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Chocolate Heads Movement Band

Chocolate Heads dancers Madeline Hawes and Katrina Wisdom perform in 'Xocolatl: Food of the Gods' at Bing Concert Hall on March 8, 2013. (Photo: Jason Chuang)

A year of high notes for Stanford's Chocolate Heads

In this third and final installment of the Chocolate Heads series, the students and director of the movement band reflect on practice and performance.

The Chocolate Heads Movement Band had a banner year, by any measure.

They collaborated with jazz great William Parker, workshopped with neuroscientists and synesthetes, staged an underground performance at Cantor Arts Center, dazzled an audience at Bing Concert Hall, partnered with the a cappella group Talisman on an original composition, and finished the year with a spring performance at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

All this while pursuing studies in medicine, architecture, engineering and fiction writing, just to name a few.

In this fourth year of the Chocolate Heads, there were 12 musicians, 10 dancers and two poets, plus visiting artist William Parker – which made it the biggest Chocolate Heads troupe to date. They welcomed guest members from the off-campus community and several Stanford musical prodigies, including the gifted musical director and composer Tyler Brooks and 2013 TEDx sensations Kai Kight, violin, and Ryan Edwards, mixing sound on computers.

Stanford Report followed the Chocolate Heads throughout the year to document and celebrate their rehearsals, performances and growth. In this final installment of the series, the students and faculty director Aleta Hayes look back on treasured and valuable takeaways from the year.

Practice, practice, practice

Hayes, a lecturer in the Dance Division of the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, invites guests to talk to the Chocolate Heads, based on the troupe's project or theme and the expertise of the guest. "When you teach a class, you assign books. I bring in an alive book. William is a tome," she said of visiting artist William Parker.

Parker conducted a weeklong residency in fall 2012 that taught students his unique compositional methods and scoring techniques, as well as facilitating and modeling within the rehearsal space how dance and music could function independently and cooperatively at the same time. An improvisational master, Parker's objective with the students in rehearsal was to get them to a place where they trusted each other to balance their individual sound or movement with ensemble performance on stage.

In addition to working with Parker, the Heads hosted guest choreographers and dance improvisers Christian Burns and Nina Haft. The workshops with Burns and Haft helped the troupe explore synesthesia and human perception through the lens of improvisation. This led to the exploration of the onomatopoeic "kiki-booba" spectrum as a way of communicating the attitude or feeling of a musical phrase or dance movement.

"Kiki" on one end is sharp, spikey and quick. "Booba" on the opposite end is fluid, flexible and round. Picture a sea urchin versus an amoeba. Visualizing and personifying these descriptives required creative thinking and imaginative execution.

New this year to the Heads was a student artist core, a leadership body within the troupe that worked with Hayes to guide the creative conversation in and outside of rehearsals. "The melding of ideas and forms with a cooperative spirit was unlike any other time. Dancers coached the poets, musicians created scores with dancers and Stanford students took teens under their wings," said Hayes.

Stages of performance

In January, the Chocolate Heads performed for a capacity crowd at Cantor Arts Center. "We decided to have an un-show at the Cantor in order to try out our upcoming Bing show and have more performance opportunities," said Hayes. Collaborators Connie Wolf, the director of the Cantor, and Patience Young, the curator for education, enthusiastically supported the troupe's vision of an underground performance party in one of the most elegant spaces on campus. The entire audience joined in on the dance floor for the grand finale.

Two months later, the Chocolate Heads presented a polished Xocolatl: Food of the Gods at Bing Concert Hall with Parker. Tickets were gone within three hours of the offering.

"Performing at the Bing Concert Hall was such a surreal feeling," said Luke Yancy Jr., assistant choreographer. "With every move and turn, I could feel the audience's tension coming from everywhere. It was a strange, yet motivating sensation. It forced me to completely assimilate into the world we were creating, in every aspect, from the moment we stepped onto stage. It was like a dream. I swear I blinked, and it was over."

In April the Heads performed by invitation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of the Future of Soul Think Tank with notable artists across the Bay Area, including Marc Bamuthi Joseph, YBCA's new curator.

Reflecting on the year, keyboardist Matt Wong described the Heads experience as rewarding, and he looks forward to returning in the fall. "Being in the Chocolate Heads was a rewarding experience unlike any other," he said. "As a jazz pianist, I felt the improvisational spirit that the band had was incredible, and it allowed us to push beyond the level where we thought we were. For me, the Chocolate Heads provided a canvas for experimentation – it was a learning experience to try and translate the movements of the dancers into my own playing. It was amazing to see how a single word or theme would evolve into an entire piece."

Legacy and looking forward

For corps member and creativity whip Lili Hsu, being part of the troupe has meant discovering what it is to be treated as an artist and not just a student artist. "We create a community in which we all can be our ideal selves, where the members can discover who they are and what they want to be as human beings and artists. That is the legacy of Heads for its performers. Though some may never consciously realize what they have gained from the experience, I have watched everyone blossom, grow and expand throughout the creative process, and it has been an honor working along side such amazing people."

The level of intermingling and collaboration between students, departments, programs, faculty and friends was unprecedented for the Chocolate Heads this year.

Bonnie Chien, a dancer, values the community aspect of the Heads. As a medical student she found being part of a mixed group – undergrads, grads and beyond – refreshing. She also recognized that dancing is an important outlet for her: "I want to continue to dance even in the midst of the busiest parts of my training."