Category Archives: choreographic process
Here is the link to a review of two new excellent reads. Check them out! Prepping for the Common Core with Two Informational Dance Texts | Dance Advantage
Recently, Dance/USA produced a series of articles about professional choreographers who have turned to working in higher education as a means to keep creating choreography within concert dance and earn a living. Most of the artists interviewed are of notable stature (David Dorfman, Joe Goode,…) and discuss the balancing act required of working in two demanding aspects of the field- choreography and higher education- simultaneously.
I don’t doubt for a moment that their balancing acts are difficult.
I don’t doubt for a moment that they have valuable information and experiences to offer students.
I don’t doubt for a moment that they are qualified to teach.
But I do feel resentment rising in my chest each time I think about the articles.
As someone who has been passed over for others with “better” resumes and not necessarily “better” skills, this touches a nerve.
Let me be clear, I don’t mean to diminish the depth of artists and the many hats that artists wear as creators, facilitators, curators, teachers, leaders, thinkers, and so on.
However, I start thinking of the underdogs.
- What about the people that want to teach in higher education because their priority is to teach?
- What about the people that are great without having great resumes, and by that I mean as performers or choreographers?
- What about the people dedicated to teaching but choose to balance this with having a family and not a full-blown second career?
Underdogs: The people that shape the field of dance in more ways than the stage and the studio.
- What about the people that guide the critical thought process in the act of creating art in addition to developing ideas, perspectives, and missions leading to non-performance based careers or jobs?
- What about people that develop critical writing?
- What about people that explicitly teach dance history and other frames of reference for what and how we communicate in dance and society?
- What about people that help students translate their experiences from the abstract to the practical foundations that launch them into many types of careers?
- What about the people that teach the general education classes that can directly impact the support or lack thereof for dance in the local community and into the world beyond college?
- What about the people that teach the artists to talk about what and how they are creating so they get the jobs the underdogs are seeking?
The problem I see is cyclical.
In the end, the notion of choreographers finding a way to create and earn a living in higher education is a symptom of a larger problem.
Not enough people understand and support dance.
Artists alone don’t seem to be enough to teach the masses about how and why the arts, specifically dance, are important. That is not a comment on the quality or volume of their discussion, simply that we need more people educating about dance than just the practicing artists.
We need people to be promoting the myriad of what dance has to offer in addition to technique and performance. As such, we need to be producing more specialists in more categories under the umbrella of dance- such as arts integrators, theorists, critics, writers, dance scientists, etc.
Higher education is competitive enough.
I also start wondering about the departments that employ the big names from the performance world. I understand the desire to market these people and draw potentially more students.
However, with the teaching loads described in the articles and what I understand from other sources, how often are students truly being mentored by these artists? Is it ethical?
Other questions arise as I ponder the big name hires:
- How many programs treat choreography produced in-house as research?
- What is the culture of the department like?
- How is the faculty morale as the lesser-knowns may be picking up the less satisfying classes?
Personally, the first thing I would prefer to stop teaching would be straight technique but if a big-name choreographer were hired in my department, I bet that is exactly what I would be saddled with as they chose composition, improvisation, and perhaps theory courses.
- What does this mean for guest residencies?
Aren’t residencies a better solution in offering students insight to how various artists think and act? Aren’t residencies more cost effective for colleges and still a means for choreographers to earn a living? Isn’t variety the spice of life?
- How are the faculty balancing a families expected to compete?
This touches on a separate but related topic of if and how having a family and surviving in academia is a real possibility. In my view, departments that allow for the “how” of that over the “if” are becoming more and more rare.
It is the number one reason that I choose to remain in K-12, where I have plenty of stimulating arts and education problems to solve but can be home at a reasonable hour, leave my work at school (for the most part), and can pace my extra-curricular activities at a digestible rate rather than always operating under the “publish or perish” time frame dictated in the university system.
And on that note, nap-time is over…..more soon.
Here is my December article for Dance Advantage.
Here’s my November article for Dance Advantage.
Is there anything as inviting and intimidating as a blank page or an empty studio.
I am sorry for my negligence in writing….it has been a very full fall.
My pages have been filling of notes on the differences/observations/musings about teaching dance in the K-8 setting instead of high school and college. And I have recently been in studios that don’t seem to stay empty long but fill with many ideas, discussions, reflections, oh and bodies in movement, of course.
I began the season preparing a piece to be included in ArtPrize, an enormous installation of visual art throughout the downtown area of Grand Rapids, MI. As the name suggests, it is a competition with a large sum of money awarded to a winner, smaller sums to subsequent winners, and moderate controversy over quality, artistry, motivation, and exploitation on behalf of some artists, some hosts, and the ArtPrize organization.
I created a work titled Process/Progress that was designed to illustrate the creative journey in making dance. We were to begin with a 2 hour open rehearsal followed by performances over the span of three weeks that changed in order of content, music selection, and presentation based on when the performance fell within the 3 week journey. Therefore, it would never appear the same way twice and the process would continue to progress.
Well, the vendor that agreed to serve as host for this performance (and other live performing arts works) presented these works on an outdoor stage in the parking lot of the establishment, which also hosted the work of other artists. The establishment also entered their own “art” presented next to the stage. Their piece (basically a boxcar that opened to serve alcohol with go-go dancers on the roof) required large club music which the owner would turn off while we were “performing” but not during our two-hour rehearsal. They didn’t seem to understand, nor care once it was explained to them, that the two-hour rehearsal (which was only scheduled to occur once within the 3 week span) was part of the performance. So. After careful thought, I pulled the piece.
I was fortunate to have had premeried the piece, in draft form, in an event produced by local artists committed to raising the community aesthetic of dance and art. This event, Salmagundi produced by Dance in the Annex, Wealthy Theatre, and Art Peers, featured performances in dance, theatre, music, and film and I enjoyed it the most of many “local” performances I have seen for a very long time. A very, very long time. I enjoyed it more than some events I attended when living in NYC and Chicago. The whole evening- the performances, the audience, and the conversations I had with varying people afterwards made me think.
I found myself comparing this to other community arts events and trying to put my finger on the difference. What I was able to place, was my frustration with the typical local arts (perhaps it would be more fitting to specify dance, here) scene.
I am so bone-tired of people applauding bad dance/art just because it is “local”. This may be really really snobby, but I am tired of bad taste being put up for all to see/hear/watch. As consumers, why do our expectations drop because the artists live among us. Why are some artists that present work locally celebrated as pillars of our community yet create under-conceptualized, under-developed, under-reflected work. Why do we allow this? What can we do about it? Who cares?
Read this by Meagan Bruskewiscz. I love this article and know I will read it a few dozen more times.
In Michigan, I think Amy Wilson (Dance in the Annex), Erin Wilson (Wealthy Theatre), and company are on the right track. They have put their money where their mouths are and have identified ways to make a positive change in their community. There are others, too, in other parts of the state although I think they are working a little less comprehensively. Anyway, thanks to these artists and more for daring to hold artists and audiences accountable.
I’d like to propose a toast to the unsung heroes of local art.
To those that strive to change the mentality of “since it is local it must be inferior”.
To those that commit to quality and mastery and teaching the people around us the difference between good and bad art.
To those that invite a dialogue and an honest exchange of ideas and know we aren’t too old to learn or experiment or play.
To those that make the sacrifices- giving up shifts, distracting children, pausing “normal” life to be involved in a process that usually results in a product that could inspire further discussion and enlightenment.
As a sophomore in college I had the distinct honor of dancing Lar Lubovitch’s Marimba. John Dayger, long time Lubovitch rehearsal director and dancer, set the work in a number of marathon weekends- a process that proved to be my first REAL introduction to professional dance.
I entered college from a dance studio owned by a couple of ‘adagio’ dancers. I studied ballet, pointe, jazz, and tap. I taught classes to children. I dabbled in a little choreography. Dance notation to me, meant the notebooks filled with either stick-figures with counts or short-hand representing choreography that the studio owners created and I was to teach my classes. Choreography simply meant an assembling movement together and that movement was intended to demonstrate the skills we’d hopefully developed throughout the year.
When I interviewed for entrance into the dance major program and interviewed for a scholarship, my future mentor asked me my favorite choreographers. Having had zero dance history education apart from what I read in Dance Magazine and a book my first ballet teacher gave me, I listed Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and…Lar Lubovitch.
At this point you might think to yourself, “huh?! These are the three she lists? Kelly (mainstream), Astaire (mainstream), and…..Lubovitch (NOT mainstream for a girl growing up in a rural town in Michigan.).” The thought strikes me as odd, too.
The thing is, my dad likes to arrive places early. And I mean EARLY (especially when he’s anxious). So, I had about an hour and half to kill in the hallways of the dance department before another auditionee arrived. There was still probably another half hour before check-in. During this time, I read every article on every bulletin board I could find. Since Lubovitch had been in residence the year prior, his company performing and teaching several master classes, there were a lot of articles about the company’s presence and about Lar Lubovitch himself. I recognized his name. Honestly. Remember, I was an avid reader of Dance Magazine. And I thought I had seen some of his work on PBS. (To this day I am not sure that is true). Yet in my mind, in the span of two hours, he’d come to be one of my favorite choreographers.
Magically, I was cast in Marimba during my sophomore year. It was the most intense dance experience I’d ever had. In fact, I think that was the most intense dance experience I have EVER had but mainly due to my age and level of training at that point. Here are some of the things that challenged everything I thought I knew about dance at that time.
Counting: Mostly 8’s. Sometimes 5’s or 7’s. Always consistant.
Lubovitch: 11, 12, 7, 5, 13, 9, 9,…..it was alllll over the place and actually had to be counted out loud by the group in order to keep track. Skipping 6 and 7 of course because the sound resonates into the house.
Composition tools: they exist
Lubovitch: they are complex, beautiful ideas that shift movement into meaningful visual pictures and contextual ideas. They may also make you want to stab your eyes with forks because they can be that complex and relentless.
Cast: the people that co-exist with you in Time and Space
Lubovitch: No man is an island and without these people, you are sunk. They are your life-line. And if someone happens to make a mistake in the fifth of a twenty-two minute piece that impacts the entire cast and the success of the entire piece, well….you better find acceptance and forgiveness because: 1. sooner or later that person will be YOU and 2. there is going to be another run of the piece in 5 minutes and anger will just get in the way.
Conditioning: there is this thing called your “center”
Lubovitch: nothing helps you find your center like running in plie for a 7 hour rehearsal on Saturday and doing it again on Sunday for 5. (Not to mention the 3 hours on Friday night). Weekend after weekend after weekend. (Which follow weeks of dancing 6 hours minimum per day). That kind of knowledge gets you through your 5 hour dance day when still moving (dancing) in the 9th month of your second pregnancy.
Dancer’s tools: shoes, mostly and then calluses
Lubovitch: Elastoplast® is the greatest invention in the world. Second only to gaff tape (maybe).
RETURN to current day…..
So, this has all come up because yesterday during dinner I had a very powerful movement memory of a section from this piece. Sadly, I cannot remember the full name of the section….it was something like Big Turns, Fast Turns, Sudden Death. It is my favorite movement I’ve ever danced, mainly because I love turns, speed, and being off-center. Then, when you divide movement by half each time it is repeated it becomes a wonderful, death-defying movement puzzle that keeps you engaged for…..umm….over a decade. Yikes!!
I dance, for most of the year, every single day. But this is the dancing I miss. The kind in which every cell of your being is engaged because your life, or the life you have dared to imagine for yourself, depends on it.
The Verbal Challenge: Describing Modern Dance As Succinctly As Possible While Evoking Visual Image and Possible Definition of Intent
Yeah….It can be that difficult to maintain brevity when attempting to describe modern dance to the non-dancer.
This is by no means the first time I’ve visited this puzzle in my work but this is a most recent stab prompted by the impressive Jordon Cloud.
So, here goes. My meager attempt to describe modern dance with attention to creative intent, technical expression, and aesthetic. Gulp.
- Modern dance IDEALLY seeks to convey meaning which may or may not include direct narrative.
- Modern dance IDEALLY relies on organic, natural, and technical movement vocabulary, which supports that expression and which may or may not be codified.
- As in everything, there is good and bad, but in modern dance either may be ugly.
What do you have?
I do a pretty funny impression (if I do say so myself) of a favored former professor of mine, in which I circle myself for a couple loops as if casually chasing my tail, finally locating my final destination and carefully placing myself accordingly: 1st position parallel. Essentially, it is the same position I was standing in before the skit begins, and yet, the arrival marks a change in mental place, as well as physical placement. Nearly every time I think of this woman, I hear her voice calling “Let’s start in 1st.” and envision her looking at her feet (as if her class ever started in any other way). I cannot help but smile.
In my philosophy of dance, I state that I teach dance from a liberal arts perspective. What this means to me, is that instead of expecting my students to come to dance with a sincere and devout interest, I take dance to where they are, first. I most often find myself, regardless of venue, working with dancers that may never be “real” dancers but for one reason or another have decided to give movement a chance. Whether as an elective, for the fulfillment of a graduation requirement, or simply recreational pleasure, most of my students have a reason other than burning desire when coming to me to learn about dance.
In practice, this generally means that instead of one thread of consciousness (dance for dance sake), I need to be aware of multiple threads (dance for multi- or inter- disciplinary sake). This does not, however, mean I need to be an expert in another field. It just means that I need to be able to explain dance in multiple ways, accomodating for varying learning behaviors (if you don’t know about genius Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, look into it!) and encourage students to be the “experts” in their fields (college students) or their other classes (K-12).
Once one learns to question information, investigation, and relating concepts, it is amazing how quickly one can apply these skills to other subjects, even those in which one is not an expert. It is precisely why I feel the arts and humanities are critical in the preparation of our youth for the future. Yes, science and math will be important, but without creativity and critical thinking, our students will not be able to sufficiently problem-solve in new and innovative ways.
Here is where I rethink the point of dance education in many contexts, particularly public education and propose that others do the same. Most people expect arts classes to inspire an appreciation for the arts. This is true, they do. But, it isn’t all they do. With intentional thought and responsible teaching, the arts introduce and expand vocabulary, introduce methods for creative analysis and problem-solving, allow for individual voice which leads to confidence building, and let’s not forget create opportunities for effective collaboration.
I think it is important for my students to understand the culture, history, and profession of dance from a realistic and artistically relevent perspective. Yet, I also realize that these kids need help in life, first. My intent is to teach practical skills through the medium of dance. I have distilled the discipline of dance down to its essential elements and present them for maximum affect.
Here are some samples:
When discussing core elements of dance technique, emphasize non-technical vocabulary that is relevent to the field (manipulation, articulation, oppositional force, gravity, lateral, distal,…), basic principles of physics, anatomy/kinesiology, the list goes on and on. These are more likely to appear on standardized tests than say, rond de jambe. And they provide a connection between the students’ interest and their core classes. Dance allows them to access the information in their core classes and put it to use in a unique way.
The best compliment I had last week occurred while inviting my advanced class to do some slides across the floor. I was explaining how to distribute their weight and where they needed to be placed in order to use momentum to their advantage. One student said, “what, is this, phyics?” Well, yes. Several light bulbs went off and we had a great conversation about shared principles. It wasn’t long and several students tuned out but real learning occurred for some. Authentic connections were made.
A similar approach can be explored in dance composition. I am not convinced we can “teach” choreography, but we can inspire creativity and offer tools for clarifying ideas and adding visual interest as well as offering perspective in interpretation of questions and answers posed in movement and followed in critique. Using tools such as embellishment, retrograde, reversal, inversion, and more allow students to gain insight into pattern development and how play with audience expectations, again for maximum affect.
Working in concepts rather than steps, also opens the door for learning that embraces emotional as well as intellectual response and therefore longevity within the lessons. Learning to analyze dance through a variety of lenses such as ethnicity, gender, ability/disability, and other cultural contexts provides a greater understanding of our own environments, biases, and relationships. Having a safe place to discuss some of these subjects is also crucial. Given that dance tends to be physical, and therefore personal, often this is an ideal setting for such dialogue. Once collaborative relationships have been forged, trust tends to follow, and again allows for more open conversation among students than may be possible in the classrooms of other disciplines. And for students that don’t consider dance to be their first language, this can be a direct path for deeper engagement when you return the focus to the studio and the physical act of dancing.
I came to dance first as a mover and later as a generalist. I tend to interpret the world through movement and in color/texture. I am a visual and kinesthetic learner, who in high school could manage in a traditional school setting but would have been so much more successful if I’d had opportunities to learn as I am inclined and not in how I was expected. I am fortunate to have learned how to learn later and have the natural curiousity to be a life long learner. That is what we dance educators should, in my humble opinion, be offering more universally. Again, dance for some is a way to live but for more can be another method for divising a living, even if it is outside the arts.
A couple weekends ago, I bought a bar of soap. Not just any soap. The best smelling, most decadent, exfoliatingly brilliant bar of soap I’ve ever purchased (from the Olive Mill, in Saugatuk, in case you were wondering). When telling my husband about my love for this bar of soap, he said, “wow, and it is made at that little store in Saugatuk?” “Well, no. It is made in Provence, but I can get it at that little store in Saugatuk.” I continued, “ But it smells of sage and has wheat bran for exfoliation and….who knew a simple bar of soap could make me so happy.” He said, “Yeah, coming from Provence and full of all that stuff…it sounds simple.” Smirk. And with that, he got me thinking.
If I would like to consider my personal aesthetic for fashion, beauty, and so on as simple, how would I describe my dance aesthetic? The word I have come up with is functional.
That same weekend, I had the opportunity to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform at the Power Center in Ann Arbor with my dear friend and fellow DITA fan, Sherrie Barr. (This AND soap…It was a big weekend for me!) While Paul Taylor is not always my favorite choreographer, I still consider PT’s work to be a “sure thing” for me. I will walk away having enjoyed at least one piece very much, perhaps another somewhat, but overall I feel satisfied, nourished, and have learned something new.
On the Friday night program, the company performed Orbs (1966) and Also Playing (2009). Truth be told, I had difficulty following the narrative of Orbs, but I didn’t care. I was able to watch the construction of the movement, the innovation within the movement vocabulary, and ponder such things as the change in dancers’ bodies from the time the piece was created to now. Currently, dancers are so focused on cross-training that I often find myself bored from the lack of nuance that I usually find so endearing in first and second generation dancers- regardless of company or genre. Technical prowess is a beautiful skill to have, but I would much rather watch someone with style and an identity onstage that compliments the choreographer’s perspective. This allows me to get to know the dancer without ever having shaken their hand. (Speaking of shaking hands…I also met dance legend Dan Wagoner at the PTDC concert and shook HIS hand…really, REALLY big weekend for me!!)
One of the qualities I find so appealing in Paul Taylor’s work is his clarity, particularly in his earlier works. He has a set repertoire of movement, clear organization of space and time as well as movement, and incredible–even absurd–wit. He has a distinct voice and while I would consider his work to be virtuosic and athletic, these attributes have never been used for the self-indulgence we so often see in “contemporary” dance these days. Very simply, his movement supports his point. And it is this point, or conceptual clarity, that for me separates concert dance from commercial, often the good from the bad, and perhaps the dance from the dancing.
This reminds me of a quote by famous NY Times dance critic, John Martin, in which Martin defined modern dance not as “a system but a point of view.” For me, this really is what separates dancing from dance. As I have mentioned in a past post, I could extend this to my feelings toward jazz (as we’ve come to accept it) versus modern. But this also taps into my prejudice against so much of the dance readily digested by audiences today. What is its function? And whom does it serve?
When watching shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” I often feel cheated. I love that mass America is consuming dance on a regular basis. Yet it is the skewed focus of the choreography, the feedback, and the presentation of dancers (as well as dance training) that concerns me. Frankly, I find little of the choreography to have any focus at all beyond fanning egos and promoting much of what I think is “wrong” with the dance world, namely “tricks”. Such an emphasis on complex and non-communicative movement parlays into problems on multiple levels. These levels include dance education: in which talented students may be belittled for not being able to execute such movement and ultimately turn away from dance; dance appreciation, in which dance is dismissed as athletic feat; and dance administration, where choreographers with a point and a clear voice may not be funded due to their lack of public “accessibility.” I wonder, if starting today, would Paul Taylor make the cut?
So, how do we restore the art to our favorite art form? I think it begins with simple honesty. Why am I dancing? Why am I creating dance? Why do I expect people to value this? Why am I compelled to create this particular piece? Am I considering this concept from multiple angles and perspectives? Am I enriching the lives and creative journeys of myself AND my dancers? My audience? What does this motion infer? Does it support my concept? Could it be misinterpreted? Essentially, we follow the same process we do for professional writing, with the repeating question, “So what?” With this line of interrogation, I am not trying to create a generation of self-doubters. But, I would like the current generation of artists to doubt their first responses and demonstrate some higher-level thinking. When we do that, we not only restore the art in dance, we also restore the culture. Clean and simply. Smirk.
Originally published by Dance in the Annex. http://www.danceintheannex.com