Where I Fell in Love

This weekend I have enjoyed the honor of returning to my alma mater to create a dance for first year college students. The students are lovely. We are enjoying an opportunity to get to know each other as movers and as people and the dancers are enjoying a new (to them) process for creating dance and creating a culture.

The honor, though, is the luxury of time in the space I poured myself into many years ago. To return to the environment that opened my eyes to the artistry of dance, strength of character, and gave me opportunities to take risks and truly be seen. I hear the echoes of wisdom doled by sage mentors and I am flooded with fondness for friends and memories made there.

My lens is not totally rose-tinted. I equally recall the struggles and challenges, the drama and the sacrifices yet I acknowledge the resulting sense of group and the profound sense of belonging I felt there.

It hits me now that it is precisely that feeling I have been searching for, professionally, ever since.

WMU was where I found my “flow” as theorized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi- where interest, rigor, and appropriate challenge result in joy, the kind of joy when time is lost and sense of self is found. An optimal experience.

This piece explores the notion of seeing and being seen. We are sifting through the landscape of being a “first year”- eager to demonstrate and impress, bridled with the change of status from leader to low man, feeling invisible and being hungry for acknowledgement.

We have talked about being “under construction” in technique class, as technical skills are built or rebuilt, and the longing to “just dance” which really means reconnecting with the dancer- selves we knew and understood. There is no going back, though. That is the sneaky thing about growth.

Being in a new teaching position, in spite of my substantial experience, I can relate to the “first year” experience. I am living it. Being new is exhausting, even in the best of environments. Reputation means little after the initial invitation to do whatever it is you want to do, until you can establish your reputation all over again in a new place, with new circumstances, new people. Character. I think it takes character to build character. I think it takes character to help others build character. This will be a big topic in my classes at the high school this week.

Yesterday we ended rehearsal with four questions,
What have you seen today?
What have you allowed to be seen today?
What are you reluctant to share?
When do you feel seen (acknowledged, valued, appreciated)?

Some of these are as tricky for me to answer, I think, as they are for the students and equally as important.

We decided yesterday, we are searching for fulfillment. That is defined differently for each of us, but one commonality kept coming through- we want to change people’s perspectives. We want to move people.

We’ll be back at it at 1pm.

Changing the Variables

Something powerful happens when we take dance out of the studio. Or out of a theatre. Or out of dance clothes. Or out of trained dancer bodies.

I experienced this as a student but more so when I was living in NYC and other cities- seeing movement of all kinds in Central Park, in installations around the city, site specific works in L.A., and rubbing elbows with elite ballet dancers at a church on the Upper West Side.

Dance took on a whole new meaning. And the means for these experiences depended on changing the expectations of dance- where, when, how, and dressed in what. I felt the freedom of the experience yet it didn’t really start to impact my own work or teaching until I was directing the dance program at a liberal arts college and teaching a dance history/appreciation course that contained dance minors and general education students.

As we moved through time within that course, I offered practical dance experiences to give the students a sense of feeling for what we were talking about. They had technique class samplers in ballet, modern, and jazz. We had comparison sessions of dance styles within single genres. We had a rehearsal in which I staged a musical theatre work. We did a slow walk across campus and they had site specific composition studies that offered us a tour of campus.

Their final exam included creating a dance on paper. Some chose to notate in narrative form or a symbol system, some drew, some created origami, some collaged,…..it was fascinating and some were very good and explaining their thought process and creative decisions. Those that weren’t, were often able to admit, in the heat of the moment, with complete honesty and ownership that their work wasn’t informed by a process or much thought. They were “caught” but I didn’t do the catching, they did. For many of “those” students, that moment seemed real. They realized it wasn’t a joke. I felt that was just as valuable as those that had elaborate explanations for their choices, the meaning, and the product they created.  We were able to have a constructive conversation about what they would do differently or we talked about the things that were holding them back. And yes, for some, I let it go. I could see they simply weren’t ready. (This could relate to a portion of my Dance Advantage article, “Your Words and Shaping Healthy Dancers).

While I would approach many of these experiences differently now, with sage wisdom, it was a good start. I think it made an impression. I think the students were more invested and took the work more seriously, even though many of them were having fun. This approach is harder in K-12, particularly K-8. We do this a little with the clothing for dance class, which I will be writing about in August for Dance Advantage but my thinking cap is on, ready to take me further from the norm.

In a NYTimes article about Mark Dendy’s new work Ritual Cyclical, dancer Michael Figueroa said in reference to dancing outside with Dendy in a site specific work staged several years ago, “I ended up rolling all over the cement — the most crazy experience ever,” he said. “I had no idea that dance could be anywhere and could be anything.”

Sounds like a pretty powerful revelation to me.

History Moves: Using the Creative Process to Explore Dance History

Here is my December article for Dance Advantage.

Creative Process: 10 Ideas for Moving Beyond the Steps

Here’s my November article for Dance Advantage.

The Summer of Awakenings

Recently, I was chatting with a friend about all that has gone on this summer. It has been an emotional roller coaster for many reasons including the birth of our second child in April, my emphasis on dance writing, the worrying about an unstable job in a challenging school district, the development of new dance projects, and plenty of reflection regarding identity, history and projection into the future.

I had dubbed it the “Summer of Growth.”  My friend dubbed it the “Summer of Awakenings”. I like hers better.

Writing has played a major role in my semblance of sanity. I have always kept journals. I love journals. I have stacks and stacks of notebooks containing ideas, plans, feelings, memories, dances and now topics for blog posts and articles. My students identify me by my scarves and my journals. Maybe my shoes, too. And sometimes my hair. But I digress.

This summer, however, writing has taken on a whole new meaning for me. A new potential. It has added a new aspect to my identity- one that volleys between confidence and doubt like a teenager (good reminder, given my day job of teaching 8-12th graders!!!). And has brought me even more respect for my real-deal, actual (like books, plays, screenplays, freelance articles) writer husband.  Overall, writing has provided a new sense of fulfillment as well as new and returning groups of friends.

Writing about dance and dance education, both professionally and personally over the past nine months or so, has led me to tackle some biases, confront some half-truths in my practices versus my philosophies, generate some really good ideas (if I do say so myself), and most importantly has connected me with people affiliated with dance, like-minded and otherwise, and in all walks of dance experiences. It has been a very profound season.

At Home

Most of my large scale writing: blog posts, articles, academic writings, and notes for upcoming projects happens at home. This is also where I do the majority of my reading. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to combine both and refer to it as my large scale responding. Anyway, this (and last) summer has brought plenty of thought-provoking topics that I would love to write about formally when time allows. Several have been about writing in dance and/or education.

  • Jennifer Edwards wrote a lovely piece for Huffington Post centered on dance journalism and audience (readership) engagement through blog commentary.  I relate to writing in all facets of my dance life and the important intrapersonal connections it has forged for me (as well as my students). Let us also not forget the reading that accompanies and often prompts the writing. The dialogues that happen internally as well as inter-personally are cyclical and key in the development of an artist’s (or student’s) point of view, ownership of voice, and relevance of expression. This is true whether their selected language is physical or written.
  • Last summer, Wendy Perron, editor of Dance Magazine, blogged about young choreographers blogging about their creative process. I personally love the rebuttal written by Zachary Whittenburg (trailorpilot), although I generally enjoy the work of both writers.
  • I have also been intrigued by the subject of blog writing in academics. I am encouraged to include blog writing in my dance courses at the high school level as I feel it responsible arts education to compliment and supplement core instruction without sacrificing our elective content. I did this at the college level and its why I describe my teaching philosophy as being from ‘a liberal arts perspective’.

I have appreciated the comments that I have received in response to blog posts here as well as my Dance Advantage articles. I value the conversations that have developed as a result of my professional writings with both familiar voices as well as new ones.  I am excited to re-configure a tool I had used in my college teaching for my high school teaching.

On the Road

Then there is my small scale writing. As in 140 characters small. Twitter! I was shocked that blogging about a treasured dance experience, performing a work by Lar Lubovitch, did something that my dancing was never able to do, and that was to bring personal contact with Mr. Lubovitch himself!  I posted the blog, tweeted the Lubovitch company and within the hour, had a personal response! Talk about the power of social media and the potential of small scale writing. The kind of writing I tend to do away from home, on my smartphone, something I never would have considered years ago. My, how things change.

In the Studio

Then there is the writing within the creative process and even the performance venue (program notes). I am currently working on a dance for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in collaboration with Dance in the Annex. I am working with a wonderful but varied group of dancers which all happen to be an hour away from me. Technology is a big factor in the process/ progress of this work, which also happens to be the title. We each have vastly different relationships to dance and its purpose within our lives.

We also have commonalities in how we’ve feel we’ve been perceived in dance. We shared these narratives in rehearsal last week. I’ve drawn on them in the creation of movement and will do so more extensively as I coach the piece long-distance through the aid of technology. No, we won’t have video chat rehearsals, but we will use video and notes. We will use reading and writing to nurture performances, clarify intent, and provoke further investigation.  I have mixed feelings about it but I am grateful for the time, energy, and willingness of these dancers to go through this process/progress with me. And I am aware of the reality. We are all sacrificing to make this happen. I am aware of the time carved, the money lost, and the children distracted in order to make this piece happen. I am thankful. And it is likely that I’ll blog about it.

Our commonality in dance is this, and I dare say it isn’t exclusive to this particular group. At some point, we’ve all felt like outsiders. We have all, in some way, been told or made to feel we don’t measure up and we’ve remembered the words.

In my journals, I’ve written about it a million times in a million different ways even if I didn’t realize from where a particular emotion or issue was coming. I think it is a problem in dance training and the more I teach, the more wounded I find…people that once loved dance but for one reason or another left and have struggled to return. Many can’t bring themselves to watch dance. This is a problem. And one worth discussing. Stay tuned.

We each have stories and our narratives are worth sharing. I firmly believe it. I also believe there is a time and a place. And the stage is not necessarily the appropriate venue. But I think the process of writing (and dancing/choreographing) is important in the coping with these narratives and the development of new ones.

Writing brings clarity, awareness, and action. Just like moving through space and time with or without other bodies. Ideas connect, relationships are forced, negotiation and reconciliation occur. It is why I expect my students do it. Shouldn’t I expect the same of myself?

Yet, I feel about writing much as I do about choreography; everyone should do it but it doesn’t mean it should be made public. Nor does its mere creation mean it is artful. As my 3 year old son said so eloquently when asking for a snack, “Cookies are not dessert. Cookies are just cookies.” Sometimes the same rings true in art. Including dance and writing. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t yummy.

Right? Write. Thanks. More soon.

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?

A Love Clear and Simple

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.

Happy cleansing.

Originally published by Dance in the Annex.  http://www.danceintheannex.com