Rhythms Of Time – A Conversation With Choreographer Nora Gibson About Her New Ballet Ephemeral

Nora Gibson 2-28-15-141

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

“I was at a party once,” recalled Nora Gibson in a recent interview, “and I was speaking with a retired dancer from Russia, who had very traditional training, who asked me, ‘What is this contemporary ballet? It’s either ballet or it isn’t!’ At first I thought, ‘that’s certainly an old-fashioned way of looking at it.’ But later, it stuck in my mind as an incredibly logical position to take. The integrity of the art form is based in that structure. There is a vocabulary and a framework. So maybe it is or it is not ballet. And that was a revolutionary premise to accept for me. Granted, I do some movement invention, but I try very hard to stick to the vocabulary. The thesis for me is ‘how do I evolve the form without making it what it is not?’ I still want it to be it.

When Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet premiers its evening length work Ephemeral next weekend, we’ll see plenty of ballet dancing, vigorously performed by accomplished ballet dancers. We won’t, however, see a narrative story ballet, or a “pure dance” ballet that closely marries the dancing to the music. Instead, the choreography for Ephemeral evolves according to it’s own structural logic, tracing the different kinds of rhythms of time and how we experience it. “I thought about all of the diverse rhythms of different species of life, and how everything has it’s own different rhythm and quality in the same way that light has it’s own different frequency and physicality depending on when you’re experiencing it and what time of the year you’re experiencing it,” said Gibson. Ephemeral is “about that kind of poly-rhythmic, textured experience of life.”

The new ballet is collaboration between choreographer Gibson and local ambient/electronic composer, Michael McDermott, and Dutch lighting/installation artist, Katinka Marac. Gibson often collaborates with other artists, and said she prefers to “focus on a shared thematic content, and then I like to think of there being no hierarchy at all. I think of three parallel lines that the audience is experiencing simultaneously (dance, sound, lighting design). I feel that that’s a way to make sure that all the artists in the project are operating at their own highest level of expertise and intuition.”

In addition to drawing on non-traditional subject matter for inspiration, Gibson often experiments with non-traditional compositional techniques when making her dances. For instance, in her piece 2^57,885,161 -1 from 2015, Gibson said she was inspired by a chart that she came across in the magazine Science News that showed the occurrence of twin prime numbers. “The chart appeared to me as a beautiful score,” recalled Gibson. “I’m really captivated by graphs and patterns. I’m always trying to discover what’s beautiful about it and how I can translate that experience or understanding into movement.”

With the new ballet, Ephemeral, Gibson worked with a musical score from a Bach fugue as a structural template for the piece. She was inspired by the complex patterns in the music composition, and built the choreographic structure to visually express some of the same patterns. The dance will not be performed to the Bach music however, but rather against the backdrop of an environmental sound score written independently by composer McDermott.   “Even though I’m not choreographing to a musical score, phrase by phrase, the way that Balanchine beautifully married ballet to Stravinsky or Bach, I’m still trying to create visual music,” said Gibson. “When I play with different forms, the dances just end up having a different look and arc.”

Although Gibson takes a progressive approach to subject matter and compositional strategy, she is still very drawn to working within the system of ballet logic, with it’s consistently interlinking facings and positions. Gibson said that she finds ballet to have a kinship to a mathematical approach; “I love that you have certain rules that you lay out, and then you work within that system and you find a grace and artistry and fluidity and creativity within the grid of that system.”

“Instead of it being about men and women telling stories of love or betrayal or many of the intense and interesting stories that many of the story ballets tell, like Swan Lake or Giselle, I’m telling stories about the feeling of numbers, or the different kinds of rhythms of time, and how we experience time.” And by using compositional formats “where you get to experience ballet in a new way,” continued Gibson, “I’m changing the way it’s delivered. I’m trying to make that modern, while preserving a form that I have so much respect for and is so beautiful.”

Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet
Friday, 2/19 @ 7pm
Saturday, 2/20 @ 7pm
Sunday, 2/21 @ 3pm
Christ Church Neighborhood House Theater, 20 N. American Street, 4th Floor, Philadelphia
Ticket prices: $15 18; $25 for combo ticket to include Philadelphia Screendance Festival directly following

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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