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Theodore Bale
Behind the Scenes
Invitation to the Dance
United States
Cambridge, MA

A Critic Turns Performer: Remembering Triads in Cambridge

by Theodore Bale
May 22, 2008
Cambridge, MA
It might seem an unusual situation for a dance critic to become, in part, the subject of another critic's review, but that is exactly what happened to me after I agreed to participate in the production of Kelley Donovan's most recent dance, Triadic Memories, which premiered in March at the Dance Complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Donovan and I first met in 2001 at Green Street Studios in Cambridge, when I interviewed her following a rehearsal for a newspaper feature story. Her choreography, which appeared to spring from both intuitive impulses and well-contemplated formal and stylistic concerns, had mesmerized and perplexed me for some time. Over the years I kept a certain distance, despite my strong attraction to her mind and peripatetic creativity. Like any serious critic, I wanted to continue reviewing and documenting her work objectively, so a friendship, in the traditional sense, seemed out of the question in the context of both of our professional goals.

I reviewed some of her company's Boston performances for the Boston Herald and other publications, but after she received a rave review from Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times following a New York performance ("…a choreographer with a rare feeling for stage space and the way moving dancers inhabit it," said Dunning), I decided that she had enough pull quotes from me in her press kit. It was then that Donovan became "Kelley" to me, and after a few informal meetings for coffee or Chinese food, we agreed mutually to move beyond mere acquaintances. Together we designed and then I sewed a costume for her to wear for a solo performed in the summer of 2007, and we got to know each other even better.

In August 2007, Kelley invited me into her studio not as a critic, but as a pianist. "Bring any music you like," she said, "and we'll see what happens." At the time she was auditioning dancers by teaching sets of phrases and then watching while I played. It was a relaxed situation, an opportunity for us to get to know each other as artists, approached in the manner of Cage and Cunningham. The piano music and the dancing were parallel but separate pursuits. Kelley knew that my musical interests centered on scores written since about 1950, and I knew that she never used "great" classical music. If she ever decides to set dances to Chopin, it will be an extraordinary departure. Much of her choreography is accompanied by electronic sound montages she creates herself; often they include fragments of ambient noise and spoken text as well. The costuming is usually austere and the lighting straightforward.

For the first few rehearsals I brought scores by John Cage, Frederic Rzewski, Philip Glass, Alvin Curran, and Morton Feldman. Once the dancers left the studio, Kelley would improvise while I played. One Sunday evening she refuted Glass' "Two Pages" almost immediately, which disappointed me sorely. I'd thought that the shift in the perception of time, a prominent characteristic of his early scores, would blend well with her spiraling choreography; besides, I wanted to play it in public. Of course, this was an aesthetic I had seen already in Maureen Fleming's work, and I was imposing it on Kelley. Parts of Cage's lengthy "Four Walls" intrigued her, but she thought the repetitions and the long rests (eleven measures or more) would make it difficult for the audience to sustain interest. At this point, she didn't have a title for her new dance, and the form was yet uncertain. After some weeks she narrowed the ensemble down to seven women, and decided to perform in the piece herself as well.

At a subsequent rehearsal, she came over to the piano after I'd played the first several pages of Feldman's epic "Triadic Memories" and said to me, "there is the music I want, because it doesn't sound like music at all." It was a strange comment, perhaps, but I liked the thought, since I had remembered reading once that one of Feldman's goals, in his own words, was "to remove the glue from music." As an undergraduate student at the Hartt School of Music, Theatre and Dance, I had once had the privilege of hearing Feldman perform some of his own scores at an experimental venue in Hartford: Real Art Ways. It was just a few years before his death in 1987. I remembered Feldman as a large, imposing man. And for a couple of hours, he played very slowly, one note at a time, loud and soft, high and low. I had never forgotten what I thought at the time was an audacious event. Feldman composed "Triadic Memories" in 1981 for pianists Aki Takahashi and Roger Woodward. To the best of my knowledge, another choreographer has not used it for a dance.

The score is approximately ninety minutes long, about thirty minutes longer than Kelley wanted, so we agreed that I would play, as the house opened, any of the excerpted portions. I wasn't worried about rearranging parts of the score as long as all of it was iterated. The music is seemingly repetitious, neither tonal nor atonal. In liner notes to the first CD recording by Woodward, Feldman wrote, "chords are heard repeated without any discernible pattern. In this regularity (though there are slight gradations of tempo) there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional but we soon realize that this is an illusion: a bit like walking the streets of Berlin – where all the buildings look alike, even if they're not."

Kelley named the piece after the score, and subtitled it "an evening-length dance exploring memory and transformation." Having had training as both a dancer and a musician, I remain intrigued in the differences in performance practice of these two disciplines. Musicians are obsessed, often to a neurotic degree, with the printed score. Dancers, however, rarely work from a printed page. Musicians express themselves by interpreting what they think are the intentions of a composer, just as dancers inhabit the movement they learn from a choreographer with their own personality. Since I have not choreographed dances or composed music, I can't make a reasonable comparison in those realms, but I found Kelley's division of our abridged version of the score, divided into 23 seemingly arbitrary sections, entirely mysterious. It seemed liked she had worked out the form after gathering up an enormous number of relative movement phrases, then mixed them together as one shakes a Christmas snow-dome, and then let gravity decide where they would come to rest. The choreography had a natural balance that seemed perfect in proportion to its length.

Kelley wrote an outline of her efforts that served as a quick reference for me and the dancers. Some of the sections had cryptic titles like "The Game," "Hannah extreme solo" or "Three Gargoyles Directional." Others were more like descriptions of blocking, i.e., "Clump in canon" or "all travel forward into Sam, Marissa, Hannah trio." There were several passages with a distinctive backwards walk, as if the dance was actually a film being played backwards frame by frame. The women struggled with some of the unison phrases, since the score gave them almost nothing upon which they might hold.

After weeks of rehearsals, certain points where the movement and the score "agreed" came into existence, but it was a matter of repeating these parallel pursuits, the dancing and the notes, over and over, and listening and watching. If the dancers were tired one night, it could cause me to play slower, and the dance would take more than an hour to finish. And if I played too fast, they would speed up, and we would finish in forty minutes. It was the discipline of weekly rehearsals, as well at Kelley's exacting attention, that caused everything to finally come together.

On the days we performed "Triadic Memories" for the public, we also did a run-through two hours prior in the theater. I would arrive a little early to warm up my hands (it was, after all, still March) and then I played again for thirty minutes when the audience gathered. This meant almost three hours of continual playing for me, an experience I found satisfying if not mesmerizing. Before the house opened on the second night, I was on my way to the men's room when I ran into one of my dance critic colleagues. "Remember," she said, "if it's not good, I'm going to have to write that." We smiled at each other, as if the obvious didn't really need to be spoken, and then I said, "Believe me I know that better than anyone else!"

Theodore Bale is a freelance critic and columnist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For more information about Kelley Donovan and Dancers, visit http://web.mit.edu/kdonovan/www. For a review of "Triadic Memories" in The Boston Phoenix, visit http://thephoenix.com/article_ektid58162.aspx. A DVD of Kelley Donovan's "Triadic Memories" is available from videographer Charles Daniels (charles_daniels01@yahoo.com)
Kelley Donovan

Kelley Donovan

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Hamilton

Melissa Gendreu and Molly Lynch (in background)

Melissa Gendreu and
Molly Lynch (in background)

Photo © & courtesy of Randy Collura

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