Ohne Fugue: a Choreographer’s Process

(photo from left to right: Lena, Ani, and Eva in Ohne Fugue)

Sam Feldhandler involves the dancers so deeply in his process, down to deconstructing the notes on the page, that the work takes on a whole new, and may I say fascinating, design: he wants to show, literally, the music.

Every time I have been a part of a new dance creation, the process has been similar: the choreographer comes with music already chosen (usually), has already worked with the music to whatever extent he or she is accustomed to (dancers don’t always learn to read music), and has already planned out ideas, small movement phrases, or sometimes entire dance sequences to build on. The choreographer then communicates these normally pre-determined factors to the dancers during the rehearsal process. If the choreographer is good, he will be open to the spontaneous things that happen when dancers experiment; then, it will feel like a collaboration. If he is bad, it will be a tedious surgical operation, met with resistance and lightning-quick eye rolls.

Samuel Feldhandler does not fit this description. Well, technically speaking, he does; he has chosen music, planned movement phrases, and works with the dancers who in turn execute the steps. But the major difference in Sam’s choreographic procedure is how he involves the dancers so deeply in the process, down to deconstructing the notes on the page, that the work takes on a whole new, and may I say fascinating, design: Sam wants to show, literally, the music. I visit the Lake Studios in far-east Berlin to see what that looks like.

The piece is called ohne Fugue, (without fugue). Three female dancers occupy the space. The first begins by performing a simple movement phrase, mainly by moving her arms in a clear pattern. She continues as the next dancer begins a few measures later. As the third dancer joins in, they are off, providing hints of the first musical phrase as they bend and rotate their bodies, their bare feet skidding them across the floor – before my eyes, the dancers become the music. I only register some minutes into the piece that there is no music playing.

Sam’s concept is to build a dance in the same way a composer builds a fugue, through repetitions of a basic theme – the subject – and its persisting accompaniment – the counter-subject – as they move through various harmonic changes. In ohne Fugue, a phrase of movement is the theme, which is repeated and altered by the dancers in various ways throughout the dance. Harmonic changes are determined by the dancers’ placement and relationship to one another in the space.

I notice one dancer, Eva, as she counts through her movements. Normally dancers have the music to determine their timing. In this case, they only have each other. I watch Eva more closely, trying to keep the other two dancers in my peripheral vision; they are watching each other very carefully. I see that the timing to their movements is not arbitrary. Not only is each dancer in charge of executing her own material to a designated tempo, but also of maintaining how her material is related to what the other two are doing. Watching the three dancers becomes like watching musicians rehearse; they are making the music, not dancing to it. Sam does experiment by playing various music on top of the movement, but the foundation is an already determined, silent compostion.

Creating a motif of steps on which to build upon is true of most dance makers’ processes. What is remarkable about Sam’s is how well studied and true to the musical guidelines his work is. First I see him bent over a chart, which I later learn follows the musical score of a fugue, clearly notating the timed actions of each dancer. Later I observe the dancers following the same method; they huddle in a cluster, pulling out identical charts, talking through their actions as a group. Sam even keeps time, conducting them as they mimic their motions. Maybe it’s because I just read Harry Potter, but I picture wizards huddled around a spell book; you just don’t see dancers working like this every day!

Sam’s work is also broad and ambitious. He explains to me that in addition to building a fugue, ohne Fugue also explores Bach’s use of gematria, assigning a specific letter to a number allowing music and text to have significant connections. He accomplishes hints of gematria in ohne Fugue by assigning certain letters in the alphabet to certain movement phrases – thus spelling out words.

It’s a lot of information, and not necessary, or even recommended, for the audience to keep track of all of it. I see these elements as glimmering hints into the interesting background of the choreographer, whose components work together, intertwining and changing course throughout the piece, and inarguably making the work more interesting to watch – whether we know why or not.

A musical education has been perhaps more influential than a dance education to Sam’s work. Growing up in Freiburg, his mother is a viola professor (Sylvie Altenburger), at the Freiburg Music Conservatory, and his father is a contemporary composer and percussionist (Jean-Christophe Feldhandler). (Music education is normally not a major aspect of a traditional dance training. Of course, schools recognize that musicality is essential to dance; but it is taught in a secondary way: a semester of piano lessons, or a few-week-long general music course). For Sam, a musical education has been key; if it’s any support for how an exposure to music has influenced how his brain processes information, he is trilingual, speaking French, German, and English fluently. He graduated in 2015 from the Modern Theatre Dance Department at the Conservatory of Arts in Amsterdam, where he developed a curiosity for finding ways to incorporate his musical background into his work as a dancer. And excitement for the experiment continues to draw Sam into the studio.

Despite his intellectual working method, there is an easy feeling in Sam’s rehearsals. He works with three schoolmates from Amsterdam: Anni Kaila, Eva Honings, and Lena Schattenberg. The dancers play a large part in determining what is and isn’t working in the piece. Eva asks “does it look good when I do it that fast?-” and relies on the input of the other three to decide her tempo; and when Sam is deciding whether to let an awkward-seeming leg-kick section go, Lena boldly says “maybe it could die already today.” Well, bold to me, grown up in the classical ballet world of “yes please, thank you.”

But the work remains focused and dedicated, despite the friendly exchanges. The dancers perform the first fugue section, reciting “one” repeatedly as they keep time together, counting the rest of the beats in their heads. The “ones” become louder, more breathy, and fatigued as the dancers continue. I find the moment incredibly touching. It’s not a kind of provocation toward the dancer, like asking her to sing onstage or recite text. Counting the “ones” out loud is a reflection of what happens inside the dancer all the time while she is dancing. She is constantly keeping vigil on her timing with the music (hopefully). She is exerting her body, usually with the requirement of looking as if she is not. And she is sacrificing a piece of herself in order to give something to the audience.

I am very interested to follow Sam as he continues to find his own choreographic voice. I consider his open collaborative process and remarkable grasp on complex musical ideas, with his ability to transform them into approachable visual sensations, a very positive approach toward dance making. Even though plenty of significant dance work will continue to be made without such a process, it’s the kind of thing that is worth taking note of.

(first posted on 12/23/2015)

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