It’s just terrific to be a dance history geek and invited into rehearsals like this one.
First of all, I am in a studio at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, otherwise known as “the Fame school” because it was made world-renowned by that movie and TV series. Loved that movie.
Secondly, I am in the company of two beautifully multifaceted dancing women: Janis Brenner and Holley Farmer. Both artists have spent their careers performing for icons of the dance world: Brenner with Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais, and Farmer with Merce Cunningham. Both women were shaped by these choreographers whose work not only radically extended the definition “dance” but whose accomplishments radiated beyond dance into the worlds of art, theater, music, and stagecraft. Now, did I also mention that Brenner, a dancer, choreographer, vocalist and musician for her own company, Janis Brenner & Dancers, has performed with Meredith Monk, and Annabelle Gamson and that Holley Farmer, while spending most of her career dancing “post-modernly,” executed a complete about face when she leaped, with high- kicking sensuality into Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away on Broadway?
Megawatts of dancing memories are stored in these women’s bodies and I can feel their brilliance as Brenner and Farmer warm-up, rehearse, and chat while fiddling over costume issues and lighting plans. They are in their last rehearsal before Farmer will dance Brenner’s Contents May Have Shifted as part of the series called Working Women to be performed at The Joyce Theater in Chelsea this week.Working Women runs for four performances, starting on Wednesday January 30th and its shows feature a hot line-up of this city’s most beloved women dance artists.
Behind the Scenes
Contents May Have Shifted, was created in 2002, “ just nine years after Nik (Alwin Nikolais) died,” Brenner reminds me, and, as if saying it for the first time, “This year is the 20th anniversary of his passing. It's hard to believe.”
Dance’s history flies away from us until we consider it.
When personal things were going on for some people in the company, Murray once told me, "I fully believe that when your personal life is falling apart, your Art should carry you through."
That had a big impression on me as a 20-something-year-old involved in a tradition that valued abstraction so highly. Murray is a romantic at heart.- Janis Brenner
Flying and history inspired the creation of Contents…
We are all familiar with the flight attendants’ plea to check the overhead compartments for contents that may have shifted during travel. Brenner describes her entrance into making this solo as, “thinking of so many years of touring… imagining how many hours of my life I have spent on airplanes…imagining how the body, mind and spirit copes, adapts, and shifts…affected by this travelogue of a life.”
Brenner’s other desire when creating her solo was to return to her Nikolais/Louis family tree. “I began to revisit my roots and the great influence that Nik’s teachings had on me.”
In the Nikolais/Louis tradition, the creative intention of movement is more highly valued than emotion or the narrative of a character.Brenner recollects Nikolais’ definition of dance“as movement that contains its own intelligence.”
Murray Louis, Alwin Nikolais, and Janis Brenner on the set of Louis' Junk Dances circa 1982, Photo F. Goodwin
She remembers important discussions about spatial awareness: the inner space of the body; how the body reacts when considering space to be infinite as opposed to finite; the idea that volumes of space exist in the body; the idea that the center of the body can be anywhere at any given moment and that the (dancer’s) ego, should be de-centralized, “So that one is purely dedicated to the moment of moving.”
Like her mentors, Brenner speaks of space very particularly, and emphasizes that each moment of Contents… has a clear focus and its own center that Farmer considers every night when she dances.
When asked, what spatial concepts Merce Cunningham discussed in rehearsal, and how she made her movement choices in that company, Farmer remembers no intense spatial discussions. Her choices were based on necessity and the thought that,“whenever you do things completely, your focus reflects that.”
The wisdom that Cunningham shared before performances,” says Farmer: “Remember, people are watching you.“