Improvisation, “ugly” movements and commands. James Fuller discusses Loni Landon’s choreography style.
Loni Landon started her choreographic residency at Ballet Austin by asking me and the other dancers in her piece to close our eyes and explore our feet. I turned my feet out and in, rolled my weight onto my heels and then onto to the tops of my arches and crossed my feet so far that I could barely move. In ballet class, all of these positions would have been horribly wrong, but Loni wanted us to find ways of moving that would normally feel awkward or ugly. She explained that movements that feel awkward and ugly can be fresh, interesting and beautiful in ways that traditional steps can’t.
From our feet, we moved up gradually into our knees, hips, torso, head and finally arms. After giving each part of our body its due, we started to work with each other, first in pairs and then as a group. One of us would call out a command like “freeze”, “collapse” or “rescue”, and the other dancers would respond. We soon discovered that much of Loni’s choreography was like these commands: very specific but also open to many interpretations.
The last exercise Loni gave was to perform a short solo about ourselves. She encouraged us to both speak and dance. Everyone was nervous, but the results were magical. We danced and talked about our childhoods, our years of training, our relationships and our quirks. In just a few minutes, I learned things about my coworkers that I would never have dreamed. Loni gave us this assignment because she wanted to get to know us. She wanted our personalities to be part of her piece.
For the next few days, we learned phrases and created short group dances. I found this part of the process difficult both because of the volume of material and because Loni’s approach to movement is very different from ours. Loni approaches movement holistically, and wanted us to grasp her material’s shape, dynamic and intent simultaneously. At Ballet Austin, we usually approach movement more analytically. We break down the mechanics of each step, figure out when each step happens, and after all that work is done, we think about intent. I found it very hard to break myself out of this pattern. Loni would ask me to perform her movement with full dynamic and intent before I had had a chance to break it down and assimilate it.
Fortunately, as the piece gradually came together, I started to feel more comfortable in Loni’s movement. The piece is dark and smooth, but I can see glimpses of our jagged improvisations and cheerful solos in it. It’s fascinating to see two weeks of improvisation, tension and sharing woven into a piece.
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