Teach-Learn Connection

December 26, 2007

Set and Reset/Reset

Teaching Trisha Brown at the University of Minnesota

By Camille LeFevre


“Peak, squiggle, step, step, around, pop up, break,” Wil Swanson sing-songs quietly, as he leads three young men in the University of Minnesota’s dance program through a phrase of Trisha Brown’s seminal work, Set and Reset (1983). “This arm pierces like a snake,” Swanson demonstrates, “while the second one’s like aaahhh.” As the dancers prepare to do the phrase again, Swanson adds, “It’s hiccupy, right?” With luscious grace, he performs the phrase faster and with more energy.

Meanwhile, in back of the same rehearsal room at the Barbara Barker Center for Dance, Katrina Thompson Warren has paired off the women into twos for “play time,” as she calls it. They’re improvising within the parameters of Brown’s phrasing, flying at each other—with legs bent and arms raised—into the wings and back out again with coltish enthusiasm, smooth lifts, and unfettered glee.

These undergraduate dance students aren’t simply learning the choreography for Set and Reset, Brown’s glorious collaboration with artist Robert Rauschenberg and composer Laurie Anderson. Warren and Swanson, both of whom danced in Brown’s company for about eight years, are also teaching the students Brown’s choreographic method and creative processes. But the final piece will look quite different from the original 1983 work, and not only because of the students’ improvisational choices. Students will also be creating new costumes, lighting design, and set design for the work. Which is why this educational project is titled Set and Reset/Reset.

The University of Minnesota is the most recent institution to provide this opportunity to students, made possible by the Sage Cowles Land Grant Chair Endowment in dance. The work has also been taught at the Lyon Opera Ballet, Performing Arts Research and Training Studios (PARTS) in Brussels, Mills College, Ohio State University, London Contemporary Dance School, University of Colorado–Boulder, University of South Florida, and the Five College Dance Department, among others. Only Laurie Anderson’s original tango-tinged score carries over from iteration to iteration.

“This project really echoes the original process Trisha used in formulating one of her masterpieces,” Warren says. “It’s an amazing learning tool because of the way it was made.”

The learning process is full of experimentation and discovery. “We teach the students the original phrases Trisha developed. Then we work with them on the guided, structured improvisational form Trisha used to choreograph the piece, so the students make their own choices and create their own opportunities,” Warren continues. “Because the students’ interactions are their own, each version of Set and Reset/Reset is absolutely individual depending on the different people who interact.”

Speaking in a telepone interview, Brown says she and her staff designed Set and Reset/Reset as an educational project, “to share the principles of the work, without giving away the most requested, most active piece in our repertory.” Over the years, Brown says, she’s found the student variations fascinating. “Some of them are permutations I wouldn’t have done, but the notion of permutating is worth learning.”

During a surprise visit to the Barker Center in September, Brown watched the University of Minnesota students perform a portion of the work. “We were all blown away. They did it extremely well,” she recalls. “Their partnering was sophisticated and lovely. They had only been working on the piece for nine days, so what they did was amazing.”

Brown’s creative process for Set and Reset included five rules, which the educational project also adheres to: Be aware of the “visible/invisible”; “line up”; “keep it simple”; “act on instinct”; and “play with the edge.” The last one refers to a “very long phrase that starts upstage left, repeats downstage left, comes across the front of the stage, goes backwards upstage right, and goes across the back to join up,” Brown explains.

The phrase, which follows along the edges or “walls” of the stage, “is like a conveyer belt that drops off or delivers the dancers into duets and trios, depending on the capabilities of the students,” she continues. It is made up of Brown’s signature lush, up and down, loose-limbed, democratic movement. The dancers turn, arc, angle, reach, and collapse; they are juicy and smooth. “What I’ve given the students are stable facts about how I constructed the piece, one of them being the very long phrase,” Brown adds. “So they can’t just run all over the stage for no reason. It’s programmed. And that’s a really good lesson.”

Such rules as “play with the edge,” says University of Minnesota sophomore Jin-Ming Lai, “give us the freedom to make our own decisions and act on instinct within the parameters we’re given. It’s like learning a language, the Trisha Brown language, and then being able to speak the language, not just read the script. How many undergrads get to work at this level of choreographic intent?”

The University of Minnesota sought out the Set and Reset/Reset project after two major dance presenters in Minneapolis—the Walker Art Center and the Northrop Memorial Auditorium’s dance season (the venue is at the University)—announced an April 2008 performance by the Trisha Brown Dance Company. In addition, from April 18 through August 17, the Walker will show an exhibition of Brown’s drawings, installations, and performance pieces; and reconstructions of early on-site performances like the 1972 Group Primary Accumulation, Raft Version on Minneapolis’ Loring Pond. Together the three institutions have proclaimed a “Year of Trisha,” beginning with the Set and Reset/Reset project, which the dance students will perform February 8–10 as part of their annual University Dance Theatre concert.

“There’s something magical about the Set and Reset/Reset process, in how it allows the dancers’ choice-making to develop an amazing work of art,” Warren says. “The phrase work and the vocabulary Trisha made, the combination of pedestrian activity and simple qualitative ideas of swing and line, keep the movement rolling through bodies and through space, and allow for an openness for interaction between individuals.”

“These students already have a strong technical base,” she continues. “But they’re also bringing sophisticated choices to their improvising, which leads to rich material being created for the piece. It’s thrilling to see doors open in their brains and lights turn on.”

After the students performed an early October run-through, Swanson added, “These young dancers were so amazingly open to Trisha’s process within just a few days. They hooked right into the ideas, which is very rare. This isn’t a re-creation: It’s a brand new dance.”

Camille LeFevre is a Minneapolis/St. Paul dance critic, and affiliate faculty in the dance department at the University of Minnesota.

The Next Level

Improving Pirouettes

This month we introduce a new series aimed at improving a specific area of technique. Here we get tips from five top teachers to help you turn.

By Rachel Straus



“A lot of careers are made from people’s ability to turn,” says Wilhelm Burmann, who teaches professional-level ballet at Steps on Broadway. He advises the following for improving en dehors pirouettes.

• When you turn to the right, your left hand and fingers—which are in an elongated second position—should energetically move back and in.

• Think of picking up your foot, not your leg, when going to passé. This keeps your hip down.

• Never rest your toe on your knee in passé. Keep moving your thigh open and back to the écarté position so it’s actively turning out.

• Think of the double pirouette as one turn: Imagine the first rotation as a relevé to the front, which sets you up on one leg.

• Never hold your breath. Try humming the music in silence and through your entire body.

Finis Jhung
teaches a systematic approach to turning at Broadway Dance Center and The Ailey School. He says that a good preparation makes for a good pirouette.

• Use a long fourth-position preparation to engage your pelvic muscles and to place your body weight over the leg you will balance on.


• Always go to the deepest point of your demi-plié before lifting your working foot off the floor to go into the pirouette.

• Slow down the closing of the arms if you want an effortless-looking pirouette.

• Think of your pirouette as a downward spiral into the floor.

• Never drop your head, tilt your pelvis forward, or stick out your tailbone.

Nancy Raffa
is a ballet mistress for American Ballet Theatre. Raffa’s approach to pirouettes is based on her early training with Madame Gabriela Darvash, who “taught that there is a formula for everything you do.” Raffa builds on Darvash’s pedagogical approach.

• Once you create the turn’s momentum, get up on your axis point, and arrive in a position that is in one line, feel the energy of the spiral. It will help you to balance.

• In pirouette, the spiral is created by pressing the air with your knee and by feeling your body as a three-dimensional figure in space.

German Zamuel
, who directs his own school in Colorado Springs, CO, coached Prix de Lausanne gold medal winners Christopher Wheeldon and Tetsuya Kumakawa. For Zamuel there are no hidden secrets to improving pirouettes.

• Pirouettes come when you practice them daily.

• When you turn, everything from your supporting toe to your hip point should go up, while everything from your shoulder point to your hip should go down.

• In your balance, stand on a high relevé and press into the floor.

• To go from three to four pirouettes, use more energy through your entire body.

• Before you start your pirouette, you should see its completion. Your brain needs to know where your body will finish.

Lawrence Rhodes
is the director of the Juilliard School’s Dance Department. Known for his own beautiful turns, Rhodes tell his students to “relate to turning as a physical act that you greet with pleasure.”

• An ideal turn is not a spin. It is an up and down action that is articulate, clear, and in its own way communicative.

• Turning happens in the back, and the back includes the pelvis. For consistent turns you need a stable and organized torso where your sides are relaxed.

• Turning happens in a line. That line could be a passé, an arabesque, or an attitude. You need to get from your preparation to your line in one swift movement.

• Don’t get ahead of yourself when you turn. Do each part of the turn—the preparation, the balance, the landing—fully.

• You have to be free in the head and the neck so you can spot.

• Overcoming fear is key. Don’t get nervous. Get physical.


Supplementary Material


1. The Ballet Companion

by Eliza Gaynor Minden

(Fireside Books/Simon & Schuster)

Pirouette tips from Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy

2. The Art of Teaching Ballet

by Gretchen Ward Warren

(University Press of Florida)

Pirouette tips from David Howard, Gabriela Darvash,

and other luminaries

3. Fernando Bujones in Class

(Kultur video)

4. Finis Jhung


a. Intermediate/Advanced Turning Class (with Michele Wiles)

b. The Art of Teaching Turns

c. Turning Connecting Movements & Turning Jumps

d. The Art of Pointework 5—Pirouettes

e. Pirouette Class 1–8 En Dehors Center Combinations


a. The Finis Jhung Ballet Technique: A Guide for Teachers & Students


Across the Floor

Fine Line


Elizabeth Parkinson and Scott Wise have both reached some of the highest highs any dancers can hope for on Broadway. After all, the pair met as cast members of the Broadway production of Fosse, a show made for dancers. After marrying in 1999, they both participated in the creation of Twyla Tharp’s Broadway show Movin’ Out—Wise as assistant choreographer/director and cast member, and Parkinson as the electrifying female lead, Brenda.

With those credits—including four Tony nominations and one win between the two of them—it would seem that opening a dance studio in a quaint New England town would be a breeze, right? Well, not exactly.

“Being a star on Broadway doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be a good teacher,” says Parkinson, adding that no matter how fabulous your credentials are, “a 5-year-old doesn’t read your resumé.”

But Parkinson and Wise were prepared to put their stellar resumés aside when they opened Fine Line Theatre Arts in New Milford, CT, in the fall of 2006. In just over a year’s time, the couple has seen the studio—which offers ballet, jazz, tap, modern, hip hop, voice, ballroom, acrobatics, and acting—grow to about 200 students.

Both Parkinson and Wise are involved in every aspect of running the studio, with Parkinson teaching about seven classes per week, and Wise, 20. The pair says their transition to teaching has had its share of lessons. Parkinson has previously taught at workshops, where she interacted with students for short periods. But having a steady stable of young dancers has presented new pressures. “When we started last year, I was very easy on my students,” Parkinson says. “I was a little tentative about really diving in.” After teaching a master class outside her studio, Parkinson realized there was an element of fear (perhaps of driving her students away by being too tough) that was holding her back. “I made the decision that this year, I’m going to push my students and I realized that they really want that,” she says. “It was a great revelation for me.”

The couple opened the studio in part because they had nearly done it all in the New York dance world. Wise says he was ready for a change, and that “Broadway had moved on.” Many of the pair’s friends have made the same jump, leaving New York to set up their own studios. However, they’re never far from their roots, particularly Parkinson, who continues to perform, most recently in Martha Clarke’s dance theater piece, Garden of Earthly Delights, at the American Dance Festival last summer.

But the lifestyle in Connecticut is a bit more conducive to caring for their 3-year-old son, James. “Now we have something we can call our own,” Parkinson says of the studio. “It provides a real sense of stability.”

—Christina H. Davis

Rite to Dance

Closing out Carnegie Hall’s Berlin in Lights festival, 120 students aged 7 to 17 danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on November 17 and 18 at The United Palace Theater. The Rite of Spring Project, presented by The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall and the Berliner Philharmoniker education program, gave students from public schools in Harlem the opportunity to perform movement to Stravinsky’s iconic score, played by the Berlin Philharmonic.

Most of the students had no formal training, so they worked diligently with British choreographer Royston Maldoom and his team for eight weeks before their performances—and they blogged throughout to document their experience. See www.carnegiehall.org.

—Ainsley Bartholomew

Montclair State University
had its hands full this past semester, thanks to the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which held a four-month residency at the NJ campus. Workshops and discussions with the company ranged from the exchange between composers and choreographers to the pros and cons of creating work that challenges audience and critical expectations.

The season was also host to the world premiere of Jones’ A Quarreling Pair, performed Nov. 30–Dec. 2 at Montclair’s Alexander Kasser Theater. Based on Jane Bowles’ four-page puppet play, the piece explores the emotional suffocation and spiritual inertia of a relationship lived in isolation.

—I’Nasah Crockett

Desmond Richardson
recently released a series of instructional videos through Broadway Dance Center’s Tezoro Productions. The new series, starring the Complexions co-director, includes Dance For Kids Ages 8 + Up, and two volumes of Contemporary Dance & Improvisation. All have been accredited to be distributed in pre-K through 12 public schools. See www.liveatbroadwaydancecenter.com.

—Jennifer Stahl