Teacher's Wisdom: Susan Rethorst
Just as Susan Rethorst’s dances bristle with a quiet, alert curiosity, so does her teaching. “I don’t use the word ‘about,’” she told the small group of students at her choreographic workshop last December, assuring them that their work didn’t need to be “about” anything in particular. Rethorst sees dancemaking not as an expression of neatly formed ideas but as a means of discovering “things that you didn’t know you knew.”
Based in New York City since 1975, and splitting her time between NYC and Amsterdam since 1995, Rethorst has presented work extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe. She is the recipient of two Bessie Awards and a 2010 Alpert Award in the Arts. A renowned choreography teacher, she has helped establish post-grad programs in Amsterdam, Salzberg, Cork, and Copenhagen. DM’s Siobhan Burke watched Rethorst’s winter workshop at St. Mark’s Church, part of the Movement Research Fall Festival, and caught up with her afterward.
Learning to choreograph is so much about finding your own voice. Can you teach someone to have a voice? Anyone’s voice has to be unearthed. You can’t hand that to somebody. But you can help to excavate it from myths of making, from received definitions. It seems that choreography students are walking around with a lot of things that grate against their gut instincts. I try to empower people to trust their voice, which is there anyway—to liberate them into what they already know.
I also try to get people involved in the pleasure of making—a kind of deep pleasure that’s also of the intellect, of the whole person, that actually goes hand in hand with rigor. I read once that good art comes more from the play instinct than the work instinct, and I think that’s true. Play is this very profound thing that kids do. Their curiosity about the nature of things, the world and their place in it—that’s a profound investigation.
By any and all means I get people working and showing and making, until it’s just not a big deal. When they’re stuck, I say, “Go for quantity, forget quality,” just to get the motor going. Then you can move on to more interesting questions and away from “How do I start? What’s the right move?”
What makes starting points so paralyzing? One thing is this sentence I hate: “If you don’t have something to say, you shouldn’t be in this class.” You become paralyzed with the stated importance of the thing. I also think that in the U.S. there’s a nervousness about art being elitist and self-indulgent. So that in order to do it, you have to prove you’re not a bad person, and the way to do that is to make it a moral education or social contribution. People don’t ask that of every profession, but somehow art has to prove its validity every time.
So how do you help your students get started? I relieve them of that responsibility, because I just say, “Do this.” They have a task, and before they know it, they’ve started making. I say often that nobody is exempt from hesitations and self-doubt, and it doesn’t go away. But you develop strategies. My personal strategy is to have a deadline, or rent space that I have to pay for, or schedule rehearsals with people so I have to show up. That gets me going, and once I’m involved, I’m fine.
That reminds me of your essay Dailiness. What does “dailiness” mean? I don’t know if I talked in that article about Judith Dunn, but she was a member of Judson Dance Theater and my teacher at Bennington in the 1970s. My senior year she did a tutorial called Dance A Day, where we made a dance every day. She didn’t give us any studio time or starting points or themes. You just had to show up and show your dance. It was terrifying. But I realized that making is something you just put into your life and do all the time. You don’t have to wait for a bolt of inspiration. By making work, I saw what I was interested in. And I saw that dancemaking engenders knowledge—it sheds light on and deepens the things you’re thinking about, brings in other facets that you couldn’t have anticipated.
You began your workshop with a simple game. Everyone chose a few things from a pile of objects and, with a partner, took turns arranging the objects on the floor. Why this exercise? I see the game (which Simone Forti taught me to illustrate something else) as a metaphor for allowance. People never hesitate. They pick the objects they want. You know what you want. You’re attracted to it. You go for it. And you have to have that in your dancemaking. It’s easier during the game because it’s just a bunch of junk. I’m not asking, “What do you want to say with your dances?” I’m asking them to choose a bright shiny object. Given that allowance, things start to happen.
Is teaching in Europe different from teaching in the U.S? Very different. In Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, where I’ve been most involved, the language around dancemaking has a lot to do with “research”—and “transparency,” meaning that your research question is visible in your finished work. Reading a lot of theory and philosophy is often considered as important as studio time.
What do you want students to take away from your classes? Hopefully they see that where their interests take them are valid places to go. I want to help them get on the other side of fear and find excitement, on the other side of beating themselves up and find that sense of profound play. If people do that, I’m happy.
Susan Rethorst (left) talks to a student about sequencing choreography at her Movement Research workshop last winter. Photo by Sarah Keough
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series