From the Inside Out: Repertory Workshops
Alexandra Damiani rehearsing with dancers during Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s repertory workshop. Photo by Ally Duffy, Courtesy Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.
Although master classes and summer intensives can be a great way to hone technique, many dancers are hungry to grasp the working methods of a particular company or choreographer. Repertory intensives—shorter workshops that focus on a single piece of rep—can offer a concentrated glimpse of a choreographer’s work and creative process. Briefer and less expensive than a summer intensive, they appeal to both advanced students or professional dancers looking to expand their experience.
For Tony Carlson, a rising senior dance major at The New School, signing up for the Trisha Brown Dance Company’s repertory workshop was a natural choice. “It’s not just taking a class,” says Carlson, who fell in love with Brown’s choreography during the company’s residency at The New School his freshman year. “You get time to invest yourself in the movement. The nature of dance is that it’s hard to hold on to—sometimes it seems like it just falls off your body. But in a workshop setting, you come back to these ideas each day, so that by the end of the week you have a certain intimacy with the work.”
Inside the Working Process
Typically, repertory intensives delve into the history and thought process behind a piece. During the Trisha Brown workshops, dancers learn full or partial phrases from a certain piece. The idea is to utilize Brown’s process—while the steps may not be exactly the same, the students work the way company dancers did during the piece’s creation for a similar experience. The goal, says associate artistic director Carolyn Lucas, is to share the ideas about geometry, weight and alignment that shape Brown’s work. “Trisha never taught technique,” says Lucas. “In a certain way the rep is the technique, because it’s where you’re going to find a forum to take concepts you’ve been introduced to and put them in motion.” At the end of the week, a small-scale, casual showing allows dancers to perform portions of what they’ve developed as a culminating synthesis.
Since the workshop, Carlson notes that Brown’s choreography no longer seems foreign or lofty. “You have a sense of being enriched in the process of what the Trisha Brown dancers do,” he says.
The Merce Cunningham Trust offers an ongoing, audition-only program of free repertory workshops, where dancers learn a large part of or an entire Cunningham work and give an informal showing at the end. (Upcoming sessions feature classics like Ocean and Crises.) The intensives represent one of the few opportunities to study his work outside a company setting, attracting freelance professionals as well as college students.
Patricia Lent, the Trust’s director of licensing, observes that some dancers are surprised by the experience. “Often when I’ve worked with people who haven’t studied this technique, they’ll say, ‘This is not what I thought his work was like!’ ” she says. “I think being inside of his work, seeing it from the viewpoint of the dancer, is much different from what an observer might imagine.”
Meeting Master and Muse
Some repertory workshops offer the thrilling opportunity to work directly with a choreographer or company director. Israeli-born English dancemaker Hofesh Shechter often spends the first day of his repertory intensives working with students to give them personal insight into his creative process.
“The first day, Hofesh teaches a juicy, meaty bit of rep, so straightaway, they are immersed in the movement language, and it comes to them from the source,” says Hofesh Shechter Company staff member Lucy Moelwyn-Hughes. That language, she says, stems from an emotional starting point and is less concerned with line and shape.
Afterwards, long-standing company members—often the ones who originated the roles being studied—take over and offer insights based on their experiences. “Each dancer has a different story or way of looking at the work based on their part in its creation, so it’s like getting triple the information,” adds Moelwyn-Hughes.
See and Be Seen
A repertory workshop can also be an immersion in a company’s working methods—and a chance to be seen by the artistic staff. At Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, artistic director Alexandra Damiani uses half-day repertory workshops as a crash course in the company’s style.
“I like to give insight into how we work at Cedar Lake,” she says, “to make them more curious about us. Depending on the rep I choose to teach, we might work on different challenges—floor work, speed, musicality, partnering.” For instance, floor work can be a new challenge for ballet-trained dancers. “I won’t pretend in two hours that they will really get an in-depth understanding of what the work is about. However, I can use a section of it to give them tools they can then apply to the broader experience.”
Damiani notes that she keeps her eyes open for potential company members. “If one person responds well to our style and teaching, I’ll invite them to come take more classes,” she says. “You get to meet dancers in more of a working environment, and they’re able to show who they are. And that’s what you want—to see who they are as an artist.”
Merce Cunningham Fellowship Program
What’s perhaps unique to the Merce Cunningham repertory workshops is that the teachers are learning as much as the students. With the company now inoperative, the Merce Cunningham Trust developed a fellowship program to train future stagers of his work. The original goal of the repertory workshops was to offer former company members fellowships to have the real-life experience of teaching the choreography, and to help support the Trust’s active program of licensing Cunningham works to professional companies, universities and high schools for performances.
“For us, it’s not a commercial venture,” says the Trust’s director of licensing Patricia Lent, who has taught Cunningham repertory workshops since the 1980s. “We do pay the teachers who conduct workshops, but the dancers take classes for free, because it’s really legacy motivated. Without the company in existence, we are always looking for other ways to make studying the technique and learning the repertoire appealing.”