Monday, May 30, 2011

Yellow Brick Reflections

In two different contexts now, my students have been referred to as serious. Interesting. What are people observing when they respond that way, and what am I doing to cultivate and inspire this quality in my dancers?  I’m reminded of the oft-quoted phrase “seriousness of a child at play,” credited to ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. This must have been the quality Duncan was looking for when she auditioned children for her school—a particular kind of focused attention, an ability to become so absorbed in the moment of doing that all else falls away. This training of attention is how performance trains students to embody life skills. And my experience with one group of students this weekend demonstrated a sophisticated level of problem-solving in the moment!

This past weekend, my two youth modern dance classes at Tapestry danced “Building the Yellow Brick Road” as part of The Wizard of Oz, their end-of-year concert. I have to admit, I was initially nonplussed about the assignment. I had already begun to conceptualize a flip book/choreography project, tying the roots of modern dance to early film and collaborating on a demo piece with my students that might have a multi-media component (toying with introducing this activity in my Duncan camp next week).  My approach to modern dance is somewhat conceptual, and I didn’t want to create a dance with my students on the personality level, where characterization happens and performance can become solipsistic and trite. But, with the theme of construction, my students were able to come up with many images and metaphors that helped us create movement vocabulary for our dance.

More and more, my approach to creating children’s choreography is collaborative. Given a theme for a dance, I solicit student input with regard to which steps or skills or movement phrases we want to incorporate and what order or arrangement works the best. I think this gives students a feeling of ownership over the choreography, so they not only remember the order of the dance, but they also feel like the dance is an execution of their ideas, rather than just a pattern of movements the teacher told them to do. When students participate in creating the structure, they are also capable of making changes within the structure. And, wow, did my students execute some creative problem solving in performance on Saturday night!

The first of their three performances on Saturday was the first time all of the students from both classes danced altogether, and for the second section of the dance, they were spatially disoriented. A pattern that was supposed to start downstage center started upstage instead, and they ended up reversing their entire dance—everything that was supposed to happen stage left ended up stage right and vice versa! This group of 5-10 year old students kept going, problem solving as an ensemble, and they preserved the majority of the clarity of their original dance.  It was a tremendous feat—and a testament to the depth of their understanding of the choreographic structure. The rest of their run was flawless, but that first show demonstrated a depth of understanding and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances of which I am more than proud.