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At a concert we rarely expect to hear silence.  The word “symphony” conjures to mind soaring strings, blasts of brass, roaring timpani drums and more sonorous sounds.

Yet choreographer Ann Carlson’s “Symphonic Body” strips the idea of a symphony to its most basic parts—a corps of 100 human bodies from all sectors of UCLA’s university, seated in tiered rows, a maestro, Carlson, who commands them at a central podium, and occasionally the hum of human voices.

It looks like a symphony, but doesn’t sound like one, so while Carlson’s symphony is not exactly what we imagine from the word, watching it in motion is a surprisingly musical experience.

Music manifests itself not in notes but in human rhythms. A trio of Taiko drummers turns into the beat of their own drum by pounding the air with forceful arm thrusts. A gymnast with a bobbing blonde ponytail embodies the supple yet sure bounce of perfectly stuck landing by lifting her arms into the iconic v-shaped pose of an all-around Olympic champion. A bearded seamster with a nose ring and tattoos pulls strings in his own way, delicately threading them through an invisible sewing machine.

These movements, excerpts from “portraits” that Carlson compiled by following around select participants and documenting their everyday gestures, reveal not only the identity of the movement’s maker, but also allows us to see the musicality of many daily practices from the rehearsal room, to the gym, to the costume shop. Combined, these rhythms turn into a cacophony of movement and a cross-section of campus life when the entire chorus bursts into action.

As the costume maker pantomimes placing boxes on a shelf, a middle-aged woman pops up from her chair and runs in place, as if rushing to set a hot crockpot down on the counter. Meanwhile a gaggle of girls screams, “Go Bruins!” and claps exuberantly as another young woman breaks into an aria.

Like listening to an intricate orchestration, it’s impossible for the mind not to wander through the musical contours. Yet instead of drifting through a soundscape, the eye darts from a man standing up and shouting on one side of the stage to a young man spinning around himself with arms outstretched like airplane wings on the other. Zipping from one human instrument to another is like witnessing one hundred personal ticks, quirks and gestures coming to life.

Carlson herself, an acclaimed choreographer and performance artist, is a wonder to behold, having invented an entire language with which to conduct her human orchestra. She carves the air energetically, swooping her hands in and out to suggest an hourglass figure at one point and then snapping her fingers open and shut like bird beak maws. The hourglass signals for the human orchestra to perform their individualized portraits. The bird beaks seem to mean “talk amongst yourselves,” which the chorus occasionally does, breaking from their moving mantras to chat with each other.

Yet the “Symphonic Body” speaks most powerfully in its quieter moments, when the din dissipates and the multi-personalities coalesce into one moving body.

At the end, the frenzy stills and Carlson motions for the corps to commence its final phrase.
They start to roll their shoulders, like boxers preparing to step into the ring. They cross their legs like women in a waiting room, finding comfort in the familiar pose, yet poised to hear the worst. Then they turn their heads toward the audience and look out into the blackness beyond. They stand up and turn around to face the audience.

Stillness reigns; silence sings on.

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Photography by Calista Lyon