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COMMONPLACE
 

choreography: Susan Hadley

music: Veljo Tormis - Forgotten Peoples

costumes executed by: BalletMet Costume Shop

lighting design: Alexander V. Nichols


 
 
 
Premiere of Commonplace by University Dance Company, 1996
These notes compiled by Gerard Charles, BalletMet Columbus, February 1997

 

 

 

 

   

Susan Hadley on Commonplace


Always seeking to express on stage the strength of her feelings, Commonplace is a very heartfelt dance for Susan Hadley. In Commonplace Susan seeks to present the power of community within a group of women. Knowing the University Dance Company (for whom the dance was created) was predominantly female, Ms. Hadley took the opportunity to create a dance focused on the rituals of caretaking among women.

 

Despite, having grown up with parents who maintain strong ties to the people they grew up with, and even having long standing friends of her own, Susan senses that her generation is one where individuality, mobility and personal success have led to a sense of loss of place and of belonging to a larger circle, that we have become lonely as a generation and a culture. We are all working and trying to raise families, possibly in more isolation than in years gone by. Susan seeks to stress how rituals and community can supply the bulwark that we can fall back upon in times of need.

Another point of reference for this work is the images of women throughout the world who have suffered the loss of their families, often at gun-point in the middle of the night, as the result of political turmoil. These women have gone on to support one another and have taken to public expression of their loss. The examples are too many to name, but the stories from Argentina and Sarajevo stand out in recent history. The mothers of Argentina going to the military square in silent protest, day after day maintaining their vigil, communicated to the world not only the tragedy of what had happened but demonstrated the amazing power of the human spirit to rise above incredible odds. There is one section of Commonplace where Ms. Hadley has incorporated this image of women walking in a circle. There are also moments of uncontrollable grief represented by a dancer actually throwing herself at the others, but the strength of the circle remains unbroken.

The women of this world have managed to find strength in traditional or new rituals, that demonstrate how community is often strongest in times of sorrow or grief. Although individuals may crack, the community is there to support one another. "Women have a great sense of compassion, and our compassion comes from how we stand witness to each other," states Ms. Hadley.Although these are the starting points of Ms. Hadley’s creation it is all synthesized through her own personal expression and those of the dancers performing. Susan does not want her dance to be a series of individual performances in a dance about a ritual, but more a coming together of the dancers in a ritualistic way, where the movements are no longer new and unfamiliar but where the dancers can sense one another to produce a strong effect. In testimonial to the universality of these themes, Ms. Hadley has been approached by a diverse cross section of the population who, after having seen the dance performed, commented on how it truly reflected their lives.For many years Ms. Hadley has had the privilege to work closely with Bradley Sowash on the creation of many of her works. Bradley composed the music in close association with Susan and they were able to freely exchange ideas. Finding music that is already written is a new departure for Susan, and although she finds lots of music she likes, finding something that she thinks suitable for her choreography is another matter. Susan knew she wanted to work with music from a folk rather than classical background as a support for her concepts. When Susan heard Forgotten Peoples by Veljo Tormis for the first time (on loan from the Grandview Public Library) she did not know the meaning of the words, but the music itself spoke so strongly to her that it was obviously a perfect match for the ideas she was forming for her next dance.

Whenever a choreographer chooses to work to music with lyrics (as Ms. Hadley did with Trail of Broken Hearts to the music of k.d. lang for BalletMet) many questions are raised. Exactly how closely should you follow the words, should the choreography reflect the content of the song and how artistically independent can one become from the lyrics? When the words are in a language that is little understood, (and in the case of Forgotten Peoples, some dead languages) those lines of decision become further blurred. Even without understanding the words, there is a universality in the music of Veljo Tormis that immediately touches the listener, as it did Ms. Hadley. There is much ‘world music’ that is incredibly enjoyable to listen to but how do you justify making it your own? It is often so flavorful of its roots that as an artist you do not want to lessen it or look insensitive to the music if you do not share those roots. Although a definite record of one culture, Forgotten Peoples does not feel culture specific; in fact it is remarkable in its ability to speak to many with its mysterious and ancient harmonies. Ms. Hadley felt free to put her own cultural statements on top of this music which she also feels blend with the tone of the music. The choice of only six selections from the 51 on the recordings was not so difficult to narrow down as it may seem. Many sections had spoken words that Susan did not wish to use or feelings different than those Ms. Hadley wished to express. She also stayed away from heavily male sounding choral sections.Restaging this dance for the dancers of BalletMet has been a joy for Susan. Although originally created on dancers with a contemporary dance background, Commonplace has transferred well to the women of BalletMet. Susan says that the concept of the gulf that lay between the different dance disciplines in the past really is out of date these days as today’s dancers are expected to dance a much wider range of styles. It is certainly true of the BalletMet dancers who have experienced a wide variety of choreographers and their works. Having worked with the dancers on Trail of Broken Hearts they had already been exposed to the physical interests that lie at the heart of Ms. Hadley’s choreography: the demands of mobility in the torso, the grounding of the weight, working off the vertical.

Commonplace has another level of demands as well, those of the spirit. The dancers must invest of themselves in the work, to achieve a sense of ownership that would allow them to drop the more traditional balletic traditions of personal excellence and standing out from the crowd in exchange for giving themselves to a powerful group that breathes as one. At the end of her first week of rehearsals Susan said that she really began to feel that happening. Because Commonplace comes from a heartfelt place, not a "choreographer’s intellect," Ms. Hadley says she is very serious about this work and is grateful to the dancers for being as serious in return. Although rich in details of bodily design and spacing, Susan believes that you can only convey the sense of ritual she seeks by having the movement as second nature, to have worked it to a point where you no longer have to think about the choreography itself but to take comfort in it and to be aware of those around you. To develop the "virtuosity of unison."Originally for the costumes Ms. Hadley went to the local vintage clothing shops and bought a selection of black dresses. She wanted them to be similar in feel - there is a sense of timelessness and also a somber feeling about black - but not the same. Because vintage clothing does not hold up too well to continued wearings by dancers, for this presentation by BalletMet the designs are newly constructed by the costume department under the direction of Lynn Holbrook.

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The Music - Forgotten Peoples


 

The set of six song cycles that make up Forgotten Peoples were composed over a period of twenty years (beginning in 1970) due to the composer’s thorough research for authentic sources and his desire to have time to absorb the unique qualities of each culture.

"Veljo Tormis has reserved the song heritage of peoples in the area from Estonia round through Karelia and towards Finland, peoples whose languages and songs have all but disappeared. However, this is no mere ethenomusicological exercise, but an imaginative gesture which evokes the musical essence of these cultures. The music of Veljo Tormis taps the most ancient roots in a fluid, powerful idiom, and offers a fascinating counterpart to the work of another Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt." - Paul Hillier

The songs are performed in the original languages. The titles of both individual songs and song cycles are in Estonian, Tormis’ mother tongue ( with the exception of the Karelian songs where the original language has been used). Originally, the songs were not given titles by their singers.

 

Veljo Tormis on Forgotten Peoples, June 1990.

"Being an Estonian composer, I consider it natural that my work is based chiefly on the motifs of Estonian folklore. I turned to our national heritage in order to discover my musical mother tongue - my people’s musical identity - which the previous generations of composers (e.g. Saar, Kreek and Tubin) had already been searching out and discovering for their day and age. While exploring the archives, studying the folklore publications, and listening to recordings, I realized that Estonian folk song is part of a very ancient culture. The components - the melody and the words as well as the manner of performance - are structurally connected. It also became clear to me that the musical tradition belonged to pre-Christian, shamanistic civilization, one very close to nature from the ecological point of view. To characterize the place of the Estonian language, I'd like to borrow from the writer Ain Kaalep, who said that ‘we - Estonians, Finns and Hungarians - are the Red Indians of Europe.’ There is obviously no other civilization of the same period that could have retained their language and ancient music. In 1969, I went on an expedition with students from Tartu University and discovered for myself the Livonians, a small group of people whose language is similar to Estonian. The next expedition in 1970 introduced me to the Votians and Izhorians. Hearing these disappearing languages spoken by living people inspired me to research their folk songs. Since then, I have made serious studies of the folklore of the Baltic Finns; one of the results of this effort is the song cycle Forgotten Peoples. From the beginning I have been striving for an appropriate and authentic response to the original material; when studying the sources I have also consulted folklorists. I was fortunate to hear the songs of the Votians and Izhorians performed live, which gave me a deep emotional charge.

All the Baltic Finns had a tragic history; they have been trampled from both east and west by so-called liberators during the two great wars of this century. Hundreds of thousands of people were driven from their homes and scattered over the plains of Russia and Siberia, and the small groups who managed to remain are dying out. By now, all the Livonian, Votian, and Izhorian singers, whose voices I still vividly remember, have passed away. I still get a Christmas card every year in Livonian, but for how much longer? It is because of this that all the series end in farewells, with the departure into eternity and space...However, I would not like to sing a final requiem to any of these people. The aim of Forgotten Peoples is to awaken understanding, and help retain the ancient Balto-Finnic heritage.

Their way of thinking and their values might even give some support to insecure contemporary man in his everyday rat-race. I am convinced that the world would be considerably poorer without the culture of these people."

- Veljo Tormis

 

The selections of music used in Commonplace come from the following sections of Forgotten Peoples.

Liivlaste pärandus - Livonian Heritage (1970). A series of Livonian folk songs for mixed choir; original texts adapted by Herbert Tampere and transcribed by Karl Kont.

Isuri eepos - Izhorian Epic (1975). A series of Izhorian runic songs for mixed choir; original texts adapted by Arvo Laanest.

Ingerimaa õhtud - Ingrian Evenings (1979). A series of Ingrian folk songs for mixed choir; original texts adapted by Ada Ambus.

Vespa rajad - Vespian Paths (1983). A series of Vespian folk songs for mixed choir; original texts adapted by Maare Joalaid.

Karjala saatus - Karelian Destiny (1989). A series of Karelian runic songs for mixed choir; original texts adapted by Kari Laukkanen, ulo Tedre and Jaan Õispuu.

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Veljo Tormis, composer


Veljo Tormis was born in Kuusalu, near Tallinn, Estonia, August 7,1930. Having studied organ and choral conducting at the Tallinn Music Institute, he turned to composition in 1950. Studying first at the Tallinn Conservatory, and then the Moscow State Conservatory, where he studied with V. Shebalin and Fortunatov. Tormis graduated in 1956 and returned to Tallinn to teach. In 1962 he took first prize at the All-Union Young Composers’ Competition and in 1967 received a first-class diploma for the opera Luigelend. In 1967 Tormis was made a Merited Artist of the Estonian SSR.

 

An expert on Estonian folk music, Tormis is primarily known as a composer of vocal music rooted in the traditions of his native folk song and yet entirely contemporary in feeling. One of his best known works is Estonian Calendar Songs.

"I do not use folk song, it is folk song that uses me. To me, folk music is not a means of self-expression; on the contrary, I feel the need to express the essence of folk music, its spirit, meaning and form. I believe the runic songs to be the highest achievement and most original phenomenon of Estonian culture. But today, runic song has ceased to exist as a component part of the Estonian way of life. Through modern art forms, I try to expose the originality and meaning of runic song. Eternal is the great circle of life, eternal are the life events repeating in their own way with each passing age."

- Veljo Tormis.

Selected works of Veljo Tormis

 

 1955  4 etüüdi
 1956  Kalevipoeg
   Symphony
 1959  Symphony
 1965  Luigelend (Swan Flight) Opera
   Meestelaulud (Men’s songs)
   Hamleti laulud (Songs of Hamlet)
   Eesti kalendrilaulud (Estonian Calendar Songs)
 1966  10 vokaalminiatüüri
 1967  Ballada Maarjamaa
 1969  Looduspildld (Nature Pieces)
   Laulu algus (The beginning of the song)
 1970  Külalaulud (Village songs)
   Liivlaste pärandus (Livonian Heritage)
 1971  Vadja pulmalaulud (Votic Wedding Songs )
 1972  13 eesti lüürilist rahvaviisi
   Raua needmine (Invocation of Iron)
 1975  Isuri eepos (Izhorian Epic)
 1979  Ingerimaa õhtud (Ingrian Evenings)
 1983  Vespa rajad (Vespian Paths)
 1989  Karjala saatus (Karelian Destiny)

 

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Tormis Bibliography

 H. Tauk: ‘Veljo Tormis’ Six Estonian creators of Modern Music edited by L. Normet (Tallinn, 1970)

L. Normet "Veljo Tormis" Kompozitorï soyuznïkh respublik (Moscow)

 

Tormis Discography

 

Forgotten Peoples - Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. E.C.M. New Series, 1459/60.

Overture No. 2 - Scottish National Orchestra. Chandos, CHAN 8656.

Raua Needmine - Danish National Radio Chorus. Chandos, 9264.

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