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Q & A: Fernandez to stage Cage dance for composer’s centennial

Sunday, April 8, 2012
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Skidmore advanced dance students perform choreographer Debra Fernandez's "Keeping Company with Cage," a reference to the John Cage music that drives the dance. (photo: Jillian Smith)
Skidmore advanced dance students perform choreographer Debra Fernandez's "Keeping Company with Cage," a reference to the John Cage music that drives the dance. (photo: Jillian Smith)

— Choreographer Debra Fernandez was operating on instinct when she considered restaging her John Cage-inspired dance.

Then she discovered that the spring production of “Keeping Company with Cage” would coincide with the centennial of the composer’s birth.

It’s almost as if chance, one of Cage’s favorite compositional devices, was in perfect play. Or perhaps it was serendipity.

Either way, the chair of the Skidmore College dance department is thrilled to restore the work with her original collaborators — pianist David Porter and visual artist Margo Mensing.

“This past fall, David played the Cage piece in the Zankel,” Fernandez, 59, said of the prepared piano piece, “Sonatas and Interludes.” “It sounded amazing in there. We had to do it. It’s such a wild and amazing piece.”

‘Keeping Company with Cage’

WHERE: Arthur Zankel Music Center, Ladd Concert Hall, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 15

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 580-5321 or cms.skidmore.edu/zankel

The trio first worked with the Cage music in 2000 at the grand opening of Skidmore’s Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. It was a zany, interactive experience for the audience, who followed maps through the galleries and made and fed each other toast as they traveled along. This time, said Fernandez, a Saratoga Springs resident, the dance will be a contemplative response to the music, which will saturate the concert hall.

Q: Aside from the audience sitting in the seats rather than wandering around, what other differences will there be in the dance this time around?

A: It’s more sparse. I call it “relaxed listening.” The dancers are in chairs on stage and they watch each other perform and watch David play the music on this piano that is transformed by rubber bands, screws, erasers.

I wanted to keep it visually interesting and be about the music, which is extremely beautiful. I didn’t want to force anyone's attention, to look in one spot. They can watch the dancers or David and not miss anything.

The music is so open and free, and leads us to use our imagination.

Q: The dance is connected to Cage’s interest in Zen and “I Ching.” Could you explain that?

A: I was inspired by the Zen notion of formal rigor and informal mind. It’s a complex dance, put together like a Rubik’s cube. So it’s formal, but it lets your mind go where it wants to go.

Q: You are also exposing the large, upstage windows that look out on the campus. How are you using them?

A: I didn’t want it to look like a dance on a concert stage. I divided it into three parts. The first part, you will see the partial outdoors. In the second part, the outdoors will be closed off and in the third part, you’ll see the entire outdoors. The trees will be lit beautifully.

Q: David Porter will obviously be playing the music. What is Margo Mensing’s involvement?

A: Margo is doing the sound design called “Moratorio,” which is a reference to Cage’s “Roaratorios.” The sound design will be in the lobby when you first come in. There will be a compilation of hundreds of voice recordings of John Cage’s writing that you will hear on speakers and radios that will broadcast the sound. Margo wanted to use radios because Cage loved radios and collected them.

Everyone will also be given a QR code that they can scan on their phone so they can listen to the sound design outside or later if they like. The back of the program will have 64 QR codes that you can scan to listen to later. It’s really cool and will get the audience in the mood to listening and seeing the piece.

Q: For many, Cage is tough listening. What is it about the music that you like?

A: At first, it’s so different. There is no melody. It’s not like listening to a normal song. But after working with it for two months, you do start to hear like a melody. You recognize each piece. If you let yourself go, it envelops you and puts you into a world of different sounds. I’m excited by it.

Q: Did you re-create the entire work or is it borrowed from the original dance, “TangO?”

A: Two sections are from the original, but the rest of it is new for this group of advanced dancers I’m working with here at Skidmore. I wanted to honor these dancers by giving them a fresh experience.

Q: Is this the kind of experience you want to share with the dancers at Skidmore?

A: Yes. I want them to perform more. They performed with Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce in March. And I’m hoping to have them appear at the Inside/Out Festival at Jacob’s Pillow.

But I also want dancers to feel supported and encouraged.

The first time I ever walked into a dance class was at college, the University of South Florida. When I did, I knew I was home. And I worked my tail off to become a dancer. But I was able to do it because I had teachers who helped me succeed. That’s what I want to do for the dancers here — so those who never dreamed of dancing can.

 
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