Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alumna Brynn Shiovitz Dances to Her Own Beat with the Rhythm Project

Photo Credit: Megan Bartula

What memories do you have of your time at NYU? Were there any specific professors who had an influence on you? 

My time at NYU remains one of the most exciting and challenging chapters my life has seen. I remember spending long nights at the local Think Coffee on Mercer street reading and re-reading Merleau-Ponty and Bergson, both to quench my own thirst for abstract knowledge and to impress the brilliant and respected AndrĂ© Lepecki for the following morning’s seminar on phenomenology. Think also became a habitual practice on my way to Karen Shimakawa’s course on Abjection, where my heart suffered from the dual excitement of good coffee and the best-facilitated class discussions my mind has ever known. Equally significant were the long nights I would spend in the Abe Burrows Theatre, rehearsing and reclaiming my painful and positive memories with Paula Murray Cole and Richard Schechner’s Rasaboxes Technique. “Think” thus became an inseparable part of my NYU experience: I was regularly stimulated, challenged, and thirsty.

Any favorite NYC spots where you had the opportunity to dance? 

One of my favorite dance performances took place at the World Financial Center, outside, overlooking the water.

The topic of your NYU Master's Thesis is fascinating. Can you tell our readers about it and what sort of conclusions you arrived at after your research? 

My two biggest passions in life have always been continental philosophy (well since high school) and tap dancing (since infancy). My Master’s Thesis, “Five Point Riff: Shirley Ain’t All There is Two It,” explored the relationship between beauty and ethics through the tap dance of Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple. When placed on the same stage, Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple establish a series of oppositions, ranging from visual and sonic, to black and white, to man and child. The visibility of difference between these two dancing bodies marks the space between Agreeability and Disagreeability, thereby validating judgments of taste. However, to take interest in Robinson’s dancing conceals the fact that his presentation only illuminates that of Temple. In addition to the noticeable differences present in films like The Littlest Rebel and The Little Colonel, are the in-visible and in-audible differences driven by the imagination. By placing Robinson alongside Temple, Hollywood not only locates a concealed aesthetic matrix, but also creates it. I am continuing the work of this thesis in my dissertation on concealed forms of minstrelsy in tap dance performances of the early twentieth century.

Taking this research a step further, you started the Rhythm Project, can you tell us about this?

The Rhythm Project began as a personal quest to see if there is in fact a relationship between rhythm and race. My decision to pursue this question through the filmic medium stems from my current dissertation research, which looks at the ways in which technology has been used throughout the 20th century as a means of masking a racial subtext in particular “national” tap dance performances. The Rhythm Project is a process-oriented documentary experience that explores the relationship between rhythm and race as it exists for a diverse group of New York City and Los Angeles-based tap dancers. Using interviews as well as live class and rehearsal footage, I will be producing a series of eight mini-documentaries, each featuring one or two tap dancers and their ideas on this topic. My hope is that upon the completion of these eight shorts, or phases, not only will I have come closer to an answer, but I will have started a much-needed dialogue on this topic. So, there is a selfish element to these films, but more important than gleaning an answer, I am interested in the dialectic that ensues from the process— not just in the tap community, but across disciplines and geographies.

How did you find Derick Grant and how did he become involved?

I had met Derick in Los Angeles a long time ago when I was doing a summer intensive with the Jazz Tap Ensemble. I then started taking class with him on a more regular basis while I was living in New York. I have always been drawn to his organic rhythms and ability to teach. Not all gifted dancers know how to teach! I was so moved by his ability to teach rhythm that I featured him in a story I wrote for Dance Teacher Magazine back in 2010 and I guess after that he felt he could trust me and my work. So when I approached him earlier this year about participating in The Rhythm Project, he happily agreed.

Do you have future plans for the Rhythm Project?

Absolutely. Once I complete the eight phases of this project, I plan on screening them at various studios and universities. I have already been invited to show these films at a dance for camera festival in Fall of 2014. I am hoping to use The Rhythm Project as a springboard for discussing complicated issues around race with students of all ages.

You have a Kickstarter campaign ending soon. What will you do with the funds raised? 

 The funds raised from my Kickstarter will go directly towards the making of the next seven phases.

Do you have a favorite rhythm? 

That’s not a fair question. That depends on my mood. Generally, though, the more syncopated, the better. 

Can you talk about the importance of dance and rhythm, especially as it applies to children?

Everyone is born with a certain rhythmic capacity, which can be stretched or stunted with adequate nurturing or lack thereof. In Phase One, Derick explains that a primary difference between African culture and American is the way in which Americans tend to censor feelings. African culture cultivates a safe space for feelings and the natural expression of these feelings. As a result African babies respond to, and produce rhythm, intuitively. He says, “[Rhythm] is a reflection of the person, the mood that the person is in.” African babies have a much more organic sense of rhythm than do most American adults. Thus the importance of rhythm rests in the fact that it is an organic mode of expressing the self. Fostering a rhythmic practice not only allows a child to be more in touch with him or herself emotionally, but provides the key to human expression.

Is there anything else you'd like to talk about in relation to your project? 

I have already lined up choreographers for phases two and three but I would love feedback on who else the public would like to see included in this project. I have ideas, but this is a dialectical and process-focused project, and the conclusions will be more interesting if I open the floor. For more information on the project, people can visit The Rhythm Project website as well as my Kickstarter and Facebook Pages.

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