September 02, 2010

Kelly Knox, associate professor of theatre and dance

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Kelly Knox, an associate professor of theatre and dance at Bucknell University, talks about Bucknell Forum speaker and celebrated choreographer Twyla Tharp, as well as the other top people and trends in dance today. || Ask the Experts archive

Q: The campus is looking forward to Twyla Tharp's talk as part of the Bucknell Forum on Sept. 14. What do you consider to be her most significant contributions to dance and choreography?

A: Twyla Tharp revolutionized dance by crossing the previously defined boundaries between the genres and integrating movement vocabulary from all types of dance in her choreography. Previously the dance world had distinct aesthetic and philosophical divisions between ballet, modern, jazz and especially postmodern dance, which was prevalent when Tharp came onto the scene.

Twyla Tharp blurred the lines between these forms and simply gave us great dance that incorporated all kinds of movement. Her work combines the everyday movements explored in post-modernism with the grounded, emotionally engaging movements of modern, the coolness of jazz, and the graceful pyrotechnics of ballet. By not limiting herself to one style, she makes choreography that is both recognizable and astonishing.

Q: What does that look like, and how has it affected audiences?

For example, in one instant we see the dancer run his hand through his hair, chew gum or throw his jacket over his shoulder and then break into an indescribable, gravity-defying leap that drops to the ground and rebounds into an off-balance pirouette the next. Her choreography has a way of making dance approachable with its casualness and yet mind-blowing with its impossible virtuosity.

In addition, Tharp popularized dance, making it more accessible to a mass audience. Not only did she inject a sense of humor into an art form, whether classical or modern dance, that considered itself quite high-minded, but she also frequently choreographed virtuosic concert dance to popular music. She has created dynamic and technically demanding dances to the music of the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Jelly Roll Morton and Billy Joel. A wider audience became interested in dance because the music was familiar while the dance that accompanied it was surprising.

Tharp's musical intelligence allows us to experience the songs physically. We can literally feel the exhilaration of her dynamic movement accompanying songs that resonate on a personal and cultural level.

Q: You've studied Twyla Tharp and read a great deal about her. Is there something, perhaps, you've always wanted to ask her?

A: I would love to ask her about the influence of dancers in the creative process. Traditionally, the choreographer would create and demonstrate steps in her work, and it was the dancers' job to execute those steps brilliantly. Nowadays, choreographers often work more collaboratively, assigning dancers tasks that allow for creative interpretations and responses to what the choreographer is building. The movement that is generated is influenced more by the individual dancers who then have a significant impact on the creative process. There's a give and take, and I'm so curious what that give and take is for her. Since Twyla Tharp works with some of the best dancers on the planet, I would ask her how their technical and artistic abilities influence her work.

But instead of talking to her, I would just really want to watch her working in a studio because dance comes alive when it's experienced. It's something you see and something you engage in. So, instead of talking, I'd just want to be a fly on the wall. "Can I just watch?" It would be amazing to see her in action.

Q: Who would you consider to be some of the top choreographers today?

A: This is a complex question to answer because it depends on who you ask and what style of dance you're talking about. Obviously, Twyla Tharp is one, especially because she's worked in film, on Broadway and with major ballet and modern companies, so she transverses many realms.

Some of the more recent artists that work specifically with ballet companies include Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied. Unfortunately, a lot of our greats have died - Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine are long gone, and I don't see that there is anyone in America creating the bodies of work that will become classics, although time will tell. Some of the best ballet choreographers, in my opinion, work in Europe — Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato and Mats Ek — but few would categorize their work as ballet.

In modern, and as a modern dancer, those that I consider great today have been around a long time and they're still at the top of their game. People like Mark Morris with his wit and musicality, Bill T. Jones with his poignant social justice pieces, and Doug Varone's captivating movement chaos. Shen Wei, a Chinese artist, has his own modern dance company based in New York City. His movement is luscious and vivid, he creates beautiful images, and he has a company of eclectic dancers that are all incredible. (See more with Knox on this topic in the video at the right.)

Q: What trends do you see emerging in dance today?

A: One of the biggest trends that I've been seeing is the use of multimedia, especially computer graphics and technology to enhance choreography. Many companies are incorporating the use of projection and computer graphics to create stunning visual effects and to stretch the capacity of the human body.

Of course, one of the first to integrate the use of technology in dance was Merce Cunningham, one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century and an artistic pioneer on so many levels. He was using a computer program called "Lifeforms" to help create the dancers' movements in his choreography long before the use of such technology was commonplace in our society, let alone in dance. Now in dance, it is common to find the use of cutting-edge technology as a partner to the choreography. Think of Shen Wei's memorable piece for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in which the movement of the dancers was recorded in calligraphic strokes on a huge LCD screen. Last year the Australian company, Chunky Move, toured to New York with a performance where the dancers triggered lights, sound and computer-generated images. The effect was beyond the body. It was an expanded kinesthetic experience.

New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. If you have ideas for future questions or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn.

To learn more about faculty and staff experts who can speak on a variety of news topics, visit Bucknell's searchable Experts Guide.

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