Dancing about Music

Today I saw Fraulein Maria, Doug Elkin’s wonderful modern dance interpretation of The Sound of Music. It’s very “downtown” where the original wasn’t, hip and irreverent, sexy and knowing, yet it captures much of the essence of why we continue to love TSoM, the sheer over-the-top ecstasy of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece.

What I found most striking was what Elkin had his dancers do with “Do-Re-Mi”. Each of the seven notes was given a different dance motif. As the notes were combined, first in simple scales, then in complex melodies, the dancers proceeded to assemble an entire dance vocabulary, an exciting new visual grammar, right before our eyes. Watching this piece brought me back to the feeling of wonder within the original song, that sense I’d had when I was about six years old, watching “Do-Re-Mi” for the first time, that the mysteries of melody itself were being revealed to me. Did you have that feeling when you first saw it? I had completely forgotten that memory until I saw this performance, and suddenly it all came rushing back to me.

It’s so wonderfully synaesthetic to be shown a link between melody as grammar and dance as grammar, in such an entertaining and accessible way. I find myself thinking about other artists who have created these kinds of cross-referencing performances. Basil Twist did it in 1998 with his abstract puppet show of Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique:

The entire symphony was visualized by long colorful swatches of cloth suspended in a giant water tank, puppeteered in time to Berlioz’ music. What I love about this piece is that it shows that it’s possible to have non-figurative puppetry; puppetry not as character acting, but as pure visual music.

Which leads us back in time to Oskar Fischinger, whose abstract paintings and animations, starting in 1921, explored the possibility of pure visual music:

Eventually James and John Whitney, with works like Lapis, as well as other artist/researchers, began to use computers to explore these possibilities in new ways:

Eventually, animation as visual music grew into a large and well-established genre. Try doing a Google search on “visual music” and you’ll see what I mean.

Arguably Piet Mondrian and other De Stijl artists were exploring similar territory by trying to get to a pure grammar of visual representation with works like Broadway Boogie Woogie:

Each of these artists invites us to think about some visual genre, whether it be dance, puppetry, animation or painting, as a kind of music. When I see such things I feel as though I am being invited in to join the fun, to find new ways to see the music in things.

Can anybody think of other genres where something like this has been done?

2 Responses to “Dancing about Music”

  1. Bern says:

    Jean Cocteau’s Blood of the Poet is an example of cross-referencing dance, poetry, painting and film in silence and sound. There is incidental music added by Georges Auric, but even without the incidental music, Cocteau evokes a visual lyric, an erotic musicality. Many of the early avante-garde filmmakers achieved this, even without music. Leger’s Ballet Mechanic or Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon….Just watch these movies and you can start writing your own music to them.

  2. manooh says:

    First thought (nothing to do with music, though): the Turing Train Terminal
    (http://www.monochrom.at/turingtrainterminal), my favorite work by David Moises (http://davidmoises.com). Very creative and friendly guy.

    Second thought: During a workshop at university we were asked to do something very cool: We had to visualize a song of our choice on a piece of paper (which was done in amazingly different ways). Then the visualizations were shuffled and each of us got one – whithout knowing the song – and had to create a piece of music to it. I loved it 🙂

    One word to “Sound of Music”: the interesting thing about it is that it’s so well-known all around the (English speaking) world, but not in Austria. The first time I (an Austrian) heard of it was during a trip to the UK. I have seen the movie once, by accident, which was last year..

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