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Craven: Supporting artistic creation

04/15/09 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Commentator Jay Craven recently saw the Paul Taylor dance company's world premiere of a new work made possible by Dartmouth's Hopkins Center - and that got him thinking about the importance - and challenges - of artist commissions.

(CRAVEN) The Paul Taylor company's newest work, "Now Playing," is a raucous and hilarious piece of dance-as-vaudeville.  In it, a ballerina flails in every direction, mocking an earthbound swan feverishly struggling to take flight.  An over-the-top gypsy dancer settles a score with her male partners as she bonks each of them with her tambourine. The stage sweeper animates his broom and takes flight in his own solo-and another principal chews gum during his slapstick duet and sticks it to the side of the proscenium as he exits stage right.  This was funny stuff, dedicated to "all vaudevillians, especially those who went on, no matter what."

Dartmouth College provided the funds that brought the new Paul Taylor piece to life-and they've also commissioned "Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctic," a new work by DJ Spooky, that the Hopkins Center will present tonight in its intimate Moore Theater.  "Terra Nova" conjures a visual and aural portrait of the vast and swiftly changing southernmost continent. The work incorporates a live score, as well as sound and images gathered during the artist's winter travels in Antarctica.  The resulting performance juxtaposes live music and found sound, images of majestic icebergs and menacing Humvees. Meanwhile, the screen behind swirls with a kaleidoscopic collage of projected images--Soviet propaganda footage about the continent, satellite pictures, polarized ice crystals, color-coded maps, text fragments from early explorers' journals, and awe-inspiring views of the continent's cathedral-like ice formations and wind-scoured expanses of snow.

For Burlington's upcoming summer festival celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Champlain expedition, local playwright and actress Abby Paige has been commissioned to create a one-woman show rendering dramatic portraits of ten Franco-American Vermonters.  She's interviewed more than fifty people and spent time with curators and archivists at the Vermont Folklife Center-showing how artists can draw from materials found very close to home.

Thirty regional choreographers and theater artists will create original moving performance pieces for the Champlain festival's July 11th twilight parade-- and French/Algerian choreographer Heddy Maalem recently visited Burlington to audition and cast a dozen local professional dancers for his commissioned waterfront dance pageant interpreting the Champlain history.  While he was here, he also teamed up with Iroquois dancer and choreographer Gaetan Gingris, who will collaborate on the new creation, to be performed to Dvorak's New World Symphony.

Artistic creation, especially across cultural boundaries, is challenging, in the best of circumstances.  But these commissions show an essential belief in the power of the imagination-to shape new meanings from abstract or concrete ideas-or from specific considerations of history and place.   Commissioned work allows us to be actors and not just spectators in the artistic process.  By helping to make it possible, we can participate in a process that brings the resulting work closer to who and where we are.


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