Oct. 9 at RIC –
Keith Terry with Crosspulse: dance and music crossing borders

Keith Terry (Photo: Paul Haggard)
Snapping, clapping, stomping, skipping and growling are all highly expressive though generally unvarnished actions. But when they are formed into certain carefully wrought patterns, they can actually be music to our ears. Specifically, body music.

One of today’s leading practitioners of the art is Keith Terry, and he will be displaying his varied skills at Rhode Island College on Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. in the auditorium in Roberts Hall. His ensemble, Crosspulse, will accompany him, along with the Rhode Island College Dance Company.

It is likely that humans began making music with their bodies before ever resorting to sticks, stones and other objects at hand. Through the ages cultures of all types have developed distinctive forms of body music, such as hambone (U.S.), gumboot (South Africa), kecak (Bali), saman (Indonesia) and armpit music (Ethiopia).

Terry’s introduction to the genre, however, is a reverse of that evolution. He is a trained percussionist. About 30 years ago, when he was co-directing the Jazz Tap Ensemble, he realized that he could transfer what he doing on a drum kit onto his body.

In the May 2006 issue of DRUM! magazine, he outlined some parallels, associating, for instance, the handclap with the “highest, sharpest sounds of your kit – snare drum and hi-hat” or the foot stomp with a bass drum.

Since then, Terry has been fine-tuning his skills and expanding his involvement with body music and dance.

He has worked with Robin Williams, Bobby McFerrin, Charles “Honi” Coles and the Turtle Island String Quartet. Terry’s critically acclaimed “Body Tjak,” a collaboration with Balinese artist I Wayan Dibia, toured the U.S. and Indonesia during the fall of 1990. From 1998-2005, he taught in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures.

In 2008, Terry received a Guggenheim Award, part of which he used to fund the first International Body Music Festival. A second festival is scheduled for this December.

(Photo: Peter Petronio)
Terry’s visit to the college was engineered by Angelica Vessella ’97, director of dance at RIC, who first encountered him at a percussive dance festival in Maine, where she took his workshop on body rhythm and music.

Vessella noted, “He opened my mind to ways of speaking about dance in relation to the music. Terry understands that dancers don’t necessarily understand music in the way a musician does, and Keith trains them to think differently about music by helping them to understand syncopation, polyrhythms and meter.

“There’s more than just hearing the down beat. The texture and weight of dance live in syncopation.”

Vessella herself is wide ranging in her dance practice. Besides directing the Rhode Island College Dance Company, which largely showcases modern work, she has choreographed numerous musicals, including recent RIC Theatre productions of “Hair,” “No, No Nanette” and “Damn Yankees.” She has also directed her own jazz/tap ensemble, the Vessella Dance Project.

Already Keith Terry has been on campus, choreographing a work for the college dance company, which will premiere during the Oct. 9 concert.

The piece is based on a series of rhythms, with the dancers themselves creating the musical score and in a way the work itself. It has the performers snapping and clapping, singing in three-part harmony and dancing – using all of the body’s musical resources.

“It’s like ‘Stomp,’” said Vessella. “It may appear simple but that’s a deception. Keith’s work is a lot about timing, and you have to feel that. In this piece, you have 18 dancers having to feel it at the same time.”

(Photo: Irene Young)
One of the students performing in the work, Brittany Carr, a senior from Warwick majoring in dance and communications, confirms Vessella’s observation.

“I thought I had rhythm,” Carr commented in speaking about the work’s difficulty.

One of the biggest challenges, she found, was having two different body parts working at the same time – hands and feet moving to different rhythms.

“There are a lot of crosspulses,” Carr noted. “A bass rhythm, for example, will overlap with another type of rhythm. A crosspulse is a meeting of these.”

“But the real fun part of the piece was the singing and dancing together,” she continued, “using the voice and the body. I love doing the piece.”

Carr found Terry easy to work with and funny, and particularly appreciated his ability to interact with the dancers and have the dancers connect with each other on stage.

Vessella, in her discussion of Terry’s piece, delved into some of the nuances of body-music techniques. She mentioned that the method someone uses to clap can affect sound quality and pitch, for instance, depending on whether the palm is held curved or flat or how the fingers are used.

By bringing in artists like Keith Terry, she hoping to have her company see dance as all encompassing, to let the dancers try out its various aspects – tap, ballet, etc. – and to find their own niche.

This approach will also give the company experience with a variety of choreographic styles.

Vessella gave one example: “Modern choreographers usually create the dance first and then try out different music to go with the piece. It’s a matter of music being complementary.

“But in forms like jazz and tap, the music and dance are interdependent. In fact, the dancer is the music.”

Viewed from this perspective, work like Keith Terry’s can be seen as occupying an intriguing space where the borders between art forms yield to new combinations and fresh possibilities. It is a primal space, like body music itself.

General admission for the Keith Terry with Crosspulse is $15, with discounts for groups, senior citizens and students. Call (401) 456-9791.

Keith Terry body music video

2009-10 dance events

Fall 2009 performing and fine arts events