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Rita Kohn
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Leonardo: Caught in a Living Moment at 53rd Indianapolis Early Music Summer Festival

by Rita Kohn
July 19, 2019
Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center
450 W Ohio Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
(317) 232-1882
Rita Kohn, member: Dance Critics Association, Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild
“The World of Leonardo: Commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci” very much brought to life the zest of the “Master of all facets of the Arts, Sciences, Engineering, etc etc etc” This Indianapolis Early Music program on July 12, developed by artistic director Mark Cudek, gifted with an extraordinary delivery of music and dance, with narration by Phil Spray connecting us to the everyday life of Leonardo.

Most relevant for readers of ExploreDance.com is the interweaving of dance with the music Leonardo would have heard, sung, created and danced to.

“Pageantry, stagecraft, musical improvisation, and staged dancing were a regular part of Leonardo’s job description at the court of the Sforzas [in Milan],” points out Sarah Huebsch Schilling in the program notes. “Tonight’s program features two dance types: basse dance and dances that use a ground bass. Both types are associated with specific musical and dance characteristics. In the sixteenth century, there was a shift from basse dances, which are improvisations around a single line, to dances based on chord progressions or a repeating bass line. There was a shift in the types of dance steps as well.”

New York City-based choreographer Catherine Turocy created a program featuring Chicago-based dancers Joseph Caruana and Kali Page showcasing the extant forms of movement to a cluster of compositions by Joan Ambrosia Dalza and Claudin de Surmisy. We could witness the basse dance, “performed with steps and dragging motions, where the performer always has at least one foot on the ground,” as described in the program, along with the saltrello and piva “that are faster versions of the regular basse dance” and the athletic diva, where “steps are two times as fast as they are in a basse dance, and turns and leaps are added as well.”

In an email exchange, Turocy underscored my observation that along with the movement meticulously bringing forward the feel of the music, the dancers equally brought their personalities into the articulation, acknowledging the instrument players and, at the close, bringing the four vocalists into the unfolding movement we in the audience felt emanating from the compositions by Claudin de Sermisy.

“Yes, I loved how it brought all the elements together,” said Turocy. “I also think having the musicians on stage and incorporating them in the floor patterns of the choreography made a big difference. Much of 15th-18th century choreography uses geometrical patterns and symmetry to help represent the metaphors being used in the dance. Space is very symbolic. I found a way to use this to our advantage and to create variety.The singers picked up the rhythms very quickly so we were able to teach them in 30 minutes.”

Projected visuals of paintings and sites of the period echoed the spirals of the dance patterns, and the use of a square of soft cloth by Page and Capuana brought to the fore the dancers’ relationship that one could feel in the compositions by Joan Ambrosio Dalza. This element discernibly foreshadowed Martha Graham’s dramatic use of cloth in her choreography four centuries later.

The poignant pantomime/movement depiction of Leonardo’s fable, “The Goldfinch” sent a collective recognition throughout the audience. The fable relates the heartbreak of a mother Goldfinch whose babies are missing from the nest when she returns to feed them a worm she carried between her beak. After much searching she finds the baby birds caged at a farmyard. Try as she might, she cannot open the age to release them. She flies off and returns with berries in her beak. The hungry birds eagerly eat them, only to fall dead. The mother has brought poisonous berries. Leonardo’s moral: “Better death than loss of freedom.”

“It was Phil [Spray’s] idea to include the fable, a first time [undertaking] for me,” said Turocy. “The fable, plus the music plus the qualities of the dancers I had to work with, combined splendidly with my knack for pantomime and pathos. Really, the music and the way it is performed inspired our phrasing and movement choices. We concentrated on the mother/child emotions and other times in the human experience mothers may have made this choice. We discussed Toni Morrison's "Beloved.”

If anyone in the audience had not read Morrison’s novel, unfolding the life of pre-Civil War era slave Margaret Garner, who chose to kill her own daughter rather than allow the child to be returned to slavery, when the family was recaptured in their flight, the 1998 film starring Oprah Winfrey or the 2005 opera composed by Richard Danielpour with text by Morrison, would come to mind.

When I asked Turocy to add anything more ExploreDance.com readers need to know about a NYCity-based choreographer bringing Chicago-based dancers to the stage of an Indianapolis-based 500th memory of Leonardo, this series of links came to the fore. [The connection with the 12 June program come about because] “I had worked with Phil Spray before and he called me up. Sarah Edgar, one of two Associate Directors for The New York Baroque Dance Company, has been performing with us since 1999 and she is still on our roster even though her home is in Chicago. Joe and Kali were trained by her and they appear in the operas of Haymarket Opera, also based in Chicago. When this idea of Leonardo came up, Sarah encouraged Phil to talk to me because I had already been researching Leonardo and the dance and how the 15th century dance theory affected Baroque dance practice. So it seemed like a natural journey from my research to a show celebrating DaVinci. Using dancers trained by Sarah, who had been trained by me and is in our company, meant Joe, Kali and I already shared an understanding of the historical aesthetic. They already knew how to process the music in their bodies and meet the challenges of the early Renaissance composers. Actively listening to the music and responding to the live performance of these fine musicians was a priority. We did have enough time with them to really respond to the nuances of the instruments and the players.”

“Also, I am celebrating my 50th anniversary as a professional choreographer (I began being hired and paid for my work while still in high school). So, I am uber efficient in making on the spot decisions about the best way to teach dancers who are trained, but never performed in the Renaissance style before. The styles I have choreographed in are ballet, modern, musical theater, Renaissance, Baroque and contemporary. I have also choreographed for film.”

Joseph Capuana is a co-director of Elements Ballet in Chicago. Kali Page is a freelance dancer based in Chicago.

The Alchemy Viols musicians included: Joanna Blendulf and Phil Spray; the Echoing Air Vocal Ensemble, directed by Steven Rickards, includes: Esteli Gomez, Andrew Rader, Blake Beckemeyer, David Rugger, Olivia Castor, Mark Cudek, Ronn McFarlane and Kathryn Montoya.

Woody Bredehoeft is coordinator and mentor for the student Leonardo projects on display and demonstrated at the program.

Indianapolis Early Music (IEM) is America's oldest continuous presenter of Early Music. Originally known by its corporate name of Festival Music Society, it was established in 1966.

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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