Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sunday Feature: Choreographer Jennifer Nichols on The Messiah

Tradition. Nostalgia. Sacred.
A choreographer explains the presence of dance in Against The Grain's production of The Messiah
by Jennifer Nichols

Jennifer Nichols, choreographer and dancer, was classically trained at L’École Supérieure de Danse du Québec and the Quinte Ballet School. Currently a company member of Atelier Ballet, the ballet ensemble of Opera Atelier, she has also danced professionally with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Banff Festival Dance and choreographers such as Robert Desrosiers and Newton Moraes. Jennifer is owner and director of Toronto’s Extension Room, home of the acclaimed ballet fitness program she founded in 2003, The Extension MethodTM. She is also Co-Artistic Director of Hit and Run Dance Productions. Jennifer Nichols’s performance and choreography can be seen in several film and television productions, including the upcoming CBC primetime television drama Reign (principal choreographer), feature film Barney’s Version, BRAVO’s docu-drama Nureyev, and the National Film Board’s Dance of Death.

Tradition. Nostalgia. Sacred. 

All words associated with Handel’s Messiah, a ritual holiday experience that draws loved ones to churches and theatres, uplifting the spirit and celebrating another cyclical passage of seasons. 

This annual classic is typically presented in a similar manner. Think formal dress (black tie, gowns), elegant choral books, music stands and a classic formation of voices projecting ‘en face’ to the house. 

Now picture bodies in motion, top buttons open, fervent faces moving in several directions and blood pumping harder. 

But taking on the Messiah? This is a cherished tradition!

When Against the Grain Theatre’s artistic director, Joel Ivany, asked me to come on board to help create a Messiah that was just that, I jumped at the chance. First and foremost, I was honoured. My respect for AtG was established when I saw my first of its productions, The Turn of the Screw. I was an instant fan. I then had the joy of hosting the company’s Kafka/Janáček/Kurtág program at my downtown Toronto dance studio, The Extension Room. It was innovative, exciting, and presented in a context far different from what one would expect.  

So, when Joel asked me if I would consider choreographing a radically different Messiah for AtG’s next project, I was thrilled. 

Being asked to work closely with Joel, Topher (Christopher Mokrzewski) and the entire AtG family was an honour unto itself. But taking on the Messiah? This is a cherished tradition!  At times during the planning and brainstorming process we looked at each other and asked ourselves if we were nuts to be taking this on…and maybe we are. If so, Joel is the mad genius planting the seed. 

Taking on the Messiah in such a manner is a daunting prospect, considering not just the sheer scope of the libretto but the respect which must be paid to it as an historical and sacred work. We are aiming to present it in a manner that simultaneously pays homage to and departs from its tradition.

Of course, the greatest challenge for me as choreographer is to set movements that are palatable for singers who must put their voice first, but is also visually captivating. 

I took inspiration from a number of sources: from my research on the oratorio’s origins (Jennen’s libretto taken from the both the Old and New Testaments of the King James Bible) and from Joel’s concept of liberation from formality. And of course from the common themes, or meditations, on humanity which run throughout. 

It is, as Joel says, ‘”stripped down”. 

At the heart of my choreographic approach to the Messiah is the idea that beneath its theological and spiritual origins lies a timeless common narrative to humankind: BIRTH, DEATH, REBIRTH. It speaks to the idea that we are all, at least on one level, equal—even the son the God. This notion brings the piece down from an elevated, spiritual place to something more grounded and human. As such there is weight in the movement, an earthy sensibility. This is not meant to be disrespectful to its origins, but rather more palatable and modern. It is, as Joel says, ‘”stripped down”. 

The premise for much of the movement is conceptual gesture rather than narrative, and I really strived to ensure that regardless of tempi, all sections have a sense of gravity and weight. I hope to convey a humanistic, almost pedestrian approach to the movement. Its themes are the life passages which intrigue us, terrify us, and comfort us, both collectively and individually. Choreographically I am attempting to illustrate how we as humans find ways to rise above and free ourselves from the daily concerns of simply existing, and how we battle this together or alone. 

Working with singers in a manner that goes beyond simple staging is inevitably challenging. Choreographers taking trained dancers into consideration may pull from a vast vocabulary of movement and more or less put these pieces together in their minds before they even have bodies in the room. With singers, however, this vocabulary takes another shape. It is a different “physical canvas”. Yet, as much as it presents a challenge, it presents opportunities, because a singer’s natural instincts are unique. They keep me from being drawn to a movement style which I have used before and push me to attempt new things. At the same time, there are limitations in what I can ask singers to do, which forces me to look more at the overall shape created in the performance space than isolated movements. 

As I dive deeper into the choreography with each daily rehearsal, getting to know the singers, their unique personalities and responses, my approach continues to evolve.

From a singer’s perspective, one faces a double challenge: memorization of not only the libretto, the “vocal text”, but also the “body’s text”’. As a dancer myself I have only had my body as a silent instrument to use. Beginning the choreographic process I was sensitive to this and tried to add as much repetition to the phrasing as possible (which actually is complementary to the text of the oratorio, short phrases which are repeated in an A, B, A fashion). Chatting one day with a few singers, however, they pointed out to me that in many instances the addition of movement is helpful for vocal memorization because there are landmarks they can use to make connections. It becomes a type of roadmap. 

Perhaps what I have been most concerned about is the effect of movement on a singer’s voice. Constrictions to the diaphragm and cardiovascular strain are significant factors to keep in mind. These effects are also particular to each individual singer. Some find it a great challenge to sing with movement, others not so much. It is interesting to note, however, that often when the body is asked to extend beyond its normal range the voice loosens somewhat. By relaxing the limbs and opening the ribcage, the voice may often open as well. I noticed this when we held auditions for the chorus. I will admit we were a bit devilish in that we didn’t warn these singers prior to their audition that they would be asked to “dance”. We sprung that on them after they had sung their two prepared audition selections. They were then asked to sing one piece again, yet this time around they would  sing it while performing a sequence of choreography I taught to them on the spot. To their credit, not one singer balked. They all rose to the challenge, and to my delight, I noticed almost across the board that the second time, paired with movement, their vocal quality had improved. Whether it was an opening of the diaphragm and torso, the necessary increase in breath intake, or simply a psychological relaxation, the sound was richer. This was encouraging. 

Collaborating with Against the Grain Theatre in presenting a fresh, liberated Messiah has been exhilarating. As I dive deeper into the choreography with each daily rehearsal, getting to know the singers, their unique personalities and responses, my approach continues to evolve. It remains a daunting challenge, yet when I feel overwhelmed I simply open my score to the second movement, and there lie the words:


From ancient text to today: a gentle and relevant message. 

Dec. 14 and 15

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