Break on through to the other side

Melanie Maar tries to make the invisible visible in Phenomenal Bodies.

FEEL THE MUSIC Marr and Nagai show their Phenomenal Bodies.

Photograph: Ian Douglas

Melanie Maar is a rarity—a dancer and choreographer from Europe who has willingly chosen to live and work in the less affluent arts climate of New York. She began her training at the age of six under the tutelage of her mother in Vienna (the dance studio was located in the family home). There, she studied ballet and flamenco. "You know how it is with family," she says over tea in her Bedford-Stuyvesant loft that doubles as a dance studio. "It was great training until I was 12 or 13. Puberty hit and then it was terrible. I had a lot to rebel against."

In Phenomenal Bodies, which will be shown as part of a shared program with San Francisco artist Keith Hennessy this weekend at Dance Theater Workshop, Maar explores the possibilities of live performance, drawing on her early experiences as a flamenco dancer; her current study of neuroscience; and something she's delved into in her recent choreographic adventures: the daring act of denying any form of self-censorship. In one recent work, for example, she gave birth to a small jade stone. "It's so hard to push it out," she recalls, eyes widening. "You don't have to hold it in; it wants to stay in."

Her new Phenomenal Bodies, for Mariangela Lopez, Marilyn Maywald and herself, is driven by the rhythm of dancing. "The piece began with my interest in music and dance," she says. "I love music. I think the connection is very special and I wanted to explore it in a new way. What does it means to me?" But while she has enlisted Kenta Nagai, a Japanese composer and guitarist who moves with an all-consuming abandon as he plays his instrument, Maar isn't exactly referring to conventional sound. "It's the dance that is beyond the seen body," she explains, "where something remains in the air even after the performer leaves the stage."

Maar hopes to take the idea of live performance—notably the relationship between music and dance—to an extreme place. "I want to invite the audience to this moment of liveness," Maar says. "Perception is an active act. I want to share it, and I want the performers to be as connected to the audience as it is to us. I don't want to make a dance in a bubble that I could put anywhere. I want there to be a sense of visibility, but the question I have is: How can you be honest and visible with a dance that you've made prior to a performance? I don't know! I'm trying."

In essence, Maar is exploring less a pattern of movement than an overall impression of it; the idea is to find the meeting point between invisible dance and invisible sound. In that sense, Phenomenal Bodies isn't about what you see or hear, but its afterimage. "Kenta also produces invisible sound," Maar says. "There is the sound from his guitar of course, but when you see him move, you can hear a sound that is not from the instrument. It isn't that the sound makes him move; he makes the sound move. What captured me about working with him is this idea that my body, as a dancer, creates this invisible music, and his movement creates music." She laughs. "To force Kenta to be still is punishment and a waste of beauty."

Maar first saw Nagai perform at the Chocolate Factory last spring as part of "Team One by AUNTS," a showcase of three artists selected by a curatorial team. Soon after, they improvised together at one of Nagai's shows. "It was great, and it also felt very familiar to me," she says. "I'm used to the connection of musicians and dancers from my flamenco training. There's tremendous power and equality between the dancers and musicians. There's no need to overpower or to reject it—they work together, they respect each other. I'm not going to do flamenco in this piece, but the essence of flamenco attracts me: It's like Phenomenal Bodies is my new version of exploring that."

As in flamenco, Maar has found that there are unplanned moments of synchronization, which stem, she believes, from the way she approaches the two forms. "I'm looking at the relationship from a more abstract level that has to do with consciousness," she says. Alongside that, Maar ponders all the normal questions: Is the music dominating the dance? Is Nagai accompanying the performers? Is it true exchange? "But the key to this whole rehearsal process," she adds, "has been a practice of listening to the sounds that are from within. That's what it takes to enter this realm of spontaneous synchronization, where you can't overthink or be overly self-conscious. I have no demands on how this piece is going to turn out, good or bad. I have demands on staying as truthful as I can to these ideas: I know that it's a sensation that I want to follow."

Melanie Maar is at Dance Theater Workshop Thu 2--Sat 4.

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