Published February 6, 2014
In “Liaison,” Melanie Aceto “plays” a lidless piano, her wrists and ankles tethered by strings to a scaffold-like contraption that has been set up over the instrument. The piano makes primitive sounds as she moves her arms and legs.
In “Cloud,” a piece the UB faculty member choreographed for UB students, she’s engulfed six dancers in 3,000 square feet of plastic.
And this past semester, she co-taught a course with music department faculty member David Felder that paired PhD composition students with professional choreographers. Aceto assumed the role of dancer, as well as choreographer, in working with composition student Esin Gunduz. Gunduz, a vocalist as well as a composer, danced and sang in the piece with Aceto when the class presented its works-in-progress in December.
As the previously mentioned projects indicate, much of Aceto’s recent work is not your traditional concert dance, which she defines as “bodies moving to music on stage.”
Instead, it’s based on collaboration – with composers, as is the case when she worked with Megan Beugger in “Liaison,” or with other artists, such as UB architecture professor Michael Rogers, with whom she worked on “Cloud.”
The “Liaison” collaboration began when Felder, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Birge-Cary Chair in Composition, linked Aceto with Beugger, a music composition student who, Aceto says, was interested in “taxing the performer, in creating structures for performers.”
Beugger had the general idea for a composition, and Felder suggested she work with a choreographer. He referred her to Aceto, associate professor of theatre and dance, who was interested in pursuing the project.
“I approached it as though it was a composition and I was just facilitating her music composition,” Aceto says. But when she showed the work to two dance colleagues, they insisted it was a dance. “I shifted how I approached it and how I performed it, and it then became evident that it was both, indeed, a composition and a dance. You couldn’t take the dance out of it.”
“Liaison,” Beugger’s PhD thesis, premiered at the 2013 June in Buffalo new music festival — one critic called it “the most startlingly original work presented at the entire festival.” It also was performed last fall at the Burchfield Penney Art Center as part of “A Musical Feast.”
The piece, Aceto says, is an exploration of “the limitations of the dancer as musician and the question of primacy of musician versus sound.”
“It’s really an exploration of what’s primary,” she says. “Is it the role of ‘musician’ or ‘dancer’? It more or less asks questions. Is the sound steering the mood because it’s making certain tones or am I controlling the mood because I’m the one making those sounds?”
The piece, she explains, presents a context in which to consider questions related to control and power. “In a very simple way, it presents ways in which to look at these ideas of control or sensibility.”
The 2012 “Cloud” collaboration came about as Aceto and Rogers looked for ways in which their students could work together. “I would go to his class and peek at their models and I thought they would be interesting fodder for dance and would look beautiful on stage,” she says. But the students’ intensive coursework prevented them from getting together. “So then we thought, ‘Well, we could work together,’” she says.
After batting ideas around but not coming up with anything they both liked, the pair discovered piles of plastic trashcan liners in the studio. “Michael grabbed one, and started talking about this and that, and I thought, ‘I could do a piece with plastic.’”
That night she bought some plastic paint drop cloths, and the next day she and Rogers went into the studio, she taped the drop cloths together “and we just began to generate material.”
Using 3,000 square feet of plastic in all different sizes – the biggest piece is made up of eight 9x11 drop cloths fashioned together — the pair “began to form material. You start to put the material together, and you look at what you have,” Aceto explains. “It develops a sensibility, a mood, and you start to see these humans on stage and you start to make a very loose narrative. Humans on stage over time inevitably make a narrative.”
The 17-minute piece, which Aceto and Rogers developed over the course of a semester, “really altered the stage space,” Aceto says. It was performed at UB and at the Burchfield Penney.
“I end up making these collaborative pieces, but not on purpose. It’s funny how it happens,” she says, noting these collaborations have not been the case of her having an idea and then looking for a collaborator.
“Things just keep falling into place in great ways here.”
Aceto’s academic career began on that same note.
A native of Rochester, she received a BA from Geneseo State College and an MFA in dance from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She spent seven years in New York, dancing for independent artists and taking workshops and classes. A yearlong teaching gig at Brockport State College brought her back upstate and she found the academic setting to be “really supportive, really full of potential.”
“I had planned to go back to the city, but I really enjoyed the stability of teaching, of having space and having dancers and resources so readily available on campus,” she says, noting she never choreographed while in New York because of her desire to work with other choreographers and because of the difficulty in finding dance space and funding for space and dancers.
“Academia is a much more efficient place to pull all the pieces together of earning income, training, teaching, choreographing and performing,” she says.
“There’s amazing talent here at UB and at Brockport,” she adds. “The talent is not compromised by leaving New York. I feel I can do more — not less — here.”
Over the years her work has been performed internationally — in Toronto, Guatemala and Germany — and at such prestigious U.S. venues as the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the REVERBdance Festival and the American Dance Guild.
Upcoming projects include choreographing a piece for the Zodiaque Dance Company’s spring concert later this month, directing the Zodiaque Dance Ensemble’s spring concert in May, and performing at the M&T First Fridays @ the Gallery series at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on April 4.
Aceto says that choreographing dance trains the mind to work in a certain way.
“What I love about making dance is that you’re not looking for one answer. You’re able to think in a very open way, in an orientation in which so much is possible,” she says. “In other fields, you’re looking for a solution instead of options. And I think it’s valuable to be able to practice and exercise that way of thinking. What are 212 ways I can use this sheet of plastic to alter the space? What are the hundred images I can make with this?
“Maybe you’re not solving major societal issues, but you’re training your brain to function in a certain way, with a certain openness, with a certain sensibility of what’s possible,” she says.
“In dance and choreography, aside from the limitations of body, it’s all possible,” she says. “You’re looking for the best solution without the stress or limitation of finding the one answer.
“I think that’s time well spent.”