In a sunlit studio that looks out on Vancouver's skyline, Kidd Pivot rehearsal director Eric Beauchesne shows how to project shades of despair without sound or words. "Your hands mean so much," he tells the Arts Umbrella International Summer Dance Intensive students, stopping to clamp his own to his face tightly, then opening his fingers around his jaw for a different effect.
Beauchesne, who also stages choreographer Crystal Pite's works at companies around the globe, is teaching a duet from Betroffenheit, Pite and Jonathon Young's Olivier Award–winning dance-theater piece about grief and loss. Marked by Pite's signature quick, detailed moves, the section has one dancer laying her hands on her partner's arched spine, as if she's absorbing an unfathomable pain. "You really care about stopping what's happening to her," Beauchesne says.
Like so many offerings at the highly diversified intensive, Beauchesne's advanced repertoire class is a rare chance for students to immerse themselves in boundary-pushing work with a teacher who seldom instructs outside company settings.
"I want to nurture the joy of what I'm doing, and yet show how challenging and picky it can be," says Beauchesne. His class is just one of many the three-week program packs into the downtown studios of Simon Fraser University Woodward's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. (A junior version of the program, with participants as young as 12, is hosted at Arts Umbrella's smaller facility on the city's west side.)
Days are intense. Typically a traditional ballet class kicks off the day at 9 am, followed by technique classes like pointework, then repertoire and partnering in the afternoon. The six studios are busy until 6 pm. Often a student will see six different teachers in a single day.
"We're dancing eight out of the nine hours we're here, and when you go home, you're tired," says Renee Lee, a contemporary dancer and San Francisco native. "I'm definitely doing more dancing than I ever have."
But she finds the intense schedule worthwhile. "The rep they're teaching is pieces they learned from the choreographers themselves. We're not just talking about movement and timing, but the impetus behind the piece, the inspiration for it, and the creation process."
Lee points to a partnering class led by Juilliard instructor Francisco Martinez earlier in the day, where former Nederlands Dans Theater dancers Lesley Telford and Yvan Dubreuil offered insights on a duet from Jirí Kylián's Symphony of Psalms. Kylián taught the rapturous, Stravinsky-set piece to them at the Dutch company, and they were able to demonstrate ways of finding balance and tension amid its intertwining spirals.
"What this intensive brings together is a lot of different choreographic styles and techniques," says Martinez. "I think it's unique that you could be exposed to, say, five different styles at the same time. A lot of programs are very performance oriented. Here, it's all about process, process, process."
For Toronto student Zenon Zubyk, the program's wide range helps him prepare for the increasingly diverse demands of a contemporary career. "One of the most important things today is to be versatile," says the 20-year-old, who's in his second and final year of Arts Umbrella's professional program. "So many repertoire companies are doing so many styles of dance and you have to be able to accommodate every single one of them in your own body."
The programming is especially appealing to him as a male dancer. "Everything seems more possible," he says. "There are male teachers from all different backgrounds and they're opening these new doors of possibility."
For her part, artistic director Artemis Gordon seeks to give her students as much of a taste of what is going on in the world of dance as she can. The summer program's most recent roster features several people from NDT, former Batsheva Dance Company members and Gaga masters, plus Dubreuil, who now stages the work of Johan Inger.
She stresses the intensive is not about preparing for specific auditions or performances. "You're not here to show off or to make connections; you're not here to make routines to go off and do them," says Gordon, who only holds an informal showing of work on the last day of the intensive. "It's a life-changing chance to investigate what it means to be you, or it's a reevaluation of where you're at."
Although the intensive may not be geared to a particular audition, Lee feels strongly it's what she needs to prepare for a career in contemporary companies. Students are able to delve deep into innovative work they might not otherwise get the chance to try.
"The repertoire we're learning—you're really only exposed to it if you're in a company already doing that rep, or if you are at a summer intensive like this," explains Lee. "Otherwise there's maybe once a year or so that a company will come by and hold a workshop—but you have to jump into it and learn how to perform it in a short amount of time. You just don't have a chance to dissect it the way we do here."