Tag Archives: dance

Spotlight on UCIRA Artists Lisa Wymore and Amara Tabor-Smith: Sabar in the Studio

14 Feb

Ciré Beye. photo courtesy of CDG

In October, 2011, Berkeley and Oakland became part of greater Dakar. The occasion was the arrival of from Senegal of dancer Ciré Beye and master drummer Khadim Niang to conduct workshops in Sabar, the vigorous yet fluid dance form of the Wolof peoples of West Africa. For three weeks UC Berkeley’s Bancroft studio and Oakland’s Malonga Center for the Arts reverberated to the polyrhythmns of drums originally developed to communicate long distances in the dry regions at the edge of the Sahara, and to the cries of dance classes answering the drums.

For Lisa Wymore, assistant professor of dance at UC Berkeley, and for visiting faculty/resident artist Amara Tabor-Smith, the chance to expose their modern dance students to three weeks of “Sabar in the Studio” was not simply an exercise in learning new steps. Both teachers, Wymore says, felt “it would help students engage with dance as a world practice. Get them out of just imagining modern dance as a western phenomenon.”

Tabor-Smith, founder of Deep Waters Dance Theatre, had studied and danced with Beye in Senegal at L’École des Sables, an international center for traditional and contemporary African dance founded by choreographer Germaine Acogny. Beye, she knew, was not only a gifted teacher of traditional forms but an accomplished modern dancer, who performs internationally with Acogny’s Companie Jant-Bi. His “understanding of the body and his contemporary aesthetics,” Wymore said, made him a good fit for both their advanced and intermediate  classes.

Sabar—the word refers to the drumming and the dancing—is itself a citizen of two worlds. While a traditional accompaniment to weddings and funerals, it is also an urban phenomenon, flowering on the streets of Dakar in the wake of Senegal’s independence from France. Unlike traditional folk forms, Wymore says, Sabar “is always evolving and adapting. Like any dance—but particularly street forms of dance, it’s in flux—adopting and borrowing from other styles and developing new steps.”

It is also an exuberantly interactive effort with dancers and musicians trading rhythms and egging each other on to ever more insouciant displays of virtuosity. In the classes, the interactive or collaborative mode continued, Wymore says. “What was exciting—and Ciré kept saying this—he wanted to not be the teacher but the sharer of information, so the students could then take this form into their own practices”.

An important aspect of Sabar, Wymore says, is its involvement of the whole spine and pelvis in a kind of undulating movement—a stretch in more ways than one for those students who come out of a ballet background where the torso is held rigid—but important to developing the fluidity and versatility demanded by modern dance.

Another basic Sabar movement involves stepping from foot to foot. Wymore describes the resultant motion as “strong, earthy, and grounded.” The constant transferring of weight, she says, forces dancers to be aware of their own substance. Emotional engagement is required, too. “You have to bring your full self to it. It really requires that you not be embarrassed or holding back or shying away.” At the same time, she says, “Sabar is soft, older people do it. You don’t have to jump that high. It has this incredible gracefulness in the arms and this powerful pelvis. You can see how it was created by women.”

As a women’s dance from a patriarchal society, (the Muslim sub Sahara) Sabar also seems to carry a quietly confident assertiveness that blends well with political expression. It does so in the choreography of Acogny and Tabor-Smith. It did so again in early November. As part of the Occupy Cal/ Walkout at UCB over tuition increases, Sabar students and a class drummer left the studio to perform a kind of resistance dance as Wymore calls it on the Plaza. As their teachers had hoped, they were incorporating the form into their own practice. They were also showing—as Sabar vividly does—what mutual respect and dialog can look like.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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The Sounds of Singing: Nina Eidsheim’s Body Music

6 Feb


What does it mean to sing? Body Music, the opera that UCLA musicology  professor and singer Nina Eidsheim is creating with composer Alba Triana, looks beyond the notes that come out of the musician’s mouth. It asks instead that we listen to the astonishing medley of sound involved in the seemingly simple act of vocalizing.

As Eidsheim writes, “each one of us is an entire orchestra made of a host of moving, internal instruments.” But what if we could see and hear “the diaphragm rising, the larynx mutating…the shoulders lifting, the breath entering and exiting?” With the help of a fashion designer and a dramaturge as well as digital artists, a programmer and an electrical engineer, Eidsheim and Triana will lead audiences on an exploration of this usually invisible and inaudible landscape.

To make the anatomical processes loud (enough) and clear, Body Music relies on electronic bio-sensors originally developed to monitor pre-mature babies. When the opera premiers in Bogotá this summer, the sensors attached to the singer will amplify the sounds of breath’s journey though the body as a result of the singer’s shifting postures and almost dance-like motions. The electronic data will be transmitted to the digital and visual artists Carole Kim and Jesse Gilbert. who will use it to generate real time sound and lightscapes.

Body Music relies not only on technology but on Eidsheim’s and Triana’s ongoing study  of the motions—muscular and skeletal, deliberate or involuntary—that produce the sounds of singing. They describe the work—begun in 2007, when they were both living in Bogotá—similar to Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century photographs of walking men and galloping horses.

After isolating each step of the voice’s bodily mechanics, the pair began to formulate categories. There were movements like inhalation and exhalation that passed breath in and out of the body, and others that shaped the cavities—chest, throat, nose, mouth—that the breath passed through.

As a trained singer, Eidsheim was aware of the effects even small facial motions—a forced smile for example—can have on timbre and overtones. She and Triana also considered the effects of various kinds of breathing and stance. From these formulations they began to assemble a “vocabulary of gesture” to produce the sounds that make up Body Music’s score.

One of Eidsheim’s aims in this project and the two that preceded it is to cut the cord (so to speak!) that ties the verb “to sing” so exclusively to the larynx and the vibrating folds it contains. (“Vocal cords”, she notes, “take all the attention.”) What are also cut in the process are performers’ expectations of what notes and actions are proper to singing.

In Eidsheim’s 2000 project Noisy Clothes, (a collaboration with designer Elodie Blanchard who is also creating costumes and sets for Body Music), the costumes themselves contained sound-makers. With “playing an instrument” redefined as “moving in what you are wearing” the Cal Arts performers were free to listen without judgment to the sounds that arose rather than trying to match a pre-conceived tone. Most important, Eidsheim writes, “there was no fear of failure.” Music making was returned to a practice of play and discovery.

In bringing a similar liberation to the voice, Eidsheim sees Body Music not only as a performance but as a teaching tool for singers. As a product of membrane and muscle, the voice is subject to the same constraints as the rest of the body. Trying to achieve vocal ideals, Eidsheim writes “physically shapes the vocal apparatus (and) slowly encapsulates our voices within.” By breaking habitual patterns, she hopes to return singing—and thinking about singing—to a fresher and more flexible state.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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