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Merce Cunningham’s “Duets”: Rehearsal Process with Patricia Lent, Merce Cunningham Trust

Master Choreographer Merce Cunningham. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

Seminal choreographer Merce Cunningham. Photo by Annie Leibovitz.

Contributed by Harriet McMeekin, Ballet San Jose corps de ballet

 

The rehearsal process we’ve experienced so far is vastly different from our normal rehearsals at Ballet San Jose: no music. Silence. Sing-song rhythms echoing in the studio. We eventually graduate to the soft beep of a stopwatch. “And begin,” then gradually “stop,” and “cue.”

“Not bad, only 15 seconds slow,” she says.

It’s a process that’s taken getting used to but has bolstered my confidence in my inner rhythm. I am better able to connect and communicate with my partner and fellow dancers without words. This is critical, as we don’t know what music we’re performing to until we get onstage.

Ms. Lent gave us a little history about the Cunningham ideology, but Wikipedia sums it up neatly:

The most famous and controversial of these [radical innovations] concerned the relationship between dance and music, which [Merce Cunningham and John Cage] concluded may occur in the same time and space, but should be created independently of one another.

Initially the Cunningham/Cage concept of separation between choreography and music seemed sacrilegious. How do you choreograph if you’re not inspired by the music? How do you dance the steps if the music doesn’t tell you what to do? Typically, the music is the primary focus of classical ballet. You might learn the steps to start, and there might not be music at first, but the ultimate goal is to dance “with” the music. The Cunningham ideology requires getting used to a different style and method of working. Holding the music in different regard. Not relegating it but respecting it as its own separate entity.

The dance happens onstage. The music happens while the dance is happening. It’s their occurrence in time that binds them together.

 

See Ballet San Jose perform “Duets,” along with works by innovative choreographers Jorma Elo and Jessica Lang, beginning this Friday, April 19, at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts downtown. Buy tickets online at www.balletsj.org, or call our Box Office at (408) 288-2800. See you at the theater!

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Tales from the City: San Jose’s Arts Culture

Ballet San Jose packs up the roadboxes for another show.

Ballet San Jose packs up the road boxes for another show. Photo by Ballet San Jose.

WHEN YOU THINK of a city brimming with culture and diversity, San Jose may not be the first metropolis that comes to mind. After all, San Francisco, New York and Chicago are old cities; their places in national memory are characterized by everything from world expositions to groundbreaking political movements to entire decades in United States history.

San Jose may not be San Francisco, but we do have a culture that is unique to our area. Much like Ballet San Jose’s dancers, the people who make up San Jose’s diverse population hail from all parts of the world. It is an important piece of the Silicon Valley puzzle, a symbol of that elusive entrepreneurial spirit.

In some ways, nothing characterizes the essence of San Jose better than its local arts programs. As we look ahead to Ballet San Jose’s 2012 Season, which begins this March, these things are always on our minds. When the curtain rises, we aren’t just putting on a show for the audience — we, along with organizations such as Symphony Silicon Valley and Opera San Jose, are functioning as parts of a larger arts culture.

Talia, a marketing intern here at Ballet San Jose, said it best when she wrote about walking into our building at 40 North First Street for the first time:

Interview day. Burgundy red carpet, white worn-down walls, wall to wall pictures elegantly hung along the stairways. Though it may not seem like much, the front lobby of the Ballet San Jose building looked beautiful to me. It was full of memory. At that moment, something told me that I was going to like it here at Ballet San Jose — not because this vintage building reminded me of New York but because of the warm, historical vibe that washed over me as soon as I stepped through the door.

I snapped back to reality and pressed the button for floor number two. (If I listened carefully, I could hear the dancers upstairs, practicing their routines.) As I waited for the elevator door to open, I didn’t know exactly what would happen. I did know that my day was about to take a whole new turn.

Since starting my internship at Ballet San Jose, I have accomplished many things. Whether I am creating engaging videos that draw people to our Nutcracker, sorting through stacks of mail, or exercising my creativity to develop an archival binder of striking news-clippings, candid pictures, engaging blog posts and reviews about our Nutcracker…I feel like I am creating something, like I am participating in the Silicon Valley arts culture — like I’m really a part of San Jose.

Until next time,
Ballet San Jose

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