Sunday, May 26, 2013

education and entertainment

Kristina Windom, Kate, and Stephanie Walz backstage at THEARC

Yesterday’s show by the Washington School of Ballet (WSB) was both a trip down memory lane and a depiction of how much the school has evolved. The performance took place at THEARC Theater, a venue that didn’t exist when Mary Day ran the school, but Day’s incredible teaching and attention to detail are still alive and vivid.

Several of the current WSB teachers were students of Day  -- Kristina Windom and Stephanie Walz pictured above -- and preserve her legacy while also preparing students for the changing landscape of companies today. Kee Juan Han, the school director, does a stellar job of honing students’ abilities and producing dancers who fuse exquisite technique and breathtaking excitement: when Albert Gordon is dancing it is hard for me to see anyone else.

Albert possesses an uncanny maturity considering that he is still a teenager. His calm demeanor belies his extraordinary dancing. His turns are marked by his ability to effortlessly coast his rotations and then finish in perfectly balanced positions. His leaps yesterday at THEARC caused gasps in the audience. The fluidity of his lines and his impeccable phrasing make me think a lot of David Hallberg (which makes sense since Hallberg's teacher is also Albert’s teacher: Kee Juan Han.)

Even though I have never met him, I have watched Albert’s dancing both at the school and at various showings, and his performances are amazingly consistent for such a young artist. My guess is that he has been as committed to his training as his teachers have been.

Watching yesterday’s performance I thought about Keesha Beckford’s letter about teaching that was picked up from her blog and published by Huffington Post. Her letter resonated for all the reasons that I enjoy watching a dancer like Albert: he has achieved such technique and artistry through the mutual dedication of student and teacher.

What Keesha addresses in her post is that a lot of the ease and access we have to information today through technology (and this is different from 10 or 20 years ago) mitigates a person’s need to invest time and energy in learning and retaining details and information. Dancing (and lots of other pursuits) don’t work with this type of quick-and-easy approach. When Keesha asks a student to dig deeper or to stay with a challenging step for a couple more days, this may seem impossible to a student raised on “quick-and-easy.”

I think dance teachers today, for a bunch of reasons, encounter parents and students who see their role as more entertainment and service industry than education. This is unfortunate. Dancing opens up our ability to encounter obstacles, to access different forms of knowing and sensing, and to discover new ways of interacting with ourselves and with others.

Even though I am not in a studio with dancers, I am teaching undergraduate and graduate students and Keesha’s words make sense: I have students who evaluate courses based on how “fun” they are. This was not a word I used to assess my own academic or dance classes. I take pleasure in discovering new material and figuring out an issue or problem that appears confounding, but fun to me means an activity that doesn’t possess difficulty or struggle.

What Keesha’s article suggests, and I agree with it, is that learning requires us to meet a challenge, and on a deeper level, we are figuring out how we respond to challenge.

What most distresses me about Keesha’s post are the comments by people who would rather criticize her than consider what she has written. In an ironic way, this is exactly what she addresses in her letter by asking students to take responsibility for their training rather than blame the teacher for a correction they don’t want to hear. It’s that old conundrum of easier to blame the messenger than listen to the message. One example of this response is a facebook post that says “the biggest thing I get from this is that she seems to have suffered both at the hands of her past teachers and now the pain is revisited by criticism of her students. It demonstrates how unevolved she is that she can't consider a bigger picture. I was too when I taught ballet in my 20's.” This reader seems to miss the point of the article: Keesha has met those teachers, at one time was a student of that kind of teaching, and is now a highly intelligent, aware, and generous teacher who sees big changes in how her students (and her students’ parents) handle correction and criticism.

At the end of the day we are all complicit in this problem if we tell people learning is always “fun” or feels good. In a culture where ease and convenience reign supreme sometimes it’s hard to remember why it’s necessary to bring awareness or steadfastness or resolve to certain tasks. Seeing a performance by WSB students and dancers like Albert Gordon throws the reasons into sharp relief. There are times when learning involves challenges and obstacles: I believe we can only discover our potential if we are willing to explore the unknown or unforeseeable. 

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