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Arts Mixtape

Philip W. Sandstrom


A children's folk song animates a dance made in silence.

Nelly van Bommel, choreographer, who was recently named among Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch," is a French native of Dutch descent. Working from a base of structured improvisation and drawing from multiple cultures and dance forms, she uses elements of the folk dance, traditional music, and the dance theater idiom, to help reveal the human condition and the relationships between people with intimate portrayals of couples, families and communities. Her work, which blends music with movement, cements a visceral bond that provides an insight into the origins of the dance/music co-dependence.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

"Pinguli, Pinguli" (2011) choreographed by Nelly van Bommel, set to music by celebrated Greek singer Savina Yannatou. Performed by Roseann Baker, Sarah Bodley, Breegan Kearney, Mary Page Nance,Sarah Oppenheim, Kathryn Rhodes, Sarah Stanley, Joseph Wamp, and Lucy Wilson.
Performances Apr 18-19, 2012 Wed-Thu / 7:30 PM
Tickets: $20 / 866 811 4111 (https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/896885)
Baryshnikov Arts Center, Howard Gilman Performance Space, 450 W. 37th Street,?New York, NY 10018
Interview with Nelly van Bommel by Philip W. Sandstrom on April 14, 2012

Philip Sandstrom: Let's start with the title. What do the words, Pinguli, Pinguli mean and what are their origins?

Nelly van Bommel: It's doesn't mean anything in particular, it's Italian; it's a nursery song. I'm using (traditional) music from the Mediterranean region, for this specific work, sung by Savina Yannatou, a Greek singer who is very famous for singing traditional folk songs with new jazz arrangements; he's very present in the World Music scene. I'm using a collection of [his] songs and melodies of the Mediterranean; some from Greece, some from Israel, some from Italy, Spain, and France. This specific tune is entitled "Pinguli, Pinguli".

PS: And you're using that tune?

NB: And I'm using that tune and it became the title of the piece; mostly for the sound effect, the fact that the words are repeated twice. It (the title) really has no meaning (within the dance) for me it's a sound, a color.

PS: Since we're talking sound, what's the dances relationship to the music?

NB: I am someone who is very interested in music and movement working together. So, in that way I have a pretty traditional take on musicality and dance. And although I don't usually start the process with music, in this specific case, [this is the third time that she is using Savina Yannatou's music], I chose the various tunes (of Yannatou's) I was interested in working with so the piece is really a celebration of dance and music together. So the music is very important it ties the piece together. I play around to how to dance to that music, sometimes I dance to the music in the manner of folk dances, using tempo and rhythm etc. and sometimes I take a contemporary approach to it.

PS: Now that we're on to how the pieces are made, let's talk about where you start. Do you start with the music and then create steps from there? And once you start how do you proceed?

NB: Usually I don't start with the music. Usually the movement process is silence. I listen to a lot of music ahead of time, all the time even when I'm not creating something new. I listen, I listen, I listen, and it stays in my internal library for awhile. I start the (dance making) process in the studio, I start with movement first, for a long time, then I bring some (music) options and I try to put the movement ideas that we have developed with the music. I make my selection and then I try to match the two (music and dance) together.

PS: What is the movement process? Where do you begin making steps?

NB: It depends who I'm working with, if I'm working with my company of dancers; we usually have a very collaborative process, it's often based upon improvisation. Sometimes (the ideas are) created (on the spot) or (they are based upon) a variation of some material that I bring (into the studio). That's usually the way we start, you know, we playing around.

PS: When you say based on improvisation what sort of impetus do you give the dancers to work around?

NB: It's highly directed improvisations, either around a movement quality, a texture, a theme; I follow my intuition. Depending upon where we rehearse and the temperature of that day, (it has an affect); I start from something simple like that.

PS: Let's say I'm your dancer, I come into the studio, what sort of instruction do you give me I we can begin?

NB: I might give you an improvisational task, such as: try to develop movement that is generated through your right hip. People start to move around and from there, I can make them draw shapes with their hips, or bring the hip up to the sky, or down to the floor. It (the movement ideas) comes from body mechanics and representations. For this specific piece, because it's the third time, the third piece I've made using a musical atmosphere, I have been exploring some themes such as family, male and female relationships in a traditional point of view. I am very interested in folk music and people, and in general, cultures; sometimes some of the improvisations are based on those ideas. So, some of the improvisation instructions are (based on these cultural themes); I would define the roles of some of the dancers.

PS: For example?

NB: For example, an individual versus the group; one of the dancers must continually try to go through [push through the crowd] everybody else while their chore is to become an obstacle (for the pushing dancer).

PS: It sounds like your dancers are extremely important to your process, would you talk about how you choose your dancers? And who are they?

NB: I have never run a formal audition, in the classical manner, most of the dancers I am currently working with I met in a workshop context or I know them from school at Purchase College (NY). [She is currently on faculty at SUNY Purchase College.] I see all the dancers coming in (to go to school there) and after they graduate I ask them to dance with me. Some I've been working with since they have been freshmen (in college).

PS: Consequently, these former students understand your process?

NB: They do. I'm really looking for collaborators, they are all very different but what they all have common is they are very creative. They are good at trying things; they are highly intelligent doers with a true personality. They are very inspiring.

PS: You chose dancer who are comfortable with your methodology; do you look for any other characteristics to mix and match to get a diversity of movement technique? And what would be an example of that?

NB: Yes, I'm interested in people who are comfortable with my process, but I'm also looking for people with a technical background that makes them versatile and can easily move from one style to another. They all must be strong technical dancers that are young but work beyond the steps, they really have a true and unique way to execute the steps.

PS: How did you determine the number of dancers for this piece?

NB: Some times I have five dancers, sometimes nine, I have a group of people that I work with but they are not all involved in all of the projects. There is a flow, some people I've been working with for a long time, but some of those dancers are working with other people (choreographers) as well and are not always available for my projects.

PS: Did you have a certain number in mind for this piece?

NS: For this piece, yes, this piece started as a residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in the summer of 2011; I had 10 dancers involved at the time. 10 is a good number for me; it's a pretty large group but it's still intimate, and a lot of my work deals with that. 10 is good, but for this dance we have nine, because one of the dancers is touring a lot right now and she was not available.

PS: Your dancers are your movement collaborators; do you have others in the visual field?

NB: On this project we are working with the costume designer, Juliet Shore, but, there is not any other visual elements, other than traditional lighting design.

PS: Nice gig at the BAC (Baryshnikov Arts Center); how did you get this particular opportunity?

NB: We were offered this residency…

PS: Did you apply?

NB: No, we didn't apply. I did [was a part of] a festival about four years ago at Symphony Space, one of those multiple festivals, a very long show with lots of people on the bill. Lisa Rinehart [former ballerina and long-time partner of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and mother to three of his children] was in the audience, she saw my work there, we didn't really meet. She came to see more of my work [choreography] at Purchase College, and that's how it started. More people saw the work and I was offered this residency. I did (presented a piece on) their (BAC) gala this fall, where I presented the first version of this piece as a work-in-progress.

PS: What was the totality of the residency?

NB: We got two weeks with a lot of hours during the day; it's absolutely incredible to work in the same space for that many days, instead of travelling between studios, it's a comfort. I got more studio space in the fall, not as part of a residency, to keep working on the piece. Last week, I also had an additional week as well to finish the piece.

PS: Back to the dance; what do you hope the audience will take away when they leave the theater after watching your dance?

NB: I hope they will have a little bit of happiness in their heart. It sounds a little naive but I did it [made the dance] in the healing power of the art in general. It's a piece about people; I'm really interested in reaching out to a large audience. My topics of interest are very people oriented. I am very interested in the cultural aspect of dance; what links people together. Where everyone is getting up together and dancing; it's the joy of dancing, it's unifying.

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