Designing "Heart of the Matter"

By July 17, 20142014 Designing Dance

At the July 8th Show & Tell with Prometheus Dance, a member of the audience asked how the design elements work to support “Heart of the Matter.” This is an excellent question since without light we wouldn’t see the dance and without sound, projection and costume, meaning might be lost. It’s also a great question for the creative team of Prometheus Dance because collaboration with professional composers and designers is central to the company’s mission.

Recently I was able to interview Diane Arvanites (Co-Artistic Director/Co-Choreographer), Tommy Neblett (Co-Artistic Director/Co-Choreographer), and Linda O’Brien (Light Designer) to discuss design process and final design elements evident in this impressive full-length dance.

“Heart of the Matter” opens with a video projection depicting garden elements accompanied by a constant musical tone interspersed with electronic chirps, static tones, and other composed punctuations. Amidst this engaging visual and aural landscape, bursts of sidelight and toplight reveal a cluster of dancers wearing formal attire. Instantly, this overture gives way to a serene composition of slow motion gestures, a soft instrumental composition, and low intensity sculptural sidelight, all backed by a monochromatic projection of a flower. After a beautiful and controlled movement sequence, the pace quickens with the introduction of new gestures, implying different relationships between dancers. Some new influence grips the ensemble as they twist and turn, shaking their hands and forearms.

Experiencing the beginning of this dance as an audience member, a number of questions arise. What forces are at work and what do they mean? What will the journey be like for the dancers until the final moment when the light snaps out on the ensemble individually working within fitful athletic gestures? Why are the dancers in formal clothing and why is it stripped away as the dance progresses? Given the particular relationship between the choreography and design elements, how did the creative team arrive at these choices and how do they shape the final meaning of the dance for the audience?

In the yearlong choreographic process for “Heart of the Matter” a very particular, layered design process was at work to achieve the final dance. Arvanites and Neblett typically begin the rehearsal process with movement itself and hold off on integration of design elements until the overall dance structure is visible. With the structure in place, designers attend selected rehearsals and begin to learn the dance and explore design expressions. Arvanites and Neblett guide the design process with research and ideas inherent in the phrasing but leave much to the imagination of the design team. Prometheus Dance is fortunate to have several long-time designers on the team, providing an important level of trust and efficiency of process.

An exception to the above stated process is projection design. From the start, Arvanites knew she wanted projected imagery, in a confined way, to be a significant part of the dance. She provided much of the still and video imagery, with some created by Adam Noya, and eventually collaborated with company dancer Callie Chapman Korn to complete the visual score and perfect the editing and timing. This extended design process allowed Arvanites and Neblett an opportunity to be very selective about imagery based on choreographic intent. At the same time, and much like the musical composition by Miguel Noya, Chapman Korn was able to finesse editing and timing to match progress during rehearsals.

Costume designer Penney Pinette worked with Arvanites and Neblett to define the style of the formal wear, then identify and color the period undergarments. Arvanites has a collection of formal wear and the use of these clothes in “Heart of the Matter” fit perfectly with the desire to start the work with dancers covered in formal, rigid layers that would gradually peel away as other aspects of identity emerge. With this thought in mind, a provocative moment in the dance occurs when the women unzip their gowns and slowly allow the formal wear, the “veneer”, to slip away, revealing another layer of the self. In this moment, movement, costume, light, sound, and projection all work together to highlight what Arvanites and Neblett refer to as the “…stripping back layers of a personal history” (BDF Interview with Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett).

The final layer of design in “Heart of the Matter” is the one that allows us, as audience, to see the dance literally and figuratively—light. In professional dance this is often a design element added right before a public performance since time working in a professional theater is very costly. Light designer Linda O’Brien had many weeks to come up with more abstract design ideas but had only several days to implement these ideas. This process requires discipline, planning, organization, attention to detail, and a lot of trust between the designer and choreographers. The final light design for “Heart of the Matter” uses light to “help complete the picture” according to O’Brien. Arvanites and Neblett add that with light there is a wonderful sharpening of choreographic images. Using color, angle of light, pattern, specific focus of instruments, and movement of light through the cueing process, O’Brien worked to sculpt the bodies, enhance the ideas within the choreography, and ultimately create a mood on stage that pulls the audience into the work.

The Prometheus Dance creative team relationships are also built around an important visual aesthetic. Neblett mentioned to me how he and Arvanites used to travel to New York City to experience Pina Bausch’s choreography. The “total work” sensation—all elements (choreography, music, design) working together as a seamless whole—left a lasting impact on Arvanites and Neblett. Not that Prometheus Dance aspires to fill the stage with water, rocks, or hundreds of chairs, not at all. However, they emphasize the intention of all design elements as they support the choreography and complete the experience for the audience.

There is a minimal, elemental quality of design at work in “Heart of the Matter” where movement, light, shadow, color, fabric, silhouette, videography, and sound fuse together to create a whole that underscores the choreography and thematic intent. Combine the choreographic aesthetic and design choices with the theme of how humans struggle to find themselves amidst society’s shaping and reshaping of identity and you have “Heart of the Matter.”

“Heart of the Matter” is somewhat of a transitional work for Prometheus Dance. The choreographic process involved more improvisation, that is a willingness to use collective material generated from dancers through experimentation. This desire to open the process and explore alternate modes of working led Arvanites and Neblett to an upcoming collaboration with professional photographers Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. Likely working with these unique professional photographers at the inception of a work will take Prometheus Dance on a new creative journey—one that will be rewarding to follow.

This post was written by Jim Thurston. Mr. Thurston is a professional designer and educator who researches the relationship between choreography and design for the stage. He is the chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Colby College and is delighted to collaborate with artists and scholars at the Bates Dance Festival.

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