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Shaking Up the Dialogue
New ideas about feedback at ACDFA
By Clare Croft
Every spring college dance departments across the nation send students to the American College Dance Festival Association’s 10 regional conferences. After performing works by faculty, guest artists, and student choreographers, dancers eagerly await comments from a panel of three adjudicators, often well-known choreographers. Will the adjudicators have sensed the choreographer’s intention? What will they think of the performers? Will they nominate the piece for the festival-ending gala concert? Or select it for the National College Dance Festival?
The students may have lots of questions, but they must keep silent. No one, except for the adjudicators, talks in an ACDFA formal feedback session. And the adjudicators do not know to whom they are speaking. They watch the pieces onstage but do not receive any information about the artists involved.
The anonymous, seemingly one-sided process has long been a somewhat controversial feature of ACDFA, and this year at least two regional conferences—Southwest and Central, held at Arizona State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign respectively—will experiment with alternative modes of feedback.
ACDFA executive director Diane DeFries says the current system arose from practical and aesthetic concerns. Conferences can exceed 400 participants, and the absence of student input in the sessions allows adjudicators time to comment on more pieces.
The emphasis on anonymity also keeps the feedback as “pure” as possible, according to DeFries. “It’s not being tempered based on adjudicators’ personal biases or who they know,” she says.
Both ASU’s and UIUC’s regional festivals will continue ACDFA’s existing process, but they will add structured sessions during which choreographers can discuss their work with other students and faculty—not just the pieces they bring to the festival but also their long-term choreographic efforts.
Simon Dove, director of ASU’s dance program, says that student choreographers are often more concerned with selection for the gala or national festival than with examining their choreographic choices. He hopes that the proposed sessions will inject a different tone in this competitive atmosphere and foster richer conversations. “Session facilitators will be able to point out other choreographic options,” he says, “to get choreographers to reconsider their decisions, and to develop a deeper understanding of their approach to making work.”
The UIUC faculty hopes to weave a discussion of the creative process into their entire festival. Associate professor Linda Lehovec says, “We chose the theme ‘Exploring the Creative Process’ because that is what interests us most in the making and teaching of dance. We are interested in exploring the making of the work as much as the seeing of the finished work.”
Both UIUC and ASU envision adding smaller, voluntary sessions the day after each formal adjudicated performance. At UIUC, faculty members Sara Hook and Tere O’Connor will be the main facilitators of the workshops. At ASU, Dove and Elizabeth Johnson, associate director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, will lead the sessions, with help from visiting faculty and artists.
Hook says the new UIUC sessions, which will involve both students and faculty, aren’t just about examining choreographic choices, but also about recognizing a variety of ways to give and receive feedback. She says UIUC hopes to explore new approaches while also tapping existing models like Liz Lerman’s four-part Critical Response Process—a series of interactions Lerman developed to guide discussions between dancemakers and audiences—and earlier methods developed by legendary composition teacher Bessie Schönberg.
“The existing paradigms for feedback vary in terms of power structure,” says Hook. “The conversation can give the artists the power to drive the discussion—which is what I think Liz Lerman’s Critical Response was attempting to do. Others are really more about the audience and less interested in the artistic intention. I see both of those paradigms as quite useful and not necessarily mutually exclusive.”
Dove’s feedback methods stem from his work as artistic director of the Springdance festival in the Netherlands, where emerging and established choreographers talked as peers to develop choreographic ideas.
He says this model differs from the adjudication system, which can rely on “a set of experts who deliver their verdict or their perspective, which is a one-way flow of information that may or may not be useful to the choreographers.”
Young choreographers who participated in recent festivals attest, however, that the current process does allow for multiple perspectives, even if it puts less weight on the choreographer’s perspective.
Ami Dowden-Fant, whose piece etches of herskin was selected for the 2008 national festival, says adjudicators gave her new ways to see her work. “The adjudicators asked questions but also stated what they saw and how they felt,” says Dowden-Fant, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. “Having someone else describe what they saw really opened up my eyes.”
Students also say that the adjudication process feels refreshingly different from their professors’ feedback. Washington University dance major Eliotte Henderson has performed in several ACDFA festivals, including in her solo Stuck in the Waiting at a 2009 regional gala. Henderson compares adjudicator and faculty feedback, saying, “Adjudicators’ comments are more objective because they can just analyze the piece as it was received, whereas with professors, it becomes much more personal.”
While ACDFA rules dictate that no student or faculty member can identify their work to the adjudicators before the adjudicaton process is complete, this anonymity doesn’t have to last forever. After last year’s festival Brittany Baker-Brousseau, then a sophomore at Williams College, wrote to adjudicators Alison Chase and Claire Porter to ask how she might continue to improve her work. As a result, Chase invited Baker-Brousseau to do a summer internship with her, and Porter has given her feedback via video.
Whether in festival planning or dancemaking, change comes through experimentation. DeFries sees this year’s multiple approaches to feedback as a positive development. “Initiatives like these are how the organization has grown and developed,” she says. “We rely on all these wonderful hosts with ideas that they try out, and then the best of them get circulated and incorporated.”
Clare Croft is a freelance arts writer based in Austin, TX.
Pictured: Virginia Commonwealth University students in Ami Dowden-Fant's etches of herskin. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy VCU.
Break Your Bad Habits: The Rib Cage
By Lauren Kay
The placement of the rib cage affects the placement of everything around it: the head and neck, the arms, the lower back. Splaying open the ribs or letting them slouch—even if it feels comfortable—can throw off your line and make your movement more effortful than it needs to be. To help you kick those habits, Dance Magazine spoke with dance medicine practitioner Deborah Vogel; master Horton teacher Milton Myers; and Lupe Serrano, ballet teacher at the JKO School at American Ballet Theatre.
Habit: Splaying the ribs Dancers often pop the rib cage out and up to achieve extra height and presence. But this hyperextended position “appears stiff, tight, tense, haughty, and unattainable, though that’s often not the characterization the dancer wants,” Vogel says. Serrano agrees: “The problem starts with wanting to appear elegant and regal. But style should not interfere with the neutral position.” Myers adds that the lift can result from “trying to feel like you are up on top of the legs, but this distorts the rib cage—and the entire line of the body.”
Break it: Vogel says this problem is often more mental than physical. Many students have a limited awareness of the rib cage’s full three-dimensional range and its relationship to the breath. “The rib cage is like an umbrella,” she says. “When you inhale, the sides expand and the pole of the umbrella, or the spine, stays tall and straight. When you close the umbrella, or exhale, the pole stays in its erect position and the umbrella simply folds around it.”
She suggests a simple exercise for developing awareness of the ribs. “Wrap a Thera-Band around your rib cage,” she says. “Breathe in and notice how the Thera-Band—and your ribs—move laterally in all directions. Also notice that the height of your rib cage doesn’t change. Do this three times with an equal length of your inhale and exhale. Then try it with the exhale twice as long to make sure you aren’t holding your breath.”
Serrano asks her students to focus on the shoulders and back. “I tell a dancer with an overextended rib cage not to carry the shoulders behind the hips. Align them with the hips, and rely on the back more than your chest for pull-up.” Also think of knitting together the space between the pubic bone and sternum and maintaining a strong connection between navel and spine.
Habit: Slouching In contrast to thrusting the rib cage forward, some dancers drop the rib cage back and down. This can result from overtucking the pelvis, which causes the upper body to sink backwards. Myers thinks this tendency stems from neglecting alignment during breaks. “My teacher, Joyce Trisler, explained that dancers tend to ‘prepare’ and put the body in proper alignment,” he says. “But in between exercises, we slump. Unfortunately, the body remembers the slump because you’re doing that for more time than the exercise.”
Break it: “Joyce told us to imagine someone holding your leotard or shirt in the back and pulling it taut,” says Myers. “Your front expands to the sides and this helps to develop the back muscles. Then, that becomes what your body remembers.” Whether warming up or resting on the sidelines, this image can help you energize the upper body and bring the rib cage into a more upright alignment.
Vogel suggests focusing on the separation of rib cage and spine. “Length is actually achieved with the spine, not the ribs,” she explains. “Articulate and elongate the spine, and the ribs should simply hang around it.” Finding this length, she adds, “requires building strength between the shoulder blades. Try twisted push-ups against the wall.” Stand with both hands against a wall, arms straight, so that your torso is facing the wall but your hips are twisted to the side. Bend your arms, keeping the elbows close to your body, and push back up. Do 10–20 reps on each side, once a day. “If you can get the back stronger,” Vogel says, “the shoulders will come back and the rib cage will move into its proper position so you can stand tall and straight.”
Lauren Kay is a contributing editor at Dance Spirit magazine.