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.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Divergence Soiree

Misha packs the house! Saturday night at Houston’s Divergence Arts Space was, once again, standing room only. Although April’s Klytemnestra officially premiered the new warehouse performance venue, Saturday’s event inaugurated an off-of-sorts destination for high caliber musical play. As a relative newbie to the Houston performing arts scene, I’m wondering what the H-town equivalent is to NY’s Off-Broadway? Or to the early days of Joe’s Pub? And where else do you find jam sessions for classical artists? Or such relevant mix-mastering of classical and contemporary genres of music, theatre, and dance?

I was in a bit of a quandary about costume choice for the line-up—I had offered to dance a Duncan solo and knew I’d join Misha for pieces from Selkie and Klytemnestra. I’d also signed on for some improvisation, and I’m still experimenting with creative ways to make the tunic viable for contemporary floorwork. When Misha said no costumes, I opted for a tunic-esque top and jeans. Interesting how freeing it is to dance Duncan’s work in street clothes. Duncan freed women from restrictive clothing at the turn-of-the twentieth century by dancing sans corset in her loose silks. I wonder what she would think of dancing in pants? They do add a layer of restriction to movement, but Duncan dance in jeans, a tunic-transgression, does feel kind of rebellious and fun—hmm.

The performances were fabulous. I finally got to experience the work of several artists whom I had not yet seen perform—including Shelley Auer, who had me in hysterics, Alison Greene, who gave me chills, and Lainie Diamond, who sang to my soul. Although Duncan took her corset off, I’m sure she would have loved to see it owned by Dennis Arrowsmith, who strutted the boards in his stilettos. It was such a joy to hear Natasha Manley, with whom I shared space in Selkie, and Jade Simmons was dynamite playing Liszt. Pianist Kyle Evans (who played Klytemnestra) brilliantly accompanied most of the performances, and actress Amy Guerin had us hanging on her every word. I danced with Michael Walsh for two of his three songs, improvising Eve to his “As Adam Early in the Morning” (Ned Rorem) and Galatea to “O Ruddier than the Cherry” (Handel) —so much fun to jump into a performance space and play with such a dynamic artist. Kudos to Misha Penton, for her captivating voice and presence, and for her curatorial intuition!

Speaking of intuition, the program ended with an improvisation for piano, computer, and movement—an opportunity to break out of the whole-body-harmony that characterizes Duncan technique and play with dissonance, disjunction, and that fine-tuned frequency of attention required to craft movement in the moment. Music maker Chris Becker sampled a wide range of sounds, including spoken text, while pianist Hsin-Jung Tsai played on piano—exploring more ways than the traditional striking of keys to generate sound from that instrument.  I love the pairing of classical arts with experimental modes of performance—and I’m reminded of iconic moments in my history of being an audience member, like seeing Sonic Youth strike nails into an old piano keyboard at the Holland Festival many years ago. Watch out Houston, an intimate and unpredictable new venue is on the scene.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tunics in the Garden

Sunday’s Umlauf performance was pure joy. The weather was perfect, the audience engaged, and the girls flew through the garden with wings of fire.  Thanks to Sheila Fox, Umlauf Director of Education, and Curator Nelie Plourde for making the event possible. Thanks as well to the parents, faculty and staff at The Girls’ School of Austin who came out in support of the dancers.

My original concept for the event was part workshop and part performance. There are so many Umlauf sculptures that indicate different elements of Duncan technique. I wanted to start with a full tour through the garden, teaching some of those elements in relationship to the individual works of art. As a performer/ educator I am interested in blurring the boundary between spectator and performer. I really do believe that one can appreciate and experience Duncan’s work more fully when watching from a somatically sympathetic state. Given the sunny Austin day, and the fact that I was already asking the girls to focus for about a 45-minute program, I abandoned the full tour idea and kept only the initial movement concept.

After wrangling the girls into costume, I asked everyone to meet under the terrace near the entrance to the garden at the “Spirit of Flight.” I began by teaching a basic Duncan arm lift and leading into Duncan’s universal gesture. I find it helpful to give people some context regarding Duncan’s technique, so they understand the movement palate within which the dancers are creating.

The movement starts deep inside the torso—it is related to breath but also to an impulse-to-action, in response to a feeling. The body opens and closes, it unfolds and folds, in response to positive and negative stimuli. I want something and I open and go towards it—I change my mind and fold in and back away. This practices teaches dancers to listen to and understand their innermost impulses. It is not only a path and practice for self-expression, it is also a pathway to self-knowledge.

Of course, I don’t wax this philosophically when teaching the young girls, but then again, with them, I don’t need to. They are not yet encumbered by the tension of self-censorship. In teaching children, Duncan noted, “It is only necessary to say to them: ‘Listen to the music with your soul. Now, while you are listening, do you not feel an inner self awakening deep within you—that it is by its strength that your head is lifted, that your arms are raised, that you are walking slowly toward the light?’” (Duncan, The Art of the Dance).

Dancer Yelena Konetchy at Umlauf
I try to step out of the way as a teacher in this work—some days, I just put the music on and watch them dance. I guide them and make suggestions, but I am also facilitating a space for them to breath and explore. There is something beautiful in their unfiltered ability to listen and respond. In that space exits a powerful self-knowledge and a connection to larger forces that move the earth.  And in Austin, TX, there is no more beautiful space for experiencing and dancing this work than the grounds of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Garden Rehearsals

 Duncan dancers find each other. At least, that’s how I feel about the current group of adult dancers who will be joining me in a few original Duncan choreographies at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum on Sunday.

I am so blessed and honored to have spent the past several weeks rehearsing with these women, and they each bring their own wealth of knowledge of a wide range of dance and movement practices to the Duncan work. I feel like a Duncan dance pioneer in Texas, which is kind of cool, because it is enabling me to bring together dancers who may not yet have worked with one another and to witness their discoveries of common colleagues and artistic interests. This process reiterates the relational aspect of Duncan dance—we are not single bodies dancing individually through space. We dance with one another and together. Through our shared breath and our shared rhythmic movement, we create supportive community that provides space for growth and transformation.

Joining me and The Girls’ School of Austin Duncan Dancers at the Umlauf on Sunday will be guest artists Kate Cleary, Kirsche Dickson, Amy Priest, and Yelena Konetchy. Kate, who danced Isadora’s work in St. Louis, found me through Tapestry Dance Academy here in Austin. I was thrilled to get an email from someone who had experience with Duncan’s work.  Kirsche and I met through yoga practice, and I later learned that she wrote a dissertation on Duncan for the dance studies program at UC Riverside. Amy is a colleague of Divergence Vocal Theater’s Artistic Director, Misha Penton, and she came to the Duncan workshop I taught in Houston in January—we’ve since discovered many other overlapping connections. Lena teaches ballet at Tapestry, and we’ve been taking a Saturday morning class together. After class one day, we got into a conversation about improvisation and theatre, and she is beautiful in Isadora’s work.

Sunday’s event will begin at 2:30pm with an audience-participatory tour through the garden and will culminate with performances of original Duncan choreographies, structured improvisations, and a new work for young dancers set to Stravinsky’s “Firebird” score. Austinites, join us for an afternoon of joyful frolicking amid the artwork and grounds of the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum—and afterwards, for a cool dip in Barton Springs Pool. Event is free with regular museum admission: $3.50 for adults and $1 for children.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Educational Dance Videos

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about Duncan’s position as a dance educator, and I’ve gestured to her refusal, during her lifetime, to allow her dancing or her work to be filmed. A glance back at grainy, distorted footage from the 1920’s, makes me understand her reticence, yet, at the same time, such glimpses of the past really only whet my appetite for more. I pretty much yelped with glee when a friend sent me the link to the historic dance footage recently made available online through the Jacob’s Pillow archives. If you haven’t seen it, check out the snippet of Isadorable Anna Duncan dancing there.

Robots, choreography by Liz Vacco
Of course, these days, dance is not just recorded via film or video for archival purposes. There is a whole market for dance footage that is instructional and interactive. Instructional exercise videos are not a new concept—they’ve been around at least since shortly after the mass production of the VCR (as any child of the late 80’s would know).  And when my best friend was working out to Jane Fonda as an image-obsessed, rural American middle schooler, I was begging for instructional dance videos and lacing on my pointe shoes in the living room.

So, needless to say, when my former New York City roommate and Yaledancer colleague Liz Vacco recently emailed a link to her new dance education video for kids, I was thrilled. Not only is Liz a brilliant dancer, actor, artist, educator, but she also got me into teaching dance as a support career in my New York City performance days.  It’s really too bad that I don’t have any pictures to post from the robot piece she choreographed that we danced in studio showings at Bridge for Dance, Dancespace (when it was still in China town), and at in a warehouse/co-op somewhere in Queens (okay, update--photos do exist!).  

"Petite Feet" with Liz Vacco
Check out the promo footage of her DVD entitled Petite Feet. Not only does it hysterically embrace and subtly comment on the whole genre of TV programming for kids, it is instructionally really good. I do think someone should make this into a series (are you listening TV production people out there?). And I’m claiming dibs on the Isadora Duncan guest artist segment…