Tag Archives: Trisha Brown Dance Company

Your Body: Tension

Doug Varone and Dancers in Chapters from a Broken Novel (2011)” Credit: Photo by Bill Hebert

 

Update: I remain deeply interested in how dancers modulate what we call “tension” and how that does or does not draw our eye.  There’s seems to be a magic proportion of tension to movement.  Of course,  choreography matters.  Watching Trisha Brown Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow, I  found a perfect example of the absolute minimum amount of tension needed to hold shape.

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

When Ryan Corriston catapults across the stage for his dramatic entrance in Doug Varone’s Lux, the audience responds to his sheer abandon. Varone’s work demands flowing movement, so if a dancer has excess tension, the dance can lose its luster. “I tend to tense my shoulders and arms when a piece is new to me,” says Corriston, who is in his sixth season with Doug Varone and Dancers. “I need to move from my core, making use of my whole body, not just my arms.”

 

Tension often gathers first in the shoulders and neck. Even a dancer in top condition with strong technique cannot disguise the tension that builds up from overworking and imbalances. The solution does not lie simply in trying to “relax.” There are some quick remedies, however, as well as long-term ones. Armed with increased body awareness, somatic modalities, and on-the-spot fixes like a roller, ball, or massage, dancers can deal with tension in a way that does not interfere with their ability to learn and perform.

 

Tension refers to the action of muscles contracting. Dancing would be impossible without a certain amount of it. “We would be a puddle on the floor,” says Tom Welch, a professor of dance kinesiology at Florida State University. Peggy Gould, an associate professor at Sarah Lawrence College who teaches dance conditioning and kinesiology, defines it further. “Tension is muscle work that does not produce motion, but rather helps to maintain a stable or static situation. There is no change in muscle length, no change in relationship between the bones the muscle attaches to, no joint motion, no movement.”

 
Excess tension, which can make you look stiff, derives from the relationship between muscles and bones. “When we don’t make good use of our bony support structures, it’s often our muscles that wind up playing key roles in holding us up against gravity,” Gould says. “Treating a muscle like a bone generally leads to that muscle behaving more like bone, becoming stiffer and more resistant.”

 
Here’s the good news: There are numerous ways to relieve excess tension. Moving, stretching, massage, rest, or heat can help, suggests Gould. For Welch, the way you prepare your body for the job of dance can help. “Muscles have to be strong and long,” he says. He teaches a special Pilates class devoted to reducing tension. “It’s a two-stage process involving activation and strengthening, then releasing and stretching,” he says.

 
There are other ways to achieve similar results. Jennifer Williams, of Chaddick Dance Company in Austin, Texas, has struggled with excess tension all her dancing life due to structural imbalances from scoliosis. Technique class alone does not help. “I’m a firm believer in rolling out muscles, whether it’s a tennis ball or a foam roller,” says Williams. These provide feedback to the neuromuscular system—a dancer can sense her body against it, and become more aware of where she is holding extra tension. Massage can also play a vital role in releasing tightness. “I see a massage therapist every other week,” Williams says.

 
Though all of these methods can relieve tension, somatics training helps dancers get to the bottom of the tension cycle. “We must understand the origins of a tension pattern in order to let go of it,” says Gould. “I encourage students to think of this work as refinement in order to advance their technical capabilities.”

 
Many somatic systems aim at freer movement. Methods like Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and Ideokinesis allow students to slow down, make small changes, and dis­cover the difference these somatic practices can make in their posture apart from the demands of dancing. Feldenkrais focuses on skeletal balance; Alexander, on the position of the skull; Ideokinesis enlists visualization and imagery to foster physical change. The ease, length, balance, and efficiency that these systems help dancers develop all lead to a reduction of unnecessary tension. Welch finds a multifaceted approach works best, one where a dancer can spend time exploring tension in a separate class. Then it can be useful to have the concepts reinforced in dance class through the verbal cues explored in somatic classes.

 
Dancing with the ideal amount of tension may be a career changer. “What we see when we watch a spectacular performer is the precise application of effort,” says Gould. “Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount to fulfill the technical and aesthetic requirements of the performance.”

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A Day of Dance: 24 at Jacob’s Pillow

Jodi Melnick and David Neumann in July; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

If a tree could take a bow,  it would most likely happen at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.  Perhaps it did.  Read on.

My summer travels began and ended at Jacob’s Pillow, the best place I know to dance binge while enjoying the great outdoors. The day began with the natural high I get from seeing Pillow dance banners lining Route 20. This thrills me every time. Why don’t we do this more?

Trisha Brown Dance Company in Set and Reset; photo Julieta Cervantes

Trisha Brown Dance Company celebrated its 40th anniversary with a program spanning several decades, from the freshly minted les Yeux et l’ame to the 1973 witty classic Spanish Dance. It was Brown’s 1993 Set and Reset, with sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg and music by Laurie Anderson, that reminded me how deeply Brown’s vocabulary is engrained in my postmodern generation. Forming and un-forming, taking shape and letting it dissipate, sculpting space with a profound nuance, these are the characteristics of Brown’s wonderfully idiosyncratic style, all of which were in full evidence in this set of works. Yet, embedded in this sea of flow is a compelling palette of exquisite detail. It’s truly extraordinary that such richly textured movement can have such a fleeting feel.  Shape sans permanence, that’s Brown’s gift to us.

Jodi Melnick in Fanfare; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

What a set of dreamy movers in the pairing of David Neumann and Jodi Melnick , who teamed up at the suggestion of Pillow artistic and executive director Ella Baff.  (Neumann was last seen in Houston dancing the bittersweet A Day of It , his collaboration with Jane Weiner.)  I could watch these two move all day long, they’re that interesting.  Neumann possesses a slippery quality, looking as if a prat fall might occur at any minute, while Melnick’s calculated delicacy evokes a quiet authority.  Her breathtakingly subtle Fanfare combined an intricate gestural language with Burt Barr’s visuals of an electric metal fan.

David Neumann in Tough the Tough (redux); photo Cherylynn Tsushima

Neumann plays mankind, or “Steve,” with a droll wit in Tough the Tough (Redux), which featured an oddly upbeat existentialist text by Will Eno. The magnificent bowing tree comes in during Melnick and Neumann’s gorgeous duet July, where their understated grace seemed to stand in perfect balance to the nobility of the pine tree on full splendid view through the open back doors of the Doris Duke Theater.  In an “only at the Pillow” move,  Melnick and Neumann motioned to the tree at the end.

Maura Keefe, Lisa Neidermeyer, Debra Levine, Jennifer Edwards, Nancy Wozny; Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima

In between performances,  I hopped on a Pillow Talk  “Dancing Online” panel moderated by Scholar Maura Keefe,  sharing the stage with Virtual Pillow project manager Lisa Niedermeyer, and Huffington Post writers Debra Levine and Jennifer Edwards . The consensus is that people are watching and reading dance online, but we need more evidence of it to make a stronger case that we have a solid audience.  So hit those share buttons people, but don’t forget to actually read the piece first. Be less passive, and comment, should you feel the need. Writers alone can’t up the value of web based dance writing,  or dance writing in general.  We need engaged readers, and lots of them.

zoe | juniper in A Crack in Everything; photo Christopher Duggan

Catching up on most of what I missed in the archives took up the in between hours. I caught Jonah BokaerZoe|Juniper, and Big Dance Theater, all of whom have Houston connections in the upcoming season. Zoe | Juniper will be at DiverseWorks on Jan. 19-21, Bokaer will be an artist-in-residence at University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and Big Dance Theater’s Paul Lazar directs Suzanne Bocanegra in When a Priest Marries a Witch on Nov. 1, also at the Mitchell Center.

Artist faculty of The School at Jacob's Pillow created work on the dancers, who then performed for the public duringthe free Inside/Out series every Saturday throughout the Festival.

No Pillow experience is complete without a visit to the Inside/Out stage. Nestled between a cherubic four-year old and my brother, each of us enthralled by the mountain view setting and earnest performances from the Jazz /Musical Theater students from all over the globe, it occurred to me that dance is something you can learn to love at any age. What better place to do it than the Pillow?

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

Trisha Brown Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow

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