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Tonight I took a master class with a dancer from the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Kennedy Center. The Kennedy Center has started offering these master classes just this year and it is really a wonderful opportunity to learn technique from some of the most influential dancers today.
The ticket said the class would take place in the rehearsal hall, where I had never been before. As I entered the Kennedy Center from the shuttle bus area, there was a small table set up with a woman taking tickets. We were instructed to wait there until we were escorted up to the rehearsal hall. We were taken through a back hallway and up several floors in a freight elevator. Then we wound our way through a warren of cramped, windowless cubicles (the idea of working at the KC doesn’t seem that cool anymore after seeing the working conditions), before coming upon a moderate sized dance studio. It was interesting to get a chance to see the bowels of the KC.
The class was taught by a woman named Leah from the company. We started out with a floor sequence before moving on to standing warmup combinations and finishing with some choreography from a new piece the company is working on. As with any new instructor or style, I had to constantly remind myself during the course of the class to keep and open mind and be patient with myself. It can be frustrating to move in a way that is not familiar or to memorize new combinations when it does not feel natural. In the end, things did click for me and I came away from the class with some new insights.
Leah talked about Jones’ approach as task based movement. It took me the whole class, plus a conversation with Leah after class to fully grasp what this means. Essentially, task based movement is about fully describing a movement, rather than just showing it or giving it a shorthand name. This allows the dancer to embody and put thought into each moment of the movement. The word precisionwas used quite a bit, but in the context of task based movement, this means more how you do something than exactly how it should look. One example of this was the directive to swing the right leg up and make contact at three points– each hand with the ankle. How high the leg was or the line of the leg was of less consequence than the sequence of movement, where you’re going, and what you have to do to get there. As we repeated the combination, we were constantly exhorted to thing about the process of completing each movement task. After many repetitions, the list of tasks became less of a burden and more of a guide. Another “script” we were given was to sing during one of the standing warmups (a tendu/degage sequence). We were to make up our own rhythmic tune to hum as we went through the sequence. This did help me get out of my head and feel more at one with the pattern.
I am able to see applications of task based movement for my own dancing as a tool for picking up choreography (something I am not very good at) more quickly. Creating a running narrative, rather than relying on muscle memory or my mediocre knowledge of ballet vocabulary, creates an additional script to guide the reproduction of a sequence.
The choreography itself was enjoyable to do. The quality of the movement felt natural, employing a lot of the momentum and catch/release we do in Helanius’ class.
Attention all DC dance peeps: I was ever so pleased to read in today’s Joy of Motion email newsletter that they have set up an on-line scheduler. They’re using the Mind Body Online platform, which is something I’m familiar with from my yoga studio. It appears that at this time, you can only sign up for enrollment and performance classes online. The full drop-in schedule is there, and I find it quite user-friendly compared to their old webpage, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to sign up for a drop-in yet. They have promised further updates to the website so I am hopeful.
When you purchase a multi-class card at JOM (which is so worth it because of the discount and speed of sign in), they give you a flimsy little paper card. I am always in terror that my 30 class card, which I paid almost $400 for. will flutter out of my wallet at any moment. Yes, they have a replacement system, but you have to remember which of the five studios you bought it at and they deduct a class per week that you’ve had it, which could work in your favor if you average more than one class per week, or against you if you go less frequently.
I hope the day is close at hand when a computer network at all locations keeps track of my classes for me.
You can visit the scheduler here. Big kudos to JOM for finally taking this step!!
As the news media have widely reported, Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama all attended last night’s sold-out performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
While the time-out from stimulus package dealings got a little flack, the President’s dancer in chief (and chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel seemed to have things under control. But here’s why I’m giddy with excitement– the President and his family have announced their commitment to being an active part of the DC community and in showcasing the best our culture has to offer. Now they are making good on that promise. Am I getting ahead of myself dreaming that the ‘Obama effect’ will extend to increased patronization of the arts?
The ‘Obama effect’ I refer to is that the President’s cache` is so great that many people want to be a part of what he is a part of. I can just imagine more shows selling out around town in the hopes the President (or other luminaries such as mother in law Marian Robinson or Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who attended Ailey a few evening earlier) will be there too. And in the process maybe some folks will get an appreciation for experiencing the arts.
There’s no word yet on how this sudden elevation of the arts in Washington might translate to policy. The idea of a Secretary of Arts has been thrown around (see related discussion, including my thoughts on the matter at Dancing Perfectly Free). Increased funding for arts in education, museums, and artists is always something being pushed for. Personally, I’d love to see a WPA-type creation of jobs for artists in the economic stimulus.
Policies aside, let’s celebrate the fine example the White House is setting as a patron of the arts. The Obamas also demonstrate that exposing your kids to the arts at a young age is appropriate and beneficial.
I am not usually big on new year’s resolutions, but 2008 was kind of a long tough year so I’m welcoming the chance to turn over a new leaf. Instead of calling it my list of resolutions, I’m going to call it my 2009 Action Plan. Making vague promises to myself (i.e., gotta lose that weight and make it to the gym more) only sets me up for failure.
2008 was hard on many fronts. For one, it was a difficult year for the world. We had so many natural and human disasters. Senseless wars dragged on and death tolls continued to mount. Certain toxic elements in my workplace made it hard for me to be there many days. Then there was the presidential campaign, which lasted two years. I threw myself into a lot of projects and commitments in 2008. Three dance performance commitments– two of them incredibly time intensive, a whole lot of travel (mostly for work), and a full-time volunteer commitment on top of my more-than-full-time job for three months this fall. All of these thigns were worthwhile and important, but sometimes I sacrificed myself along the way. When you’re that busy and invested in something, you tend not to focus on your own needs very much.
This year is already off to an auspicious start. The toxic element is out of the way at work and I feel a thousand times better. Our political climate is changing– we have a new President that for the first time in a decade I feel I can claim as ‘my’ president. I invested a lot of my own time and emotional energy in getting him elected and feel personally invested in his success. It is so nice to feel hope for my country’s future. And thank god the campaign is over; we also have a nice newly proportioned Congress to show for it.
2009 will be a year in which I nurture myself; and that in turn will make me a better friend and spouse.
In 2009, I will limit my performance commitments to two. That’s one less than 2008, and it will give me some more space to pay attention to my own development. I will also have more flexibility with my time.
In 2009, I will live a more spontaneously. When I am moved to buy a ticket or take a trip, I will, budget permitting. I have a lot of extra vacation to use this year, so time is not an issue. I will take a trip to NYC before the end of the Spring.
I will make the time to spend more time with my husband and my friends. We will welcome more people into our home (mission accomplished– we had our first dinner party in at least a year or two on New Years Eve). To do this, I’ll have to learn to say no to some commitments that I might otherwise have taken on.
Each time I am moved to say something negative, complaining, or nagging, I will count to three before I open my mouth.
Oh, and one final boring one (because it’s something I’ve actually been able to stick to): I will floss every day.
So that’s my list. No mention of diet and exercise, because if I really stay true to the above, the rest will follow.
What about your 2009 Action Plan?
Today’s All Things Considered on NPR had a wonderful story by Jacki Lyden on Parkinson’s and dance. Each week, the Mark Morris dance company holds a class for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
One thing that I learned from the story is that Parkinson’s affects one’s ability to initiate voluntary movement; while involuntary movement is largely unaffected. For example, you would be able to catch a ball because it is a reflexive action, but you might not be able to initiate the movement of your arm to throw it back.
Mark Morris thinks that dance tricks the mind and body into moving, as the repetitive movements in dance can eventually become involuntary, as are one’s mindless reactions to the beat of a familiar song, or copying the movement of an instructor or classmate. Although there is not any definitive scientific research yet to link dance to improvement in Parkinson’s symptoms, the anecdotal results of the class are so strong that Mark Morris was invited to speak at a neuroscientists’ convention.
You can listen to this excellent story (which has a lovely background audio of the class), read a summary, and see photos from the class here.
While it has been noted with some scornful glee (from the macho opposition), or bemusement (from the betcha didn’t know department) by newscasters and columnists, I met the news that President-elect Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once trained as a ballet dancer with much delight and interest. Could this be the highest ranking White House official with a serious dance background?
Interestingly enough, Emanuel’s wikipedia entry does not currently mention this fact, and most other internet sources mention it in passing, without any context. Like this article, that thought it important enough to put in the headline but gives no further information. Others make an attempt at deep analysis. A 2005 Rolling Stone article addressed the issue thusly:
When Rahm was a boy, his mother forced him to take ballet lessons, and he threw himself into it with the same intensity he would later bring to politics, winning a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet. Friends jokingly theorize that his toughness is actually an outgrowth of being a ballet dancer: With that sort of thing on your resume, you had better be ready to fight if you hope to survive in Chicago politics. “The guy had been a ballet dancer in college,” says Bruce Reed, “yet grown men lived in mortal fear of what he might do to them if they couldn’t get the answer he wanted.”
Can fear of being made fun of for being a male ballet dancer explain Emanuel’s mythically-proportioned temper? The nickname “Rahmbo”? I haven’t seen any widespread reports of former male ballet dancers with ego and anger control issues. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, or maybe there just haven’t been that many in Chicago politics.
Here’s another theory– that the study of ballet actually made him into an angry person (hmmm…). According to a blog posting dedicated to the subject:
“I’ve known Rahm for twenty years, he’s a friend, and I’ll be the first to admit that he’s an insufferable jerk, a Grade A a-hole, a complete prick,” said a former Clinton staffer. “But when you realize the years of endless repetition in some of Chicago’s toughest dance studios and the superhuman precision required to execute a series of moves en pointe you start to see where it comes from. There’s a lot of pent up rage that ballet gives no outlet for. You can’t even hit on the girls in the troupe as no one believes you’re not gay, no matter how many adjustments you need to make to your tights.”
Wow… pent up rage and fear of being thought you’re gay. Let’s not make this too complicated. I always thought dance was a good outlet for strong emotion, not something that causes you to bottle them up.
I’m going to go with another theory– that there’s room for all sorts of men in dance– girly men, manly men, white men, black men, purple men, and little green men. Even men with political aspirations, for crying out loud! That Emanuel’s ballet background is an issue for many– as evidenced in the number of amused-in-tone mentions by reporters and pundits– just goes to show how entrenched attitudes are about what a “normal” pasttime for a young male is. You don’t see headlines about “fishing enthusiast George W. Bush,” for example.
Those of us who dance know how much discipline and hard is required to be successful. It also helps to have a thick skin. All these character traits go a long way in politics. Judging from some of the stories, a love of drama and performance also seem to be inherent in Emanuel’s personality. The same things that probably helped him succeed in dance– even being offered a scholarship to the Joffrey– are the same sort of character traits that have carried him far in public service. It’s not a matter of cause and effect, as so many people seem to want it to be; it’s merely a matter of a core work ethic and perseverence being an asset in some of the more difficult and high-profile professions such as dance and politics.
I’m less interested in analyzing his character based on this detail from his past, and more interested in whether he still has a love for dance. Does he ever go to class? Is he a patron of the arts? Should I be keeping an eye out for him when I go see the ballet at the Kennedy Center? Either way, the dancer in me is tickled that we do have a high ranking [former] ballet dancer in the White House. While that part of Rahm Emanuel’s personal history will have no bearing on the implementation of the Obama policy agenda, we dancers know that we have one of our own in there.
Read the first two installments in this series:
- My First Musical, Part I: The audition
- My First Musical, Part II: In which I am cast, have to make a tough decision, and begin rehearsals
We finally started learning the choreography after a few weeks of vocal rehearsal. It was a very exciting day for me; after all, it was the whole reason I had embarked on this project. Of a cast of 36, five women and two men had been cast as dancers. All but one of the women were significantly younger than me (teens/early 20s), and I was the oldest, and also the only one who did not have years of ballet training under her belt. This became a source of apprehension when the choreography turned out to be largely ballet-based, rather than in a more familiar idiom to me such as jazz or salsa.
In the projects I’ve been involved in, I now realize I was spoon-fed the choreography. The sequences would be taught in small sections over the course of a month or more, going back over each section to make sure it was solid before embarking on the next. On the other hand, our big dance number for the show was taught to us in its entirety in the space of two hours. No doubt this is how the pros do it, but I’m most definitely an amateur and I quickly realized I was going to have to up my game.
We were basically expected to have learned the choreography in that one session. In the next practice, the singing and non-dancing parts were added in. We would come back to a few rough patches just a couple times more, but we never went through the piece more than twice in any subsequent rehearsal. Add to this my own personal paranoias about being too old, too inflexible, too slow to pick up choreography, and too weak ballet technique, I entered a several-week crisis of self esteem. At each practice I thought to myself that there must have been some mistake and they were probably regretting casting me as a dancer. One day, I misread a new version of the casting sheet that was handed out and thought they had replaced me on another dance number due to my poor progress on the first one. As it turns out, I had looked at the wrong line and I was still in there, but my deflated brain was playing tricks on me.
What did I do to address these insecurities and limitations I was mired in? In addition to practicing in any spare moment (at least the parts I could remember without help), I changed my dance class schedule. Rehearsal was four days a week, and on the other days I had the energy I attended basic ballet classes in an attempt to focus my technique and apply any new insights or knowledge to the choreography. I also took every opportunity to ask my fellow dancers questions about the choreography and technique in general. Finally, the assistant choreographer offered me the opportunity for a one-on-one hour in which to polish the combination, which made a huge difference. With just about two weeks to go to opening night, I finally felt comfortable with the choreography, and with just a few days to spare, was able to relax into it enough add my own personal style and be more aware of all that was going on around me.
Why was this such an emotionally trying process for me? Well, there was a lot of truth in my insecurities– it was harder for me than the younger, more experienced dancers. Also, I am a perfectionist by nature and I hold myself to a high standard. Even if my pay or job are not on the line (keeping in mind this is a volunteer, community production and I have no real career aspirations in this area), I always want to do the best possible job I can. I don’t want to let anyone down– not my fellow cast members, not the production staff, and not the people who come to see the show. I don’t want to let myself down either, thinking I could have practiced more or tried harder. That said, seeing myself rise above those barriers in the end made the whole undertaking extremely gratifying. While I’m not the best, I’m my best, and in the end I’m dancing for me, because I love doing it, period.
Stay tuned for more installments on putting all the elements of the show together and the performances.
A telling 2003 New England Journal of Medicine report showed a lower risk for dementia among people over 75 who regularly danced during leisure time. But what was so surprising about the report is that other types of physical exercise didn’t affect dementia risk — dancing was the only physical activity that made a difference.
I’m slightly skeptical of the benefits of the type of dancing the guy is doing in the youtube video shared in the NYT blog post on dementia (though the benefits of promoting intercultural understanding through all his travels balance it out I’m sure) …but seriously, this is good news, indeed.
My own anecdotal feeling on this is that dancing not only physically good for you, but it forces the brain to create and strengthen new connections as it learns to coordinate movement with music, rhythm, control, and left/right awareness. I have seen this study cited before, and wonder if more follow up research has been done on the reasons for dance being a protective factor for dementia. The study abstract can be accessed here.
(Curious…if dancing is good for my brain, I wonder what dancing in a musical theater production is going to do for me to counterbalance the sleep deprivation; that is some serious brain multitasking! [see: My First Musical, parts I and II])
The first session I attended was on Saturday afternoon. Entitled Presenting Ballet Across America, it was a panel of artistic directors of ballet companies and critics. Sitting on the panel were the Washington Ballet‘s artistic director, Septime Webre, and associate director, Jeff Edwards. From the Boston Ballet, artistic director Miko Nissinen. From the Joffrey Ballet, artistic director Ashely Wheater. Critics Jean Battey Lewis of the Washington Times and Theodore Bale from Boston rounded out the panel. The moderator was the NY Post’s Robert Johnson.
Though I am but a baby in the world of balletomanes, even I was able recognize the star power of this panel. Topics discussed were accessibility, outreach and education, programming choices, touring, music, and relationships with critics. On this last topic, I thought it was a nice touch to have critics from the same cities as two of the artistic directors, given their long-standing, if at times adversarial, relationships. I was going to neatly summarize everything, but there were so many nice nuggets of insight and quotes that the below is essentially a cleaned-up version of my notes.
To gain an entry point to dance, audiences need to find something that they can connect with. Some connect with abstract ideas and emotions, while others need more explicit or literal imagery. Dancegoers seem to have shorter attention spans than operagoers. Why is it operagoers will happily sit through a 4 hour opera, but dancegoers squirm in their seats if it’s over an hour? These considerations may be factored in for whether a work will contain an intermission or not.
On the use of popular music to appeal to broader audiences:
Very few of those pieces have any staying power, because they relied on the strength of the music or the star power of the musician rather than on the strength of the choreography. Tharp’s Sinatra Songs is an exception because it was such a significant contribution to the American jazz canon (it’s been done by 17 companies, and counting). Live music is so important to the art. It’s not financially feasible to have Sting go on tour with you. If we do want to use contemporary music, we need to start seeking out one of the many talented, but lesser known musicians working today.
On TV, video and movies:
This is an exciting time where dancing being #1 on TV for the first time in decades is very exciting. It’s a moment of opportunity. We’re just waiting to see a reality show about ballet! There needs to be better integration of video and dance– the video behind the dancer showing abstractions or cues has been done. An example of innovation was given from the Paris Ballet where video showed activities going on live offstage that vastly contrasted with what the audience saw on stage.
The Company did more harm than good to the Joffrey. It trivialized the company and was a caricature of the artistic director and his process. It would add value to have dance critics write about dance movies and dance on TV, rather than a TV or movie critic that knows nothing about the art. Two exceptions cited were Lewis’ review of Fred Astaire movie reissues, and Bale’s review of The Company.
Someone asked why so few video dances apply the classical dance vocabularly (mostly modern and ballroom). Maybe it’s because ballet thinks so rigidly in terms of the rectangular proscenium stage, whereas video benefits from more dynamic facings and shapes. HD technology is a good thing– it allows more of the movement to come through the screen, even on proscenium-filmed video dances.
Would companies ever consider a shift of resources from live to video dance? To do it right, you have to invest millions of dollars in the right equipment, which will become obsolete in just a few years. It’s not financially feasible because it would take too much away from the audiences. What about alternative sources of funding? Forsythe did a DVD the documents his whole process, and it was funded by museums.
We need to think about how we can better develop talent in the USA. 40% of companies are foreign and 70% of principles are foreign. This says something about the quality of our own training. Other countries have rigid training and curricula in place. We need to look at what sort of standards of quality we should require for teachers and students. Discipline and rigor are lacking, yet we are trying to do too much too early (i.e., 8 yr olds going en pointe). Schools affiliated with companies are money makers so there’s an incentive to keep standards lower, such as holding on to students that are not progressing, to keep getting their tuition.
It is difficult to attract African American dancers. They mostly seem to gravitate to historically AA companies such as Ailey. What could companies do to become more representative of the communities they belong to?
There is a trend now to more varied body types. How we talk about shape and weight has changed, and our eyes have changed in terms of how we see bodies.
On dance criticism:
Dance critics can do more to inform their audiences and provide context. There is too much “inside baseball,” assuming readers know much more than they do about dance. In terms of how companies see their critics, articles should be constructive and emphasize the singular point of view so that readers understand that it’s coming from just one perspective.
I attended parts of the Dance Critics Association conference this weekend, and am very glad that I did. While I would have liked to attend the whole thing, I had some rehearsal conflicts that I could not get out of. In the end, I attended one workshop on Saturday, and two workshops and a lecture on Sunday.
I’ll get into the individual sessions in subsequent posts (I was originally was going to do one post but it got too long), but the overall benefit of my attendance was meeting other dance writers, both new and established, catching up with friends and acquaintainces, and getting an overall sense of the state of the dance writing profession and the interrelationships between those who dance and manage dance companies, and those who write about them.
I got the sense that dance criticism is at a crossroads. This year has seen many arts critics job losses from traditional newspapers due to budget cuts. The average age is on the older side, and most of these critics quite rightly focused on the art of writing about dance, are not as tech savvy as they need to be to evolve with the changing times. As one critic asked, how can we adapt to new technology, blogging rather than working for a newspaper and still get paid for it? At the end of the conference, that question remained unanswered, but a dialogue had started.