Masonography, Its Rules and Etiquette: Mason Aeschbacher Beyond Samba

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(L-R) Lessey Wentworth, Dani DeFrances, Mason Aeschbacher, Lorin Hansen, Angela Gagliardi-Campos and Kimberly Campa will participate in Masonography, You May Ask Yourself on Nov. 16 and 17 at the Rose Wagner Theater. Photo: John Barkiple

Fans of the local world-music scene will be interested to hear about the latest project of Mason Aeschbacher. Aeschbacher is the leader of the series of productions, which include his wife, Lorin Hansen, of Brazilian drum and dance corps Samba Fogo. Aeschbacher’s latest production entails far more than Brazilian music, however, and the project should engage a far broader audience. Aeschbacher calls the style of choreography/directing improv “Masonography,” and the first production in this style is entitled Masonography, You May Ask Yourself.

Masonography, You May Ask Yourself is a full-length modern dance production. It is the result of Aescherbach’s 12 years of working as an accompanist for the Dance program at Utah Valley University. Aescherbach regularly spent three to four hours a day watching and supporting dancers in training. These extended observations granted him a unique perspective on dance, one focused predominantly on the audience’s emotional response. Aeschbacher, who holds a masters degree in Music from the University of Utah, sees himself at odds with formalist and expressionist theories of dance, as well as the postmodernist mechanization of this lively art. “Dancers are real people,” he insists, “though this gets lost in modern dance, which is too esoteric, too abstract.”

For Aeschbacher, the heart missing from the dance performances he observed was genuine communication. His intention has become to fill this void through the creation of characters and the exploration of narrative possibilities. Experiments along these lines lead directly to the development of his “Masonography.” According to the rules of the Masonography series, dancers are chosen in terms of real-life personality and individual stage presence. In this style, dancers function not as mere props or mannequins for a choreographer to manipulate, but rather as living individuals meant to represent general human types. Each dancer is then assigned to a specific musical instrument within a small jazz ensemble, which simultaneously occupies the stage.  As the different instruments sound and interact, the dancers simultaneously interact by responding to the musical cues they hear. Or, as Aeschbacher conversely phrases it, “the instruments give the dancers a voice.”

Such a description immediately brings to mind ballet, in particular the pairing of instruments and characters in the work of Russian modernists Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. However, Aeschbacher’s use of post-classical musical idioms allows for greater freedom and immediacy of creation.  “I began playing drums when I was twelve,” he says, “and my teacher encouraged me to listen to all kinds of music: classical, jazz, latin, hip hop.”  In Masonography, Aeschbacher employs the basic conventions of jazz composition and performance to mold human situations. As the ensemble moves through composed jazz charts, each containing sustained improvisational sections and traded solos, physical and psychological interactions between the dancers can be created, controlled and destroyed, at will and on the spot.

In addition to his drum teacher, another powerful influence on the young Aeschbacher was the time he spent in the theater. “I was in a lot of plays as a kid,” he says, “and, later, films became important for me, especially the work of Quentin Tarantino.”  Films like Pulp Fiction instilled in Aeschbacher an appreciation not only for complex plots but also for scenes of supreme tension. Perhaps the most significant resistance Aeschbacher encountered during production was from the dancers. Initially, they felt trepidation at the extremes of conflict and intensity of emotion, which Aeschbacher’s penchant for narrative and psychology encouraged them to explore. Masonography includes unambiguous fight scenes, something not frequently seen in modern dance. “In the end,” Aeschbacher says, “it’s the music that sold the dance to the dancers, the way it allowed them to experience feelings they were not expecting and had never experienced before in dance.”

In its use of music and allegorical characters (Compassion, Creativity, Strength, etc.) to arouse powerful feelings, Masonography draws upon other, less-Western sources—in particular, Aeschbacher’s keen interest in the culture surrounding samba. In the Brazilian Orixá cult, music is used to summon different members of the pantheon of African gods. The gods take possession of devotees and, through their chosen mediators, interact with the community. “People would come together to dance and sing,” Aescherbach says, “and wait for the gods to take them over.”  Here, music is not mere aesthetic play—art for art’s sake—but rather the means through which a society asks its most profound questions and resolves its most difficult conflicts. Aeschbacher’s insistence that dance has specific thematic content relates to his deliberate use of it as a medium of communication. He says, “I feel that I am now, as a musician, making my first true personal statement.”

Still, the final goal of Masonography remains not individual expression, but audience response. In this, Masongraphy, for all its free experimentation and exoticism, remains conservative, though in the very best sense. The actors, music and stage spectacle are not innately significant, but significant only in relation to a viewer. If Aeshbacher is indeed his own ideal audience, the salutary effects of Masonography are evidenced by his great enthusiasm for his project and his pace of production. “I can complete a piece in one third of the time it takes most choreographers,” Aescherbach says. “I work fast because I’m adaptable—less attached to the means than to the final result.”

Readers are invited to check their response to Aeschbacher’s labors when Masonography, You May Ask Yourself appears in the Black Box Theatre of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 16 and 17.