Tag Archives: dance

Behind-the-Scenes: Bells & Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies

Lyndell took a break from choreographing, filming, editing, and dancing, and a million and one other things to fill me in on the inspiration behind the two pieces Stretch is releasing in December.  Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making these videos!

What was the inspiration to do both Bells and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies?  Did you have a strong vision for both, or did one inspire the other? 

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Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies came first.  Pentatonix came out with a Sugar Plum Fairy version that was on the darker side.  It gave me a vision of little mischievous fairies as opposed to the pretty ones we’re so used to seeing. I thought, “That would be really interesting.”

At the same time, I had to think about “How do I make this accessible to everyone?”  Because with copy written material, YouTube won’t allow people to watch it phones and iPads.  I hate thinking that way, but you have to think about how people can connect with your material. Matthew Bourne says something to effect of, “Half is business, half is art.”

In comparison, Bells, is less dark than a lot of the pieces we’ve seen from Stretch so far. 

It is less dark–we’re wearing white! But it’s still somber.  I had no idea which one I wanted to do, so I just listened to a lot of Christmas music. “Carol of the Bells” came on, and I had this image of the dancers embodying the vocalization and instrumentation of the song.  I thought that would be a nice juxtaposition to the Sugar Plum Fairy piece.

Bells

I noticed on your Instagram that you have a picture of you writing dance steps on the music.  How do you choreograph without words?  What techniques do you use? 

Actually, Bells is the first time that I wrote directly on the sheet music.  Usually, when I come up with the idea of choreography, the dancing just happens in my mind. Sometimes it’s a visualization, sometimes it’s a story–I stick with what inspired me.  For Bells, I was choreographing to the vocals that didn’t exist; the dancing stood in place of the vocals that were missing.  I wanted movement to match sometimes, so I had to find exactly when the vocals matched.  I was literally drawing little people under the notes.

(Fun fact: the dancers were split up into four different vocal parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Each “vocal” part had a slightly different timing.  See if you can spot when we split into our sections! Hint: try watching at 0:16 & 1:10)

How was it working with the composer, Brian Barrale? Were you very specific about what you wanted, or did you let him run with it? 

I had worked with Brian on the promo for my husband’s Kickstarter, and I thought “Hmmm…there could be something here.”  And there was! After we established that he loved Christmas music, he asked me for things that he absolutely needed to know.  I gave him a time limit, a tempo, a tone that I was looking for, and a style, and I let him run for it. I like to give people as much artistic freedom as possible, because the end result is always better.

What kind of things were you looking for? How did the collaboration work between the two of you?   

For example, for Bells, I wanted it to be very classical, but free—I didn’t want it to sound like a metronome. I still wanted to use classical instruments, but have a tone like CoralineCoraline has very dark, yet naïve innocence to it.  Brian played out the skeleton of it, and then he would send it back to me, and the movement I created was inspired by it.

Ninety-four percent of what he sent the first go around was there for me—we were very in sync artistically.  Both of us like stuff that’s a little off. He sent me a version of the song, and wrote to tell me that he wasn’t sure if it would be too dark.  But when I listened to it, I thought “Yes! So good.”

Don’t forget to watch “Bells” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” on our YouTube Channel!    

If you loved the music and want to download it, The Dark Bell Carol and Viscous Plum Faeries are now available on iTunes.  

An Open Letter to Accompanists

Dear Accompanists of the World,

Last week, I posted an article about the many days of the year that celebrate some form of dancing—ballet, hip hop, ballroom, and many more.  However, there is one important element of dance who needs to be appreciated, and yet is constantly ignored as a background player: you, the accompanist.

You are the forgotten heroes of the dance and performance world.  Rehearsals are useless without you, classes are dull.  But you do so much more than that.

You play just a hair slower when you see that we’re having problems with a fast combination, but not enough that the teacher will catch you doing it.  You subtly emphasize the melody when I’m behind.  You wink at me after I get called out by the choreographer for messing up the steps.

For me, a good accompanist is the reason that gets me out of bed for a 9am ballet class.  You’re the reason I hold my developee just a little higher, that balance just a fraction longer.  You pull that extra oomph out of me when I think I have no more to give.

When I was nine years old, I wanted to quit ballet.  Ballet can be a boring exercise, particularly because it is so dependent on strengthening tiny muscles and holding frankly absurd positions for painful minutes, and after six years of being told to turn my feet in unnatural directions, I was tapped out.

My mother, in her infinite wisdom and apathy for my suffering, refused to let me quit.  I spent another three years going to dance out of duty.  In fact, my mom ended up putting me in a summer workshop where I took dance for six hours a day (there’s a reason we don’t complain to my mom), but it was this workshop that changed my view of dance.

I didn’t notice at first that they had brought in a new accompanist for this workshop.  To me, accompanists played the same classical airs, but seemed to run the melodies through a filter that made everything seem like a dirge playing in half time.  They seemed less like humans, and more like animated metrenomes.

And then she started playing.

She didn’t play Bach.  She didn’t play Rachmaninoff.  She played Harry Potter.  And how she played it.  It wasn’t just about plunking out the notes, but making music.  She didn’t look down on us because this was just another Saturday morning ballet class full of twelve-year-olds, but a special concert that only we got to hear.

For the first time in ballet class in years, I wanted to dance.  I wanted to dance well enough to fit that music, and I’ve been working towards it ever since.

When an accompanist plays well, they become another character in the dance that you can interact with.  They add more flavor to the piece, and dancer and musician can feed off of each other creating a symphony of music and dance together.  Great accompanists are great musicians who truly see that all the world is a stage and hold nothing back, even in rehearsals.

I cannot thank you enough for the hours of sweaty rehearsals, repetitive numbers, and the infinite patience and skill you bring to each and every occasion. There’s not an accompanist appreciation day—yet—but I think you all deserve our respect and gratitude for inspiring us to become skilled, versatile performers.

 

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Football vs Ballet

Misty vs FootballI came into this article expecting to find irrefutable proof that dancers easily outdistance their competition.  I remember back in high school when a football player challenged a girl who took spent about four hours dancing after school each day to a push up contest—and she beat the pants off of him.  I thought that when I wrote up the details of football vs ballet, the winner would be clear.

The results surprised me.

I won’t say that I’m completely biased against football—but I will admit that I may be just a bit jealous because football players get paid millions of dollars more than their dancing counterparts, or because most people in the US have at least one favorite football team, but couldn’t care less about their local dance company.

It wasn’t that football players were far above dancers in the stats–but it was how similar the two disciplines were. The more I researched, the more surprised I was to see similar correlations between reasons for injuries, longevity in the profession, and hours of practice though really, I shouldn’t have been–they’re both athletic activities that depend on perfect physical execution).  This table below is just the tip of the iceberg of what I uncovered:

Ballet Football
Calories/hour 600 656
Hours of practice/day 7.5 2-8
Percentage of injuries/year 61% 264%
BMI 13-18.5 18.5-24.9
Average Retirement Age 34 28
Average Salary $22,516-100,000 $4-14 million

You can tell just from this small chart alone what some of the advantages and disadvantages of each activity are.  It’s one thing to think about the injuries a football player sustains when it happens on screen—it’s another to see how the numbers add up.

It’s also another thing to hear about eating disorders in dancers and to see the hard evidence in their BMIs.  The lowest healthy BMI for women is about 18.5—to see that that number is the highest of the range for professional dancers, and should be a wake up call to those in the field.

It was amazing to see the similarities between these two disciplines that seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.  It also introduced another difficult point: how do you determine the winner?  Football players certainly have much higher incomes, but an astronomically higher injury rates.  Dancers have a longer careers, but only by a slim margin.  Both dancers and football players are put under extreme stress during their primes, but dancers have a much healthier mental state after they retire.

Footballer in ballet
It’ll probably come out a tie in the end, but it’s a great excuse to post pics of football players doing ballet in the meanwhile!!

A disclaimer: Research on the impact of sports and dance on both mental and physical health is an emerging field, so bear with me on some of the numbers.  As football and ballet are two very different disciplines, there won’t always be exact crossovers in the data, as ABT is going to report different data than the NFL will (for example, most reported dance injuries were sprains, breaks, and other muscle and bone-related injuries.  The most prominent NFL injury statistics ignore sprains almost completely and focus on concussions).  What I aim to do is present the big picture, and maybe those with the money and resources to research these ideas properly will follow up!

Make a New Year’s Resolution That Matters: Support the Arts in 2014!

It’s that time of year again.  Time for throwing out the cigarettes, getting a gym membership, and going for one last binge of all the chocolate in the house so that you can start the new year right.

This year, instead of making a New Year’s resolution that you probably won’t enjoy (because no matter how much you say you want to eat healthily, it’s no fun saying no to cookies), why not try something that enriches your mind and keeps the arts alive?

This year, why not make it your New Year’s resolution to support the arts?

Saying that the arts are the first to go in times of economic hardship is so cliché, you almost don’t need the statistics to paint how hard it is for theaters to survive in today’s cultural climate (but don’t worry; I have the numbers to prove it, too).

Closed Theater - National Theater
We lose more than just the performers without support. The National Theater was built in 1911 and is a registered historic building, but has fallen into disrepair.

First Lady Michelle Obama believes that “our artists challenge our assumptions in ways that many cannot and do not. They expand our understandings, and push us to view our world in new and very unexpected ways…. It is a form of diplomacy in which we can all take part.”  History proves her point. The first African American musical performed on Broadway in 1898, almost 60 years before the first integrated public schools.  The first gay actor came out in 1933, 75 years before  California legalized gay marriage.

But not all government officials believe in the power of the arts.  It’s strange that the arts budgets are cut first, particularly by as they generate $9.59 billion annually in federal tax income alone, and pump in over $60 million into the economy each year.  In comparison, a proposed spending reduction act in 2011 that threatened to eliminate funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities would save $167.5 million a year—a mere fraction of what the arts brings in.

Arts for Humanity
Arts education has shown that test scores can jump 20-22% in Math and English in elementary and middle school students.

And the trouble with the arts doesn’t stop and start with theaters.  Over the past ten years, elementary schools offering performing and visual arts opportunities dropped from 20% to 3-4%.    This is a critical time to begin learning, as students who study music consistently outperform (literally) their counterparts in math and science national tests, and arts students are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement.

There are so many ways to support the arts, and each one plays a vital role in the health of the arts.  I’m not saying you have to go out and donate your entire life savings to your local theater.  But theater is about building communities–and we can’t do that if you don’t click out of the YouTube videos, change out of your pajamas, and meet us halfway.

See community theater. See professional theater.  Go to an art exhibit.  Help the local school paint their sets for their show.  Give a gift basket for a theater’s fundraiser.  Skip Starbucks for a week and donate the money you saved to a theater.  Support the arts.  You’ll be fulfilling your New Year’s resolution to cut back on coffee, and supporting institutions that build stronger, more open-minded communities…and that’s a New Year’s resolution that will last far beyond 2014.

 

Photo credit: http://afterthefinalcurtain.net/2013/01/24/the-national-theatre/http://www.artsforhumanity.com/about-us/funding/

Stretch - Donate

 

100 Years of Silly Dances

It’s already December, which means it’s just about time for Facebook newsfeeds into nostalgia mode.  This year, let’s take it back farther than last year’s silly memes and look at the last decade’s silly dances!  I’ve posted the videos, so you can try out a few moves to work off that extra turkey by doing the mashed potato!

 

Turkey trot – 1900s

Like any great dance, the turkey trot was made outrageously popular by being publicly denounced in the early 1900s when it was banned by the Vatican for being too suggestive.  Despite being banned at public functions, the dance was made all the more popular by its risqué status.

 

The Black Bottom – 1920s

The Black Bottom dance originated in New Orleans, then made its way to the Apollo Theater in New York with the George White Scandals.  It was a hugely popular dance was composed by African American pianist and dancer Perry Bradford.  The dance was so popular, it ended up overtaking the Charleston.

 

The Jitter Bug – 1940s

The jitterbug is a type of swing dancing that became hugely popular in the ’30s and ’40s.  The dance itself doesn’t look that silly,but the name is another matter.  Inspired by Cab Calloway’s “Call of the Jitterbug,” the name comes from these poignant lyrics: “If you’d like to be a jitter bug,First thing you must do is get a jug,Put whiskey, wine and gin within,And shake it all up and then begin.”

The Mashed Potato – 1962

Just in time for the mashed potato leftovers, this dance started with the “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp.  How it resembles mashed potatoes, still remains a mystery.

 

Time Warp – 1973

Part parody, part genius, the Time Warp encompasses all the fun kitsch found in the movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  

Thriller – 1983

What’s more iconic about this music video?  The makeup, the skintight leather pantsuit, or the dance moves that even Lady Gaga wouldn’t mind stomping to?  Michael Jackson’s music video was groundbreaking in that it mixed screenplay with a music video.  Even 30 years later, it is still regarded as the most influential music video of all time.

 

Macarena – 1994

The Macarena is one of the the greatest international hits of all time, ranking number 7 on Billboard’s All Time Top 100.   The song is one of the few foreign hits to make #1 on American charts.  The iconic dance moves were as popular across the board as the music itself.

 

Dougie – 2007

Inspired by 1980s rapper Doug E. Fresh, Lil’Wil taught the whole world to how to “Dougie.”  According to Corey Fowler, member of the Cali Swag District whose “How-To Dougie” video garnered over 20,000,000 views says that “Everybody does it different…The way you do it defines you.”

Gangnam Style – 2012

No list of silly dances is complete without Gangnam Style. The song pokes fun at the trendy, high class lifestyle of those who live in the Gangnam District in Korea, but even those who can’t find South Korea on a map can appreciate the invisible horse and elevator dancing that, along with a fun beat a lots of energy, made this song an international sensation.

Backstage at the Los Angeles Carnival Choreographer’s Ball

1456745_10151708267366237_598503973_nIt’s just past midnight as we wait backstage to go on for the Los Angeles Carnival Choreographer’s Ball.  Some of us have been here since 3:00pm for tech, others of us have filtered in after work, but no one cracks a yawn, tired as we are.

Is it adrenaline or the cold air bursting through the open door that has us jumping up and down as we struggle to concentrate?

We try to warm up stiff limbs while dodging dancers in Cleopatra costumes and gold leggings.

As the dance onstage starts to wind down, Stretch Dance Co. circles up for one last huddle, our excitement arcing between us like electricity in a lightning storm.  We whispered well wishes and encouragements, squeezing hands for support.

“Don’t mess up,” I say–I always know how to ruin a Hallmark moment.

Some of the Stretchers tittered, but our laughter dies out as the lights went out on the dancers onstage.  It was show time.

But for me, the show had  started the minute I walked through those doors.

I’d heard so much about Carnival Choreographer’s Ball from dancers who had performed there in the past, but I had no idea what to expect when I arrived on scene at the Avalon in Hollywood with two bulging bags full of potential costumes and my work bag past the bouncers who, if they weren’t Russian mob, had been trained by them to scowl like supervillain henchmen.

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It was like I had stepped on the set of every dance movie ever made.  I had to quickstep out of the way of hip hop dancers practicing in the lobby, tiptoe around a couple salsa practicing a steamy routine on the landing in front of the stairs.

It was humbling to see all the amazing talent at the show during the dress rehearsal.  From a cute holiday mall-themed hip hop dance where the “mannequins” come to life, to a clever burlesque piece that shows that being sexy isn’t all that’s cracked up to be, to steamy Latin dancing… there were so many jaw-dropping dances and dancers  that it was easy to feel overwhelmed.

And I was feeling a bit overwhelmed in spite of myself.  I’ve been performing since I was three years old and I still can’t get over the preshow jitters every time I’m in the wings.  How was I, little music theater ensemble kid, supposed to measure up to all the talent that had already been onstage tonight?

But as the first twinkles of Macklemore’s “Same Love” filtered through the speakers, the jitters died. I wasn’t here to outdance anyone at Carnival tonight. I wasn’t here prove myself the best performer.  I wasn’t even here to be seen by the jaded agents and directors watching sleepily from the back seats.

I was here to spread a message: that underneath all the makeup, the technique, the costumes, we all share the same love for dance.

Don’t mess up, I whispered to myself.

And then I joined the dancers of Stretch Dance Company onstage.

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Dance Where You Least Expect It

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet in the past few weeks, Virgin Airlines’ new safety video must have clogged up your newsfeed at least four times by now.  What I love about this video is how Virgin has integrated dance into something as mundane as buckling your seatbelt, and it got me thinking…what other unusual situations are dancers pop and locking up?

 

Here are just a few to get you started:

On a train…

Flash mobs AND Julie Andrews?  What more could you want from a dance routine?

Out Shopping…

Stretch - Arianna-Bickle
From http://www.dancersamongus.com/photos

Dancers Among Us is a photography project by Jordan Matter.  Matter was inspired by the storytelling abilities of dancers and their complete commitment to the worlds they create in the mundane.  His photos combine the extraordinary beauty of dance in ordinary surroundings.

On the street…in roller skates

Roller skating is a pretty common pastime.  Tapping is a little less common, but not unheard of.  But tap dancing in roller skates?  Only Gene Kelly can make something make roller tapping look as natural as walking.

On top of a car…

Ever gotten bored while waiting for your gas tank to fill?  Why don’t you take a leaf out of this guy’s book and take a little spin on the roof of the car?

Underwater…

Synchronized Swimming

They might get made fun of for their sometimes terrifying makeup, but synchronized swimming is no joke.  Swimmers train both on land and off to make their routines picture perfect and worth their salt!

Down some stairs…

If anyone else besides James Cagney tried this, they would end up with a broken neck, but he doesn’t even seem to have broken a sweat.

 

What other examples of dance in unexpected places have you come across!  Feel free to chime in on the comments or on our Facebook page!  

Dance to Start a Movement

How do we talk about that which is taboo?

It’s not that we don’t know that there are problems in our world, in our government, even in our home spheres.  How is that we find it easy to share images of soldiers coming home to families, but not PSTD; of cute videos of puppies, but not animal cruelty; of our endless lists of first world problems, but not the lack of basic resources in third world counties?

Stretch - Reaching
Lyndell’s “Sitting Sadly By Your Side” tackles the tough subject of those who suffer from Depression, as well as its impact on those close to them.

To be fair, there’s not a really a good way to bring up these heavy issues in everyday conversation.  You can’t just drop a “Hey, did you hear about the Somalian civil war this morning?”  at the water cooler and expect to get much of an honest dialogue going.

In an increasingly politically correct world where even newspapers don’t take sides in issues as huge as the Federal Shutdown, how can we find the words to start these conversations?

Maybe, we don’t need words, but a movement.

William Forsythe
William Forsythe is a famous choreographer known for taking on controversial issues.

I will never be one to dispute the power of the pen, but it can be hard to know how to begin to approach such dangerous topics as war, racism, mental illness.  Every conversation needs a springboard; why not dance?

Dance is such an incredibly versatile form; records of its existence date as far back as the records themselves. Almost everyone can dance, whether they’re a full-fledged ballerina, a prancing football player or just your average Joe who bounces to the beat in private.

But for all its adaptability, for all its powerful use of expression, dance is a launching point for a conversation.  These ideas, be they about war or peace, will be left on the stage without those who are willing to discuss the issues brought up in their pieces.

Dance teaches people about team work and respect, to think creatively and express themselves. It can break down gender inequality and teach people to support each other.” says Restless Theater Dance Company CEO Kumori Middleton.

I can’t think of a better place to start a conversation then from there.

 

What You Missed While Watching A Thousand Years…

I bet that after watching our preview video, you may think that you’ve gotten all the juicy parts from Stretch Dance’s Stretch - Watchingproduction…but you’d be wrong.

Heck, I didn’t know what I was missing, and I’m in the show!

We had a chance to view the video of the whole show back when we filmed Applause.  To be honest, I thought I’d be bored rewatching the dances that we’d rehearsed over and over again.

Boy was I wrong.

It was an out-of-body experience for me.  It was surreal to watch the steps that I’d repeated so many times, and yet be surprised by moments in the show that you miss as a performer.  There are so many snapshots that stick in my mind—particularly of the scene about “Is It True About the Smoke.”

While performing, that number is a whirlwind of emotions and activity.  Not only am I rushing from costume to costume in the space of a few counts, but from one extreme emotion to another.  Not to mention I have to make it across the stage in four counts without running over any of my fellow dancers while still attempting to look graceful (that’s what we really go to ballet for all those years for).

But watching the piece…it was breathtaking in a totally unexpected way for me. To see the scared victims transform into the breezy, white dancers was quietly, profoundly beautiful to me.  It wasn’t my favorite number to perform onstage, but it was my favorite to watch.

And yet, as amazing as it was for me to watch the show, I couldn’t help missing something of my favorite elements while performing it: sound.

My sister—my inspiration for becoming a dancer—always jokes that dancers are meant to be seen and not heard, but it’s amazing how sound in dance can truly link up the dancer and the music.

Stretch - Breath
Some exhalations were choreographed into this number. It fit with the emotion and helped keep us together!

There are a few moments when we were choreographed to breath together, o.r for Jill to hum softly in parts of the show, but even just the natural sound of the movement contributed to the pieces.

I remember standing in the wings while Jill performed “Teen Vanity”—the chapter where Elli sees herself in the mirror for the first time after being shaved and starved.  I couldn’t see her at all, but I could hear her strangled breathing, the hard thud as she executed a huge leap, the soft swish as she turned.

These sounds made the taped soundtrack a living collaboration between the musician and the dancer.

So next time you have a chance to see live theater—Stretch Dance Co.’s new performance or otherwise—go out and see it.  Don’t settle for a recording, or a photo, or even a blog entry.

You’ll never know what you may miss.

Stretch - Denai White Words

The Next Era of Dance

Same Love   Stretch Dance Company   YouTube
Theatrical dance relies on the emotions underneath the piece to inform the dancing, not the other way around.

WHAT IS THEATRICAL DANCE?

Put this question to a professional dancer and even they might be stumped.  It’s not really musical theater dance.  It’s not concert dance.  It’s not the dance you do while waiting in the ridiculously long line for the bathroom at a theater.

We may not know it yet, but theatrical dance may be the next evolution of movement, thanks to new generation of versatile dancers.  Whereas it was once good enough to be the master of one form, the modern dancer must be as fluent in ballet as they are in break dancing to remain competitive in an increasingly diverse environment.

Television and YouTube have helped bridge the gaps between the different types of dance, and myriad studios offering any and every kind of dance have given birth to a new type of dancer who has learned Bollywood and ballet in the same studio.

Such a diverse and talented new generation of dancers have set the stage—literally—for shows like So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Next Best Dance Crew, and even Dancing with the Stars, ushering in a whole new era of dance that blends the established techniques of different forms to tell create story-specific movement.

Think back to your favorite piece from So You Think You Can Dance.  Do you remember the amazing dancing, or the amazing story told through the dance?  I’ll bet you’ll remember the story better than you remember how many pirouettes, or how high their jumps were.

Stretch - Bench
Many routines on SYTYCD uses short, yet intense stories to capture the audience

These shows have capitalized on their dancers utilizing a wide range of techniques, but have blended it with strong–yet succinct–story telling.  It’s the perfect format for today’s fast-paced world: a snippet of easily digestible story with a strong narrative.

Add to that a modern flair that mixes hip hop dancers with ballerinas or tappers with a contemporary vibe or a pas de deux with aerial—something that the dance critics would have found horrifying fifty years ago–and you have the recipe for a form of dance that is as powerful as it is adaptable.

Each of these shows relies on each dancer’s individual talents and their ability to seamlessly adapt to new styles and partners while still maintaining a through line.  Shows like SYTYCD gleefully reimagine how dance is pieced together every single week.

This adaptability makes theatrical dance the perfect form for Stretch Dance Co.  Theatrical dance takes advantage of the many talents of our dancers, focuses on the individual strengths of each one, and is flexible enough to transition from a dramatic look at the Holocaust to playfulness of Lady Gaga.

Theatrical dance takes the richness of all the traditions of dance, and yet eagerly steps outside the box to suit its purposes, which is exactly what Stretch Dance Co works for in every dance, every song, every story.  This new trend in dance is already popping up onstage, on screen, and on the streets, but few have realized that these dances reach beyond traditional forms and into a brave new frontier.

Stretch - Fierce