him and need to be eliminated, but he was fine with the extra percussion. The excitement of working with the live piano – and sometimes I was on the floor, only a foot away – was tremendous! I remember vividly the moment after the last note finished sounding at the end of our first run-through: Andrew lurching to his feet and then lunging into the open space of the studio, throwing his arms out from his torso repeatedly, moaning, almost howling, his arms and hands screaming with the pain of the intense physical exertion of playing the sonata. We both needed to build the stamina to perform this exhausting work.
Jane Townsend made me a sensational costume for Brute, a unitard constructed from her hand-appliquéd version of Guernica, the fabrics dyed to match the tones of black, white, and grey in the painting, and with tufts of yarn substituted for Picasso’s slashing brush strokes. Marc Parent created one of his most powerful lighting designs ever, hand-cutting templates from aluminium pie plates to use as gobos.
Andrew and I premiered Brute on April 24, 1994, at the Vancouver Playhouse and performed it for the next three years as the centrepiece of our recital program music for piano and solo dancer.
Androgyny: Expansive Possibilities for Reading the Human Figure in Contemporary Dance
Whether or not my dances would be performed by men was a consideration for each of the six works that comprise the repertoire of The Choreographer’s Trust. Though it struck me initially as a cursory, pragmatic, or even rhetorical question, when I contemplated it more deeply this consideration opened up some fascinating and mysterious lines of enquiry.
As a female choreographer creating works to dance myself, I find myself wondering: are these necessarily dances best performed by women? When are the subject matter and vocabulary of my dances informed in some crucial way by my female persona and the yin aspects of my character and physicality? When do the ambiguity and neutrality of my rather androgynous physique – broad shoulders, small breasts, narrow hips, big feet and hands – play an important role in defining the choreography itself? Does the loss of the tension between yin and yang traits undermine the choreography when the dance is performed by a woman with a more typically female physique and physicality? Does that tension dissolve when the dance is performed by a man, or does the fact that the choreography was driven by a female sensibility sustain the tension? What is the effect if the male dancer taking on the role is, himself, somewhat androgynous? What part does costuming play in creating or eliminating the tension of androgyny?
Contemporary dance in the early twenty-first century traces one important thread of its origins to Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Loie Fuller. These were western women who looked across the globe and back through history to images that expressed the powerful sensuality of the female form. Their dancing unleashed the full force of the quintessentially female body and physicality onto the concert stage: sensuous, sensual, maternal, majestic, exotic, erotic. In the next generation, Martha Graham’s work explored the conflicting impulses and tensions of female sexuality. Along with all of the women in her company, Graham wore dresses of her own design that clung tightly to the torso across the shoulders, breasts, and belly right down to the crease of the hip joint, revealing the coiling spirals of the spine, high arches through the chest, and deep thrusts of the pelvis that drive every gesture in her choreography. When, eventually, she added men to her company, they played their opposing masculine role, dressed in trousers and shirts or simply in loincloths. Meanwhile, Doris Humphrey dressed her dancers as community members, citizens – men in pants and women in simple, modest dresses with wide skirts – and set them in dignified, ecstatic, grieving, celebratory motion, fulfilling musical and choreographic structures. Later, Alwin Nikolais, who also composed the music and designed the extraordinary lighting for his choreography, had his dancers climb inside huge tubes of stretch-fabric and use their bodies to shift the contour of the material. It was almost impossible to tell the men from the women, and the distinction rarely mattered. Merce Cunningham presented his virtuosic company of dancers simply as figures in space. His choreographic interests were purely abstract, focused on movement invention with exacting timings and precise spatial patterns disrupted by strictly imposed chance procedures. Although he consistently paired only men and women as duet couples, he dressed all of his dancers alike, most often in leotards and tights or unitards, costuming that, despite revealing the contour of the body in great detail, created an illusion of gender neutrality.
Minimalists Trisha Brown, Laura Dean, and Lucinda Childs dress their dancers in unisex costumes – flowing pants and tunics or sleek trousers and shirts, with the men and women dancing exactly the same steps. Lar Lubovitch, Mark Morris, and Bill T. Jones routinely switch up gender roles in their dances, pairing men with men and women with women. Lubovitch often features men in lush, lyrical choreography and women in aggressively athletic roles. Morris portrayed a woman in his Dido and Aeneas, and wore a dress, without affecting any femininity, for his solo Dad’s Charts. He added a solitary woman to the ensemble for The Death of Socrates (a dance for and about men), and had men and women alike dance in pointe shoes for his snow scene in The Hard Nut. He often doublecast roles with a man and woman sharing the same part.
Marie Chouinard loves to push gender tension to the brink, employing extreme vocals and costuming (including the phallus/horn of the faun – only ever performed by a woman – in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune). The sexually charged movement sequences in her dances shatter some gender stereotypes while adamantly reinforcing others. Like Chouinard, Dave St. Pierre uses wigs and nudity to confound, shock, and titillate the audience, setting into motion (sometimes irreverently) erotically charged or sexually naïve characters.
For Joe, Jean-Pierre Perreault dressed women and men alike in trousers, overcoats, fedoras, and heavy boots, creating a sea of anonymous humanity in which the range of extremely subtle differences among the dancers was enhanced by the female presence. In Four Towers, Christopher House dresses both men and women in kilts and sleeveless undershirts to perfe tly balanced androgynous effect. He achieves a similar tension and sexual democracy through costuming and unorthodox casting choices in Vena Cava, Severe Clear, and Chiasmata. James Kudelka’s In Paradisum double casts men and women in the same roles, and costumes one and all in long heavy skirts and plain sleeveless tunics that give the impression of monks’ robes.
It is also possible to create the exciting tension of androgyny without wearing clothing usually associated with the opposite sex. Louise Lecavalier’s muscular body and ferocious movement quality is gender-bending even when she wears a corset and sheer tights. During Serge Bennathan’s directorship, the women of Dancemakers mastered a raw, virtuosic physicality rooted in the yang qualities of grit, courage, and stamina. Wen Wei Wang, José Navas, and Alvin Erasga Tolentino all include essentially feminine qualities in their choreography for themselves and for other men, regardless of the subject or theme of their dances.
The dual word-tags female/male, feminine/masculine, and yin/yang identify clear and definite sexual and gender identities. However, the embodiment of an actual, individual identity is infinitely more complex and nuanced. While this overview of choreographers’ approaches to gender is an incomplete smattering of examples, it serves to illustrate my belief that one of the great strengths of contemporary dance is the tremendous scope it offers in terms of gender identity. Like the great cultural legacies of literature – poetry, plays, memoir, and biography – and visual art – drawing, painting, sculpture, film, photography, and installation – that so deftly reveal the complexity and subtlety of sexual identity and expression, so too contemporary dance offers extraordinarily diverse images of gender, raising questions and considerations that aid us in navigating the personal and societal spheres, and in understanding and appreciating the world we inhabit.
Watch excerpts of Peggy Baker’s interview with TDC Editor Kathleen M. Smith on writing about The Choreographer’s Trust here.