The dance company that could

The dance company that could
Now into their second decade, the motion of Magpie may never stop.
by Mark Wedin

As the bass player’s frantic fingers finally began to slow down, the dancers, one by one, spontaneously flung themselves to the floor, making a diagonal line. The high-pitched drones of the analogue synth somewhat softened as one last dancer spun spasmodic, then finally fell prone, just behind the human line. The lights began to fade, and the only movement now visible was the last dancer, inching sluggishly forward. For a moment, he was perfectly in line with the others. But he kept moving, making that moment, like every other in the performance, fleeting, and not to be missed. And then all was blackness.

So ended the first performance in the eleventh year of the Magpie Music and Dance Company. The group was founded by Katie Duck who, at the time, was working at the School for New Dance Development here in Amsterdam. She had already founded two dance companies in the past, and made an international name for herself in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a modern dancer/choreographer.

‘I was making these really out there choreographed pieces, and people wanted more,’ remembers Duck, ‘but I didn’t really get what the hell I was doing.’

And, as time went on, it became clear that a much more sincere form of expression for her was free improvisation. So, along with four like minded dancers and percussionist Michael Vatcher—who all worked at the school with her—she formed Magpie, a group where they could fully explore the outer reaches of improv.

‘At that time [1995], there was a lot of [dance] improv in the American scene,’ explains Jaap Flier, founder of the Netherlands Dance Theater, ‘but they were unique in The Netherlands. No other company here specialized in improv.’

In the beginning, Vatcher, their music director, immediately began introducing the dancers to a slew of various improvising musicians, including African percussionists, jazz players, electronic musicians, and members of The Ex.

‘Around that time, we had just started to experiment with improv live on stage,’ recalls Andy Moor, guitar player for The Ex. ‘So it was really a perfect time to get in with [Magpie].’

And they hired Ellen Knops as lighting designer. ‘When I first met Katie [Duck], she was doing a solo performance at the Fijnhout Theatre where I was working at the time,’ explains Knops. ‘I called her to ask what kind of lighting she wanted and she said, “surprise me.”’ Knops doesn’t remember exactly what she did, but evidently it must have been right, because she’s been with the group ever since.

Magpie then commenced on a regular series of performances—on average, about once a month here, and four short international tours per year—and they haven’t slowed down in the past ten years. “It wasn’t until the last few years that I’ve really noticed a strong cohesion in the performances,’ says Duck. ‘And there are some moments that really stand out in my mind, like the end of that first performance we did this year.’

A typical Magpie night, if you can call it that, does not use sets, costumes, or specific themes to guide the audience. Everything is spontaneous, including the lights, and any action is allowed. The dancers, who all hail from highly traditional training and technique, will often switch seamlessly from a complex modern dance maneuver to something more silly—for example, picking up an audience member’s empty beer can, prancing over and plopping it down in front of the bass player, and waiting for a reaction.

And, in one of these more absurd moments, it would be easy to think, ‘Yeah, cute. But this isn’t dance. They’re just screwing around.’ And in a sense, you’d be quite right. Going to a Magpie performance is an opportunity to watch the masters at play. It’s almost voyeuristic, watching them in a completely unself-conscious state, making movements most would never consider in dance. And then, at the turn of a heel, the drop of (another) can, and a new series of beats from the lap-top musician, they’re all suddenly and simultaneously casting about, with great dexterity and flexibility, and demonstrating as a group, their unique blend of classical training and freedom of expression.

The music—now led by violinist Mary Oliver, who became their music director in 1999—is often played by a small group of intense instrumental improvisers. ‘When I first started playing with them,’ says bassist and Bimhuis regular, Wilbert de Joode, ‘I was always watching the dancers. But then I learned that it’s better not to focus on any one thing. It’s a very deep state [of consciousness] that you’re in while improvising with a group like this.’

Perhaps the most striking sound is when the dancers start talking, usually in a stream-of-consciousness manner. It seems to be very natural for Duck, whose background includes theatre. But some of the others have picked up on it too, and the things that come out of their mouths are wonderfully strange and poetic. For example:

I have six husbands at home
All of my husbands have very big cocks
And they love me very much
All of my husband’s cocks have permanent erections.
I use their cocks to hang my laundry
I dedicate my life to my laundry

Always searching for new avenues of exploration, Duck’s latest interest is live web streaming. A week before my interview with her, Justin Morrison, a dancer [newly working] with Magpie, was giving a performance in San Diego, California. He set up a webcam and a monitor there, and she did the same here so that, via the internet, she was a real-time part of the performance.

‘He put an old ‘80s TV into a shopping cart, and his performance had a real retro look to it. So there I was in the shopping cart, dancing in his performance [in California, from Amsterdam via the internet].’

And did it work?

‘I’m not sure. We have to keep trying these things of course, to find our way. But that one was weird, because it was 5.30 for me [because of the time difference], and I didn’t know which way to go. Should I drink some coffee, smoke a joint, or what?’

She plans to incorporate more technology and web streaming into future Magpie performances—particularly as many of the members are often in other countries, working on side gigs. But, regardless of the technology, Magpie always manages to create moments of quiet beauty, great humour, sincere awkwardness, and even fear—they often dance within inches of the audience. And, when they’re that close, it’s natural to worry that you might get hit in the face, until you realize that they do this all the time, and they know what they’re doing, even if they don’t know what they’re doing next.

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