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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 22,

1999. All rights reserved.

For Tenney Siblings, a Y2K Deadline

What better way, as an artist, to hurl yourself forward

into the next century than to premiere a new work this New Year’s

Eve. What better way, as an art appreciator, to begin 2000 than to

be present at that performance.

The Arts Council of Princeton has revved up its annual Curtain Calls

extravaganza by commissioning a 30-minute dance, drama, and music

piece from a sibling trio — Susan, Steven, and David Tenney —

who have collaborated six times before, but never in their home town

of Princeton.

Susan Tenney is a dancer and choreographer with a company of dancers

and actors. She teaches at Princeton Ballet School and most recently

choreographed works performed at the Hiroshima remembrance in

Princeton

in August.

Steven Tenney is a playwright and videographer who has had more than

a dozen pieces performed in New York City and regionally. David Tenney

— a composer of three operas, two musicals, music for five plays,

and nine modern dance scores — lives in Skillman. He is currently

at work on a new opera with his brother Steven. The trio’s younger

brother, Jon, is a successful actor working on the West Coast.

"The Arts Council is excited by our work, and we feel truly

honored

by this commission to commemorate the millennium," says Susan

Tenney.

Entitled "The Tower," the piece is conceived as the first

part of a projected full-evening trilogy. Integrating dance and music

in several languages, it features 11 dancers, 10 actors, and 3 foreign

language speakers. It recounts the story of a messenger sent into

time from a New Year’s Eve party of the future. The history of a

student

and the history of the millennium are temporarily fused as the party’s

host attempts to access a pivotal database in the past.

"The Tower" will be performed at Richardson Auditorium twice,

as the last segment of a 90-minute entertainment sequence that starts

at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Emceed by Diana Crane, the performances also

feature

the John Bianculli jazz ensemble, and cabaret by June Ballinger, Mary

Martello, and Cyrus Newitt. Those who want to include this Richardson

Auditorium performance in their Curtain Calls evening will pay $40

instead of the standard $20. For information, call 609-921-0404.

Susan Tenney speaks of the intrinsic synergy of this

three-sibling collaboration. The trio’s late father, a nuclear

physicist

at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, was active in musical

theater at McCarter. Their mother, Lillian Baum Tenney, is a

psychiatrist

with a practice on Franklin Corner Road.

"We had a house that was very full of open communications and

feelings — with great conversations and sharing of events and

feelings. Dinners were a time to share and talk," says Tenney.

Their parents also nurtured the arts; Susan studied dance at Princeton

Ballet School and all four children studied piano at the New School

for Music Study.

"The way that Steven and David and I work with text is very

different

from other pieces I have seen. Steven feels we are creating a new

performance language in and of itself. There is some enactment, but

it is not literal. It is movement juxtaposed with text that triggers

an emotionally charged resonance, and we hope people will leave

feeling

revved up, charged with adrenaline, because something has touched

you on a gut level that triggers emotional connections."

"I think Steven is a genius with words," says Susan. "His

words enable me to choreograph with a good level of abstraction. We

never want our work to be preachy. His text allows the audience to

enter a world and put the pieces together for themselves. And David’s

music is highly evocative."

Her own choreographic power, Tenney says, "comes from striking

a balance between a gut-level subliminal relationship between what

is happening in the movement — and the spoken word — against

an environment of music. In working with the text, I will read the

text a zillion times and get it in my unconscious. Then I totally

trust my impulses."

In describing his work Steven prefers not to use the term "dance

theater," which evokes a 1950s esthetic of acted-out dances.

"I

think of it as Theater with a capital T," he says, pointing to

the roots of theater, the way that the Greeks, the Elizabethans, and

the Hopi Indians used text and mimesis and music in one production.

To combine all those elements is now almost avant-garde. "To

describe

it in the abstract is tricky. When I am working with new actors there

is always a period of introducing them to the style of a composition

like this."

At the invitation of the Coalition for Peace Action, the Tenneys

collaborated

on works for the Hiroshima remembrance ceremonies held at the

reflecting

fountain pool at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1998 and 1999. In

Tenney’s

first Hiroshima piece, Susan Tenney’s nine dancers entered the

fountain

space in a procession, walking on the top of the wall, while her

brother

created gentle spasms of rhythm on cymbals. At the close of the dance,

when the women were floating in the pool, children came to launch

paper boats with lighted candles, and the dancers rose, as if their

spirits were being lifted in collective memory.

The second piece, called "Forever," blended music with text

spoken in English and echoed in Mandarin Chinese and German. The use

of foreign languages, says the choreographer, "created a wonderful

mood, a different kind of music, a different kind of theatricality.

We felt we reached another level of balance in our dance theater

collaborations."

For the formidable challenge of creating a millennial work, the

Tenneys

chose the theme of time travel. "Time travel is a way to

imaginatively

present issues of history, identity, technology, and memory —

all of which I feel are related to, and appropriate for any New Year’s

Eve and for a Millennium Eve," says Steven.

He says that the core action for "The Tower," the action from

which other actions flow, is a New Year’s Eve party, when a messenger

is sent back in time to access a campus database and then an actual

student. "Accessing the student — who is helped by a mystical

guidance counselor and a second time traveler — involves bringing

him into contact with experience, both the student’s own and that

of a larger history."

"But although `The Tower’ is a meditation on the individual’s

relation to experience, and therefore time, memory, and media, it

is foremost meant to be pure entertainment," he says. "It

does not seek to over-explain itself, much as life situations also

do not, but presents a rapidly moving tableau in which parties,

lectures,

dreams, memories, and events are fused — a grid of

intersection-like

streets in some universal city."

The host of the party is none other than Karl Light, an actor of local

renown and global talent. Larry Swanson, a New York-based actor, has

the unusual character of "Software," a present-day campus

database of a university, who believes he is human.

Swanson and another actor, Ed Hyland, have been working with the

Tenney

siblings for almost two decades. They participated in "First

Return

" at the Theater for the New City and "Flip Side" at the

Theater of the Open Eye, both in the early 1980s. In fact, a

performance

in 1986 in New York may have helped to launch the 1999 work here.

A reviewer noted that with the very successful production of the

"New

York Times" trilogy, the Tenneys had "made it" in New

York, and that it was time for them to bring a production to

Princeton.

The Arts Council commission has given them that chance.

— Barbara Fox

Millennial Curtain Call, Arts Council of Princeton,

102 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-0404. The 14th annual New Year’s Eve

family-oriented, alcohol-free strolling party. Buy a button and attend

any of the music, storytelling, humor, dance, juggling, horse and

buggy rides, or tarot card readings at 10 different sites. At

midnight,

revelers meet in front of Nassau Hall for a bagpipe procession,

refreshments,

and Times Square-like celebration. $20 & $40. For complete schedule

call the hotline. Friday, December 31.

A $40 button gives celebrants access to all of the events, including

performances

at Richardson Auditorium.

For the $20 button, partygoers can join celebrations at the Garden

Theater, Princeton University Chapel, Murray Dodge Theater, and Arts

Council.

The Line-Up:

Venue by Venue

At the Garden Theater: A vintage cartoon fest, comedian,

and a face painter.

At Murray Dodge Theater: Scenes from Shakespeare;

folk-singer

Carolyn Moseley; Gershwin Song Fest with Rebecca Plack Ferguson.

At the Princeton University Chapel: The Tom Spain

Dixieland

Band; organist Nate Randall; the Princeton Girl Choir; and a Peace

for the Millennium Service.


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