Monday, August 30, 2010

The first day of school!

I love the excitement of the first day of school. This morning, The School of Dance at George Mason University was buzzing with fresh energy. Many students returned with wonderful stories of summer adventures, the freshman class took their first steps of their four year journey into the unknown, the faculty were inspired and the new addition to the Performing Arts Building created quite a buzz! GMU was already blessed with beautiful, sunlight filled, spacious studios. Now there are two new, gorgeous studios accompanied by a student lounge, locker rooms and a physical therapy room added to the mix. I look forward to teaching, creating and dancing in the inspirational spaces. Anything and everything seems possible...we are at the beginning of a new journey, a new school year!

In this photo: The advanced modern dance class on the first day of the Fall 2010 semester at GMU.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

den of discussion

Last night’s viewing of dance films and videos brought together a small group of friends at my studio apartment to watch This Is It as well as a documentary on Butoh called Piercing the Mask, a brief clip of an Yves Klein performance, a film by Ludovica Riccardi about the creative process of Pierre Droulers and work by Beijing's Living Dance Studio.

An eclectic group of ideas and artists – what could possibly be shared among creators as diverse as Michael Jackson, Yves Klien, Tatsumi Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno, Wen Hui and documentary maker Wu Wenguang, and Pierre Droulers? What emerged over and over in the lively conversation that followed each film/video were distinct approaches to the body, to movement and to creation. Although the friends gathered are all curious about dance, we came to the discussion from different places; our unique perspectives included those of a writer, a massage therapist, a choreographer and performer and someone passionate about improvisational comedy. It was inspiring to listen to how each of us responded differently – and profoundly - to what we saw.

I thought of this again today when I went to see Mao’s Last Dancer (photo above), a film based on the true story of Li Cunxin's childhood and career. Much has been written about one of the first scenes when Li almost misses his chance to pursue dance, but it was a later incident that really impressed me. A ballet teacher gives Li contraband: a videotape of a performance by Baryshnikov (who has been dismissed in an earlier scene as a filthy defector…). Li is mesmerized and from this glimpse of what dancing can be, dedicates himself wholeheartedly to becoming an artist.

These glimpses we are given of other approaches, other performers, other ideas can be truly transformational. I strongly recommend Mao's Last Dancer as a film or the book and if you have never seen Klein's creations, there is a retrospective at the Hirshhorn until September 12.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kayak and Choreography

On July 29, 2010, Karen Reedy Dance performed a site-specific dance at the Torpedo Factory, inspired by resident artists Marsha Staiger and Alison Sigethy. For me, the artist’s joint exhibition in the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery, titled “Art in Balance: Rhythm and Repetition,” evoked images of water, summer, relaxation and playfulness. Marsha’s bold use of color was both playful and mesmerizing. As I stood in front of her work, I was taken on a journey and transported out of reality into a magical space. Alison’s three dimensional work continued the layers of depth in theme. Her “Water Wall” (which looks exactly as it sounds) created a serene atmosphere, while her colorful “Fireflies” again referenced the ease and joy of the summer season.

I enjoyed witnessing the artistic process and collaboration leading to the art exhibition “Art in Balance,” while being a part of the collaboration that led to the performance of KRD. From both visual artist’s work, I drew inspiration for the dance. Marsha’s use of bold color and sense of play, combined with Alison’s sensitivity to natural elements such as water, provided ideas as to how the dance might interact. The performance began in the water, continued outdoors on the waterfront, led the audience inside and came to completion in the Target Gallery.

There were many exciting and experimental aspects of this performance for me as a choreographer. The first involved a dance for kayak. Alison Sigethy provided inspiration and expertise not only as a collaborating artist, but also a highly ranked kayak competitor. Not being experienced with kayaking myself, I was challenged and thrilled to learn about how a kayak moves.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

from Maya in Vienna

After graduating from the School of Dance this spring, Maya (pictured above with choreographer David Dorfman and his son) embarked on an adventure: she has been living, dancing, creating and meeting artists in Europe. Most recently she was at ImPulsTanz, an international festival of performances and workshops in Vienna, Austria. Here is her update:

"Just got back to Brussels from ImPulsTanz in Vienna and it was amazing! I went to ImPulsTanz because David Dorfman said I could be his assistant and take free classes so I took his composition class, Trisha Brown repertory with Shelley Senter, technique with Ori Flomin and I took class with Lisa Race. The next week I took class with Kenji Takagi and Francesco Scavetta. I also auditioned for a dance program in Venice run by Ismael Ivo and made it really far and find out in September if I get in! I saw performances by David Zambrano, Benoit LachambreDD Dorvillier, Les ballets C de la B/Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke. David introduced me to Keith Hennessy, Risa Steinberg, Davis Freeman among others. I also met Meg Stuart and she asked to borrow a euro! (which she returned to me the next day) Also I was talking to a dancer and choreographer Abhilash Ningappa (pictured below), who I met in Brussels, and he invited me to be involved in his project in October and November!!! He already has the residency at an artist workspace in Brussels. Now I'm back here taking dance classes. I'm living with dancers I met at P.A.R.T.S., and Monday I have an appointment with the embassy to extend my visa!"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

David Leventhal

Some dance companies establish a relationship with an undergraduate program as a result of repertory set on students - or a graduate who lands a job with the company - or frequent performances on a particular campus. The special connection between Mark Morris Dance Group and GMU's School of Dance comes from all three of these factors – plus faculty like Dan Joyce and Karen Reedy performed with MMDG and a recent graduate, Shanleigh Philip, works administratively with MMDG. Such connections reveal the multifaceted ways MMDG has inspired students at GMU as well as the diversity of careers School of Dance graduates can pursue.

When MMDG performed at GMU's Center for the Arts in June, I enjoyed watching dancer David Leventhal onstage and was surprised to hear he was transitioning away from performing. I asked if he could share his plans with the dancers-in-dialogue blog and I hope you find his thoughts as inspirational and meaningful as I did. The photo above of Leventhal (right) and Brooklyn Parkinson Group member Martin Thall was taken by Katsuyoshi Tanaka at the Mark Morris Dance Center.

 1. When we spoke after the performance of MMDG at GMU you mentioned that you are transitioning away from full-time performing to dedicate more time to a new project. Can you describe this project and your decision to limit your performance schedule?

About nine years ago, my colleague John Heginbotham and I started teaching dance classes for people with Parkinson's disease. The Brooklyn Parkinson Group's executive director, Olie Westheimer, had approached MMDG with the idea about offering a customized dance class, and we decided to collaborate with BPG to offer free classes for people with PD, their spouses, caregivers and friends. Nine years later, the program has blossomed, so that in addition to teaching 50-60 participants a week at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, there are more than 40 classes around the world that are based to varying degrees on the MMDG/BPG model. Dance for PD has become an internationally acclaimed program and movement, and we've seen a sharp increase in demand from dance teachers who want to be trained by us, and from people with Parkinson's who want classes in their local communities. In response to this growth, the program needed someone to manage it day-to-day. Over the past two years, I had been teaching and networking on behalf of the program, and slowly--in spite of having a full-time performing career--I started taking on more of the logistical activities involved with replication and expansion. It made sense for me to become program manager because I believed passionately in the work of the program, knew everyone involved and was interested in developing a new skill set that was quite different from anything I'd done before. At the same time, I knew I was ready to stop performing full-time for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I'd been thinking about winding down my performing career for a long time. So everything just seemed to come together at once, and before I knew it, I had a plan. Mark Morris and MMDG's Executive Director, Nancy Umanoff, have been extraordinarily supportive and open to this transition, and Nancy in particular has worked very hard to put together a combination of administrative time, teaching engagements, and MMDG performing engagements so that I can earn a living as I begin this new venture.

2. What makes dance so attractive for people with Parkinson's? I just read an article on the website that said "Sustained repetitive dance movements strengthen muscles and keep the body supple, which is of particular  importance for people who suffer the relentless contractions that characterize Parkinson's." Can you explain more about how you teach and how the teaching benefits people with Parkinson's?

That quote is accurate, but it doesn't capture the whole picture. I think there's so much more to the class than the mechanics of dancing. Some people with Parkinson's do some kind of physical therapy and exercise. But the basis of our class--and the thing that drew BPG's Executive Director Olie Westheimer to the idea--is that professional dancers are movement experts who have lots of valuable information to share with people who have a movement disorder. And the best part is that the delivery of this information is done in an enjoyable, social, stimulating environment with live music. If you think about everything that dance training develops--precise rhythm, strategies for balancing, advanced coordination skills, use of the imagination in the service of movement, knowledge of where all parts of the body are in space, physical confidence and grace--you start to realize how closely those elements correspond to what people with PD have trouble with. Dance training seems to pinpoint the very things that PD attacks, and so there's the potential for a very powerful transformation from rigidity and unease to musicality and flow. The fact that dance is a cognitive and aesthetic activity, and not just exercise, is especially important. Participants learn to think like dancers, and can find ways around some of the physical blocks they experience when they're not in class. I'm reminded of British neuroscientist Semir Zeki's statement that all artists are instinctive neuroscientists. Although I think he's talking primarily of visual artists, I think the same could be said of dancers and choreographers, especially in this kind of setting. But I must add that we don't teach the class as neuroscientists (because we're not--not even close) or as therapists (which we're not). We teach a real dance class because we trust that the elements of dance training are in themselves enormously beneficial to this particular community, and because the classes are a great way to help people with PD think about movement having the potential to create joy and confidence, rather than frustration.

 3. And the third question, the flip side, is: how does this teaching enrich your own career and life outside the studios?

It's hard to list all the ways, but teaching this class has entirely changed the way I view teaching and dancing. I grew up as a serious ballet student at Boston Ballet, and then threw myself into modern dance in college. I think this route is fairly typical--perhaps not for a male--but for many of my colleagues. Along the way, you develop very set ideas about what dance is, and who does it, and if you're not careful, your perspective can become very narrow once you enter a professional company. You live and breath your career, and rehearsals and performances take place in a rarified environment in which everyone is highly trained, and everyone is operating at the highest professional level. Mark fights this--his aesthetic and world view is not elitist at all; he's a great humanist at heart and is fascinated by a multitude of non-professional dancing cultures--but it's inevitable in any performing dance institution that the actual working environment is quite cloistered. It has to be.

At a dinner party a couple weeks ago, the question: "What dancer left the most lasting impression on you?" ignited a storm of discussion. Barabra Korengold spoke about people and places in DC that played a crucial role in the development of dance in this city and I asked if she could share some of these memories here on dancers-in-dialogue:

"We talked a little at dinner about Nureyev. I really feel that in my life (so far) he has been the one dancer who has advanced the art more than anyone else. It wasn't just the advance in technique that he inspired, but I think the force of his personality on stage was just as revolutionary. It was the first time (I never saw Njinsky, so I can't compare the two) that a man had command of the stage as an equal to the ballerina. It really was astonishing. He also showed us so much of the classic repertoire that was unfamiliar to us in the west. Ballet in Washington grew up when The Kennedy Center opened [in 1971]. The first time I saw the Royal Ballet... was at the old Washington Coliseum (which was where the circus performed). When I danced with the Bolshoi when I was 12, the performances were at an old movie theater on F Street that has been torn down. The major companies just didn't come. ABT and NYCB sometimes came to Carter Baron in the summers, but there was always the risk of a rain out. When I danced in the Washington Ballet's Nutcracker it was at Constitution Hall (with the National Symphony).... For a long time Mary Day was the only game in town. Freddie Franklin worked with her for a while, but he left and started National Ballet.

Monday, August 16, 2010

any experience worth having...

The more I teach the more I find that there are three key things I hope students will grasp in a course like Dance History or Appreciation: first, the confluence of events that creates great artists and masterpieces; second, the diversity of people who have shaped our definition of dance in 2010; third, the arts, and dance in particular, are essential forms of communication and wellsprings of meaning. I know that a course has planted - or nurtured - that seed of curiosity in a student when I receive an email after they attend a performance that touches upon material we watched and discussed.

Yesterday I opened a message from Jeremiah, a student in the summer Appreciation course I taught at GMU. He attended a version of Macbeth that used elements of capoeira in some of the battles, and I had seen this production when it was part of the Capital Fringe festival in DC and wrote about it for DC Theatre Scene. I mentioned it one evening to the class because I found the show fresh and captivating. Its run was extended after the festival, and the performance that Jeremiah saw took place in McLean at 1st Stage. It makes me smile when I open a message from a student who has taken a course and wants to share his/her perspective on what artists are making today. I asked Jeremiah if I could include his email here on the blog and he wrote: "any experience worth having is worth sharing..." So here are his insights:

" was nothing short of fantastic. I did have a little shred of an unrealistic anticipation of how much capoeira would actually be incorporated, but I didn't let it detract from the performance in any way. I haven't been to a play since I saw Romeo and Juliet nine years ago, but I definitely recognized the taste of classical Shakespearean genius while being privileged with an intelligent and refreshing contemporary vision of it. I'm pretty familiar with the play itself and it's one of my favorites, so seeing it performed so well in a new way was extremely rewarding....

Sunday, August 15, 2010

onstage tonight

About 60 dancers – ranging in age from elementary to high school – turned the Millennium Stage of The Kennedy Center into an acoustic surface. They had spent one week learning the rhythms and percussive patterns of stepping, taught by members of Step Afrika, one of DC’s dance gems.

In a stellar program moderated by artistic director Jakari Sherman, four teams of steppers divided by age performed polyrhythmic phrases punctuated by sharp freezes. They included boys and girls, which is somewhat unusual since traditionally stepping is performed by university students grouped in fraternities or sororities. Step Afrika is a cultural jewel because it preserves and presents the history, artistry and athleticism of the dance, and provides a phenomenal show.

Friday, August 13, 2010

this weekend

Just received a message from a student who took the Appreciation course I taught this summer:

“There is a smoke dance competition on my reservation this weekend “

When Ashley shared with the class her experiences of life on a reservation, we were fascinated and inspired.  She described differences between the Onondaga Nation, which retains its customs and a form of government that includes a traditionally-selected Council of Chiefs, and other Native Americans. As Ashley stated when asked about powwows:  "Nations that have reservations maintain traditions on their reservation... These Nations are able to practice their religion with religious dancing within their own communities. Other Native Americans who do not have reservations of their own gather at powwows to share similar traditions and religious practices. It is a place where people share culture, dancing, food and clothing.” If you are near Syracuse on Saturday or Sunday, I strongly recommend a visit to the Onondaga Nation Arena. More information about the events and dancers can be found here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Going somewhere new mixes a little stress with a lot of excitement.

Last minute details, things to pack, arrangements to make… all balanced by the experience of elsewhere - sights, people, the possibility of experiencing life from another perspective. Perhaps best of all when I return from such a trip, I see anew what was once familiar.

A friend of mine talks about living life like a traveler: meeting everyday events with the mindset we have when we are in faraway places. We tend to be more curious, more energized, more open when we are away from the familiar – and this energy attracts conversations with people and encounters that rarely happen when we are immersed in our regular routine. What would happen if we brought a traveler’s approach into our daily schedule? would we see familiar sights in different ways? strike up conversations with the people we didn’t notice or take the time to engage?

Teaching Dance Appreciation at GMU is a little like a global tour. We look at and discuss dances from around the world, and the students enrich this experience by introducing their own stories of living and traveling in different countries. As I think about this, I find myself looking forward to the start of classes at the end of this month.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

unique power and melancholy

Just heard from Maria Ambrose who was in New York City this summer and who will soon begin her senior year in the School of Dance at GMU: "I went to the 'Haunted' exhibit at the Guggenheim this past weekend. It was so interesting and inspiring. It had the coolest combination of film, performance art, and portraits. Merce Cunningham was involved with one part that had 6 screens with a projected image of him sitting in a chair all from different angles and distances. It was called Stillness. I'm glad I caught it before I left and I hope people get a chance to go!"

Stillness (2007) is by artist Tacita Dean and I saw a version of it in Philadelphia when it was part of the "Dance with Camera" exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art. It evokes John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33": in the films Cunningham sits in a chair and is viewed from different angles.

More information about the exhibit "Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance" is available here.

Reality Quest

Saw Step Up 3 in 3D yesterday. Movies like this make teaching courses in dance a total joy. The acting may be pretty awful, but the film acknowledges the reasons why people dance, the sacrifices they are willing to make and the sense of belonging that they acquire.

It comes as close as I have seen to simulating the feeling of watching dance without a screen separating performer and observer, and it steers clear of the sexually aggressive tone of prior movies like You Got Served (check out its opening scene here).

It creates the possibility for students to come into a class like Dance Appreciation curious about parkour, freerunning, capoeira, the power moves of b-boys, popping and locking - all of which are represented in the film. In one scene where water is spilled on the dance-floor, the 3D technology intensifies the impact, making me wonder how many people in the movie theater know this has been done by artists like Pilobolus (in Day Two) and Dave St. Pierre (in Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!) - and the effect is even cooler when it is seen live?

My question is: do movies that replicate the experience of seeing dance without a screen encourage people to buy a ticket and see dance in a theater or at a dance-battle, to participate in this unique experience?

Then again, there is a way to enjoy dance on screen without it being turned into a competition or spectacle: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, a web series directed by the same man who directed Step Up 3 Jon M. Chu.

orchestrating emotion

Students in Dance History at GMU select and develop a research topic during the semester-long course. It's a fascinating project when it engages students' creativity, their ability to explore sources beyond  books and publications, and to interview artists, scholars, and experts in a variety of sectors. Many projects uncover ways in which dance both impacts and instigates changes in cultures, politics, and history.

Last semester Maria Ambrose looked at the relationship between Mary Wigman and the policies of the Third Reich, and a month ago I received this message from her: "I was just browsing the itunes trailers online and this was one of the most recent ones. I thought you might find it interesting because of the propaganda lesson in class. A little late for my research paper, but still cool!" The film opens August 18.

Today I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where the exhibit "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda" is on view. Although there is no mention of Wigman and only a brief mention of the "Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)" exhibit, there are other examples of the extent to which ideology permeated everyday life: a board game in the exhibit called "Der Siegeslauf des Hakenkreuzes (The Swastika's Victorious Course)" and Joseph Goebbels' plans for regular television service (Germany in 1935 was one of the first nations to introduce it). The exhibit says "Goebbels saw the great propaganda potential... but believed it was best viewed by groups." An interesting comment about the power of mass spectacle and the party's determent of independent thinking. I encourage artists to see the exhibit: it made me think again about intersections between politics, art, and how beliefs can be manipulated.

Friday, August 6, 2010

more about music - and love

Those who have taught (or been in) a Dance Appreciation course may be familiar with the “Dancing” video series and the episode about “Dance at Court.” In it Albert Opoku, Dance and Art Historian at the University of Ghana, says: “If you are taught dancing and you know it properly, when you hear the drums – I don’t know exactly how to describe it, I think the Americans say: it does something to you.”

He emphasizes “does” with a gesture, and adds, “the nearest English equivalent is that inside the head [becomes] sweet, like tasting sugar. There’s a certain kind of pride that you belong to a great people. You are not conscious of it, but it makes you move.”

As someone who loves music – and sugar - this makes a lot of sense. The response is visceral and contagious. It infiltrates the body. And it makes me think of two passages from a book called “We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love” which a friend encouraged me to read. I admit I was skeptical: another new agey/how-to manual for relationships, but some of the first chapters made me curious enough to continue: it takes the story of Tristan and Iseult as metaphor for how we respond to people and expectations.

One passage describes the difference between learning from experience and learning from books: “The bells and music of Christendom have been the only voices by which the West told of the spirit without getting lost in concepts, abstractions, and words; the bells send forth a sound that is pure feeling, that darts past the mind and sets up an involuntary reverberation in the soul. [The bell] has the power to reveal the Dionysian side of spiritual existence, where truth is felt with the senses, felt in the images that flow from the unconscious, felt as a living encounter…”

Here I am reminded of Professor Opoku’s sweetness which bypasses words and explanation. "We" continues:

Monday, August 2, 2010

a music monday

Much of Sunday was spent watching dance and thinking about relationships between music and movement. The day started when I opened an email from a friend that had this quote:
"An ecstatic moment in music is worth the lifetime of mastery that goes into it, because it can be shared."
-Keith Jarrett

Then I saw Urban Artistry perform their "silent" piece, and in the evening I went to the movies to see the story of Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.

The afternoon performance took place outdoors at Meridian Hill Park (aka Malcolm X Park) and advertisements for the free event came with BLUEBRAIN's score available for download. About 100 people were there at 2pm. We received instructions to push play on our personal listening devices at the cue. (Initially it was announced “Get Ready to push play on your iPhone” to which one audience person responded “Droid!”) The dancers were full of energy – popping and locking, grooving and b-boying. Since I like John Cage’s view of the world’s music, I do not own any device for listening with earphones and prefer to hear the sounds that surround us. As earphone people around me bopped and danced to the music, I wondered if the dancers (who were also wearing earphones) could hear the audience when they whooped and hollered or broke into applause for a particularly virtuosic solo... I enjoyed it all but it made me think of how isolating personal devices can be and how much more chance there is for interaction when we share the same sounds. It was sponsored by Pink Line Project, Honest Tea, Ear Peace, and Rogue Squirrel. 

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is a glimpse of the passionate affair between two 20th century greats. Chanel (the stunning Anna Mouglalis) gives new meaning to the phrase fiercely independent. Stravinsky, played by Mads Mikkelsen, seems to be tormented by his desire for her and his music, and at the same time holds onto his male chauvinistic views. It is a gorgeous film: the actors are stellar, the slice of history that it highlights is fascinating and fertile – changing the course of music and fashion in the decades to come. All the adjectives I use to describe Stravinsky when I teach Dance History: ground-breaking, revolutionary – are just as apt to describe Chanel’s designs and scents. Even the opening montage of images that appear to melt and intersect are mind-bending. I highly recommend this movie, especially if you love to think about intersections of dance and music - onstage and off - as much as I do.