by GARY FERRINGTON
Carmina Burana epitomizes the ballet/musical warhorse: it’s popular, tuneful, and looks backward, both to the 1230 manuscript and the medieval sound Carl Orff’s 1936 music evokes. To provide a dramatic contrast to that classic for their Feb. 13-14 performances at Eugene’s Hult Center, Eugene Ballet Company’s Artistic Director Toni Pimble chose a forward-looking new work: White Noise, a collaborative dance and interactive media performance created by San Francisco-based choreographer Amy Seiwert.
For Pimble, White Noise explores the look of dance in a new world — a world that combines contemporary music and choreography with computer technology and digital media. Choreographed by Seiwert with music by Zoë Keating and interactive video by Frieder Weiss, White Noise is “a courageous, cutting edge ballet working with new technology,” Pimble commented in an ArtsWatch interview.
Exploding Preconceptions, Demolishing Dualities
After a 19-year performing career with Smuin, LA Chamber and Sacramento Ballet, Amy Seiwert and an ensemble of dancers formed im’ij-re, which in 2013 became Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, a contemporary ballet company of collaborative artists whose mission is to “expand the definition of ballet by exploding preconceptions of what ballet is and can be.”
Commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco International Arts Festival in May 2010, White Noise “focuses on the human urge to polarize versus unify,” according to the SFIAF web site. “The phrase, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ paints a black and white worldview caught in duality, where ideas are clung to and value systems point out differences rather than connections. Just as all sound can be canceled out with the presence of white noise, a question will arise as to whether the serene state is transcendent or dismissive.”
For Pimble, it’s “always interesting to hear the catalyst for a piece of choreography but that doesn’t mean to say that viewers are to be excluded from drawing their own impressions of a work. It can be equally interesting for choreographers to hear these impressions.”
The 36-minute Eugene production of White Noise will be presented as originally performed with six movements. The difference, Pimble notes, is its being danced by members of the EBC who will bring a new look to the piece as they interpret the choreography with each individual contributing his/her own sense of movement to the work.
Nikki White and Gabe Williams, both members of the original cast of White Noise, have been in Eugene to work with EBC dancers as they learn Seiwert’s choreography, known for exploring ballet at the edge. As guest “stagers,” they set/stage the ballet, choose who will dance which roles, teach choreography, musicality, transitioning, order of the show, and prepare the dancers for working with projected images.
The next phase is to “clean the ballet,” White explains. “It’s a meticulous process to go through every movement and make sure groups are together, partnering looks seamless and confident, transitions are happening smoothly, and that the dancers are pushing themselves as far as they can go with this unique and beautiful choreography.”
What makes this ballet especially challenging is that the dancers must learn to be engaged in a conversation between dance and the real-time interactive video projections of German software artist Frieder Weiss that use an infrared motion sensory receiver to detect dancer movements and manipulates the projected images as they dance.
Frieder Weiss, an engineer known for his work in real-time computing and interactive systems in performance art, is the author of EyeCon and Kalypso, video motion sensing programs especially designed for use with dance, music and computer art. In White Noise, video and dancer movements engage in a dialogue in which both affect each other. “At times, the movements seem to reflect the fast-pace and sharpness of the video images and become syncopated, while retaining the gracious fullness of the balletic line,” notes Marie Toll in Amy Seiwert, a Choreographer in the Time. “Similarly, the digital pictures on the screen suddenly read as the underlining of the dancers’ skin, recalling photos of cells moving under a microscope.” Weiss’s imagery for White Noise won the Izzie Award for Outstanding Visual Design in 2011.
“Given there’s no story to drive it, no character to hide behind, no fancy costumes, this piece is very much outside the box,” observes EBC principal dancer Danielle Tolmie. “With just the dancer, the movement, and the video imagery, people might be worried that the projection will take away from the dancing but, in actuality, it enhances and complements the relationship we already have with beautiful movement.”
Pimble is enthusiastic about the music that Seiwert chose for the ballet by San Francisco composer and cellist Zoë Keating. The former Portland resident involved in the birth of Portland Cello Project (who returns to perform at Portland’s Struktur Event, May 7-8), is renowned for her use of technology; in performance, she employs a cello and a foot-controlled laptop to record and play over layers of cello melodies.
The sound of Keating’s layered acoustic cello appealed to Seiwert, who selected one piece from One Cello x 16 and One Cello x 16: Natoma for each of White Noise’s six movements: Legions, Exurgency, Fern, Coda, Sun Will Set and Frozen Angels.
“Zoe’s music creates rich textures and an emotional landscape, Seiwert says. “This is a fantastic palette for a me to create from, as there is space for my choreographic voice.”
There’s often a debate about music versus dance. As Merce Cunningham said about working with John Cage, “He (Cage) didn’t think music should be subservient to the dance, nor should the dance just show off the music,” Seiwert says. “They should have separate identities, coming together since they both use time but cut up the time in different ways.” Others, like Mark Morris, are either praised or dismissed for their acute musicality in creation, often termed music visualization. “For me, I like to view my choreography as another musical voice within a given score,” she says. “The dance is another instrument. I’m less interested in that instrument being in unison to what else is being played, so I look for music that allows space for my choreographic song. Zoe’s work allows for that. I think that is why she appeals to so many choreographers.”
Tolmie suggests that Keating’s music provides the corps de ballet with the opportunity to freely explore movement such as when doing a solo or a pas de deux. “We can play with the music and let the sensations we feel in our body drive us, as opposed to the music,” she explains. “It’s something that the stagers, Nikki and Gabe, talked to us about and who want the movement to feel good in our body and to make sure that we make it our own.”
“The music for White Noise is some of the most beautiful music I have ever gotten to dance to,” adds company dancer Isaac Jones. “It has such power. This piece is all about connection, and I think the music definitely helps us feel that.”
This isn’t the first time Pimble has complemented Carmina Burana, one of the Eugene Ballet Company’s most requested productions, with a starkly contrasting pairing; she scheduled her thought-provoking ballet Still Falls the Rain, a dark meditation on religious intolerance, when she staged Orff’s masterpiece in 2006. This year’s performances will feature OrchestraNext in the pit with the Eugene Concert Choir and visiting vocal artists Zulimar López-Hernández, Paul Karaitis, Anton Belov, all on stage with EBC’s acclaimed dancers.
But while Carmina is deservedly popular, White Noise offers its own thrills. “This is a premiere for us and the first work of choreographer Amy Seiwert that our audience will have the opportunity to see,” Pimble explains. “This is a great opportunity for all of us – for our dancers to work with a different voice, for the staff seeing our dancers work in different and often surprising ways and for our audience giving them new and exciting work to enjoy.”
White Noise and Carmina Burana with OrchestraNext and the Eugene Concert Choir, will be performed Saturday, February 13 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, February 14 at 2:00 pm at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are available online.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.