2 Nov

Below we have a guest blog from Keila Cordova, Artistic Director of keila cordova dances/3 pony show and an American Corner delegate to the 2014 Tanzmesse.

I don’t think it’s any late breaking news to say that it takes a great deal of effort to be a working dance artist in the United States; or that conferences like Internationale Tanzmesse are very special indeed. Not unlike a mystery box, the magic is all in what you make of it. So I arrived that Wednesday morning in Düsseldorf with plans to hit the road running; but jetlag ruled and I rested up for the first main event: opening night…

Rule #1 of Tanzmesse: Don’t show up late to the theater – or even just on time for performances at the theater. Get there seriously early to be able to get in the doors as soon as you can. I am reminded that this is the rule of general seating. Make yourself even more popular: bring extra scarves and jackets to stake out seats for friends, collaborators and colleagues. Impress everyone with your Tanzmesse savvy. This is what I didn’t do on the night of the first show at Capital Theater. Distracted by a lovely conversation with the producer of a UK dance company (and the practical needs of finding a ladies room), I ran into the Capital following the hordes of well-dressed, multi-lingual dance fans. I would soon come to learn that this would be the rule of all my days at Tanzmesse: how dialogue and direct engagement with people would constantly challenge being able to stick to performance schedules!

You can always tell how important an event is by counting how many people speak and introduce each other before the main programming begins. This evening, no less than five important local dignitaries representing the municipality and the dance/art world respectively spoke. I’m impressed by how dance is woven together with the city municipality. There’s no question of the integral value of dance to the community. How beautiful is that?

“It’s so great to be here to welcome all of you, to see so many people here who dedicate their lives – or at least part of their lives – to dance.”

“Open your heart to see dance, to talk about dance.“

“Everything started in 1994.”

“We enjoy very much hosting the global dance world.”

“11 venues, 60 companies, 160 booths, 58 countries, 500 plus dance companies.”

“Congratulations to all of us.”

“Decades long sponsorship.”

“It’s incredible how many people are here.”

“It is a place of meeting and communication.”

“Dance has a special history in the Rhineland/Westphalia area.”

“How do we prepare future generations for dance?”

Rule # 2 of Tanzmesse: Always aim to sit on an aisle seat for access. My seat selection (chosen in a fury of uncertainty) is of course not on the aisle, but still it’s much better than I initially thought. Ballet Preljocaj’s Empty moves (parts I, II & III), selected to open Tanzmesse, is beautiful, technically challenging and, in dance time, an infinity. By the end, many have moved on, leaving behind a still packed theater. It is, in part, a matter of endurance, which makes me lean in to study: After a pattern established over a long period of time, the dynamic shifts where the female dancers hoist the guys over their bodies. It’s temporary, and the women come back both strong and graceful.  I distill the cast into a shorthanded iconography: Red shirt boy wears underwear with stars. Bruce Lee boy wears green underwear. Yellow Laker girl wears striped boy short undies. Front-and-back duck underwear girl wears a pale blue tee.

Strong dancers. Powerhouse technique. The lighting is beautiful, pure, clear, uncomplicated. It doesn’t change. Lit stillness, it contrasts with the dynamism of the dancers. Bessie Schoenburg pops into my head with all her curious probing questions about the rhythms of dance and why we do things for certain lengths of time.

Now a dancer walks off to get a water bottle for the second time. You hear the hecklers seize the mic in John Cage’s driven recorded performance. Is the company tempting us all to seize the stage? What would we all do with it? With time invested, I think we’re all a part of the work and are most challenged by our own stillness as the dancers are amped, running and aerobic, while John Cage drives the machine, drives us all.

How to end this sprawling adventure? I feel the audience appreciating the comfy high back chairs, looking forward to the next opportunity to chat, eat and drink. I sense that they will relish life more fully after this evening. The dancers are sweat drenched. They are using the ground to pull their bodies forward. More than once I see the end in this formation, or that accumulation. At one point, I hallucinate that I am responsible for cueing the dancers as to when the work will end and I incorrectly transposed the numbers out of order: and so they keep on dancing, waiting for that cue. Here it is. The dancers pick their dot markers back up from off the floor and that is the sign I had been looking for all along…

Like a theater-hopping Cinderella on a mission, I inhale a bratwurst and hop onto a bus to the next assignment, barely making it to the 1030PM show for Anton Lachky at Schauspielhaus. It’s great to contrast two shows structured similarly in simplicity: both with four dancers and a stripped down stage. Whereas Preljocaj came with strong formalism: theme and variation juxtaposed against John Cage with his hecklers – Lachky came with daring, the beauty of awkwardness. One dancer was a blend of the physical comedy of Danny Kaye and the Broadway showmanship of tapper James Cagney. There was speed, humor and alacrity for spontaneity within form. These two shows in one evening: an unexpectedly well designed menu. And there is the beginning and end of it, no? Cage vs. Classics. Technique vs. Attack. Endurance vs. Relative brevity.

My artist take away from opening night? Don’t be afraid to relish a movement, to stay with an idea. Be free to break from it. Never end just to end. Always consider the possibilities…

Inside the mystery box, the days pick up speed and momentum. Tough choices; you can’t see everything. You can’t do everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t lose weight on this trip. I eat an amazing breakfast at the hotel each day and then immediately go running about without much time to think about food. I am a dance ascetic!

I’m attracted to things that are just directly themselves. You feel it and you see it because it’s there. Surprised at the emotion, seeing Kyle Abraham’s Pavement at Forum Leverkusen in the shadow of Ferguson, MO: to see a black body lying on the floor, to watch young men in the prime of their lives moving, then being stilled and taken out of power and action. It is a powerfully distilled choreographic statement. I am reminded of the significance of dance’s ability to speak of the unspeakable. Bodies hold meaning; transmit the pain of a generation.

Arrive at the massive Kunsthalle Düsseldorf to see Ben J. Riepe Kompanie’s Der letzte Schrei – 2. Edition – artists are alive. The museum is a blank slate of possibilities. A female performer individually announces audience members as we walk up the staircase, as if we’re arriving at a grand ball. And so it begins: performers draped throughout the lower gallery in a palette of ever-shifting vignettes as the audience moves in and out through the space at their own pace, becoming a part of the movement of the work. Each performer is their own rotating stream of characters and costume changes. The audience maintains a respectful distance, as if gazing at paintings.

I walk to the upper gallery and find that the two galleries really aren’t separate. I find performers wearing finely tailored face-covering suits in a houndstooth pattern, covering every inch of their bodies like body paint. I turn to look down on the scenes below from the open balcony. It’s impossible to capture everything. We are to expect what we choose to expect, as the performers stretch the boundaries of form, exploding the senses with sound, song, a constant flow of movement throughout the spaces, chairs (not for us), an ever shifting focusing lens, and even a deer. We walk out of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf to a soft rain and the freedom to find our way home. What a treat the next day to run into one of the central performers from Ben J Riepe Kompanie while waiting to enter La Veronal’s performance. I get the chance to informally chat with her about my experience. She seems flattered the way dancers often don’t realize just how good they are at what they do.

Walking thru the exhibition halls at the NRW Forum für Kultur und Wirtschaft, I am stopped by a young woman and asked to create a dance phrase while she videotapes me for a project. Between the booth walls, there isn’t much room, but I improvise, of course; just like my new tote bag says: Seit Ich Tanze Improvisiere Ich! (Since I dance I improvise!) The bag: a takeaway item from the booth for the Palucca University of Dance in Dresden: a great memento from a great conversation there about dance education in Germany and the United States.

Friday’s performance journeys are more localized: no need for shuttle buses today. This is oddly very exciting. So of course it is on this less-traveled day that I lose my badge. Retracing my steps, I don’t find it on the street or in the last theater. With a little bit of anonymity I walk from the hotel to the tanzhaus to see Moving Borders’ Nosotros. The house lights go down and the four male dancers claim the stage. In fact, they take over the entire theater and the audience takes notice. Now the frame of four dancers on a neutral stage becomes the tableux where the icons of lucha libre, video games, male pattern violence, friendship; incessant humor and unexpected emotion sew the work together. The performers build a surprisingly compelling arc without dropping the ball once: we are all in the game. (Postscript: unexpected angels find my badge and return it to me.)

Attending a panel discussion on dance and community, I listen to different acts of community activism from all over the globe, and find out about a conference in Cardiff, Wales coming up in November called People Dancing: the first international event from the Foundation for Community Dance, dedicated to all forms of participation in dance, and socially engaged arts practice. I’m ready to board the plane already.

Talk, talk, talk, I’ve learned so very much in this talking. There’s the Finnish choreographer, passionate about making a social difference. There’s the French musician living in the UK who began by helping his friend, a Vietnamese-American choreographer with his shows; and here he was now at Tanzmesse as a producer for that same dance company. I have a great conversation with an American dancer about his career, his family and about the art of “smizing.” I make friendships that feel like they enter the bones of our kindred spirits.

Everyone talking about dance and how they do what they do: I never grow tired of all the talking. Tired? This is energizing! And getting to know fellow American delegates from all over the U.S. who I wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to meet: sharing and learning with and from them. No words are wasted at Tanzmesse. Every conversation gives me something, even if only a smile and a laugh. My ability to have all those conversations is golden. The mystery box of Internationale Tanzmesse closes, but I’m still challenged to push beyond geographic borders of the mind, body and the dancing soul.



Keila Cordova grew up writing stories and watching her mother dance in Panama before migrating to California, where she was both a gymnast and a cheerleader. She soon began creating movement work of her own and went on to study at the University of California, Berkeley where she majored in Rhetoric and studied Modern Dance under the direction of David and Marnie Wood, former dancers with the Martha Graham Company. Cordova is a choreographer, performer and writer whose work has been performed at Judson Church, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, New York City at Aaron Davis Hall, the Cool NY Dance Festival, the Solar One Arts Festival, Dixon Place, the Boogie Down Dance Festival, BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Art & Dance), the D.U.M.B.O. Arts Festival, Spanic Attack, Clement Soto Velez Center, the HERE Arts Center, Mulberry Street Theater, as well as the Kelly Strayhorn’s newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival (Pittsburgh, PA), Celebrate Dance Festival (San Diego, CA), Outlet Dance Project at the Grounds for Sculpture (Hamilton, NJ), Sweat Modern Dance Festival (Hoboken, NJ), the Around the Coyote Festival (Chicago) and the Toronto Dance Fringe (fFIDA).  Cordova has received artistic support with the Funds for New Work awards from Aaron Davis Hall, a commission from the Greenwall Foundation and the International Center for Advanced Studies; artist residency awards from the Constance B. Saltonstall Foundation, The Millay Colony, Norcroft, as well as an Audre Lorde Fellowship. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School and has taught movement workshops in Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta.


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