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Toulmin Fellowship Showcase at National Sawdust Provides an Exciting Peek Into the Creative Process

Since 2020, the Toulmin Fellowship, a partnership between National Sawdust and The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU, has supported the collaborative work of 50 composers and choreographers who have been historically underrepresented in the field due to their gender, race, or ethnicity. On May 13, this year’s fellows – composers Erica Blunt and Wang Lu, and choreographers Ausia Jones and Tiler Peck – gave a stunning and stimulating showcase of their multi-disciplinary productions in-progress.

In-progress is the kicker; the Toulmin Showcase was not a final product, but an opportunity to peek into, behind, around, and underneath the different angles of the creative process. Each fellow provided insight on their work and chose excerpts to discuss and share with the audience, providing an intriguing space in which to dangle. Community-making is an explicit mission of the Toulmin Fellowship, and highlighting the process rather than the final product had a great effect on producing a communal experience.

Sometimes, works in-progress come with technical difficulties. To begin the evening, composer, DJ, and sound artist Erica ‘Twelve45″ Blunt intended to project a film she created as a part of Transitions & Turntables, with original music specifically designed for National Sawdust’s intricate spatial sound map. Due to some glitches, Blunt had to begin without the projected images, but no matter — the first selection, “Creeping Vine,” was immediately compelling on its own, with elaborate bass drum, an electric guitar crying over smooth synth chords, and a free, driving beat.

Meant to be an “exploration of the transitional spaces we navigate, both in sound and soul,” Blunt moved the audience through five selections that were each captivating in their own way. Scratches on the turntables represented “moments of introspection,” and her pre-recorded voice broke in and out of the music from time to time in conversational tones – not flattened or robotic, but speaking as if mid-sentence, adding a sort of authenticity, relatability, and lived-in sensation to the music.

Erica "Twelve45" Blunt -- Photo courtesy of The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU

Erica “Twelve45” Blunt — Photo courtesy of The Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU

Echoes of Elsewhere, featuring choreography by Ausia Jones to music by electronic composer Quentin Noble, was originally a duet en pointe that needed to be reworked for solo dancer (Jake Tribus) to fit the small venue. Jones told us that she tried to retain as much as she could from the duet, giving the audience an impetus to re-imagine layers of the dance in real-time, how a sequence of movements might have been cracked open and split into two. The choreography and music together held parallel worlds–one with and one without gravity. The dancer’s limbs were at times rhythmically synced, but at other times merely coexisted with the sound.

New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Tiler Peck took us all the way to the genesis of the creative process. Using the piece gone from composer Angélica Negrón and joined by fellow NYC Ballet Principal Dancer Roman Mejia, Peck led the first rehearsal of the choreography as her showcase. She received the music only two days before, specifically choosing a piece unlike anything she has choreographed before. Peck let the audience hear an excerpt of the music first – an atmospheric piece of harmonic and rhythmic suspension – then zoned in on Mejia with laser detail, counting eight-beat loops, stopping inside every beat to add a plié, or heel, or arms out, or arms down, splashing the audience with every nook and cranny of the music. It was exhilarating.

Composer and pianist Wang Lu ended the showcase with Communion, a magnificent and thoughtfully-crafted project that juxtaposes three film clips depicting historical, cultural, political, and genealogical snapshots of Chinese life. Each rooted in ritual, they all include dance and song, although in widely different contexts: the nightly gathering of retired women in public parks for Square Dancing; a Tik-Tok dance video made by Lu’s aunt, who made one every day during the pandemic while on lockdown in China; and high school students in the 1960s dressed in uniforms singing about joining the revolution.

Wang Lu--Photo by Matt Zugale

Wang Lu–Photo by Matt Zugale

Lu was joined by drummer Russell Greenberg and dancers Jeremy Pheiffer, Marielis Garcia, Lauren Newman, Satori Folkes-Stone, and Vinicius Silva. Choreographer and dancer Madeline Hollander drew from the public park Square Dancing, while Lu performed on pre-recorded and triggered electronics, piano, and used her voice to capture the irony and juxtaposition of mass rituals and repetitions with rich culture and creativity. The steadily building bass drum and articulated snare drum strokes underneath erratic piano lines pushed to the cusp of chaos, remaining unnerving but never falling apart. The synchronized exercise routines of the Square Dancing kept the audience in a monotonous repetition, even when given a harrowing appeal: the lights turned low, the dancers left in a shadowy darkness.

Amongst an abundance of over-stimulating productions that have dazzling concepts, materials, stories, and collaborations, the most stunning shows are sometimes the best balanced ones — tempered to how the body feels, absorbs, and reacts to a multiplicity of sensations. Too often, the mix of dance, film, electronic music, DJ-ing, and a number of effects are overshot. The Toulmin Showcase held weight in the body without ever oppressing it, stimulated the nerves without overexciting them in an all-out visual, aural, and physical delight to the senses. The evening was a success to the artists, performers, and venue alike. The fellows being tasked with creating for a shared space – Blunt’s sound mapping, Jones’ reworking a duet into a solo, Peck’s rehearsal in the venue itself – made it a sensationally welcome environment to be fully immersed.


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