Dance, memory: Stanford spotlights four new choreographies, four new scores

February show brings together cutting-edge choreographers, newly commissioned scores and student dancers at Stanford to examine kinetic memory. "This is an exciting level of creative risk, and the results are rich."

Photos by Michael Rooney Leimomo Kanagusuku performing

Leimomo Kanagusuku, a member of Aleta's Hayes's Chocolate Heads movement band.

A child learns the complicated motion of fingers over piano keys to play a Chopin melody. A teenager learns to navigate the highways from behind the wheel of a car. For dancers, however, "kinetic memory" is a 24/7 endeavor, whether they are memorizing the elegant gestures of Giselle or learning the rhythms and movements of hip-hop.

A new Stanford show, "The Body and What It Carries," premieres four dance works, each one investigating aspects of "muscle memory." The event spotlights cutting-edge choreographers Garen Scribner, Quinn Wharton and Todd Eckert, as well as two eminent choreographers based at Stanford, Aleta Hayes and Robert Moses. The evening features newly commissioned musical works by Stanford-affiliated composers and musicians Blair Foley, Dohi Moon, Ron Ragin, Patrick Kennedy and Moses, who founded the innovative dance company Robert Moses' Kin.

The event runs Thursday through Saturday for two weeks, at 8 p.m. Feb. 17-19 and 24-26 in the spacious Roble Dance Studio 38, which allows for full set designs by Erik Flatmo. A student exhibition in Roble Lounge, "Reflex/Reflect: Dancers Think Through Muscle Memory," accompanies the show.

"We decided to go for broke. Composers and choreographers simultaneously constructed their new works during rehearsal. This is a big effort, a big breakthrough in dance investigation leading to performance," said dance lecturer Diane Frank, director of the event. 

"Rehearsal is a form of research; we perform our results," said Frank.

"These works have a common platform, but they are wildly diverse in performance," she said. "Aleta Hayes and her movement band Chocolate Heads are working with a cast of 17 singers and dancers, constructing a movement and music landscape. Robert Moses goes in the opposite direction, stripping down to the architecture of the familiar, using pedestrian gesture as a basis for his piece."

Eckert, an accomplished San Francisco contemporary choreographer, "unspools a form with complicated permutations in a clear space," said Frank, with an inventive kinetic response to the complex poetic form, the sestina. "Room 56" by Wharton and Scribner, a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet, "fractures theme, space, time, emotion with the help of Flatmo's surprising, shifting set design, which implodes the architecture of memory."

Madeline Hawes performing

Madeline Hawes, a member of Aleta Hayes's Chocolate Heads movement band.

The scores, commissioned by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, work within a broad range of styles – including live acoustic, electronic and vocal music.

"The scores were developed in close collaboration during the rehearsal period," said Frank. "This is an exciting level of creative risk, and the results are rich."

"Muscle memory is a big idea – it is a theme and a process. It carries the intersection of all remembered experiences brought to bear on the present moment," said Frank. "It carries thought, feeling and action in constant, interrelated loops."

Dance lecturer Muriel Maffre, formerly principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet and one of the leading ballerinas of her generation, worked with her colleagues Wharton and Scriber on "Room 56." Maffre curated the installation of memory artifacts the students developed as part of the rehearsal process.

The exhibition focuses on "how you memorize and assimilate choreography" and "how the mind works across disciplines," she said.

Maffre, who joined the Stanford faculty last year, said, "It was challenging at first to understand what students need and experience – which is different from professional dancers."

For one thing, she said, they craved a stronger theoretical basis for their work – hence the exhibition documents their own efforts to come to grips with the dancers' process of "chunking" – the term that brain scientists use for the way the body strings together repeated chunks of memorized movements in longer sequences, until repetition makes the final performance almost a reflex, said Maffre.

As the exhibition demonstrates, the process of chunking can occur through music, words, counting or geometry. To show their processes, the students have assembled notebooks, videos, a camera, poetry – even a flipbook and a zoetrope.

This kind of slowly percolating, theoretical understanding can get jettisoned under the pressure of performance, but is perfect in the classroom. The history and science of dance movement "is very rich, very precise," said Maffre. "This is the right environment to bring that back."

Tickets are available through the Stanford Ticket Office, by phone (650-723-ARTS) or online. Prices range from $5 for students to $15 for general admission.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,