PLUTO IN CAPRICORN
Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers/ABD Productions Celebrate 25th Anniversary
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
For twenty-five years Anne Bluethenthal has served The City’s dance community as a performer, choreographer, and teacher. Her latest creation, Pluto In Capricorn, will have four performances beginning this Thursday, July 9th, at the ODC Commons located at 351 Shotwell Street at 17th. The show plays through Sunday and will include recreations of her signature solo work by guest and veteran artists including Robert Henry Johnson, Laura Elaine Ellis, and Alyah Baker. Other segments include Dance in a Wing Chair from a score by Remy Charlip, and Love Poems with text by Judy Grahn and Carolyn Cooke. Anne will also perform three of her new solos set to text by Grahn and Cooke. On Friday, July 10th, there will be a pre-show performance/reading by Judy Grahn with Anne Carol at 7:30 pm in the Commons. On Saturday, July 11th, there will be a pre-show performance and discussion by Mama CoAtl and a representative from Survivors International on gender violence. Pamela Z will perform at 5:30 pm on Sunday, July 12th. “In the spirit of Pluto in Capricorn,” says Anne, “we are letting layers and assumptions fall away and asking some basic questions about ourselves, the art form, and our place in a radically shifting global terrain.”
Monetary and material upheaval being very much in evidence, now that the planet Pluto is milling around in Capricorn – a constellation in the equatorial region of the southern hemisphere near Aquarius and Sagittarius – many will argue that it’s time to re-visit the age-old argument of the “faults” being in our stars. But what kind of astrological chart does it take to accumulate 25 years as a career dancer? I asked Anne Bluethenthal exactly how she got into it and how it all started.
Anne: I danced when I was a kid. I grew up in the south. I’m from Greensboro, North Carolina. I grew up in the civil rights movement with activist parents. No artists in the family. I always loved to dance and took lessons when I was a kid but I never really imagined it was something one could actually do with one’s life. So, I did all kinds ofr other things – thinking I could be a journalist, a lawyer, whatever. I went to school sort-of as a writer and studied psychobiology. I was doing a really heavy-duty science undergraduate program, but I kept sneaking to the dance studio and taking dance class. I went to Oberlin College. They have a term where you can pick a project. I was doing honors research in the psychbio laboratory putting electrodes in rat brains, things like that. And I was sneaking over to take dance class. At one brilliant moment, I thought — You know what? The thing that really interests me about psychobiology is understanding the unity of Life. Basically, that the mind / body is one unity. I was trying to understand that in the psychbio lab and was learning very little about the unity. But over in the dance studio it was all about that. I was really understanding the connection between one’s emotional or psychological life and one’s physical life, etc. I dropped all my psychbio stuff – my math, science, and psychology – and immersed myself entirely in the dance world. So, I graduated from this wonderful liberal arts school with a degree in dance. Much to my family’s chagrin. You asked, “Where does it all start?” That’s how.
Anne: Oberlin, being what it was, was a college of renegades. You know? Stubborn people wanting to blaze their own trails. So, I didn’t do the traditional route of going and being in somebody’s company and traveling the world. I just started out making my own dances, because those were the dances I wanted to dance. Well, the combination of nobody particularly picking me – but also that I really had something I was going after in terms of how I wanted to revolutionize the training of the dancer and our physical discipline. And also how to use that revolutionary approach to the physical discipline to speak about the big subjects in life – what’s really going in the world and one’s humanity. I just started investigating, creating a laboratory, and had the great good fortune of having people who wanted to study with me in the early years. And I used them to hone my skills and develop this approach that I was going to do. I spent years getting better and better, hopefully, with the craft. Midway through my work started to take on larger and larger subjects. That’s what I became known for – about those things, and a technique grounded in feminism, a women-centered community of dancers and artists.
Over the years my worked has touched on things like the environment. Even before global warming was a household name I was doing my Rachel Carson dance. My early works had a lot to do with my budding feminism and psychological knowledge. Sexual abuse was a subject I touched back in the day, breast cancer, womens’ works. I did a whole huge piece on the breast and then I did four years of work on a piece about the heart. It was really about the spiritual journey and love and open heart surgery which my mother was going through. Then I launched into a piece on Palestine and Israel. It was the first really controversial piece that I’d done. It premiered a week after 911. That was a huge life-changing event. I had collaborated on that with a Palestinian man and a group of Arab musicians and Jewish musicians. That was amazing experience.
Seán: Where did you present this?
Anne: It was at Dance Mission. We had people hanging out of the rafters.
Seán: What brings a dancer to this unique mode of expression? How does a dancer decide to come and study with you?
Anne: I was teaching in the studio back then. I taught all over the place. At one point I had my own studio that a bunch of us had created on Dolores Street called In Flight Studios. The most time I taught in a studio was at a place called Foot Work, which doesn’t exist anymore. But it was there for a long time over on 22nd between Valencia and Mission. Then I taught for over a decade at ODC. I taught at Rhythm and Motion. I was out there teaching all the time, steadily for 15 years. I would draw people from my class. Then I just became known. I’d grab people I saw that were interesting, attractive. And who were interested in the work I was doing.
Seán: Where did the audience come from? Was it through word of mouth, through the studio?
Anne: Sean, I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s changed so much. I’m much more interested in making the art than in marketing. It’s a lot of word of mouth. I have a following, people who have been seeing my work for a really long time. I try at this point in my career, when I’m putting a piece together to have a lot of collaborators. Not just artistic collaborators, but community collaborators. When I did Tears of Rock I was really trying to engage a number of community groups in the process. The big piece after that was Unsing the Song. A piece about genocide. For that I had collaborators from all over the world. It was another huge life-changing piece that obviously had a big scope. That was about the hardest subject I could have tackled.
Seán: How about the music? Where do you draw from to put these pieces together?
Anne: Over the years I have these really great collaborators. There’s a lot of people I’ve worked with artistically. I’m also a little bit monogamous in a way. There’s a few people I’ve worked with consistently for most of my career. One of them is the composer Marc Ream. He’s worked with me on the majority of my substantive pieces. Recently I worked with a man named Ajayi Lumumba. When I first moved here I worked with a man named Scott Stone, and Bruce Leighton. I’ve also worked with Pamela Z who will be performing in my show coming up here. So, a lot of different musical sources.
Seán: How do you work with the composer to get the music you want?
Anne: As the dance is being created, the composer will come in and watch the work and videotape or just get a feel. I will give them time tracks. I’ll be working with another piece of music that has the right tempo and feel, they’ll translate that into their own thing. Ocasionally, we have the resources to do it in a way that I think is really fun – we work on it simultaneously. We’re both going for an idea and a feel, rather than having them come and set music to my dance, to my phrases and stuff.
Seán: Tell me about Pluto In Capricorn.
Anne: Apparently, Pluto – the planet of death, transformation, rebirth – has recently moved into Capricorn – a constellation of money, material systems, identity, power, relations like that. Whereas Pluto used to be in Sagittarius where there was all this ideological upheaval, now Pluto is in Capricorn where there is all this financial upheaval. Systems are falling apart or being restructured, etc. It’s going to be there for, like, 26 years.
Seán: Oh. Great!
Anne: I know. “Thanks!” Right? I’m not a big astrological person, but I was actually having my own very difficult time where my whole life felt like it was falling apart. I was working at New College and you know how it died. It was a huge trauma for many, many of us who were part of that institution. This economy has really hurt a lot of us as artists – our spaces, our abilities to pull audiences, to get grants, etc. All that has been really compromised. A couple of friends said, “Anne, take heart. Pluto’s in Capricorn. You’re a Capricorn. You’re gonna have a really hard time for a while.”
Seán: Nice. How encouraging! Don’t you just love it? Write when you get work.
Anne: We’re never in a vacuum. What’s happening to me is happening to many. It’s happening on a global level. Somehow my personal plight seems tied to the polarized caps and the market crashing and the whole state of the arts. Also, the fact that I’m aging, and my art form, and what’s all that really about? My whole ensemble has sort-of turned over. Now, at this point in my life, to have a whole new group that are all very young. Not only do they not know my work, but they don’t even know the generation of work that I came from. You use what you have.
Seán: The death of certain economic ways of being can also mean we’re not going to do it like this anymore – which has to open up a window somewhere.
Anne: Exactly. So, the piece has been exactly what is going on in the studio – an elder dancer trying to pass on her work to the younger dancers and to create something that speaks to the psychological, economic, and political moment. I also have the first half of the show which is about me handing over my old work to other dancers. My solo work does not have to live only on my body. Robert Henry Johnson is doing a solo. My long-time dancer Laura Elaine Ellis is doing a couple of solos. I’m handing over old work to new people. And I’m offering an entirely new way of working and new kind of work to this new ensemble. And I’m doing three new solos myself which really point to a new direction in my own performance. How can I age inside of this art form? Just as we get to the point of having a really deep understanding of our art form as choreographers and dancers and a lot of nuance and wisdom and subtlety — we start to lose it. Not be able to do what we used to be able to do. We need to find new things to do.
Seán: And still retain the integrity and the quality and the whatever it is that preceded up to this point.
Anne: Exactly. So, I’m doing three very short, just spoken=word movement pieces. And the other is the work that I’m handing over to the youngsters and the old work that I’m handing over to the more mature dancers.
Seán: Where are we going to find all this happening?
Anne: We are at the ODC Dance Commons which is on Shotwell, between 17th and 18th Street. It’s right around the corner from the ODC Theatre which is under renovation. It is a really streamlined sort of show – in keeping with the Pluto in Capricorn economic moment. We’re in a glorified dance studio that’s also a performance space. It is a full-on production and very informal. We’ll be showing a retrospective film on my work, done by Joe Williams. Also, every night – a half-hour prior to the curtain is a pre-show by really special artists I’ve worked with over the years. On Friday night – Judy Grahn, the poet and founder of Lesbian feminism. Her work is really having a rebirth right now. She’s doing a performance/reading with Anne Carol, a musician she works with. On Saturday, another colleague, Mama CoAtl – a singer, songwriter, activist. She is Mexican American. Pamela Z performs on Sunday night. The first thing that happens in the show is called “Spontaneous Dances”. I will be joined by some other dancers and we’ll be improvising as the audience enters. Pamela is also playing the music for that. And Judy Grahn and Carolyn Cooke are going to be writing spontaneously. So, we have all this spontaneous art-making for the first ten minutes.
Seán: What’s the next project?
Anne: I’m working on it, OK? I have a collaboration with a group called Survivors International that’s doing work around the issue of gender violence. I’m trying to get some educational and benefit work happening around that. So, come out and help me celebrate. Let’s think about our collective survival together.
Click here for more information: Pluto In Capricorn
Download Carmen Milagro’s BlogTalkRadio interview with Seán Martinfield and jazz composer/pianist Terry Disley: Women and Legends Who Really Rock, 6/12/2009
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Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.