Another Spell On Us

First off, congratulations to Curtis & Elizabeth on winning the Sweet Molasses Blues showcase competition last year!  I’ve been holding onto this one so I could publish it now that registration is open for the next Sweet Mo’, to remind everybody of the great performances you can see there!

Art is fascinating, and artistic communities even more so.  Performers can draw on related bodies of source material with different perspectives, the same piece can be received differently in varying contexts, and related performances can become part of an ongoing conversation in a community.

Elizabeth and Curtis deal with a lot of those issues while talking about their piece, both the previous dance to the same song by Amanda and Paul, and the ongoing discussion about trigger warnings among Blues dancers.

For the record, I do have an opinion on trigger warnings, and it is that they are appropriate whenever they are referencing material that people wouldn’t naturally expect in the current context.  Since the very nature of the Blues is that it deals with a variety of heavy subjects people deal with when life isn’t particularly happy, it would take a very graphic dance to get to the point where I think a trigger warning would be appropriate in front of a Blues dance performance.

[This is narrated from Elizabeth’s voice, with Curtis’ input]

Goal

  1. Perform at BluesSHOUT
  2. Perform at Red Hot
  3. Compete at Sweet Mo
  4. Create the most badass, expressive blues piece possible
  5. Win Sweet Mo
  6. Continue a discussion of sensitive topics in the dance choreography community
  7. Perform AGAIN, as winners, to increase exposure

We knew we wanted to choreograph a piece to submit for BluesSHOUT! 2015, so we made a list of choreography ideas, because we didn’t have a song in mind in particular. (The last two pieces of ours that went to BluesSHOUT!, the inspiration began with a particular song.)

In that list of choreography ideas, we had something about puppets. At one point, someone said, “Wouldn’t it be great if the puppet overcame the puppetmaster at the end?” And so Curtis decided that one idea he wanted to definitely try for a next piece would involve that switch of roles.

Our next step was to scroll nearly at random through the songs in Curtis’ library, and “I Put A Spell On You” became a possibility – it wasn’t final yet. But when we heard Tab Benoit’s version, we had found what we were looking for. “I Put A Spell On You” was perfect. Especially because of the language of abusive ownership, it would be even more amazingly freeing when we would dance the role reversal and my character was able to overcome the challenges placed on her by her relationship. That’s when the piece started taking on a meaning more profound than just puppetry.

Another thing we try to do in our choreographed pieces is push ourselves to become characters that we do not typically embody in our daily lives. For the way that the piece ended up, Curtis got to play a controlling character with low self-esteem, which, if you have ever interacted with him in the dance world, you will know that is his absolute opposite. I began the piece as a trapped and struggling woman, which is also fairly out-of-character for me, as I tend to express power and boldness in my movement.

As far as other dances that influenced this piece, there is no getting away from the theatrical and performance background that both Curtis and I have, in multiple styles. Though, since the goal was to present the piece for consideration at BluesSHOUT!, we made sure to check each other at every new idea to ask, “Is this blues?” And if the answer was “no” or “not really,” we investigated ways of “bluesifying” the movement, which is something Curtis is also passionate about teaching. There was quite a lot of floorwork in this piece, but we tried to keep a fair distance from modern and contemporary styles – mostly because they’re usually not very bluesy.

Once we had decided on our song, plus the theme of role reversal, the goal of expression fleshed out quite significantly. It turned into the expression of a journey: beginning from any manipulative relationship, to an acknowledgement that something needs to change, to finally actually changing it and leaving behind that which doesn’t serve you. It became the ultimate empowering journey, which was so perfect for me personally as we were choreographing.

The process of choreographing was extremely piecemeal, but was always directly inspired by the music (which we edited for length and content; the organ solo was particularly uninspiring to us). One or the other of us would find something inspiring about a particular guitar lick, a lyric, or rhythm that would make us want to do something, and then we would toss ideas back and forth about options that would serve both the way we are initially inspired to move and also furthering our story.

Paul & Amanda’s Routine

Disclaimer: Contrary to popular belief, we DID NOT have ANY awareness of Paul & Amanda’s 2010 piece until after we submitted our proposal to BluesSHOUT! – where it was soundly rejected, with the aforementioned piece as part of the rationale. We were told (and we absolutely believe this) that Paul & Amanda’s piece created such palpable discomfort in the blues dance community that those waves would still be reverberating, and our piece would cause some of that discomfort to resurface. This is a concern that is totally understandable for an organizer of an event – why make audiences needlessly uncomfortable? We watched Paul & Amanda’s piece at that time and agreed that it was expressive to the point of almost graphic. But we also agreed that our piece was saying something different and important enough that it still deserved to be assembled and displayed, even if it wouldn’t be performed at the event for which it was initially intended. So we decided to continue choreographing and working, targeting the release for a performance at Red Hot Blues & BBQ in the months ahead.

At Red Hot, we were entirely unsure of what was going to happen. We were nervous, Curtis was injured and on whiskey, and we really wanted to do a great job. Hearing the crowd cheer and being thanked by audience members afterward really made us aware that we had created something special that not only communicated what we wanted to get across, but also resonated with the audience emotionally. That gave us the courage to throw our hat in the ring at Sweet Molasses in the first place.

In the wake of having performed our piece so publicly at Red Hot and at Sweet Molasses, many dancers approached us and commented about the difference between our routine and Paul & Amanda’s. They mostly were expressing a hearty approval for the shift in roles and the hope that implies, and for the way that that very shift seems to more accurately reflect the culture of our dance community at the moment.

Community Response

Sensitive Topics in Art

At Red Hot, organizers were very deliberate in delivering a trigger warning about the two pieces that were to be performed, in advance. At Sweet Molasses, there was no trigger warning announced prior to the Finals competition. To be honest, I was a little surprised by the warning issued at Red Hot. The organizers didn’t tell US (the performers) ahead of time that they would be giving a small speech about triggers, and it changed the focus of my pre-performance anxiety a bit. But it seemed to be such a beautiful, well-intentioned gesture in keeping with their Safe Space policy that it was all well and good. At Sweet Mo, by contrast, the competition in finals went pretty much according to how I expected it – just a brief introduction of the group and the piece, and then we were on. The difference really happened afterwards, when a concerned and affected community member publicly expressed a wish that there had been a trigger warning issued. This caused maybe as much of a stir at the event as had Paul & Amanda’s original piece. People had a lot of thoughts, feelings, and opinions about the approach of that individual, the response of the organizers, trigger warnings in general, and art as as expressive mode – and, happily, they seemed to feel very free about expressing those thoughts, feelings, and opinions to us directly. We don’t have an official opinion one way or the other about whether including trigger warnings as a preface to art is good or bad, necessary or superfluous. We do stand by our piece as an empowering journey that has to come from a character in a disempowered place, at the very least. But primarily, I cannot overemphasize the importance that I felt we had as artists to bring a piece to the community that sparked this conversation about art reflecting life, which is uncomfortable, and various ways of approaching people’s trauma when reflecting that discomfort in art. I have never felt more like my artistic contribution really mattered and made a difference (other than maybe inspiring individuals to dance more awesomely).

Continuation

Because of how proud we are of this piece, we reached out to another organizer inquiring whether we would be able to perform it at their event – which is finalized to be Winter Blues in January 2016. This is special and exciting for us because this will be the first time in our history of choreographing together that we will have let a piece lie dormant for awhile and then resurrected it for another event. It will be fabulous, and so good for us!

Support

In keeping with the empowering spirit of the dance, we want you to know that if you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence or trauma, you don’t have to escape alone. Please reach out. 1-800-656-HOPE

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It’s Lonely at the Top

I’ve been looking forward to publishing this piece for a while, since I remembered loving how it brought me into the story when I watched it at SHOUT! in 2013.  It’s even better now that I can see how skillfully Curtis and Elizabeth worked on their storytelling, making conscious choices about how specific to be with details and figuring out how to tell it all honestly through the blues aesthetic!

What did you want to express with this choreography?

C+E: The story of “Lonely at the Top,” which was our starting point, was originally supposed to be an exploration of a pair of performers and their relationship to fame and to each other. We toyed with the idea of Elizabeth’s character struggling with a real mental­physical issue, like depression or addiction. We ended up deciding that it wasn’t really THAT important to decide the “real” problem, but just expressing a real lack of zest/zeal/enthusiasm for the act of performing. She can still pull it together for the sake of being on stage, but “the thrill is gone,” as they say. She loves the accolades and adoration, but really despises herself. Curtis’ character, on the other hand, is the go ­getter of the pair, and the glue that really keeps them functionally together. He is the one who is on ­point and ready to go, both on stage AND off, and he wants Elizabeth’s character to be there with him, so he drags her reluctant self along.

By the time we had developed all of THIS, we decided ­ wouldn’t it be interesting if we could encapsulate the juxtaposition of this pair of performers’ on­stage presentation with their backstage struggles? So we shopped around for some music to transition us from on­stage to backstage, where we can be our “true” selves, and not the hams that we present to the crowd.

Why did you choose the song for the piece?

E: I am a near constant listener to NPR while I’m driving. I heard this song [“Lonely at the Top,” Randy Newman] on one of their programs, and it just grabbed me. I had never heard it before. But I looked it up when I got home, and the lyrics really spoke to me. I haven’t had the personal experience of the lyrics ­ of really having “made it” financially but feeling terrible about my life ­ quite the opposite, in fact. But I knew I wanted to do a performance piece with it LONG before I pitched the song to Curtis. I wasn’t sure what format I wanted it to be, though ­ solo, partnered, or group. I kept the idea to myself for a moderately long time, so it was really refreshing to finally share the song and concept with Curtis so the piece could finally start taking shape.

C: The first time Elizabeth had me listen to the song, I thought it was just okay. But I REALLY loved the concept!

C+E: The other two songs (the tail­ end of “Sugar Blues,” Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the beginning of “Your Heart Is As Black As Night,” Melody Gardot) we picked excerpts of so we could set the stage for our offstage interactions. “Sugar Blues” seemed to be an appropriate showy ending, while the intro of “Your Heart Is As Black As Night” seemed to be an appropriate transition to a darker, more pensive mood. And finally…the most important part of the show…the applause track that takes up a bit of time toward the beginning. We knew we would be taking bows to our “adoring crowd,” but we didn’t want our real audience to be confused that we were doing an ending of something, and facing the “wrong way.” Hence, applause track.

What other dances influenced or inspired this one?

E: Since we were putting this choreography together truly for a presentation at BluesSHOUT!, we wanted to make sure it stayed as bluesy as possible. But I can’t get away from my ballet and fitness background, which always has me leaning towards strong lines and challenging moves. We actually had a running joke through the process of choreographing that I was just putting in planks for fun! (Really, I tried to have choices be character driven ­ and leaning on Curtis is a TOTALLY valid thing for my character to do!)

C: Suuuuuure…Anyway, I wanted to incorporate a lot of jazz­ type steps and jazz hands. I wanted to show the enthusiasm of the character, and I wanted to show what the performer ­pair WAS like when they were fresh. My posture was mostly upright.

E. Those strength moves I was choosing take a lot of good form and all, but I wanted to look really lazy and listless, so I ended up trying to have “terrible” posture and floppy arms much more than I’m used to.

How did you go about combining your concept, song choice, and influences to create the finished choreography?

C+E: The song came first, and we enjoy that about our partnership and our approach to dancing and teaching. We really try to pay as much attention to the music as possible. There is no movement or moment in any of the pieces we choreograph where it doesn’t honor or reflect something in the music. In this way, the song choice and the concept really mirrored each other quite directly. That said, we did decide on a few “moves” that would be cool/interesting that would showcase our skills in an expressive way as we were going through our listening process. As far as influences, we weren’t very deliberate about making sure to include or exclude certain influences of different styles of dance, as long as we were telling the story and being bluesy overall.

C: I must add that we (ahem; Elizabeth) tweaked and re­choreographed until the week before the performance.

E: And I will add, in rebuttal (thanks Curtis) that every change we made was AWESOME. Or at least better.

C: What? I didn’t say it was bad. I love the final product.

E: Good. As long as you’re not complaining. :­)