By JAMUNA CHIARINI
Sometimes events conspire to raise the stakes (and excitement level) of a performance long in the works. That’s exactly what happened last Thursday, when BodyVox staged the first of its behind-the-curtain rehearsals for a concert coming in March.
That’s because it featured Anne Mueller as the choreographer, and Mueller was just named the interim artistic director at Oregon Ballet Theatre, following Christopher Stowell, who resigned late last year.
So, an air of excitement rose from the mix of board members, patrons, BodyVox dancers and your reporter as we watched the open rehearsal and Mueller in her element, unencumbered by the responsibilities she’s facing at OBT. Something wonderful was happening. A dance was being born right before our very eyes, and it was almost spiritual in nature. The sun was shining through the windows, the dancers focused on moving through Mueller’s steps, repeating old ones and creating new ones, experimenting and enjoying themselves along the way.
Through its New Works Fund, BodyVox selected three Portland choreographers to set a six-minute piece of choreography on BodyVox-2, the second company established originally as an apprentice unit. The three choreographers—Mueller, Eowyn Emerald Barrett and Eric Skinner—were given a total of 12 hours of studio time each to set a six-minute new piece of choreography on the company, culminating in performances March 7-9 at the BodyVox Dance Center.
This should be a new reality TV show, someone said jokingly during an informal Q & A on Thursday with Mueller, the first of the three choreographers to work with the company. And that was about right.
Mueller retired as a performer from OBT in 2011 to become Stowell’s artistic coordinator. During her 17-year career, she performed with Alabama Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theater as well as becoming a founding member of the Trey McIntyre Project, performing and serving as its managing director for three years. Mueller’s choreography was selected for Ballet Builders 2009 in New York and appears in the repertoire of Oregon Ballet Theatre, Arova Contemporary Ballet, Ballet Victoria and the Alabama Ballet.
When I asked Mueller about her choreographic process, she said she is very mathematical in her pre-planning, “mapping out the music and creating a sketch of where transitions should be and who should be dancing when. I don’t always follow it, but it is helpful to have. I definitely have at least one core movement phrase somewhat figured out beforehand, and typically bring qualitative notes that I use as a guide in creating steps. Once a core selection of material is built, I use it as a guide.”
The timeline of this particular assignment is pretty tight, but that didn’t seem to bother her. “I’m sure I’d experiment more if I had more time, but in the creative process sometimes a deadline, is your friend,” she said.
Q. What inspires you to choreograph?
A. I have always responded to music by dancing or visualizing dancing. I love the process of working with dancers in the studio and in the creation process, it’s like you’re all solving a riddle together.
Q. How do you feel about your past choreography versus now?
A. I feel pretty excited about what I’m making when I’m making it and tend to be more critical as time passes. How easy the process is has so much to do with the dancers and the work environment.
The songs she chose to work with on the BodyVox-2 project are “Sling Shot” and “Ink Blot” from the album “Strange Toys” by Joan Jeanrenaud. “I’m considering “Tuesday, 3:47” as a title,” She said,” but I’m not solid on that yet”.
When asked about her music choices she said she “is inspired by all kinds of music and tends to be disinterested in music that lacks clear rhythmic elements or seems random, which is interesting because the first part of the piece is both of those things. As far as classically based music is concerned, I love the cello (which led me to discover the music I’m using for the piece).“
Q. Have you gotten a chance to commission a piece of music for a new work? Can you compare the two experiences and what it was like to choreograph for each?
A. Several years ago, Jamey, Ashley, Rachel Tess and I collaborated on a work for OBT, The Stravinsky Project. We used a mixture of Stravinsky piano pieces and original content created by Heather Perkins. Heather composed a section for me and she was fantastic to work with. It was an unfamiliar process for me because my impulse to create movement has always come from responding to music. We reversed this process somewhat…I had to map out what needed to happen choreographically first. It was challenging, satisfying, and it led me to create something that I wouldn’t have otherwise. In terms of comparing, every choreographic experience is different and unique.
The dancers of Bodyvox-2, directed by Zachary Carroll, are Jeff George, Anna Marra, Josh Murry, Holly Shaw and Katie Staszkow. Three from University of Utah’s ballet department, one home grown and one from Minnesota. All trained extensively in ballet and modern, and they made Mueller’s choreography look easy and inviting. Because of the time they spend together as an ensemble, they have a cohesion that made them appear as one moving unit, even though this was only the second rehearsal with Mueller’s work. BodyVox-2 does the repertory of the main company as well newer commissioned works.
The short section of choreography that I saw in rehearsal was fast paced, fun and quirky, keeping a base of ballet but playing with weight and non-traditional partnering. The middle section of the dance that I saw began with all five dancers sitting together at a rectangular table mechanically sipping from various larger than life drinking vessels, such as blenders and thermoses. As the music changed, the first three dancers (George, Marra, Murry) peeled off one by one, joining together as a trio in the center, swirling, lifting, sliding and tossing Marra off to the side.
This particular section can be seen on a rehearsal video posted on BodyVox’s Facebook page.
Q. Do you have any advice for choreographers on the process of making dances? How to start, how to get unstuck, how to work with and communicate with dancers, time management, how not to self-sabotage etc.
A. The hardest thing about honing your skills as a choreographer is getting a chance to do it. It takes so many resources, and opportunities are scarce. When you’re in process, I think it is good to not let yourself get hung up on something you don’t like. Push through, leave it be for the moment and fix it later. Sometimes things need a little time to marinate.
I asked Mueller about what excited her most about her new job at Oregon Ballet Theatre. “I am excited to get to work on Swan Lake, it is a landmark achievement for OBT and really represents classical dance at its finest,” she said. “It was the first ballet I saw as a little girl and it made me fall in love with the art form. I adore the idea of lots of boys and girls coming to see it and being affected in the same way.”
I can’t wait to see what Anne Mueller does at OBT, and from this snippet of her work for BodyVox, that could be quite exciting, too.
Next: Rehearsals with Eowyn Emerald and BodyVox-2.