Clad in sweatpants and sporting messy buns, Sarabande dancers made their way down Talbot Avenue this week, filling the studios of Jackson Dance Lab with the distinctive high-energy bustling that can only be attributed to days leading up to a show. Or, as it is affectionately named, “Hell Week.” Since last Sunday, these dancers have been working intensely to prepare for tonight: the first performance of Sarabande’s fall semester show “Little Bit of Love.”
Of course, the work doesn’t begin with Hell Week. “Little Bit of Love” is comprised of a number of dances, each the product of a unique group of performers under the direction of a different choreographer. The pieces that will appear tonight on the stage of Cohen auditorium have been in the works since the start of the semester, or even before.
Choreographer Kelly Woodruff, a senior, has been crafting her piece, “The Love There That’s Sleeping,” since the summer. Like the other pieces, “Sleeping” depends on the dancers’ and choreographer’s dedicated effort, but one thing sets it apart. Instead of using a prerecorded track, “Sleeping” dancers will perform to the live music of The Bande.
The Bande was assembled just this semester to perform live alongside Woodruff’s piece. Before coming up with their playful name, the group members were simply calling themselves “Kelly’s Dance Band.” Encompassing a wide range of musical talents, The Bande includes senior Andrew Schneer (vocalist, banjo player), senior Gabe Rothman (violin), junior Eric Broess (electric guitar), junior Kerem Gurol (electric bass) and senior Robert Mathai (drums).
Atypical for a Sarabande show, the idea to incorporate live music came early in the creative process. While Woodruff sifted through albums, brainstorming ideas for a song selection with Rothman and Schneer, the musicians simply joked, “We’ll just play it for you,” to which she enthusiastically replied, “OK, do that.” Together, Woodruff and The Bande agreed upon “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1968) by the Beatles.
From there, the project has been moving full-steam ahead. As a choreographer, Woodruff says she typically chooses her music first, then begins to develop the piece during her free time, experimenting in the studio, in her bedroom and even (conceptually) during class. In the first weeks of the school year when The Bande was first forming, Woodruff attended the group’s jam sessions, both to get a feel for their developing musical style and to shape her choreography to fit it.
Eventually, the dancers and musicians came together to rehearse, though finding a time to meet was difficult given the complicated logistics of trying to fit together everyone’s cramped schedules, Woodruff noted.
The process, as Woodruff, Schneer and Rothman described it, has been highly collaborative. And as with any collaboration, it has come with a few hurdles — some artistic, others technical.
Schneer explained that musically, a deviation of five to ten beats per minute between run-throughs of the same song, can be typical. But for dancers who must synchronize their steps to the beat, any small change can be frustrating.
“The biggest challenge has been the tempo…” Woodruff admitted. “I guess it’s something you don’t really notice until you set dancers on it, because it’s such a slight difference. But if it’s slightly faster or slightly slower, we notice it very quickly as we’re turning or jumping or leaping.”
Similarly, the lighting cues, which are normally timed down to the second and given as detailed instructions to sound booth technicians, will need to be adjusted, Woodruff pointed out with a laugh. And while The Bande can play in the floor space in front of the first row of seats to leave the full expanse of the stage free for the dancers, this too presents an issue. How will the stage crew light The Bande? House lights or an extra spot light seem like the only options. Luckily, Schneer says the group is flexible.
“We’ll play in the dark if we have to,” he said cheerfully.
Schneer’s playful quip is just one example of the enthusiasm and optimism Woodruff & Co. have toward the project, despite the occasional issues they have had to troubleshoot. Woodruff was also quick to add the many creative upsides of working with live musicians.
“I think the part that I really like about it that I can tell [the musicians], ‘Can you make this stronger?’ or ‘I can’t really hear the drums here, can you make them more pronounced,’ or even ‘Gabe, can you make the violin part really sappy, make the audience cry,’ that kind of thing. You can’t do that with a recording. You can’t alter it,” Woodruff said.
In addition to Woodruff’s dramatic adjustments, Schneer and Rothman explained that their version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” diverges from The Beatles’ rendition.
“It’s a very blues-driven piece,” said Rothman of the original. “We definitely take more of a folk spin on it, especially with the banjo … It doesn’t change the lyrical message — but it does change the feel of it.”
“It’s not just a novelty, it changes the final project a lot,” Rothman said, adding that The Bande’s adaptation of the song separates tonight’s performance from a typical dance show.
With the Bande’s distinct style in mind, Woodruff adjusted her choreography accordingly.
“I was going off what [the song] sounded like with them, versus just the Beatles recording that I had initially,” she said.
“If [Kelly] says she wants to build at the end, we build at the end,” Schneer said.“She says ‘jump,’ we say ‘how high?’”
“She says ‘slow down,’ we say ‘whoops!’” Rothman tacked on.
From the studio to the stage, the natural overlap between music and dance is a central focus for the piece.
“The closest thing to a concept that you could gather from [‘Sleeping’] is the range of emotion that you can show through music and through movement within a piece,” Woodruff said. “So, there are points when it’s very strong, there’s points when it’s a little more vulnerable, or points where it’s almost like daydreaming … It’s cool how you can express those feelings through music and movement and then put them together.”
Furthermore, this collaboration may be an extra reason for Tufts students to come to tonight’s show. Senior Ilona Balagula, a dancer in “Sleeping,” said that the live music performance has been a key selling point of the piece, and something that gets her friends and peers to perk up their ears when she mentions “Little Bit of Love.”
“I think the idea of different disciplines and art forms at Tufts coming together is something I’d like to see more of,” Schneer said. “I think it’s a great thing.”
Woodruff, for her part, expressed both satisfaction and excitement, as the end of Hell Week — not to mention the approach of opening night — marks the culmination of months of work and collaboration.
“Little Bit of Love” will be performed tonight at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Cohen auditorium. Tickets are free, but must be picked up from the Aidekman Box Office.