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A Meeting of Strategic Minds:
Arlene Sierra’s music scores Susan Vencl’s dance

By Muriel Hanover

This week at the Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, works of London-based composer Arlene Sierra and New York choreographer Susan Vencl meld, despite their geographical distance. Uniting the two women is a similar perception of logic and the empirical in art and the creative process.

(L-R) Tomomi Imai, Morgan McManon and Jessica Ames rehearse for "Critical Junctures."

From June 21-23, 2018 at 8:00 PM at the Graham on 55 Bethune Street, Vencl Dance presents “Critical Junctures," set to the music of acclaimed composer Arlene Sierra. Choreographer Susan Vencl’s new work, “Intersections,” is set to Arlene Sierra’s "Insects in Amber," "Meditation on Violence" and "Four Love Songs,” and the dance will be preceded by a concert-style presentation of two Sierra solos. "Cricket-Viol," for singing violist, will be performed by Wendy Richman, and "Art of Lightness" for flute will be performed by Laura Cocks. The works of composer Arlene Sierra will be a through line of the evening, as they back the dance and are included as solo instrumental pieces. The dialogue between the visual and audio elements of the evening will captivate devotees of modern dance and modern classical music.

Susan Vencl

Susan Vencl, who studied philosophy, particularly the works of Plato and Kant, considers her artistic process as she choreographs to be logic-based and empirical. “I have a scientific way of approaching the creation of dances,” she says. “I gather data, and then I sort it through and try different arrangements of patterns. When something clicks and generates a lot of energy, I hold onto that.” Her interest in metaphysics and epistemology inform her creative work, leading her to create meditative works of dance.

Arlene Sierra, an American living and working in London, is a widely sought-after modern composer. She has been praised by the New York Times and the Guardian and is the winner of numerous awards and commissions by such organizations as the New York Philharmonic. She is also a pedagogue: she is a Reader in Composition at Cardiff University. Her inspirations as a composer include game theory and strategy, as well as the interaction of the elements of nature. The logical unfolding of a concept is a nexus where her work and Vencl’s meet.

In 2016, Vencl Dance performed choreography set to Arlene Sierra’s “Cicada Shell.” Their upcoming series of performances marks a return, not only to the Graham Center, but also to Sierra’s works and to the dance piece that first unfolded in 2016, “Long Before Afterward,” a work that deals with chance and randomness. Sierra’s and Vencl’s approaches to their art may be the key to the way their works, though independently created, click with each other in performance. Vencl told me, “My way of working fits in, I think, with her pieces. Her interest in these areas [of strategy and of game theory] may be a key to why the construction works so well.”

Several of Sierra’s pieces will be presented concert-style by instrumentalists in between the dance pieces. Vencl wanted to incorporate live music with no dance at all so that the audience would be “oriented towards listening” carefully. The omnipresence of Sierra’s music makes it especially important to Vencl that the audience has time to fully absorb her works and become attuned to her sounds. The composer herself chose the solo pieces of hers that are to be performed. This is not the first time Vencl is treating the audiences to Sierra’s music alone – in her 2016 performance at the Graham Center, a violin-cello duo performed Sierra’s “Avian Mirrors.”

The music that is to accompany “Intersections” feels deeply physical. Sierra’s music calls to mind struggle and freedom, movement and attempted movement. One hears in it frenzy and delicacy in turns. Voices flutter or warble, before giving ground to other voices, in an organic conversation. The texture of the sound is an ever-evolving delight; Sierra’s treatment of timbre is key to her musical writing.

Arlene Sierra. Photo by Ian Phillips-McLaren.

Sierra kindly corresponded with me digitally, to discuss her work via email. I took the opportunity to ask her about her background in dance and her music’s relation to physical movement, as well as her work with choreographers.

M.H. : You have previously discussed your interest in dance growing up. Which forms and styles of dance have most inspired you over the years? 

Arlene Sierra: First and foremost my interest in dance was through ballet, which I took as a child and have loved watching ever since. Some of the first and best 20th century orchestral scores were for also for ballet (Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy) and that connection has always been important to me. But modern was never far behind: I saw some of Martha Graham’s work with the Joffrey including an appearance she made, not long before she died (this was ca. 1990), and that was an incredible to see just as I began my composition studies. I took some dance and improv classes at Oberlin around that time too. It was Oberlin that first exposed me to modern choreography as well as modern composition, so its importance to me as a composer was profound.
M.H. : When you set out as a composer, did you foresee yourself working with choreographers or having your compositions later set to choreography?

Arlene Sierra: The classes I took at Oberlin, exploring movement both directly and then collaboratively through writing music for dance students, really opened my thinking. Writing music for dance seemed like a natural fit with the way I structure forms and incorporate rhythmic cells on multiple levels in a piece. Choreography struck me as having the potential both to reflect and expand upon my musical ideas, and in collaborations since I’ve seen this borne out in interesting ways. 

By the way, it was at Oberlin that I first worked with Jessica Ames, who is the wonderful Brooklyn-based dancer who first introduced me to Susan Vencl, and introduced her to my music! The early connections can lead to interesting places, and have for me as for so many artists.

M.H. : Many of your works, such as “Butterflies Remember a Mountain,” have an have an implicit physicality to them. (The piece is a work inspired by the physical memory of Monarch butterflies, who have a detour in their migration path that recalls a mountain that no longer exists.) In their exploration of natural phenomena and game theory or strategy, do you feel that your music lends itself especially well to concepts of space and physical movement?

Arlene Sierra: I hope so, though for me the conceptual underpinnings of music aren’t really required information for choreographers, or for even listeners actually. The decision to disclose the ideas behind a piece is, for me as a composer, a choice simply to increase the possibility of connection. But the priority is that the music suggests connections of its own, having its own impetus and its own interest as an abstract work. So far, I haven’t actually had a choreographer engage directly with the sources for my pieces - while this might be interesting for a future project, I’ve always enjoyed seeing how a choreographer can work with the music as an abstract form.

M.H. : Susan Vencl’s work has been described as mathematical, and she has studied philosophy. With your separate influences and creative tendencies, what is it like to have a choreographer develop a physical response to and dialogue with your work?

Arlene Sierra: From my conversations with Susan as well as attending rehearsals and performances of her work from 2016, I’ve seen that her ways of structuring at the micro and macro levels seems to have a natural affinity with how my music is put together. It’s fascinating to see how the dance has its own timing that works independently without music – but then it finds points of unison, repetition and dialog when the music is playing, and often when you least expect it. 

“Critical Junctures,” an evening of modern dance, will be performed on June 21, 22 and 23, 2018 at 8:00 PM at the Graham Center of Contemporary Dance on 55 Bethune Street. For more information, visit www.vencldance.org, and for tickets visit https://www.artful.ly/vencl-dance.



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