Vervet Dance Pays Tribute to Art of Improvisation

by Elizabeth Whelan for The Dance Journal

“The works are semi-composed… part improvisation and partly structured,” said Loren Groenendaal, Artistic Director of Philadelphia’s Vervet Dance as she introduced the evening’s lineup. And thus began the ninety minute treasure hunt; trying to decipher which moments of the work were pre-determined from those that the dancers and musicians indulged in the freedom of improvisation.  Loren’s clever description of the work allowed for the audience to play with their own imaginations- searching for threads within the movement and sound, trying to put together a puzzle that consisted of bodies and instruments moving in an out of structure.

Groenendaal presented “Semi-Composed: Metamorphosis” alongside New York-based pianist and longtime friend, Melinda Faylor. Dipping into themes of change and metamorphosis, the show was presented twice; at 6pm and 8pm at the Performance Garage.  Both shows existed within the same parameter of change, yet remained open to the divergent path that improvisation provides.

The show kicked off with “…of changes,” a work that originally premiered in 2012, and was inspired by three hexagonal characters of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text also referred to as the Book of Changes. The dancers and musicians took forms relating to the corresponding books. The movement became lethargic and grounded as they embodied the ideas within hexagon 47, one of “Oppression, Exhaustion.”  The musicians—including Faylor on Piano, Charlotte Munn-Wood on violin, and Julius Masri on percussion—let their sounds follow the movements and I Ching themes, erupting into a frenzied score that seemed to infect the dancers one by one, sending them into chaotic movement motifs that traveled around the stage from one dancer to the next.

Featured artist Curt Haworth, currently a professor of Dance at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, took the stage as one of the dancers in the second piece, “Tourbillion,” in collaboration with Tim Motzer on the guitar. With avant-garde experimental sounds looping from the corner where Motzner observed the dancers, his strong musical composition complimented the post-modern, Trisha Brown-esque movement that the dancers performed. The trio seemed to effortlessly know when to come together spatially and energetically. They played off of each other’s patterns and qualities in contrast to the powerful moments where they dispersed across the space, delving into their own improvisational explorations.

Groenendaal delivered an intriguing and mysterious solo to Faylor’s prepared piano accompaniment in “0.03g Cantharidin.” Creating a world of her own in a single spotlight, “0.03g Cantharidin,” originally created in 2009, investigated the nature of a pest or toxin, with Groenendaal embodying the toxin itself. Her attention to the character she was playing allowed for a thought-provoking viewpoint of insect metamorphosis. To conclude the piece, Groenendaal slipped underneath the piano into the shadows, suggesting that the music was the toxin’s host, dictating its very life.

Next came a pause from the movement portion of the night, but certainly not from the creativity and talent. Charles Waters, composer and saxophonist hailing from New York, and bassist Luke Stewart of D.C. joined Faylor and Munn-Wood for a two-part composition inspired by American composer and avant-garde master John Cage (who’s 25th anniversary of passing was coincidentally the same day of the show).  Part one, “Philly Phantastia” entailed a graphic score that was topped by part two, “Everything.” The quartet improvised their way through layers of vibrant exploration, with a particularly impressive solo from Stewart on the bass. The collaboration led you down a rabbit-hole of sound, and managed to tie everything back together in the final repeat of the initial riff.

Vervet Dance closed out the night with “SWARM!” Inspired by locust swarming patterns and set to atonal music created by Faylor, the dancers transformed and submerged themselves in a world of chaos that gradually grew as the piece progressed. Quirky arm-movements and inhuman motifs brought some audience members to laughter. The dancers portrayed insects functioning under swarm intelligence, a collective behavior pattern rooted in natural enviroments (i.e. bird flocking, ant colonies, fish schooling, etc.) that is often applied to artifical intelligence.

Groenendaal and Faylor, alongside featured artists, musicians and dancers laid strong foundations of inspiration and clear intent and then let their imaginations go wild in real-time for the audience. Their creativity and fearless exploration made for a night that honored the art of improvisation.


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