A stroll down memory lane
Songs of My Life uses childhood pop to evoke emotion through dance
By Laura Kennedy
It happens all the time. A song starts up on the ol’ playlist- it may be Hootie and the Blowfish, Celine Dion or even a band that’s not a guilty pleasure like U2- and the feelings and images come flooding back. Suddenly, we’re 12 and at a junior high dance again, or maybe we’re sitting in ore dorm room freshman year.
Music has a remarkably potent ability to stir up memories, and Daniel Singh is well aware of its power to create landmarks in our lives. Road trips with his friends, accompanied by a burned CD of his favorite songs, inspired Singh to create Songs of My Life, a modern dance composition backed by some of Singh’s favorite pop songs.
When he and his Washington-based dance company, Dakshina, present the return engagement of Songs tonight and tomorrow at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Kogod Theatere- it debuted to sold-out crowds last fall as Singh’s Master of Fine Arts thesis at the university- Singh wanted to make them the songs of your life, too. During the work, audience members are invited to express their own emotions through several “social dance” sections when the crowd can let loose along with the dancers in a club-like environment. Along with encouraging movement, Singh hopes the performance’s song selection will spark reflections- like those about awkward moments of yore- in the audience.
“We want them to think back to some even in their own life” says Singh, “when the song [in the performance] was playing, the song was important in their own life. Or even if it’s not the exact same song, maybe it was another song that might have put them in a similar situation: maybe in a bar, or a club, or at a friend’s party or on their own road trip. We want them to get into their own lives as they watch us dance.”
And Singh even sticks to the musically respectable in his choices: Songs’ playlist includes U2, Fiona Apple, Norah Jones and Aimee Mann. They’re not your typical modern dance selections, but as someone who’s currently listening to the dairy milkshake-loving Kelis and multimedia powerhouse Beyonce, Singh like it that way.
“I think [pop music] gives people an access into an abstract art form like dance,” he says. “It gives them a way to make their own sense out of it. Whether it’s an imagined connection or there’s an actual connection, once there’s some text attached, people seem to get comfortable with it”.
Showgoers shouldn’t get too cozy in those seats, though: Audience participation is in a linchpin of Songs. Besides promoting the understanding of dance itself, one of Singh’s goals is to pump up the reputation of the club dance scene, so he incorporates a lot of the aforementioned social dance into the 70- minutes performance.
Approximately 40 percent of the work is “open dance”, in which an in-house DJ spins live mixes of the songs, and spectators are invited to get up and mix it up a little themselves. The other 60 percent of the performance calls on the eight modern dancers and six social dancers in the number to interpret choreographed vignettes based on typical club antics.
“One of the things I though was really wonderful was that you did have a group of young people mixed in there just like a club, or a dance club, talking,” Ruth Waalkes, says of last year’s performance of Songs. “But it’s very subtle when the actually choreographed dancers start to break out and do something. So it was really wonderful how respectable people were; [they were thinking], ‘Oh, something’s happening now’ and sort of moving back and allowing the performance to really break out of a pretty social setting. And no one seemed confused or dismayed by that.”
While he was pleasantly surprised by the response to Songs last year; Singh is not satisfied with the dance community’s general opinion of the flashy twists and turns- usually flowing from the limbs of twentysomethings- that make their way across the dance floor in clubs across this country. During a recent trip to Cuba, Singh was amazed at the popularity of social dancing in every generation; he talks about seeing an 18 or 20- year old dancing next to an 80-year- old in a club.
“Social dance is a huge, underlooked subculture in the dance community.” Singh says. “I think club dancers spend hours training, practicing their moves, as much as a modern dancer might. It doesn’t happen at a university or an academic setting, but they’re still working and still learning and still passion on their technique to each other… When I was traveling in Cuba and saw how important social dance was there to them, it made me think about social dance in America in different ways.”
But Singh doesn’t spend all of his time dissecting the importance of club beats in the cultural landscape. Just like the pop music selections in Songs of My Life, which emphasizes the importance of companionship and bonds, the definitive songs of Singh’s life have a hint of wistfulness for friendships and relationships, past and present. He names U2’s “With or Without You”, Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” and that 1991 classic “More Than Words,” by the flannel-clad Extreme, as his favorites.
“They kind of have a bittersweetness to them,” Singh says. “It’s not all sad, but it’s not all happy either. They’re very realistic in their depictions of life and relationships.” With Songs of My Life, Singh aims to do the same.