A record of, and a tool for, creating “Big Tiny Little Dance” for the UIUC Dept. of Dance November Dance concert.
Very early in the development of the course I decided to take the same concept of “wrecking” that the choreographers were working with and apply it to the costume generating process. In contrast to the nine choreographers with decades of training and experience in their field, I asked eleven students who had never designed costumes before – many of whom had never sewn before – to design, fit and manufacture costumes for a renowned venue. Some challenges for the students (aside from the lack of training) included not knowing what the final choreographed piece would be, having few chances for fittings and the very physical demands of designing clothing that can be repeatedly danced in and washed over a period of weeks.
In order to introduce the concept of visual communication through clothing we began with several quick-response draping exercises. I randomly assigned adjectives to the students – words like warped, joyous, and peaceful – and instructed them to use a length of cotton to drape, cut, and pin fabric on a dress form to communicate their assigned word. In critique the idiosyncratic nature of communicating visually quickly became evident . Sometimes what one person perceives from a piece is very different from the message received by another. We also noted where certain signifiers were easily identified by all despite our individual preferences, because of a shared visual culture. We discussed the challenge of having eleven different minds designing and constructing costumes, and our concerns that the costumes look cohesive when finished.
As soon as possible we began viewing videos of the dancers and choreographers as they developed Big, Tiny, Little. We brainstormed in response, first with words, then with images and then with draping and pinning fabric. Early on, concepts that kept surfacing were disjointed, flight, and animalistic. As their advisor, having worked with students with limited sewing knowledge before, I made the decision to limit our raw materials to cut-and-sew knits, which can be manipulated easily without unraveling, easily washed and are forgiving in terms of fit. In establishing the color palette we discussed the desire to have each dancer read as an individual, unique but with elements that would relate to the others and read as a whole.
Time was moving swiftly so we committed to the broadest possible color palette with the knowledge that we could dip dye or cover with another layer if we felt the effect was too overwhelming. When our rainbow assortment of 3XX T-shirts came in we were nervous but leapt forward. Through a series of design assignments and draping exercises we began to limit our design detail palette to: changing the expected orientation (like using the sleeve as a neck opening to communicate disjointed), tucking or sewing folds in the fabric (this was a response to wanting to visualize the echo of movement) and draping the fabric in folds or tucks ( the hope was that the drape would hold the air and physically echo or punctuate the movement of the dancer). We also discussed wanting the “wrecking” and collaging process to be somewhat apparent to the viewer in the final presentation.
I assigned each student a dancer and a randomly chosen T-shirt and instructed them to use our chosen visual design vocabulary or palette to generate the first costume response drape on the dress form. We then took these to the dancers so we could see the first drapes in action during a rehearsal. After critique and discussion of what worked in terms of design, fit and concept with the choreography, I randomly assigned each first-response costumes to a different student designer for further manipulation. Some students took their costumes back almost to the original T-shirt, while others saw a need for more more subtle intervention. For the second round of “wrecking” we also introduced a lightweight grey mesh fabric for texture, transparency, and as a further attempt to capture the after effect of the motion of the dancer. We discussed the idea of ghost limbs, and toyed with the idea of using flesh colored mesh, but were looking for ways to bring more cohesion to the color palette, and so went with grey both for the mesh and for the stretch bottoms which we also introduced in the second round.
After seeing the second round of costume interventions on the dancers and getting feedback from some of the choreographers we decided to introduce color in the bottoms as well. After being so afraid of using so much color we were really surprised by how much we liked it, and thought it complemented the piece. We felt comfortable adding more. Using oversized T-shirts once again, we created some of the drape pants and unitards by sewing the neck hole shut and using the sleeves as pant legs.
For this last and final round of “wrecking” we changed designers once again and also introduced an opaque knit in the form of half circles in a variety of sizes. These were added in some cases for practical reasons – to lengthen a costume that was too short but in most cases as a unifying element and another way to capture and highlight the movement of the dancer.
A final note on the choice of hair and make up:
Allie wore her hair in a very tight high top knot for almost the whole rehearsal process. We liked the clean lines it created, and wanted to edit the visual clutter that swinging hair would introduce to the piece. Our costume pieces still had an air of experimentation and collage, so we decided to add grey headbands and bun bands to emphasize the intentionality to the viewer and add finish.
Having now seen the costumes in conjunction with the finished piece I am struck by the many small coincidences that look intentional. I love witnessing the the little conversations within our established visual vocabulary- the moment when Donna and Brendan sandwich their shared color story- literally two halves and a whole, the moment when Jennifer and Donna have a small duet with their grey opaque drapes swishing in time with one another and the duet Allie and Samantha have, their movements mirrored doubly in the construction of the mesh and opaque of their grey tights. I am especially moved by the interaction of John Boesche’s projection designs with the costumes. I am left in awe of the entire process, one that I frankly had fears about and approached with trepidation. I feel honored to have been invited to participate in this fabulous coming together of artists. Working with dancers has encouraged me to trust the process to take you to a place you might never have got to without moving forward, even through doubt. It’s a place that might be hard to imagine but which exists, if you keep opening yourself up to see it.
When I observed rehearsal on Monday I could see the effects on the cast of months of endless changes, and the upsetting news that two cast members were leaving the piece. Dancers were doing the movements but the life was gone. When I came in on Thursday night, the cast had energy – maybe it was halloween – and there was a sense of relief as I assured them I was not making any changes, but we were just going to go through each section and remember the specificity of each artist’s contribution. My reading of the dance as a viewer is being taken on a journey into unknown territory. The dancers need to be entirely invested in the journey in order for the audience to come with them. Sophia worked with the cast on Wednesday and re-organized the first 5 or 6 sections to replace the dancers. On Thursday, we began at the beginning and danced each section twice. I asked the cast to name each section so we could identify a qualitative sense of each section, so they could perform a qualitative shift as they moved into new territory. We came up with names for sections such as Eerie Fog Drop, Breaking Bad, Churning Chocolate Indulgence, and Nostalgia. These names – and remembering the artists they worked brought back the specificity Jennifer was longing for. It also influenced the pedestrian walking – each section has different energetic states of walking – in one section it has urgency, in others it is more stylized. The other thing we worked on was dancing as an ensemble – the unison movement was activated by sensing weight, breath and timing of each other. This became much stronger – but still needs daily work. We only got through the end of Becky’s section last night. (25 minute point). The cast needs to work on the last 25 minutes and re-place the 2 cast members on Monday. I suggest that you start with Sara’s section ( which needed some work and we didn’t have time) and work forward to the end. The designers would like a full run of the dance if possible on Monday.
Most/all of the musicians were present on Thursday and they started forming musical ideas for each section – running each section twice allowed them to refine the musical concepts and find entry points. My observation of their process was the first run often had too much and the second run -they reduced/took away – which in general gave more space for the dance and felt like the right direction. Their energy really helped the dancers find a more solid weight/performance presence. The designers had a discussion afterward. John Boesche is working with ideas of simple lines/shapes that at times become something recognizable – a house, a bird. A house filled with sky. We talked about the music box, the shoes, as other objects that enter this abstract world. I am very attracted to the image that Renee posted of the clothesline with shoes from Big Fish – something tangible/known but slightly off. We discussed possibilities of a real clothesline with shoes, or contained in the visual media. Susan Becker encouraged all of us to understand the why behind the objects, or they will just seem arbitrary and confusing. John suggested we use them in order to resonate with an emotion – a house, a shoe, a music box – but not enough to create a meaning or narrative.
I remember coming across Trisha Brown during a residency – she had an injured dancer, there was a flood in the theater – so they couldn’t rehearse on stage and they had lost the costumes – and she said “I’m just trying to practice adaptability.” I know the journey of making the piece has demanded a lot of this cast – but what better life lesson then to learn how to be adaptable. This dance is becoming right now – I know Sara will bring it home to the theater. Enjoy the last leg of the journey – we are anxious to have you share it with your audience.
I was struck most by what I experienced as a loss of specificity to the kind of body and movement that is produced from each of the choreographers’ practice. The sharp, idiosyncratic lushness of Cynthia’s movement got more even, the quiet listening and sensing that was in the duets I worked on was completely gone, the rich interior state of bodies was flattened by a common denominator. It would be wonderful if the dancers could go back and recapture or re-imagine even re-invent the kind of space, time and body each choreographer worked with and try to re-embed that feeling into the dancing. Even if it is at a different place in the choreography. I realize that this will take time and patience and is a different task then remembering material and order but it is as important to that task and will help in the long run.
Huge kudos to the dancers last night for pulling together all the strands of information left by so many choreographic hands! It was a feat and I was moved by your presence and commitment throughout. So my comments below are towards the choreographic shape of what I saw last night and not any comment upon the performance of material – yet:)
I was very interested in the loose, and sometimes loopy nature of this journey. I enjoyed not knowing where things were moving to next. However, I found myself responding agitatedly to the walking into place and then dancing as the piece went on. I wondered at the logic of this. Will this be magic in lights and other high jinx? Or can it be that the dancers can dance to their next locations? Can movement – either designed or improvised lead to these places? I think a combing through and looking at all the “walking” moments that take someone to a place to then start dancing could be a good place to begin editing. I did like the walking that described arcs, that moved back and forth like waves of an ocean and left a residue of bodies like they were strewn ashore. Aside from these sorts of transitions, I also thought there could be longer moments with some things. We could see them stand longer, shift and hold space longer before moving on to the next thing – just in general staying with some things longer. I know last night was a feat of memory and the rhythm of the entire evening is still yet to be determined, but it has so much potential for those moments – something to think about. Might be interesting to create arbitrary chunks (segments) and move them around to greater or lesser affect?
In terms of costumes I was very interested in what Ellinor wore – a purplish color t-shirt with lots of knots at her back. The front was smooth and when she turned around one could see a jumble of ties and holes. really interesting. and beautiful color.
And for music, we discussed this briefly last night and I know there was a lot we have not yet heard, but my one burning question – whaddup with Barry White? I know he is no longer with us, but IS HE NO LONGER WITH US? Holla!
In the final run and recording of RW’s segment I asked Branden to take it easy. When the circle opens and you see Charles standing and Branden squatting the scene would be Charles standing on Branden’s back and would then be slowly lowered to step to the floor. Sophia is just standing facing upstage. I imagined the scene being revealed slowly - the circle moving away - and being established for a bit of time as a place where either music, light, or projection could be featured could that also underscore the scene somehow. Branden left the stage early (again letting him take it easy) during some of the walking and running etc with Charles in the duet. He would be there until Bianca and Laina enter to join them.
The men’s duet could be seen as comic. However, I’ve asked that they ’wipe’ it of comedy or reduce it to let the thing speak for itself. They did this successfully during the last run. Over all I am not interested in pushing moments that could be comic but letting the places in the segment where it might be possible to push for comedy ride an ambiguous edge – the might or might not be of comic. My wish would be that the group not push for comedy anywhere in the segment.
As we were working I began to imagine scenes from the movie Big Fish. Not that the segment is that at all but the group took on a nice eccentricity for me and that was my thought about them. Again, as with my thought about comedy, I would not push the character aspect or underscore it with costume props etc. But that’s just me and when I turn it over I release it.
To better understand what quadraphonic sound take a look at the following link.
One of the first applications of live sound using the quadraphonic principal.
Games for May
Food for thought.