Courtesy of Arts Talk, The arts blog of the Albany Times Union
Originally published: 4/15/12
by Tresca Weinstein
SARATOGA SPRINGS — “Keeping Company with Cage,” presented Sunday evening at Skidmore College’s Arthur Zankel Music Center, provided a lovely and textured setting for the raw gem of Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.”
Skidmore dance department chair Debra J. Fernandez and former art professor Margo Mensing conceived of and produced the event in honor of the centennial of the late composer’s birth. Framing “Sonatas and Interludes” with movement, video imagery and artful lighting, they succeeded in creating a mood–enigmatic, abstract and atmospheric–that gracefully complemented and enhanced the music without detracting from it or trying to render it more conventionally accessible or entertaining.
The performance will be restaged on June 9, as part of SaratogaArtsFest 2012.
Played consummately on Sunday by Skidmore’s president emeritus David Porter, “Sonatas and Interludes” is one of Cage’s more melodic works, in comparison to the cacophonous sound collages often paired with the dances of his partner, Merce Cunningham. The piano is “prepared” via the insertion of some 75 objects–including bolts, screws, mutes and a large pink eraser–inserted between the strings; during the first section of the work, audiences could see some of these alterations in a video of the piano’s insides projected on the stage’s side wall. The resulting sound is said to resemble the gamelan, a xylophone-like instrument from Indonesia.
Fernandez’s choreography for her student dancers (five seniors and two juniors, joined by a 2011 graduate) also takes inspiration from the East, in this case from Zen minimalism. As the repetitive notes fell like rain onto metal or into still water, the dancers stretched into extensions and balances, forming elegant shapes in space that sometimes echoed geometry and sometimes the swooping curves of Oriental calligraphy. Paralleling the hue of the music without attempting direct reflection, the movement remained cool, almost detached.
An additional layer was added to the experience during the second section of the work: real-time video of the dancers’ movements, projected onto the back and side walls, revealing alternate angles to the audience’s eyes. For the final two sections, the glass expanse of the Zankel’s back wall was uncovered, revealing a natural backdrop of spare trees against the darkening sky.
The final sequences of ensemble dancing, mirroring the growing intricacies of the composition, wove together entwined duets, angular lifts and circular arrangements reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s famous “Dance” paintings. There were glimpses of Cunningham, too, when the dancers moved like interconnected pieces in a kinetic sculpture. The group of lithe, expressive dancers perfectly captured the balance of intensity and pensiveness. The dance, along with the music, ended just as it should, without fanfare or spectacle.