Teach-Learn Connection

March 17, 2010



The Bigger Picture

For student choreographers, collaboration is part of the education.

By Siobhan Burke


When aspiring choreographer Amelia Munro graduates from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts this spring, she’ll have spent plenty of hours alone in the studio—exploring, generating, and discarding movement. But she’ll also know what it’s like to be one of eight very different artists chiming in on the same project.


“I found that for me, the more the merrier,” the 22-year-old dance major says of partnering with two choreographers, three designers, a composer, and a writer on Light Before Dawn, an original work that premiered at Tisch last spring. The team was one of six groups that came together through the Choreographers, Composers, and Designers Workshop, a two-semester, cross-departmental course led by professor Kay Cummings. “It was one of the most fulfilling choreographic experiences I’ve had,” Munro says. “There was this constant inspiration back and forth between us. Our designers, our composer—I would never have thought of the ideas they brought forth. When I saw the final product, I said, ‘Wow, I was a part of that?’ ”


The collaborative process, as Munro discovered, can throw open the doors of the choreographic process. And in today’s rough financial climate, the ability to communicate across disciplines is a particularly vital survival skill. “Working collaboratively is the very nature of contemporary choreography,” says Allyson Green, chair of the department of theatre and dance at the University of California, San Diego. “But in this economic time especially, I think you need to be really flexible in your creative solutions and ideas, and trained to work in a lot of different contexts.” At Tisch, UC San Diego, and California Institute of the Arts, educators have found ways to foster this kind of flexibility, ensuring that students become not only strong choreographers but also effective collaborators.


As an artist whose work seamlessly marries dance with text, song, visual design, and film, Annie-B Parson is an expert in mining mediums beyond movement. “A choreographer’s challenge is to understand that the possibilities of what could happen onstage are broader than what their training is,” says Parson, who co-directs Big Dance Theater and teaches choreography in the Experimental Theatre Wing at Tisch. “You want to get the most you can from your collaborator, because they’re this great asset; they’re offering to problem solve through another avenue.” But even in professional choreography, she observes, those other avenues often go unexplored. “I think choreographers don’t always understand that their designers can be as central to their personal expression as their dancers can be. It’s their job to see the whole work in their imaginative scope, and their imagination shouldn’t stop with the movement—it needs to extend into the lights, the clothes,  and the sound design.”


Integrating sound, light, fabric, scenery, and text is what Cummings asks of students in her Choreographers, Composers, and Designers Workshop. The productions that come out of the class, Cummings says, “are choreographed using the set and using the costumes, so that these elements are actually a function of the dance and not just giving additional information or beauty.” In dialogues with their collaborators, choreographers are challenged to examine their work from angles that they may not have considered otherwise. “The designers in the class ask different questions than choreography teachers usually ask, which can be really useful,” Cummings notes. “For instance, many students begin making a dance for the stage but don’t think about what the stage represents. A lighting designer would say, Are you indoors or are you outdoors? You start to think about it, and that informs the work, makes it more specific, so that it takes on layers of meaning for the choreographer.”


At UC San Diego—where, according to Green, crossing disciplines is “a constant topic of conversation”—artistic teamwork is the focus of a new Dance/Theatre MFA program, now in its second year. In their first quarter, MFA candidates enroll in Collective Creation, a course that brings together choreographers, directors, playwrights, actors, designers (costume, set, light, sound, and digital media), and stage managers. “We wanted them to think of themselves as a company of artists working collectively,” Green explains. “The big question is often, Who’s driving the ship? So from project to project, we deliberately change who’s leading. Some things are director-driven, some choreographer-driven, and some require everyone to be part of the solution.”


At UCSD’s undergraduate level, too, “All of the arts are looking for ways in which they can cross,” says Green. In elective courses, dancers can probe the intersections between choreography and dramatic text, dance and cognitive science, music and dance composition. In their improvisation classes, they find themselves side by side with musicians and visual artists. And outside of class, many pursue collaborative independent projects. One 2008 graduate, Rebecca Bruno, says that her work with a sound designer and visual artist at UCSD “profoundly changed” her creative outlook. “I see what I do from more angles now. I think a lot about the sounds, a lot about the visual elements, and how they can work cohesively or in counterpoint.”


On some campuses, collaboration arises not only through curriculum but through the sheer density of the artistic population. At California Institute of the Arts, the schools of dance, theater, art, music, film, and critical studies are all housed under one sprawling roof. “Because of the proximity of the arts here, there’s a lot of collaboration going on,” says Stephan Koplowitz, dean of the school of dance. “And that’s partly because the students are living in dorms with musicians or filmmakers—anyone you bump into is an artist.”


While Koplowitz strongly encourages collaboration, he notes that young choreographers, eager to jump into projects with their peers, can risk losing sight of their own vision. “I firmly believe that in order to be a good collaborator, you must be fully present in your own voice first,” he says. He recalls one promising dance major “who was doing all these wonderful things—animation projects, film projects—but they were all him giving to other people’s vision.” If students take a step back from collaboration, he believes, “it doesn’t mean that they’re losing out, because they’re deepening their relationship to their own point of view. Then when they leave school, when it really matters, they’ll attract people to work with them, because of the power and the clarity of their vision.”


Siobhan Burke is
Dance Magazine’s education editor.



Break Your Bad Habits:  The Arms

By Lauren Kay


From Alina Cojocaru’s floating port de bras to Luigi’s energized jazz second position, arms can be the ultimate signature of a dancer’s artistry.  “How a dancer uses the arms has a profound influence on the quality of movement,” says Carinne Binda, co-artistic director of Sacramento Ballet. “And it’s a true sign of artistic maturity. If you haven’t made the choice of engaging the arms expressively, the dance looks static.” Dance Magazine spoke with Binda, as well as Nan Giordano, artistic director of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and Megan Richardson, physical therapist at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, for advice on using the arms expressively—and with strength.

HABIT: Droopy arms
A wilted port de bras is no way to captivate an audience. According to Richardson, “The tendency toward droopy arms happens when a dancer tries to hold a long, heavy arm without support from the back and scapula.” She adds that this habit also arises from trying to appear graceful or soft. Binda agrees: “There is a lot of confusion between being soft and being weak. They aren’t the same thing.”

“Instead of engaging the small arm muscles, which can’t hold the arm up themselves,” says Richardson, “use the larger back muscles—especially the lower and mid-trapezoids. Think of pulling each scapula in and down toward your opposite back pocket, forming an ‘X’ of support across the back.” Binda notes that in warm-up, the upper body deserves as much attention as the legs. “At the barre, even in pliés, do different port de bras and plenty of cambrés to get the arms ready to dance.” Giordano suggests imagining the arms moving through water to give them a strong, pliable energy.

HABIT: Not engaging the back
Without a connection to the back and core, arms can look not only droopy but also disjointed, as if stuck onto a mannequin. Balancing arm movement with core and back strength is essential for freedom of movement in the arm itself. Think of the arm as a lever: The farther it reaches from its origin (your core and trunk), the more strength and connection to that origin is required.

Richardson believes that the first step to engaging the back is understanding the physics of the body. “The arms are attached to the spine through the scapula and clavicle. They come from the back anatomically. The arms, core, and spine deeply affect each other; the relationship goes both ways.”


Giordano suggests this exercise for sensing the arm/back connection: Stand in front of a partner. One partner tries to keep their arms in “long jazz arm” position—“a classical rounded second, with elbows facing back and palms facing the floor”—while the other presses down on the forearms. “This helps you find your back and center,” she says, “and a feeling of resistance and power in the arms.”  


Binda sees integrating the arms with the back as a matter of making firm artistic choices: “Consciously choose how you use your arms as part of the whole-body movement. Do you want your arm to finish or lead the movement? Do you want the motion to be lyrical or sharp? Considering these things will help you connect your arm to your back and core, where all movement starts.”


HABIT: Tense, brittle arms
In contrast to droopy arms, some performers battle stiff arms accented by tense hands. Binda says this tension can come from holding the breath or isolating the arm, “thinking of it as a separate, rigid fixture, instead of connected to the entire movement.”

“Think of the air and movement of the arms as you dance, instead of bones and muscle,” Binda suggests. “Tense arms are counterproductive! You aren’t launching a 747 jet, even when you jump.” Richardson adds that moderate weight-lifting can enhance stability in the shoulder, which diffuses tension in the arms. “With control from the shoulder and back, the arm can be loose, fluid and articulate,” she says. “But if you think of holding your arm up with your arm, there is tension that can’t be escaped.”



Lauren Kay is a contributing editor at
Dance Spirit



Across the Floor


Houston Represents

After the Prix de Lausanne awarded seven winners in January, and two were from the same school, one couldn’t help but think, “They’re doing something right at Ben Stevenson Academy!” Cristian Emanuel Amuchastegui, 18, a student from Argentina who has been at the Academy (affiliated with Houston Ballet) for two years, took home the Prix as well as the audience favorite. He had presented himself beautifully in James’ variation from La Sylphide, and intriguingly combined languid and forceful qualities in his contemporary solo.


Shelly Power, one of the judges and associate director of BSA, said that Emanuel is generous by nature. When he won, he walked downstage, raising both arms in a welcoming gesture. As soon as the curtain closed on the award ceremony, Power says, a reporter asked Emanuel how he would celebrate. “This was a team effort,” he said. “We’re all celebrating.” Indeed Power attributes the win to BSA’s team of coaches headed by Claudio Muñoz, and to Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch’s commitment to opening up the company and school to international dancers.


Among the 20 finalists was another thrilling BSA student, 17-year-old Liao Xiang, from China, whose Aurora variation featured lovely, tender wrist circles. She also gave a sensitive but strong rendition of Cathy Marston’s Traces Solo. And 18-year-old Aaron Sharratt, a third BSA student, placed fifth. All three, currently members of Houston Ballet II, have been offered apprenticeships with the main company. —Wendy Perron

Peridance, Revamped

New York’s Peridance studios, now officially the Peridance Capezio Center, have found a new home. “Our old space never had enough room for the programs we wanted to run,” says artistic director Igal Perry. “I wanted room to incorporate all different aspects of dance.” 


The 1903 historical Beaux-Arts building near Union Square was originally used as an auction mart for horses. Perry himself conceptualized the three-floor, six-studio layout: The entire space was gutted and poles removed to create open rooms with high ceilings and exposed brick walls. The largest studio, on the top floor, opens up to an old pitched roof with skylights and windows. A performance space on the lower level seats 172, complete with wings, a large stage, and lighting.


A few years ago, Perry moved the school into “interim” studios at 890 Broadway, where ABT is also housed, “thinking the renovations would take only six to eight months,” he says. “But it wasn’t until three years later we were able to move!” The new studios facilitate more classes and have attracted new teachers, like Max Stone, Milton Myers, and Wes Veldink. Starting in September, students ages 17–28 will be able to enroll in an intensive two-year, pre-professional training program.


The studio is also an official partner with the Limón Institute, Baila Society (offering salsa), and Djoniba Dance and Drum Centre (for African, Brazilian, and Afro-Caribbean dance), which have moved their classes into the new space.  —Jen Peters