Wednesday, September 22, 2010

an interview with Professor Jim Lepore

If I need to change my mood from stress to joy, I just have to pass by Professor Lepore's Afro-Cuban dance class and watch a room full of students soaking up knowledge like sponges take water. Their skin glistens with sweat, their bodies accent the rhythms and their minds explore the intersections of dance, religion and politics. It's a moment that perfectly captures the melding of mind, body and spirit. Here Professor Lepore answers questions about his education, teaching and unbelievably talented family.

1. what draws you to dance? and to teaching?
I graduated from high school in 1971, during the throes of an international counter-culture that challenged status quo values and celebrated the virtues of “finding oneself.” My undergraduate years, spent hop-scotching around the US and Europe when not enrolled at a university, were dedicated to doing just that. Before I ever took a dance class, I spent time majoring in philosophy, art history, and/or ceramics. None of these subjects, however, engaged me enough (or engaged enough of me) to keep a fire burning after my initial fascination faded.

Luckily, I had a younger sister who studied modern dance and she, inadvertently, opened that door for me. When I finally started taking dance classes, I realized that they rekindled the charge I got from kinetic sensations as a child. (I can still vividly recall being engaged for endless hours in some physical activity, and being appalled by how disconnected adults were from that world; if growing up meant sitting around and talking, then I wanted nothing to do with it.) Dancing also required that I engage my senses in the immediacy of the moment. To dance was—pardon the 60’s cliché—to “be here now.”

The senses, I believe, not only inform us about the world that surrounds us, they also dictate how we experience that world.

room to soar

"State of the art" may be so overused that the phrase has become drained of meaning, but the dedication of the de Laski Performing Arts Building last night made these words come alive.

This new structure on GMU’s Fairfax campus is a spacious home for the Schools of Dance and Music. As students, faculty, administrators, donors, and the architects gathered yesterday to dedicate the building, I was mesmerized by the glory of the design. It's a place where imaginations can soar. It is also a testament to both generosity -- a gift from philanthropists Donald and Nancy de Laski made it possible to build this center  -- and dedication. The long-term commitment of faculty like Linda Miller who have been stalwart in their dedication to state of the art training and performances for dancers at GMU has turned aspirations into manifestations. 

While I enjoyed hearing recollections from Donald de Laski, as well as the President of GMU, Dr. Alan M Merten, and the Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, William F. Reeder, it was choreography by Susan Shields and Christopher d’Amboise that enlivened the occasion. Shields’ duet called “Displaced” was performed by Alejandro Alvarez and Kailee Combs, students who have a stunning purity. Dressed all in white, they melted and folded into one another as if made of rice paper. Shields’ choreography is distinguished by its clarity and emotional nuance; d’Amboise offered a more boisterous celebration. Set to an adaptation of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” played by GMU's Jazz Chamber Ensemble, his choreography featured 13 dancers grooving to the rhythms. Shields and d’Amboise are artists who imbue their students with discipline and grace. It seems fitting that they can now teach in a building that radiates creativity and innovation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

News from Maya in Brussels

It has been an eventful couple of weeks!
I am back from ImPulsTanz (Vienna, Austria) and have been taking classes at a studio in the center of Brussels and was babysitting in the evenings. Then I took a two-week workshop with Ultima Vez. The first week was taught by a German named Jauregui Allue and the second week was taught by Inaki Azpillaga. It was Monday-Friday from 10am-4pm with a 20 minute break. It was the most intense and physically demanding workshop I have ever taken. We were rolling and jumping and flying.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

flash of the spirit

Last night KanKouran West African Dance Company turned Lisner Auditorium into a house of celebration. The performance was aptly titled Circle of Praise: Blessings! and paid tribute to dance scholar Dr. Sherrill Berryman-Johnson who passed away earlier this year.

The first act ended with dollar bills strewn across the stage and the second act featured performers as young as 3 or 4 years old dancing rhythms and beating drums with a multigenerational cast. The walls seemed to shake and the floor bounce. The live music, vibrant costumes, contagious enthusiasm of the performers, the virility of their dancing, and the cheers of the audience created a fiery joy. People from the audience approached the stage to toss money to the performers, but these bills seemed trifling compared to the power of their bodies and drums. It was a manifestation of spirit.

A dedication to Dr. Berryman-Johnson at the beginning of the evening included her ideas about technique and the importance of clarity and conviction. Listening to her words about the role of an institution – a school or company – to give dancers the structure they need to hone their craft, I realized the link between her dedication to teaching and the beauty of choreographers like Ronald K. Brown. They share a commitment to both discipline and grace.

At the end of the evening, KanKouran's company director, Assane Konte, remembered coming to America in 1979 and being asked by Dr. Berryman-Johnson to teach a class at Howard. He laughed as he recalled his answer: ‘I don’t speak English and we don’t take dance classes in Africa.”

Today, 31 years later, he said he missed a dear friend and legend: his company honored her vigilance and her investment in dance with a gorgeous celebration.