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.

You can't just have anyone doing anything up there on stage. But this reality is so far removed from the way most people experience dance, and the way people have experienced dance for thousands of years. The Dance for PD classes have made me appreciate the transformative power of people of all forms and abilities dancing together in a connected community and with a common purpose, and I've come to appreciate how important and beautiful the simple activity of learning and dancing together in a collective group can be. Once you open your eyes to this, one person with PD putting all of her intent into lifting an arm with a certain quality can be as stimulating to watch as a highly trained ballerina doing Swan Lake because it's completely honest, completely committed, and unique--no one else moves like that! The class has also spoiled me as a teacher, because the participants come in so focused, so eager to learn that it is a joy to work with them every week. I love teaching all ages and groups, but the PD group is really a teacher's dream. I wish they could lecture my teen students about focus and sustained effort!

 4. What is it about dance that drew you to become a performer and teacher?

I dance because I love music. It's really simple for me. I never had the patience to practice to be a musician, and somehow, perhaps because I never achieved mastery of an instrument, I never felt that creating music was as satisfying as embodying music. If I could do it all again, I would probably want to be a great conductor as well as a dancer! My wife always laughs at me because I conduct in the living room. (Of course in conducting, you move your body very slightly in advance of what you want to hear from the orchestra, which is sort of the opposite side of the coin from dancing). But there's no feeling quite like moving your body to music that touches you very deeply. I'm not at all religious, but I imagine that the mysterious but unstoppable power that takes over and makes you move in a certain way is not dissimilar to the feeling of absolute faith and connection with a higher being. And I think it's music's power to inform, engage, motivate and direct that is the basis for both my love of dance and one reason that dancing to music helps people with Parkinson's overcome some of the hurdles that life with a movement disorder throws in their tracks. As the parkinsonian Edith T. explains in Oliver Sachs' Awakenings, "As I am unmusicked, I must be remusicked." For me, a life without dance would also feel like a life without music, and that is intolerable. And now that I think about it, our experience leading the PD dancers is actually remarkably similar to conducting. They watch us teachers closely, and our dancing is cuing their dancing in a mutually supportive circuit. For me, there's no feeling that's more satisfying.


  1. Wow, what a fascinating interview. He's so articulate about the benefits of dance training. I also appreciate the framing of dancers as movement experts; so true and I wish that was more well-known and valued in society at large.

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