Monday, March 28, 2011

Rachel Cohen and Chris Becker: Dance and Music in Conversation





If The Shoe Fits is an evening length dance theater work I scored for choreographer director Rachel Cohen back in in 2005. On March 19th, 2011, If The Shoe Fits was performed at The Emeline Theatre in Mamaroneck, New York for one matinee performance. Thanks to Meet the Composer's Met Life Creative Connections Program, Racoco Productions was able to to bring me to New York to mix the music live for the performance and participate in a workshop about composing for dance.

What follows is a conversation Rachel and I had via Skype about If The Shoe Fits just over a week after the March 19th performance. Hope you enjoy it.

Chris Becker: If The Shoe Fits like all of your work has some fantastic images in it – I’m thinking of the two evil step sisters with their hair braided together or the super long shoelaces that the performers have to grip and try and hang on to as they attempt to walk and dance. Do your pieces – or sections of the pieces – begin with images like this? Is that where some of this starts?

Rachel Cohen: Sometimes. I would say that usually at least some inspiration I guess for any particular piece is going to be an image that I have that I want to figure out how to realize. Other times it grows out of the process. With the step sisters, that was an idea that I had that I wanted to see what would happen…and in my mind it looked cool and I wanted to make it work and the shoelaces may have come later on? I’m trying to remember what the idea was for if we just were playing around in rehearsal and the idea came up well what if the shoelaces were super long or was it something I had pictured in my mind first. That one I can’t remember. But the sisters that was definitely in my mind for awhile, actually. There’s a piece I did at Mary Anthony’s where I tried it for the first time and it was completely unsuccessful!


(Scene from If The Shoe Fits 2005 production)

CB: The first step might be after you get that image might be just to see if it can be done on stage just get it out of your head…and then if (realizing the image) is possible then movement and more theater comes next?

RC: That’s ideal. I think sometimes what happens is we go into rehearsal with the idea of the image and rehearse what it would be like if that were to be possible? And then we end up getting into the theater trying to realize what we’ve been trying to make in rehearsal which we sometimes find out is actually not possible. So sometimes the imagination doesn’t meet up with reality. Ideally we would go in start right away…like with the sisters we didn’t have how the hair was going to work until quite a ways into the (rehearsal) process. So we just put tights on their heads and were playing around with that…

CB: Yeah, I remember that!

RC: So then the final result was actually different from what I had imagined. But it worked and it looked good.

CB: The individual props that you use – how to they affect or rather shape the choreography as well as the performance of that choreography? I’m thinking of flour, the dough, and maybe even going back to those shoelaces again…

RC: So how do those (props) shape the movement?

CB: Yeah. How does having a prop like that shape any kind of movement you create and how does it shape the performance of that movement?

RC: What I like about props is they force you to negotiate movement and space in new and unpredictable ways. So I’ll have an image for some kind of…take the shoelaces or the hair or this idea of using dough and then play around with what’s possible and (you) end up with some surprising results. Sometimes I’ll have some ideas ‘Okay, let’s try this movement or that movement...’ and then something will happen by accident or you’ll discover when you’re trying to do a particular movement that it’s impossible to do it the way that I had initially suggested but that something else more interesting happens!

CB: Mm hm.

RC: And that was particularly true with the clay (Thrown and Like Dirt) because the way of it and the torque of it and how it would affect the shapes of the body when we were moving around with it was sort of unpredictable. And that’s what I like in performance is that because of that unpredictability it keeps a freshness in the performance and all the performers have to be present and really partnering with the object or the prop or the costume in real time. Because if they try to just do it on automatic then something’s gonna happen that you don’t expect and you’ll fall on your face!


(A scene from Like Dirt; Rachel Cohen choreography; Music by Chris Becker in collaboration with Lewis 'Flip' Barnes, Helga Davis, and Lynn Wright)

CB: So you like it when you see a little bit of struggle – is it struggle or engagement with the prop?

RC: It’s some combination of both. I sometimes refer to it as a struggle but I guess it really is more engagement. I guess what interests me about it in particular is how it does illustrate human struggle with life or with the objects or the people in our lives? Because I’m interested in things from an emotional point of view. But ideally I guess it really is a partnering or an engagement with – I think that’s a good way of putting it. I like that.

With the dough and with the piñata (How Many Licks?) …the image comes out of an emotional feeling. Like the dough came out of the feeling of anxiety - like when your stomach is full of knots? The idea of kneading dough felt like that would somehow alleviate that anxiety. Or sort of illustrate that anxiety? That’s actually where that came from. Now when people watch it -I don’t think that’s what comes to mind first because of all the other stuff that happens in that section. But that was the initial motivation to do it, ‘Okay how do I illustrate that emotional feeling?’ The emotion brought a particular interesting – a bizarre image to mind. Same thing with the piñata heads. I don’t know if you get the feeling that you’re so frustrated you want to smash your head against the wall? But I was thinking ‘Okay, what would be a healthier way to do that? Sort of translating some kind of physicalising of an emotional experience into something more fantastic.

CB: I was also thinking baking and the smell of something baking is a comforting thing, something people refer to as ‘This makes me feel calm’ or at home…

RC: That’s true. I didn’t even think about that. Maybe that’s one place where all the domestic references come from. The vacuums, the baking, and all that kind of stuff that there is some kind of comfort there?


(Scene from How Many Licks?)

CB: This is the third time we’ve realized If The Shoe Fits. I think its important people understand how much time we spent on this piece before we did it…that we spent not just a month and threw it together but that there was this long process.

RC: How long was it? Do you remember? I’m trying to remember when we started, was it six months?

CB: I think it was maybe eight…I could probably figure this out.

RC: We could check our emails!

CB: What struck me about hearing the music again was how dense it is. At least that’s how it sounded to me. There’s a lot of superimposition of sound effects…there might be one steady rhythm and then something completely arrhythmic on top of that and then something else on top of that. Even musical styles are kind of piled on top of each other. I think my own music since we worked on If The Shoe Fits uses a lot more space and silence…a lot of that came out of improvising on later pieces with live musicians and working with people like Flip (trumpeter Lewis ‘Flip’ Barnes) and Helga (vocalist Helga Davis) where I learned or rather just became more interested in opening things up and leaving even more space and silence in the music. I’m saying one is good and one is bad. It’s just something I’ve noticed in my own work.

But I wondered as a dancer director choreographer in your opinion what are qualities in a piece of music that keep it from overwhelming the movement onstage. What is it in music that prevents people from ‘seeing’ the movement? Is that something you can quantify?

RC: It’s interesting to think about. I know these were conversations we’ve had a lot in various collaborations that we’ve done…I think part of what happens if you’re watching a performance and your overwhelmed by the music there are couple of possibilities. One is that the movement itself just isn’t very strong.

CB: Mm hm.

RC: Or isn’t strong enough to compliment the music. I assume you can take any music…I mean, some people have done some pretty successful Rite Of Spring, right? And that’s a pretty intense piece of music.

CB: And all kinds of choreography to that too, there isn’t ‘This is the only way you dance to The Rite Of Spring, right? Pina Bausch’s ‘Rite’ is very different I’m sure than the original choreography…

RC: It’d be great to do a festival! All The Rite Of Springs!

CB: I think that’d be great. I think that’d be a revelation for a lot of composers, to see different dancers dancing to the same piece of music. Or, you know, I single dance presented three or four times with three or four different pieces of music. That’d be even crazier.

RC: That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, actually. Both of those things. Because I think you also see different things about the music if you have different choreographers working with the same piece. Sometimes I can’t decide…sometimes there’s more than one piece of music that works with something I’m working on. But they (each) bring out something a little different…we had a little bit of that with If The Shoe Fits. For the most part, (each track) seemed to fall into place…I think there was only once or twice where it wasn’t what you initially written it for?

But going back to your question. I know that personally it can be difficult working with something with a really regular beat just because it brings you into a particular…it can be really easy to be kind of mesmerized by that beat. On the other hand most music has a beat of some kind, so I’m trying to figure out a more…

CB: I think there are creative approaches to rhythm where you feel the pulse but the music – the actual sounds you’re hearing, may be breaking up that pulse in so many ways that you’re not…feeling like someone is hitting you over the head with a sledgehammer. A lot of African music is like that, where there’s a pulse there, and it’s very accurate and it grooves, but there isn’t a metronomic feel to it because the music is breathing so much and constantly being expounded upon.

I’m thinking of some of the Colombian or Latin music you’ve used, you’ve used a lot of that in some other pieces that we haven’t collaborated on. Like Suite.

RC: We used Colombian music on the dress piece, Looks Good On Paper. But yeah, that’s a good way of putting it, so there’s ‘room to breathe’ in there. It’s a specific choice to select music that’s atmospheric and makes a wall of sound and it’s possible to work with that. But it feels like a specific choice to me in a way whereas if the music has room to breathe…it’s like a conversation with somebody. If the other person is just talking non-stop, they might be saying something interesting, but you can’t participate! It’s the same with music and dance. Although I guess the same thing would happen if you took a very delicate piece of music and had a bunch of people come in and do really intense non-stop movement I think it would overwhelm the music and tire out the viewer.

CB: There’s no set formula, you know? I guess that’s it. Again, with If The Shoe Fits I’m remembering now that more than a few of the pieces of music in the early stages were inspired by an image you had and maybe a couple instructions as to musically what you’re hearing. Something particular might be the shoe salesmen. Just the image of those guys, and if I remember right you said something like ‘I’m thinking something Russian or a part of Europe that evoked for me a very rural, accordion driven folk music…”

RC: Right.

CB: Maybe Hungarian? Russian? I’m not sure. But that was enough to get the ball rolling. And bringing the music in without seeing the movement…there was a lot of back and forth between the two of us. But those images were really helpful and really all I needed to start the dialogue. But again, when I heard the music this time…I didn’t feel overwhelmed by it…maybe because so many of your dancers were so familiar with the music they kept finding ways to have that conversation that you’re talking about. So they weren’t overwhelmed, like ‘I don’t know what to do because there’s so much sound happening!’ They just kept grabbing stuff…these strange musical moments…

RC: That was one of the nice things about revisiting it…if you put something aside and come back to it you hear it in a new way. I had forgotten just how many different styles and things you’d packed into that score. And it was all coherent. It was certainly a dense…the whole things was a pretty dense production. I know a couple people who were actually too overwhelmed by it. They felt like it was too much. And then other people who say each time they hear or see something new that they didn’t see before.

CB: You know you talked about how it was all cohesive. There are these musical tricks throughout that score designed to hold the whole thing together, musical motifs…It could be little intervals that I use over and over again, even though stylistically the tune may be a doo wop tune verse a slinky groove number for the ballroom scene. But it’s amazing what your ear can pick up on. It’s not obvious like ‘Oh, there’s the aria in the first act being sung backwards in the second act!’ It’s not like that. Also just sounds of kitchenware appear all throughout the score…

RC: That was great.

CB: …part of that is just to hold these pieces together. Like when you hear the sifter in three or four different pieces, I think the listener’s mind sort of pulls all these pieces together and says ‘Oh, these things are all coming from the same planet, the same broadcast…

Composer Chris Becker's Shoe Salesmen Music from If The Shoe Fits.

RC: That’s interesting. When you incorporate sounds like that, like the shoes or the sifters, or the pots and pans and knives and things…do you have sort of the composition and you know in your mind where you want to put those things? Or do those things inspire the composition that comes around it? Do you know what I mean?

CB: There’s one piece that comes to mind for If The Shoe Fits that begins with a doorbell. The shoe salesmen have arrived…and the first thing you hear are the heels of shoes being banged together, and then another pair, and another…and I don’t remember how many overdubs I did of myself with my and my wife’s shoe collection around me in front of a microphone. But I spent a morning doing that! Just banging shoes together…and I just layered those sounds without any idea of what it would actually sound like. I didn’t know! But I thought well, it might sound interesting! And they’re shoe salesmen! So that makes sense, right? So let’s do it! And I then shaped the tracks of shoes (in the computer)…it was really just playing with the material and in playing there’s a composition that comes out of that process. Then I’d bring it to you and we could see what worked what didn’t work. Sometimes would need some very specific timings and cues.

The sound effects like the pots and pans and knives were…a lot of that was there to bring out the rhythms? I might have a drum loop going and to make (the loop) more interesting, I would take a recording of myself playing a sifter and then cut that sound up so that it aligns with the drum beats. If that makes any sense.

RC: Mm hm.

CB: And so then what I’ve got is two loops, I have a drum loop and a sifter loop. I would build rhythms by doing lots and lots of editing. The compositional framework was already there, but I knew I needed to get some kitchen sounds in there. In the last number, the tap dancing number, I knew there needed to be some punctuations, so I recorded myself slamming the door of our oven and that became a rhythmic ‘hit.’ That’s what I mean. So that was very practical and it worked with the composition.

Let me keep going with this. How has your relationship with this music changed since 2005? Or has it changed? Speaking as a director and also as one of the primary performers?

RC: Let me put on the choreographer hat first. I remember very particularly with The Fairy Godmother, before we met, I was using a piece of music for that movement that I’d gotten really attached to. And we were trying to negotiate how to get something new and something that was yours but was also something that I could live with. I had to get that other original piece of music out of my mind. But now I don’t even think twice about it.

I can’t imagine any other piece of music being with any of this stuff.
As a performer…just the more that I listen to it and the more I perform to it the more things I hear. I still hear things that I didn’t hear before.

CB: Yeah, me too!

Chris Becker's The Fairy Godmother's Song from If The Shoe Fits.

RC: So that’s nice. Even though it’s comfortable and familiar it hasn’t gotten boring or stale. Because there’s always more to get at.

CB: That’s a great compliment. And I pick up on that with the other dancers. Adrian (Adrian Jevicki) for instance continues to find new things in this music. Sometimes in very obvious and striking ways, like he didn’t do THAT in 2007 or whatever…

Yeah, the Doo Wop he did something completely different with the rhythm that was using like an underlying rhythm of the music that I don’t remember him doing before. So I agree. It’s partly because he’s on his own. Kelly (Key Kocinski – one of the two “evil” step sisters) always has to negotiate first with the other dancer and second with the music. But with Adrian it was really obvious.


(Scene from If The Shoe Fits 2005 production; Adrian Jevicki performing)

CB: How does it feel to have done this now for a third time? Since we’ve done it, and it’s a week or so after the fact, what are your feelings now?

RC: At first I had mixed feelings about doing it again. In the past my experience has been I prefer the creation process to the recreation process. Teaching new dancers old movement I get really bored with sometimes. But what I found really interesting about this time is I got really into it and really enjoyed the process trying to revisit and remember what some of the things were. But also, I felt the first two times…the first time (2005) it sort of just came together and just started to jell but it still needed some work. There were some things I wasn’t satisfied with, or that didn’t like the timing of, or transitions I wasn’t sure about. So I was really happy to get an opportunity to go back and look at some of those things.

I had a rehearsal director (Pablo Francisco Ruvalcaba) looking and helping like ‘Why are you doing this?’ Pablo really forced me to explain some things that before I didn’t want to necessarily and I thnk part of me still doesn’t want to! But it was a useful exercise. This choice, why did we do that? And maybe this would be better, let’s try this…

CB: I never got the sense that he was gonna get upset if you couldn’t answer a question…

RC: No, no.

CB: But he just asked the question and if was helpful to answer then great, if it was a question that couldn’t be answered then that was okay too.

RC: Yes, exactly. Also teaching it to new dancers, they had questions. ‘What is this about? What am I supposed to be doing here? What does this movement mean?’ And I think the first time we did it (in 2005) the dancers were all involved in the process of work shopping the movement and the characters so they had some more understanding of that and of the journey. This time, I had to explain it to people who hadn’t been involved before.

So that I enjoyed having to think it through a little more carefully or with a little bit of a different perspective. I got to perform it more. The first time, I was so busy with all the other things…so I felt like I got to get more inside the piece.

After this latest performance, Rebecca (Rebecca Ketchum) said “Now we need to do it two more months!” We were just getting a grasp on this world. We had just started switching from being dancers to living the piece. So it’d be nice to do it more to be able to explore that. But well, you know…money, time, and theater stuff…

CB: Hello, funders!

RC: How was it for you to revisit? Was there music wished you had done differently? Were there things that you wanted to change? Or things that were a pleasant surprise? What was it like for you to come back to this piece?

CB: It was very emotional. Before I came to New York to do the rehearsals the week of the show, I wanted to listen and organize all the music and get it set up in Ableton Live so I’d be ready to cue it once I got there. And it was a very emotional experience to hear all of that music. And that kind of surprised me. Because it took me back to the time period where I was creating it, which was a very specific time period in my life. And the score is very personal in that it’s not just me. Lainie (my wife) sings on it. My friend Lynn Wright plays a bunch of guitar on it. My friend Daniel Kelly plays piano and the crazy organ stuff. Chris Michael who is no longer in the U.S. and who I haven’t talked to in years contributed all of this incredible Brazilian and Colombian percussion playing. And I was just kind of overwhelmed at how much time and expression was just poured into this score by very different musicians. Almost completely different musicians, people with very different backgrounds. And then myself in there. And the emotional power of the score surprised me.

(The score) is also very funny. I found myself laughing at several cues in the score maybe at the audacity of the music? The kind of punk rock aesthetic of the piece. Like the Shoe Salesmen music, like ‘Well, they’re shoe salesmen. Let’s bang a bunch of shoes together!’ It’s almost this knucklehead way of making music but it worked, you know?

And I wouldn’t change anything. Lainie and I listened to ‘The Fairy Godmother’s Song’ and she said something like “Well, I’d sing that differently now…” but we agreed immediately that we wouldn’t want to change the score.

RC: Right!

CB: We both said that. We listen to this music for what it is. And it’s beautiful.

When I bring it in, the movement and theater has changed, the performers have changed, so in a sense, the music is always changing for me. It’s in a fixed form, and I’m hitting cues…but really the music changes as a result of you all doing new things to it. It’s a very satisfying process, you know?

RC: I had the same experience kind of reliving the time we were creating all of this. Of friends and people who were involved…it was emotional. But I feel like the music itself is…I don’t know if because this is a fairy tale or if you approached it as a fairy tale the music has a certain amount of reminiscence? Because everything is a little bit familiar but…we have our own personal memories in there, but I think the music is geared that way to make you go back and think about your past. It’s sort of like a fairy tale in that it’s a story that each time you read it it’s a little bit different and becomes comfortable and familiar but sort of cherished in a way. You can keep going back to it and back to it and it doesn’t get stale.

CB: I was thinking in very concrete terms of music that people listen to in order to take themselves away from their daily life, the daily grind. And that’s maybe Cinderella’s story or the story of any character in a fairy tale who gets sick of where they’re at and they go into the woods. Because they’re hearing something, they’re dreaming of something that’s beyond their experience. And some of that music can be kind of corny. I was thinking of Les Baxter or Martin Denny, the so-called “cocktail” or lounge music of the 1950s and 60s that used “exotic” rhythms from “around the world.” And a record album would be called “Exotica,” you know? I have a Martin Denny record where the band members are all making monkey sounds and bird sounds while playing congas and piano. But I didn’t things to be kitschy or ironic. Maybe after an initial smile or whatever maybe then the music kind of gets inside you like the way blues or soul music does. I wanted there to be soul up in the music. And I’m not sure how I did that. I think part of it is staying away from sentimentality…If The Shoe Fits is about a group of people and the friendships and bonds that happen when everybody is going through a fantastic experience. Why make fun of that? There’s a lot of work in New York that’s very brash and snotty – I mean, it’s like ‘What’s the name of your new musical? It’s called F--- YOU this or F--- YOU that!’ Which is fine, I’m not against vulgar humor. But for If The Shoe Fits I wasn’t interested in being ‘cool’ or sardonic, you know? Quite the opposite.

RC: Yeah it’s definitely not a ‘cool’ show!

CB: But I want humor in there! You’ve brought out a lot of humor in my music, humor that was latent before I started working with you. I wasn’t really writing music that was funny or attached to stuff that made people laugh…

RC: But you have a sensibility…your CD Saints & Devils has a lot of humor on it even though it’s a very earnest and very serious piece there’s lightness…

CB: I think working with you specifically, with what you do, I know that is something that’s brought out more attention to and more humor in my music. I always loved laughing. But I’d never thought about creating music where people would laugh. And then everything that comes out of that, do you laugh and then start crying, do you feel something else?

The Fairy Godmother scene is a great example of that where Rebecca is holding the vacuum cleaner nozzle or a hand sweeper or whatever like it was a microphone and you hear Lainie’s (Lainie Diamond) voice and this performer is lip synching it and your brain is processing all of that. And your first reaction is just to laugh. But then that leads to something else. There’s something very wonderful about you getting on the vacuum cleaner with the Fairy Godmother and paddling offstage. There’s something very sweet about that. It’s not just a gag, you know what I mean? I think that’s a very powerful thing to think about. Maybe not while we’re creating work but afterwards. While we’re analyzing it! Like we are now! And ruining it for everyone! This is where you must laugh!

(Interview disintegrates into mutual laughter)

Thanks to Rachel Cohen and Meet the Composer.

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