Summer Study Guide 2011: Creative Encounters
Strictly Seattle gives a workout for body and mind.
By the fifth day of Strictly Seattle, choreographer Michele Miller already sees improvement in her advanced students. She walks through the renovated, brick-walled studio at Velocity Dance Center, eyes and hands alert to the tiniest bit of tension in the students’ backs as they hang over from the hips. The 22 students in this modern technique class are working their way through Miller’s seamless warm-up—a floor-barre mash-up of modern, martial arts, gymnastics, Wii Fit, and Pilates. Watching it feels like a massage, but the students are working hard, and they haven’t even gotten to the killer ab series yet. Miller touches a back here, a hip bone there, so they can feel where to release. “Your hips are more square today,” she notes happily.
Velocity staffs this three-week intensive with the movers and shakers of Seattle’s modern dance scene (see “Seattle Takes Off,” p. 70). And the advanced students could be the next generation of movers and shakers themselves. Many are just finishing up college dance degrees and starting to look for work. At Strictly Seattle (which accepts students ages 16 and up), they have the chance to interact with nine different local artists in a challenging yet supportive environment. Working with faculty from a range of contemporary backgrounds, students explore multiple styles and philosophies. The common denominators? All classes emphasize risk-taking and artistic experimentation, while helping dancers tap directly into Seattle’s professional dance network.
A day at Strictly Seattle means almost seven hours in the studio. Last summer, the advanced students kicked off the morning with a technique class—modern one day, foundational ballet the next. “Our ballet has a very modern bent to it,” says executive director Kara O’Toole. Her smile widens as she adds, “Your ballet teacher has a mohawk.” Next, they explored creative process and improvisation with four contemporary choreographers: KT Niehoff, Beth Graczyk and Corrie Befort of Salt Horse, and Bebe Miller. In the afternoons, they split up into smaller groups to work with other choreographers, including the 2009 A.W.A.R.D. Show winner Amelia Reeber, on pieces they would perform at the end of the program. An hour-long lunch break gave them time to relax in the park behind Velocity or explore the hip surrounding neighborhood of Capitol Hill. (The studios are also busy at night, when Strictly Seattle offers evening classes for less advanced adult dancers.)
According to O’Toole, many of the faculty members are former program participants. “A lot of dancers who have built their careers in the community started with Strictly Seattle,” she says. “This was their first touchstone, where they met a bunch of choreographers and dancers.” As students get to know these innovative artists, those same artists are learning about the students, getting a sense of whether they might be a good match for future projects. Not everyone lands a job, but some do. For instance, choreographer Amy O’Neal—a major draw of the program for her high-energy, funk-influenced classes and sharp observations—hired two of her 2010 students for a February 2011 show.
For dancers who bring a healthy attitude, seven hours a day for three weeks can result in exponential growth. Graczyk says that many students she worked with “came in with a focus and readiness that enabled them to make great strides in a short time. They knew the value of their time, and you could see it in their willingness to take risks.” By the end, she says, they emerged “more articulate and powerful as performers.” Befort, who has taught at Strictly Seattle in the past, noted that the “rigor and variety of techniques” pushed dancers to test their own physical and intellectual boundaries.
While some students enroll in the Professional Session, an audition-only level that allows the most accomplished dancers to push themselves even further, the atmosphere at Strictly Seattle is inclusive. A 15-minute break on the first Friday morning of the program finds most of the advanced students resting in the largest of Velocity’s three studios, sunlight slanting in from the skylights and pooling on the wooden floor. The students chat in small groups in a loose circle; nobody’s back is turned on anyone. In the final balance, they are all mature dancers working on their craft, discovering what kind of artistic voice speaks to them—and what they have to share with other artists.
To borrow a phrase that the Salt Horse duo used during one class, the teachers at Strictly Seattle hope “you’ll find your specific curiosity.” This is perhaps the greatest reward of the program: In the process of meeting Seattle’s choreographers, you have an opportunity to meet yourself.
Rosie Gaynor is a freelance writer in Seattle.
Amy O'Neal (in black) teaches modern class at Strictly Seattle. Photo by Jennifer Richard, courtesy Velocity
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.