I was going through some photographs I took in Venezuela when I came across the above, taken just outside the Tabay núcleo in Mérida state . Before any incorrect assumptions are made, I’ll hasten to add that Fesnojiv hasn’t expanded to include dance – at least, not formally, but the picture of students on the way to the dance school neighbouring the núcleo seemed more appropriate in a way than yet another shot of the Símon Bolívar Orquesta dancing onstage at the proms.
I’ve had some oddly converging experiences on the idea of dance within el Sistema. The first, apart from the YouTube clips, was during my initial trip to Acarigua in March of this year. At some point in the rehearsal process, some of the musicians asked if I would permit the orchestra to do their traditional choreography for the Márquez Danzón No. 2. I’m not transliterating, the musicians used the word “choreography”, implying movements that are pre-determined and rehearsed. (My answer was “Of course!”, just for the record.) But until that moment, I’d never considered the possibility that the onstage mambos were anything more than spontaneous manifestations of group exuberance.
They might have been, originally, but they might not… at the el Sistema conference in May, Susan Siman, the formidable and energetic former Fesnojiv teacher of international repute, presented a demonstration group lesson for the delegates which included, among other things, a very specific set of movements to be executed by the students as part of the class. These weren’t as extrovert as the examples from the Proms (the students remained seated throughout) but were still fairly sophisticated. It was challenging for the students, and their motions were largely uncoordinated, inorganic, and unnatural.
They were learning, of course, and subsuming any gesture, be it violin fingering or swaying to the beat from the hips, to completely natural expression is the point of practicing. That being said, I’m aware the whole idea was and continues to be contentious; even as audiences are tremendously attracted to the physical, visceral performances of the Venezuelan orchestras, there are those who view the movement with distaste. It’s going to take some targeted research to resolve this issue one way or another, but a plethora of thoughts come to mind.
I’m not an anthropologist, but I would make the observation that dance as social ritual is almost as old as music (“minute one” to music’s “minute zero”) and thus also has social function. As a conductor and trainer/observer of orchestras, I would make the observation that the most powerful musical energy for instrumentalists is instigated by the involvement of the whole body, not just the respiratory system or fingers and arms. And as a music educator, I believe that we perform best with complete physical freedom, not tension, and that as a concept is something that generally has to be taught and reinforced constantly from many different angles.
There’s something else too – it comes as a surprise to many to learn that Márquez is a Mexican composer, so closely is the Danzón associated with Venezuela now. I get the sense, watching that famous YouTube video, that the choreography (now standardized across the nation) is an expression of cultural ownership, a way for Venezuelan youth to make the work “their own.” And it succeeds – Márquez may be Mexican, but the performances of his work by the Fesnojiv orchestras are absolutely distinctive in multiple dimensions. At the ultimate extension of this idea, there might be carryover into the works of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but…that’s something for another posting.