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Winter 2001

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A tangoed web
Art takes to the stage, walls, and halls

by Mae G. Banner

     Sometimes, it takes more than two to tango. It took nearly two dozen Skidmore faculty, students, alumni, and guest artists to create “A Satie/Cage Tango,” a multimedia experiment that was funky and inventive in equal measure. A blend of music, dance, visual art, readings, and audience participation, the “tango” was performed at the college’s Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in November.

Dancers bob and weave hypnotically, captured by disposable cameras that were supplied to dozens of audience members.

     It was former president David Porter, a pianist (and shameless punster), who set the Tang-o spinning, according to Mary DiSanto-Rose, director of the dance program. He proposed a performance of Erik Satie and John Cage piano works with dance choreographed by DiSanto-Rose and colleague Debra Fernandez. DiSanto-Rose created urbane vignettes for Satie’s “Sports and Divertissements,” while Fernandez choreographed off-center phrases and episodes for Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.” Porter prepared the piano for the Cage work by inserting some eighty objects—screws, bolts, pieces of plastic and rubber—between its strings.

     Says Fernandez, “The prepared piano has a chimy, bell-like sound. The music has a trance-like, meditative feeling.” To create the dance, she says, “we listened to the music, responded by making movement phrases, and then chose random combinations of the phrases for the dancers to perform.” The dancers slowly folded and spun near the piano, down the hallways, up the staircase, among the audience…. In fact, the audience became an element of the dance, as viewers were encouraged to walk around and through the performance. Fernandez’s dancers included eight Skidmore students, visiting artist-in-residence Yoel Cassell, and professional dancers Julie Gedalecia ’97 and Melissa Ngirailemesang (a special student at Skidmore in the ’90s). Actor Phil Ristaino ’93 also joined the proceedings in the role of museum handyman.

     Cage (1912-92) was a great fan of the French composer Satie (1866-1925), whose work opened the Tang event. The printed program for Satie’s witty fragments of music and poetry included Cage’s translation of the Satie poems describing such diversions as hunting, yachting, dancing, and flirting. Before each vignette, French professor John Anzalone read the original text aloud with a flair that added another layer to this French Napoleon pastry. Still another layer was formed by slide projections of prints by artist and fashion illustrator Charles Martin. As Anzalone explained, “Satie made a book of his music and words that was published in 1919. Only fifty copies have Martin’s plates, done in a process called pochoir, a stenciling medium that was popular at the start of the twentieth century.” Porter owns a copy of this rare artist’s book and lent it to the college for the event.

     The Satie performance might have been an afternoon on the Riviera with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda. Dressed in Art Deco–style tennis whites by local costumer Kim Vanyo, five dancers skimmed and floated through sophisticated duets, trios, and ensembles, at times seeming to emerge from among their painted counterparts projected on the screen behind them.

     During intermission between the Satie and Cage works, each audience member received a packet of information, instructions, and a tiny bubble-blowing kit. Artist and Skidmore faculty member Margo Mensing created the packet’s collage/map/timetable inviting the audience to blow bubbles, read aloud from Cage’s short texts, cough and whistle at specified moments, and even make toast at a phalanx of toasters she set up in the performance area. All this activity was to take place during the dance. Fernandez notes that the suggested actions demonstrate Cage’s belief that the materials and processes of art are allied with those of daily life.

     Some in the audience assiduously honked, squealed, or toasted on cue, while others concentrated on tracking the dancers as they appeared down narrow hallways or behind doors and then reappeared where one least expected them. Their movements included deep bends that made their wide, pleated pants form shelves around the hip, rather like the outline of the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

     After the performance, no one wanted to leave the Tang. Still feeling keyed up and loose from the Cage happening, audience members kept up a conversational buzz that resonated like the prepared piano. Weeks later people were still buzzing about it. Porter acknowledged “a certain zaniness to some of the proceedings, as is only right with Cage and Satie. The events were meant to be eye-, ear-, and attention-catching.”

     By popular demand the event may be repeated in March. Call the Tang at 518-580-8080 for updates.

Mae Banner is a freelance arts reviewer and feature writer in Saratoga Springs.


© 2001 Skidmore College