Most people think of dance music as four-on-the-floor, driving beats that synchronize the heartbeat and the body's movement with the sound coming through the speakers. A lockstep groove that, well executed, is so perfectly metronomed that even the whitest of white boys can keep in time.
In terms of modern dance, however, music perfectly built for the dance floor can be a constrictive force on creativity.
"Movie scores work really well for dance because they were made for another medium to exist with them," says Jean Isaacs, founder and artistic director of San Diego Dance Theater. "Things have to have enough openness, enough emptiness."
For that reason, she says, the soaring, melancholy sounds of cult singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley were perfect for her new piece, "Suite Jeff."
"Buckley has enough space," explains Isaacs, who was turned onto Buckley's music by her 26-year-old daughter, who also dances for the theater. "She [told me], "Mom, you'd really like this. It's very danceable.'"
The 15-minute piece is part of San Diego Dance Theater's third annual Intimate Cabaret Dances, being held in the James S. Copley Auditorium at the San Diego Museum of Art, Jan. 16-18.
Isaacs modeled "Cabaret Dances" after the "naughty, pre-WWII cabaret world." In this kind of atmosphere, she believes, modern dance isn't such a static experience. Less intimidating, even.
Instead of theater-row seating, audience members sit around tables, eating and drinking during the performances, socializing between acts.
"I think it breaks some of the conventions," Isaacs explains. "It can be a whole event, not an isolated event. People talk to each other, people they've never met before. The theater becomes more interactive. It's a mellower way to watch art, especially for guys-I think guys get intimidated by modern dance. It's a good way to get people in there to see their first dance concert."
For all the recent gender equalization in the post-Queer Eye world, choreographers like Isaacs still have a tough time attracting males to their art.
Most men perceive dance as a "chick art form," she says. "Guys think, "Oh, I don't get it.' They think they need a woman to explain it. Once they see it, I think guys are really intrigued by it. But I don't think they'd normally walk into a modern dance concert by themselves."
If prone to such gender roles, males should at least be able to understand half of Isaac's piece called "Hunters," which will be included in Cabaret Dances. While in Switzerland on a teaching exchange program with her colleague John Diaz, the two created the piece based on theories of control.
"It starts as a duet between two guys [who] have these sticks," Isaacs explains. "[One] pushes the other around with these sticks-he's the one in control. It's like Poncho and Don Quixote in the end of the duet. The guy who was in control is now not in control. It's a reversal of roles of who's the hunter and who's the prey.
"Control is always an issue in every relationship. Who's in charge? Who's got the power?"
The power of Cabaret Dances, the choreographer predicts, will come from the work based on Buckley's music; his unbridled creativity as an artist enabled Isaac's own.
"It's one of the most successful pieces I've ever done and I think it's because his music is so moving and the images are so strong," she explains. "Like the one where he makes an invocation to the wind and it pulls him in and sucks him under."
"Suite Jeff" will feature dancers liberally interpreting four of Buckley's songs-"So Real" "Hallelujah," "Lilac Wine" and "Satisfied Mind."
"So Real"-a song that Isaacs chose because she was looking for something upbeat-contains the lyrics that emotionally resonated with Isaacs, as it has with thousands of devoted Buckley fans:
"We walked around "til the moon got full like a plate, the wind blew an invocation... And I couldn't awake from the nightmare, that sucked me in and pulled me under, pulled me under."
"His voice is simple and pure and the lyrics are very poetic, so somehow there's room to dance in the middle of it," Isaacs says.
"His lyrics are so pre-sentient-is that the word?" she asks. "You sort of know what's going to happen to him if you listen to his lyrics."Intimate Cabaret Dances runs Jan. 16-18 at the James S. Copley Auditorium (San Diego Museum of Art). $12-$20. 619-696-1966.