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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
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
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
by this commission to commemorate the millennium," says Susan
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
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
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
at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, was active in musical
theater at McCarter. Their mother, Lillian Baum Tenney, is a
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
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
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.
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
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
At the invitation of the Coalition for Peace Action, the Tenneys
on works for the Hiroshima remembrance ceremonies held at the
fountain pool at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1998 and 1999. In
first Hiroshima piece, Susan Tenney’s nine dancers entered the
space in a procession, walking on the top of the wall, while her
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
For the formidable challenge of creating a millennial work, the
chose the theme of time travel. "Time travel is a way to
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,
dreams, memories, and events are fused — a grid of
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
siblings for almost two decades. They participated in "First
" 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
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
York Times" trilogy, the Tenneys had "made it" in New
York, and that it was time for them to bring a production to
The Arts Council commission has given them that chance.
— Barbara Fox
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
revelers meet in front of Nassau Hall for a bagpipe procession,
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
at Richardson Auditorium.
For the $20 button, partygoers can join celebrations at the Garden
Theater, Princeton University Chapel, Murray Dodge Theater, and Arts
Venue by Venue
and a face painter.
Carolyn Moseley; Gershwin Song Fest with Rebecca Plack Ferguson.
Band; organist Nate Randall; the Princeton Girl Choir; and a Peace
for the Millennium Service.
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