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Reading the Music? 

Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain finds he isn't keeping score in Bill T. Jones' new work at ADF

Composer and instrumentalist Daniel Bernard Roumain, the first music director in the 20-year history of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, is on the phone from New York, talking about the music to Jones' new work, Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger, which makes its world's premiere this week at the American Dance Festival.

The title should ring a bell with Southern literary scholars; the dance is actually Jones' stage adaptation of a Flannery O'Connor short story. During its 40 minutes, two actors narrate O'Connor's words to music for piano, violin, cello and an ambient mix of electronic sounds and urban audio verite, by Roumain.

And if the words sound familiar to some, the street sounds in Roumain's taped audio montage may be equally familiar to others. The composer recorded them in Raleigh, in April, during the same week he performed with the city's civic symphony and the chamber orchestra, and conducted a residency at Hunter Elementary School.

O'Connor's text demonstrates her grasp of the Southern grotesque. In it, an old, embittered farmer named Mr. Head plans to pass on his understanding of the world--and his particular brand of racism and xenophobia--to Nelson, an orphan charge, during a train trip to Atlanta. Although Mr. Head thinks the trip will teach the child the true ways of the world, both characters learn more, and differently, than expected by their journey's end.

Roumain describes his music as a set of variations on something he calls "a pseudo-Protestant chant," but as we talk of other composers who've used spoken word in their music, Roumain's voice turns conspiratorial.

"I'm going to let you in on a secret," he says. "There is no score for this piece."

Don't get him wrong: There was one, once. But when the narrators couldn't read music--and couldn't consistently read the same lines in exactly the same rhythm--the "Schoenberg approach" folded on the spot. And when the written notes kept the musicians from focusing on the narration and activity, Roumain had a half-written score that wasn't working with three weeks left in rehearsal.

"So I said, well, Bill, let's do an experiment," Roumain recalls. "Let's take the music that I've written--and throw it out. Let's put the violinist next to one speaker, the cellist next to the other, and the piano in the middle, and see what happens."

Roumain told the musicians to listen to their characters and play variations on the theme whenever they spoke. "It worked instantly," the composer recalls.

"The solution wasn't to think about what's happening between three instruments in a very specific way," Roumain says. "The solution was to actually write three separate scores that would support the text at varying times. And to write the music in such a way that if the different musicians played their melodies at the same time, regardless of rhythm, they would still work."

No dynamics or tempo indications are on the musicians' parts. Their only cues are the words of O'Connor's text, which are printed on a separate line on the pages of their music.

"So there's no score," Roumain concludes. "There's three independent parts that are framed. There's many times when all three play with one another. But they're never together. And it works wonderfully."

Roumain admits he was initially "repulsed" by O'Connor's short story: "If I had written after reading her story once, it would have been an angry, extroverted piece of music." But ultimately the composer found himself "seduced" by the challenge of being asked to write, as a young black composer, music that would "support very substantive questions of community, culture, race, gender--and the meaning of life: How does one inform the morality of a child?

"In many ways this was a collaboration more between Mr. Jones and Ms. O'Connor than it was between me and Mr. Jones," Roumain says. "I think I inadvertently became the canvas for that conversation."

Viewers can join the dialogue, Thursday through Saturday night at Page Auditorium.

Also this week: The buzz has been steadily building on campus during the past week. By now you can tell, by the conspiratorial smiles of the dancers in Tatiana Baganova's new work--that, and their general level of exhaustion--that something's brewing at ADF. The International Choreographers' Commissioning Program, which closes Wednesday night, finally shows us what Baganova, France's Dominique Boivin and Akiko Kitamura from Japan have come up with over six weeks with some of America's finest dancers.

And regional audiences get another chance to see the colorful, controversial work of Ann Liv Young, a quickly rising young choreographer whose June New York debut at Dance Theatre Workshop (just after graduating from Hollins University) got a very warm reception from The New Yorker. At the Ark last week we saw her American Crane Standards, a funny and provocative work set on three women and two toilets. There was an all but military air to the commands Young barked out from the audience, leading Nancy Forshaw-Clapp, Jillian Pena and Angie Fowler through what appeared to be a singularly improbable bathroom precision drill-team formation. Indeed, in Standards Young and her dancers seem intent on gleefully dismantling the perpetual drill for women: making the body, and the person in it, somehow sync up with popular representations of desire and beauty.

Summary judgment is passed on cheesy pop songs like "I Think We're Alone Now." These vocal tributes are punctuated by various shout-outs, children's songs, doggerel verse--and dubious tributes to overweening dance critics.

But at the same time Young's marching orders from the house foreground issues of control and coercion in her own art form. They never let us forget that she is opposing one set of restrictive moves and representations, but with the differing set contained in her own choreography. The one obvious constant here: The women are always being posed.

We'll see what she comes up with in "dance, small show" with new material featuring Pena, Bri Smith and Kimmi Kim, Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Ark.

Finally, a host of informal showings cover the ADF campus this week. Most are well worth seeing, and all of them are free. Contact the ADF office at 684-6402 for more information.

From Last Week: It was the first time I believed I could separate Dairakudakan's dancers from the characters we saw on stage. Rather than being in the presence of grotesque, embodied ghosts, in some instances I was in the presence of grotesque actors instead. That less than felicitous thought--and substantial changes in the choreography since the taped performance was filmed--made last week's live experience of RyuBa actually less intense than the video version I saw in May. While Takuya Muramatsu's Takara Jima (Treasure Island) was an overlong, repetitive send-up of a pirate theme, the internal section where a peg-legged captain miraculously discovers that leg restored--to Debussy's Clair de Lune, of all things--was truly interesting.

And since the bottom of the page approaches, I'll withhold comment just for now on Shen Wei's icy Behind Resonance and the completed Rite of Spring. Fear not; both will figure in our ADF season wrap-up, this time next week. EndBlock

  • Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain finds he isn't keeping score in Bill T. Jones' new work at ADF

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