A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing locus plot, a full-length work by Peggy Baker Dance Projects incorporating music composed by John Kameel Farah and vocalography by Fides Krucker. Baker found inspiration for the piece in mathematical diagrams, and worked with mathematician and playwright John Mighton to deepen her understanding of them.
The result is an astounding work of collaboration which got me thinking about how breath and sound relate to movement. I had an e-conversation with Fides, and it made sense, as things progressed, to consult with dancer Sarah Fregeau as well. I’m going to post the interview in two parts because it ended up being so comprehensive.
The thing that surprised me most about locus plot was how little it surprised me. Having voice integrated with the dance just made sense. Is that an illusion? Did the two simply flow into each other, or did you have the sense of crossing barriers or even taboos as you collaborated in this piece?
I am so happy to hear that. The end result feels very organic to me even though I chose or created the sounds that the dancers make. Yes, I did have a sense of crossing barriers but the ground work had been laid thanks to Peggy in order to do that sensibly. I have taught for two years in her summer intensive, held at the National Ballet School, and had also worked with all of these dancers in the AGO project (land/body/breath) in May 2014 so that gave me a good sense of the company … and we had some common language. I had already set a few things on them for land/body/breath – bird calls, moans, some words. We went in with trust and respect for one another. Excitement, too.
Can you say more about the nuts and bolts of the collaboration?
I am very intrigued at what goes on internally in the practice of a dancer and how that might differ from the practice of a singer. I am deeply interested in what is going on in the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, the lungs, the ribs, the throat and the mouth, even the eyes, of anyone breathing – which means everyone!
Peggy had made about half the choreography before I came into the December rehearsals. I thought I was going to be the dramaturge so when she turned to me and said, ‘What sounds would you like them to make?’ I was quietly stunned. I asked to see the women’s trio again and went with my gut. I realized as I stood up to give them instructions that I should choose sounds that would be reasonable to make even if difficult. So whispers and fragments of song and Sarah Fregeau’s extraordinary high-pitched trilling sound flooded into my imagination. It was sparse and very specific with regards to when and how it collaborated with the movement.
Often Peggy would feel something crack open for her after hearing the dancers sound while moving – I think this became a wordless emotional dramaturgy. She would be drawn in and build more movement from there or ask for specific interpretive things from the dancers and eventually from John as he composed the music.
I asked if I could warm the company up each day to further train specific vocal techniques and foster a sense of balance. I wanted them to feel great about what they were doing! Peggy was extremely generous and made time for this.
About a month before opening, she brought Sahara Morimoto back onstage, near the end of the second section, to weave through the other four dancers. I was satisfied with what I saw but Peggy wanted voice here. Immediately I knew that I wanted to hear Sahara’s low guttural roars used as sustained threads of sound … they were emerging more and more from her each day that we trained. The sound made for this unexpected and mysterious counterpoint. So, it was fascinating to watch a method evolve in front of us through the entire process.
As making sound became more ‘normal’ feeling the dancers would no longer ask to rehearse the movement separate from the sounds they were to make – the two had become fused and informed one another. So there was a natural integration that came out of their hard work.
Also, these dancers are real artists. They would go away after rehearsal and sleep on things. The next day the idea I gave them seemed better than it had the previous rehearsal. I loved collaborating with them by taking the evolution of the material in their bodies and hearts as a good thing. The growth of their sounds informed my overall shaping of voice in the piece.
Peggy champions dancers making the movement their own – while maintaining a very clear vision of what she wants. I think this is a healthy tension in art making.
These are obviously top-notch dancers, with or without singing, but the dancing struck me as particularly beautiful in this piece. The word I would use is luminous. Then I realized, of course, that the singing is setting up vibrations from within, and I think they’re actually visible from the audience. They give a shimmering quality, and a sense of fluidity. Were there any surprises for you about the way the vocal work interacted with the dance?
Thanks for saying those beautiful things about the dancers. They were stunning to watch and feel. About a month in, thanks to Kate Holden’s final and exquisite solo and the actual luminosity that required, I realized that I really wanted all of them to stay open inside their mouths and through the area behind the eyes. I wanted this transparency to infuse all the sounds and I could see the difference it made to the movement as well. It is actually part of my technique.
I think working with the dancers helped me take this further and understand it better. But, it is a hard one – as opening night gets closer we all want to lock down – I see this in singers as well – to get it right. I think adrenaline and worry do this quite naturally to a human being. Both Peggy and I wanted the work to stay real and personal and not something external that had to be achieved (though of course the movement and sound score was really really hard and they did their jobs perfectly).
I want performance to invite the audience into the nervous systems of those on stage and therefore into their own watching nervous systems through the mirror neurons we all have. When I credit the dancers with staying connected to one another and to themselves – and from this place of empathy they risked even more opening.
Let’s hear from one of the dancers about this. My next question is directed to Sarah Fregeau. Sarah, was it easier or harder to vocalize in combination with dance?
Adding the vocals to the choreography did require some internal shifts in what parts of my body I used to stabilize the movement. I found that I had to release certain areas that I had been using to control – mostly around the abdomen and ribcage – in order to produce the sounds we were asked to make.
And of course we had to change how we used our breath. I found it very interesting to learn that my breath had a lot to do with my ability to balance. I’m thinking of a particular moment where I was turning in a piked forward position while releasing sound, and the difference between going into that movement with relatively empty lungs and “closed” soft palette (no sound) and with full lungs about to release made it much more challenging.
These little discoveries were interesting and fit right into my dancers’ daily training life of learning more about my own habits and how to undo or change the ones that are not useful.
The voice work eventually became so integrated with the movement (because of all of the little shifts and accommodations we had made) that it would have been more difficult at that point to rehearse without the sound than with. It would have been like going through the choreography but not using one small part of our bodies – the two had become dependent on each other to function properly.
Would you say that the vocals affected your ensemble work?
I would say that they added a magical element that helped to give meaning – however abstract – to the choreography, which may or may not have brought us more onto the same page in how we approached the work.
Big thanks to you both. More on the role of vocalographer next week.