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of nature--likes being called a 'kamikaze choreographer' but denies all the 'prince of pain' stuff. June 22, 1997|Jennifer Fisher | Jennifer Fisher is a frequent contributor to Calendar The dances of Mehmet Sander regularly send writers scrambling for new words to describe the sound of bodies hitting hard surfaces--slam, ram, bam, crash, thud, thwack. Critics talk of "grueling group gymnastics" that "mortify the flesh," "bone-crushing" body bruising and "masochistic free-fall acrobatics." Vanity Fair settled for calling Sander's work a "Bataan death mambo" fashioned by a "prince of pain." Sitting in a restaurant that's located between his loft home and his studio in Long Beach, Sander, 30, shrugs. "I don't find my work violent," he says. He laughs when he's reminded of the "prince of pain" line. He thinks it sounds like a name for a leather bar in San Francisco, not for a serious choreographer. And ever since he saw the Merce Cunningham company at age 14, back in Istanbul, Turkey, he has wanted to be a very serious choreographer. He calls himself subversive and "very stubborn"--indeed he's almost as well known for his combative politics, especially gay politics--as he is for the physicality of his work. But he now considers the point that he's "HIV+ and a Queer Choreographer From Istanbul"--which used to be prominent in all his publicity--to be made. Today, he's not wearing his "Dead Bigots Don't Bash Homos" T-shirt, just a plain gray one with tight black shorts and black boots. He is short and powerfully built and has a gentlemanly manner, a combination that might account for the fact that people find him--as he puts it--"intimidating but only at first." The same goes for his work, he insists. Sipping an iced tea, he says that it might look painful at first, but it's not about pain, it's about risk-taking, speed, pure movement and survival. For Sander, bodies must go faster, stop harder and not show emotion to be in his world. "But OK," he eventually acknowledges, gesturing with an arm that has a speeding bullet tattooed on it, "I understand that my work can be seen as violent, but to me, the universe can be violent too, if you think about earthquakes or volcanoes or other galaxies starting and bursting out." Pointing to a scientific formula tattooed next to the bullet on his arm (F = M x A, or force equals mass times acceleration), he's moving into one of the areas he likes best lately--drawing parallels between dance and forces of nature that involve velocity, trajectory and collision. In the past, Sander has often cited architecture and mathematics as influences--many of his pieces take place inside and around geometric structures. But now he talks mostly about quantum physics. "When I choreograph, I treat it like I'm a scientist in a lab, experimenting with solid facts that are reliable, like the laws of physics. I think about my dancers as colliding atoms and molecules crashing into each other. I call my dancers animate objects."
balances and the trademark slamming and thudding. the floor or the wall transmit a message of pain or violence." The idea of bouncing powerfully off surfaces. with some resort to stereotypes. He trained a bit in ballet and more in Graham and Cunningham technique and had started to perform professionally and choreograph by the time he was 16. creative. like an abstract Balanchine work or Martha Graham. As in all Sander pieces. as well as Sander's use of severe architectural props-confining structures.The latest dancer-objects to take on this role for Sander are not part of his own small eponymous troupe of weight-training." Sander studied for two years at Cal State Long Beach before forming his own company in 1990. He says. to whom he has been compared. he says. and finally acquired it for the Joffrey last year.' " California appealed to Sander because." the first of his works to be added to a major company's repertory. Next fall." Born in Germany to Turkish laborer parents with artistic inclinations (his father wrote poetry. It suddenly becomes what America's about. his mother painted). Sander grew up in Istanbul without dance aspirations until his teenage encounter with the Cunningham company. . Instead. a heavy platform. "I was mesmerized when I first saw it. He also studied briefly with Elizabeth Streb. "I think it's because it organically captures the male. it's powerful. In this. that his movement style was established before he met her. he thinks of the heart beating with high adrenaline and how "the emotions take on this inner sound when we fight to release ourselves in whatever way. Sander's 1992 piece "Inner Space" will appear on a mixed program during the company's engagement this week at the Ahmanson Theatre. they see the power of man within his own space and how he uses that space and releases himself. calisthenically correct performers but members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago--better known for their mastery of the pirouette than the push-up. "It's the piece the men gravitate to. the score consists of only the amplified sounds of impact and breathing. 'If I'm going to study. abstract ideas for me. however. "it seemed like there was so much vast space never ending. its shapes. it indicates a new direction of innovative. Sander won a scholarship to London Contemporary Dance School and also studied in Germany. the company will also present Sander's solo "Single Space." Arpino also notes. another highly physical East Coast choreographer. when he sees thumping and slamming. I should really go to the States. that men have been drawn to "Inner Space" more than women." he says. Like Sander. "Inner Space. At 18. a pole--are all part of the reason Arpino calls Sander "a choreographer for the 21st century. but as he recalled: "Modern dance seemed to me completely made in the USA. which was true. It's strong. Arpino encountered "Inner Space" in 1994 at a Cal State Long Beach appearance of the Mehmet Sander Dance Company. and I made up my mind right away to have it. Arpino doesn't think that bodies crashing into one another. it's something men can relate to--not in an elitist way. puts a trio of dancers inside a Plexiglas cube and features suspensions. Through its forms. like a metamorphosis. That was my image. I thought. it's athletic." and there is talk of commissioning an original work sometime in the future." says Joffrey Artistic Director Gerald Arpino.
a 23-year-old Joffrey dancer who will appear in "Inner Space" in L. "He'd make people stand in a semicircle. and will learn the Sander solo "Single Space" for next season. walking over to it. the Joffrey cast has been fine. whether performers are running. But as I performed the piece more. But Sander also relates that when he teaches workshops. Stickney reports. At first I didn't know why we were doing this--just to build up strength maybe. at talking people into doing things they don't think they can do. then doing handstand push-ups against the wall. Sander's company has performed in many European dance festivals. So I thought. and one of my favorites--going into a handstand 20 feet from a wall. Todd Stickney. and Sander says his own dancers do not get hurt. For "Inner Space. it just keeps stretching the limits. I try to do profound movement that hasn't been done before. but two women have now danced it successfully (the piece is danced with two men and a woman at the Joffrey). a neck problem from falling headfirst." As a dancer. Regarding possible injuries. Does such institutional approval impress Sander? .A. and if you don't trust and work well with these people. and moving is about human bodies racing in space. Stickney. but the Joffrey connection has brought the choreographer to a new kind of prominence. as well as in Brazil. he says. trying to mimic the flight of a bullet or just hanging around upside down. with narrative touches. there's a very high chance of injury when things go wrong. Sander believes that all dancers can build up the right muscles to protect bones. smiling. It's a very intimate environment. which tend to have an autobiographical bent. within and under the laws of physics and gravity." Arpino initially had fears that his ballerinas might find the physical challenge too tough. he says. as well as learn to distribute their weight in a way that minimizes impact."What I've done over the years is basically an intellectual elimination of what I felt was not pure in dance. both with his troupe and in solo concerts. recalls the choreographer's training process: "It was almost like a boot camp thing. Sander says about his work: "It's about proving the fact that there are no limits in life. Sander still performs. 'Those bruises are your medals. The more you push the limit. however. falling and rolling like well-drilled circus acrobats." The need for synchronization and extreme caution is clear in most of Sander's work. Arpino now has no concern. what is dance?' Basically it's movement art. I realized that he was also preparing us mentally for the trust you need in other people inside the box." he says. Whatever his influences. then you'd have to run and fly through the air and leap backwards with people catching you. In performance. We would do push-ups. very simple and completely abstracted. "' he says. "I wanted to find vocabulary that's core. 'Well. not found in the more abstract company pieces. "I tell them. encouraging people to try new things. the participants--all of whom he urges to go beyond their limits (Sander believes in mind over body)--often show him their bruises. says that each Joffrey dancer in the piece sustained at least a minor injury during rehearsals--a sprained ankle." He's great. crawling across the floor on our elbows. bruises.
though. Science is the way to go. Sander spoke to the Turkish ambassador." Sander also liked being called a "terrorist onstage." Sander says. he says: "It was a great joy to work with the Joffrey. Lately. it wasn't until the company got to the Kennedy Center that same month that Sander let himself feel a thrill of accomplishment." What made him mad recently. Sander had bounced a water bottle against a wall. because terrorists destroy what has been done and create something new. Afterward. "He thought I had stretched the limits of the way I've used physics to defy and demonstrate gravity." because it means you are "really taking a chance for life and death." The concept of a Sander piece minus the speed and impact is certainly an innovative one." he says." Although he attended the May 1996 Joffrey "Inner Space" premiere in Minneapolis. "So he thought it would be a great idea for me to choreograph a piece in zero gravity. The woman insisted on the word "romantic". ." for instance. is one day at the end of my life. I really like that idea. where language differences presented their challenges--to explain the title of his piece. then "Inner Space" was performed and discussed. It means "sentimental and unrealistic. and I'm actually really hard on myself. "That was nice to hear. "Ricochet. Sander about his process. all his friends are science teachers--"but the eccentric ones. I have the passion to do it. His colleague said I should be the first man to dance in space. when he was included in a lecture series at the Smithsonian Institution. I'll look back and I'll think that I really gave something new to this art form." And at least a few of the formulas." Equally as exciting for Sander was a conversation with a scientist from a space laboratory after that same event. According to Sander." He says. Another high point came a year later. "the ones who like modern dance." Sander says. he argued. all dance that involves emotion is selfindulgent.Not really. Gentle floating seems out of place for someone who says he likes being called a "kamikaze choreographer. but I don't need other people's approval." He expects their information exchanges to lead to new things. "It's a compliment for me. "He told me he was so proud of being Turkish when he saw my work." he says. my wish. was when a woman called him romantic. "The biggest desire. still angry. Arpino talked about the Joffrey. It happened at a post-performance discussion in Brazil. again in Washington.
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