The latest Sarasota Contemporary Dance show utilizes movement and live music to tell Joan of Arc’s story.
On one side of the studio stands a fearless heroine and on the other, her devoted army.
Their leader is poised, but there’s a subtle element of uncertainty to her movements. She valiantly holds an imaginary sword one moment, and the next, she places her hands on either side of her head with the look of a woman grappling with the possibility of failure.
“Joan must have been quite filled with trepidation at times,” says NOW Ensemble Artistic Director Mark Dancigers. “That’s a side of the story we don’t get.”
Joan of Arc is the inspiration behind Sarasota Contemporary Dance’s latest piece, “Jehanne,” which will premiere as part of the program at the company’s first show of the season, “SCD+NOW Ensemble.”
SCD always aims to collaborate with a musical group for its fall show — and makes it truly collaborative by having the musicians play live on stage beside the dancers. This year, Artistic Director Leymis Bolaños Wilmott decided to return to a group she first worked with in 2013.
NOW Ensemble is a New York City-based indie classical quintet with the goal to tour and perform new works.
Dancigers composes for and performs with the ensemble, which he calls his “close family of musical collaborators.” He also happens to be the husband of SCD project-based dancer Xiao-Xuan Dancigers.
Five years ago, Xiao-Xuan Dancigers co-choreographed “Dreamfall” to a composition of the same name by her husband. It was the first SCD and NOW Ensemble collaboration commissioned by New Music New College, when the composer was visiting assistant professor of music at the New College of Florida.
The collaboration was such a success that NOW Ensemble continued to perform the piece without dancers on tour, but due to popular demand, Bolaños Wilmott felt it was time to restage it with SCD dancers for the groups’ reunion.
“Dreamfall” stars a graceful Xiao-Xuan Dancigers as she dances through a heavenly realm — at one point stepping up the stairs to whatever lies beyond her character’s state of being. Although it’s more hopeful than “Jehanne,” Bolaños Wilmott says the two pieces share many underlying themes that make for a cohesive show.
“I’m excited it’s paired with ‘Dreamfall’ because it pushed me creatively,” she says. “They’re both spiritual works but in different ways.”
This show will be the first time “Dreamfall” has been presented with live music in the Jane B. Cook Theatre.
When Bolaños Wilmott contacted Dancigers last year to brainstorm a new piece, somehow Joan of Arc came into the conversation.
The icon of French history was both an accessible and timely figure to honor, largely due to her status as a feminist role model. But there was only one problem.
“She fought for women’s rights when nobody else was,” Bolaños Wilmott says. “How do we do her justice?”
It was a big question. One that could only be answered with a great deal of trial and error.
They started by researching Joan, and the choreographer felt an immediate connection to her heroine’s dedication to her faith. Bolaños Wilmott could relate to the pressures of having a group trusting your leadership, and she respected the way Joan never let the weight of her responsibility make her doubt her creator.
Then came the question of music. How do you best accompany the story of a woman who left such a mark on history?
“I didn’t know what kind of music that would end up being, so I started sketching on the guitar and coming up with this music that loops around and builds in this interesting electronic way,” Dancigers says.
He had no plan, no vision of what the piece should sound like or what instruments should create the music. He played with notes until he found something he liked.
Each time he finished a new musical movement, he’d send it to Bolaños Wilmott, who would begin to choreograph. This pattern of working in segments continued until, somewhat to the composer’s surprise, they had a complete work.
“I had no idea if this was going to work or not,” Dancigers says. “I had no idea what kind of choreography would make this whole thing communicate. When I saw what she did, I was able to do more.”
The composer first saw Bolaños Wilmott’s choreography when he dropped by a rehearsal after sending her two of the five finished movements. He was struck by the emotional intensity of the piece, and the power behind each step inspired him to keep composing.
Telling the Tale
While “Dreamfall” is performed by the entire NOW Ensemble quintet, “Jehanne” is a guitar solo that only features Dancigers.
There was something about the singularity of the guitar and the independent character of Joan that called for a single musician.
“My hope is that this singular guitar builds into something larger,” Dancigers says.
The story the work aims to tell is of a person who became a beacon of hope leading an army of French men. So the challenge, Dancigers says, was to create music that could represent the trials and tribulations of someone who had to be strong for others.
Bolaños Wilmott says the themes she wanted to focus on were boldness, faith and persistence. She shows how Joan would go from being exhausted to pushing through by having her army toss, lift and pull her in every direction. At one point she carefully crawls on the backs of all the other women, welcoming all the support she can get.
The pair agreed early on that they would not portray Joan’s tragic death by being burned at the stake. Even though it’s the way her life truly ended, Dancigers says they didn’t want to emphasize it.
“The ending was tough to get,” he says. “We sort of decided to end with triumph. She’s heroic at the end, and that’s what we wanted to leave people with.”
Really, the ending is more of a beginning, he says, encouraging audiences to take inspiration from this figure and run with it.
It take five dancers to tell this story, and one (other than a brief mirror-like moment) to take on the character of Joan of Arc. Claudia-Lynn Rightmire completely embodies Joan, says Bolaños Wilmott, to the point where it’s almost trance-like. When Rightmire told her early on that her mother used to say “be like Joan of Arc” growing up, the choreographer knew who to cast in the part.
The Right Notes
The sound and movements combine to create a fresh finished product that came together quite organically, Dancigers and Bolaños Wilmott agree.
As for his goals, the composer wants the music to do its job.
“My hope is that the music helps the story speak in a contemporary way so that the story feels like something that’s worth contemplating,” Dancigers says. “I think the music has this job of making the story feel current.”
He loves working with SCD because seeing choreography allows him to hear his composition in a different way, he says. And as the husband of a dancer and choreographer, he will always have a soft spot for the art form.
Dancigers is fascinated by how music can create an environment that fosters shared experiences, and he hopes this piece can create a space where audiences relate to Joan and interact with her story.