Contemporary, Dance, Music, Preview

Cagey Moves from 3rd Law Dance

A preview by Marc Shulgold

Let’s face it: Johann Sebastian Bach and John Cage are not exactly like peas and carrots, as Forrest Gump would say. The two composers come from opposite ends of the musical spectrum – Bach a disciplined Baroque master who passionately followed the rules, Cage a gleeful, rule-destroying lover of random ideas and sounds. Yes indeed, totally incompatible.

Or are they?

Composer John Cage

Composer John Cage

Not according to Katie Elliott, who is boldly bringing those two musical giants together in an evening-length work for her company, 3rd Law Dance/Theater. The piece, cleverly titled “BACH unCAGEd,” marks the ensemble’s return to the Boulder Bach Festival, following last year’s sold-out, deliriously received “Obstinate Pearl,” created by Elliott and company co-director Jim LaVita, with significant onstage contributions from violinist (and Festival music director) Zachary Carrettin.

They’re all back for Dairy Center performances on March 27 and 28, joined this time by pianist Marcia Schirmer, who’ll plunk out Cage’s music on a prepared piano.

“We’re going to be drawing from the excitement of that first collaboration,” Elliott said of this year’s reunion-like edition. “Actually, I was already thinking about our next venture while ‘Obstinate Pearl’ was in progress.”

3rd Law and Carretin photo credit: Heather Gray

3rd Law and Carretin
photo credit: Heather Gray

That performance was built around Carrettin’s moving (literally) renditions of  Bach’s solo violin works – repertory that, naturally, fit neatly with the Bach Festival. But how did John Cage get into the mix?

“Both composers were interested in numbers,” Elliott said of Johann and John. “They examined ratios, numerical schemes – that sort of thing. A lot of people misunderstand Cage’s approach to composition. With him, randomness is not random.” Indeed, Cage always viewed chance and randomness as separate concepts.

Elliott is OK with the avant-garde composer’s well-documented use of such non-musical sources as Tarot cards and the I Ching, which suggests a degree of removal from the act of creating. No surprise, then, that the choreographer adopted a similar looseness in creating “unCAGEd.”

“We did roll the dice with selecting some movements at certain points,” she admitted. “That said, I think people in the audience will sense something that’s being organized.”

Obstinate Pearl 3rd Law Photo credit: Heather Gray

Obstinate Pearl 3rd Law
Photo credit: Heather Gray

So, how does a choreographer approach setting movements to the music of those two very different composers? Easy, she replied: “I don’t typically create to music – I create the choreography first. To give an example, I created the movements for a Bach Courante to a hip-hop (recording). And I used Cage’s Sixth (Piano) Sonata to make a Sarabande.

Throughout the creative process, Carrettin continued his role as active participant. Just as he had in “Obstinate Pearl,” he’ll move around the stage with the dancers as he performs Bach’s music (in this case, violin-arranged excerpts from the Cello Suites). “I wanted live, onstage music,” Elliott said. “Seeing him move really inspired me.”

Meanwhile, the violinist worked with Schirmer in selecting the Cage works, which the pianist will perform on a prepared instrument positioned in front of the audience – permitting onlookers to view the various nuts and bolts and such, affixed to piano strings to alter their sound. Carrettin also proposed creating an electronic loop of a music phrase so that he can then improvise over it.

Adding to this spirit of collaboration, Elliott permitted her dancers to contribute to the choreography. “I’m giving them task-oriented equations,” she said. “Some phrase work for them to insert their own personalities.”

Inevitably, the final element of collaboration will come from 3rd Law’s audience. As in any post-modern dance program, active onlookers engage with the performance to emerge with their own interpretations. Elliott kind of likes that idea. “The audience doesn’t need any pre-knowledge,” she stressed, adding that all contemporary dance-makers are merely “hanging a clothes line that people can hang their metaphors on.”

As part of the Boulder Bach Festival and Boulder Arts Week 2015, 3rd Law Dance/Theater will perform “BACH unCAGEd” at 7 p.m. March 27 and 28 in the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Information: or (303) 444-SEAT (7328).

The Boulder Bach Festival continues Feb. 27 and 28 with performances of Bach’s Mass in B minor in Denver and Boulder. Information: or 303-444-7328.


Bach UnCaged

Bach UnCaged

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