Open Doors, Open Minds

April 27, 2009

Summer intensive season is just around the corner, and dancers everywhere are preparing to push themselves to new limits. While some will focus on conservatory-style training, others are getting ready for a different kind of dance immersion––the summer festival. At destinations like Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts; American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina; and ImPulsTanz in Vienna, Austria, full days of study are just one aspect of the whirlwind student experience. Apart from class, there are performances to see, auditions with visiting artists, opportunities to choreograph, and exposure to companies from around the globe. Whether you’re a festival first-timer or a seasoned professional, knowing what to expect and how to approach your classes can help you get the most out of those fleeting weeks.


 While festivals can be both exhilarating and exhausting, some are more fast-paced than others. Jennifer Nugent, a teacher at ADF and Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston, Maine, notes the high-intensity schedule at ADF. “It’s like blood, sweat, and tears,” she says. “Some people work well in that environment; for other people, it freaks them out.” Nugent contrasts ADF with the more laid-back atmosphere of Bates. “There’s time at Bates. Time to sit and talk, time to finish a conversation. Take a half-hour after your class to stretch and go over what’s been taught. But at either festival, you’re going to have an experience—you’re going to come away with new skin, a new career, a new life.”


For many students, that self-transformation comes from watching renowned dancers at work. While attending The School at Jacob’s Pillow, ballet student Angela Agresti twice saw her idol, Nina Ananiashvili, perform with the State Ballet of Georgia (which Ananiashvili directs). Watching an artist of her caliber, Agresti says, “inspired me to work through the things that aren’t as clean—things that aren’t set in stone—and make them more consistent, so that I can reach my goals as a performer.”


Exposure to the professional world can offer more than inspiration. Kate Digby, artistic director of Digby Dance and a two-time choreography fellow at Summer Stages Dance in Concord, MA, says it’s well-known that at both Summer Stages and ADF, students take class with company directors as a way of finding a job—perhaps with that director or with a colleague who has an opening. And even if a dancer isn’t ready to be hired, Digby says, “festivals help you identify what you want to look forward to in your career,” whether through classes, performances, or conversations late into the night.


At many festivals, even experienced professionals have the chance to continue learning, artistically and intellectually. Will Rawls, a freelance performer and choreographer in NYC, attended last year’s ImPulsTanz through its scholarship program, danceWEB. “It was incredibly tense and overwhelming,” he says. “At times I felt utterly rootless, learning, trying, all on the brink of crying—and yet totally enjoying what I was doing.” For Rawls, being part of an international community was eye-opening. “I realized that being a dancer and choreographer is more complex than signing a treaty or waving a national flag,” he says. “The difficulty of expressing your creative self is universal.”


At ImPulsTanz, ADF, and Bates, where dancers design their own course of study, living those weeks to the fullest means choosing classes that challenge you. Nugent encourages students to “curate” their own schedules. “Which classes are going to help you grow? Take the cool class you want to take. But also take the difficult class, the scary one. Are you interested in loosening your body? Take a release class. Figure out your dream goals and then apply the classes that will help you to realize them.”


Nugent adds that successful students give themselves completely to a teacher. “Take every correction as your correction. When you stamp your foot, really stamp your foot, not just kind of. Those students are not afraid to lose themselves, or be wrong, or just have a go-for-it attitude.”


J.R. Glover, director of education at Jacob’s Pillow, says that students who do well at the Pillow stay late after rehearsal to master difficult material. They also have no qualms about approaching faculty for feedback. (But ask to make an appointment, she says, as teachers may not have time right after class or in a busy hallway.)


Above all, a fulfilling festival experience requires you to have confidence––in your teachers, your peers, and yourself. “Because you’re not in a normal reality, and because everything gets altered,” says Nugent, “you don’t know how much you’re learning until right before you leave. Be patient. Trust yourself as you go through this fantasy.”

French Clements is a writer and ballet teacher based in Cambridge, MA.


Photo: Ben Rudick, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow