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Stanford Report, April 24, 2002

Show aims to capture 'mood' of jazz great Thelonious Monk


Dance historian and choreographer Thomas DeFrantz will employ high-tech set pieces, designed by Stanford graduate students, to trigger sound and video images while performing his dance-theater show Monk's Mood, scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in Pigott Theater.

Tickets for Saturday's performance are still available; Friday's show has sold out.

"One of my concerns is how to use technology to enhance theatrical storytelling, and not simply as a sort of gimmick," said DeFrantz, an acting associate professor in the Drama Department, during a telephone interview last week.

The Drama Department and Center for Black Performing Arts present “Monk's Mood” Friday and Saturday at Piggott Theatre. Photo: Craig Bailey

Thelonious Monk, whose angular musical style and unusual sense of rhythm made him one of the most famous avant-garde jazz artists of the 20th century, led an often isolated life, and his mental equilibrium was, on any given day, iffy.

"He was in and out of Bellevue," DeFrantz noted. And like many driven musicians, Monk's commitment to his art often came at the expense of personal relationships.

DeFrantz began developing Monk's Mood in 1999 during a summer residency at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Italy. He first performed the piece at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is an associate professor of theater arts. Monk's Mood explores Monk's personal relationships with his wife, Nellie, and the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who befriended Monk and other jazz musicians of the bebop era (most famously, perhaps, Charlie Parker, who died in her apartment).

"This piece illustrates the potential of tap dance as a lyrical form of storytelling," DeFrantz said. "Over the past two years, I have been working with various collaborators to bring narrative out of tap, a dance form typically noted for its flashy and rhythmic aspects."

An undergraduate at MIT named Eto Otitigbe helped design the set for the show when it was first staged. "Since then we've been talking about the piece and wanted to take it into a newer direction," said Otitigbe, now a graduate student in Stanford's Joint Program in Design. Otitigbe said he wanted to figure out way for a dancer to control stage effects with his feet. To design such a system, he enlisted the help of two colleagues, Luigi Castelli and Bert Schiettecatte, both of whom are working toward master's degrees in music, science and technology at Stanford.

The resulting set pieces include foot buttons designed for a video game called "Dance Dance Revolution" that can be used to trigger sound and video images. The pads are built into wooden platforms on the stage.

Monk's Mood is being presented through the Department of Drama and the Center for Black Performing Arts. Tickets at $8 for students and senior citizens, $10 for Stanford faculty and staff, and $12 for general admission are on sale at the Stanford Ticket Office in Tresidder Union, or call (650) 725-2787. For general information, call (650) 725-6739.