Teach-Learn Connection: Learning a Legacy
Alvin Ailey's "Revelations" residency captures kids' hearts and minds.
At 1:45 p.m. at Bea Fuller Rogers Middle School in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, high-pitched laughter, chatter, and screams reverberate through the hallways. But inside a small dance studio on the second floor, the atmosphere is different. Two dozen seventh-graders stand silently in a wedge formation, an inverted triangle with one student at the point. Their backs are straight, feet in second position, and arms extended about six inches from their sides. “Heads down, jazz hands,” calls a voice from the front of the room.
Many people would recognize this as the opening pose of “I’ve Been Buked,” the first section of Alvin Ailey’s signature work, Revelations. Teaching this choreography is a core element of the Ailey organization’s “Revelations: An Interdisciplinary Approach,” a pioneering dance-based curriculum implemented in public schools across the country. The initiative launched in 2000 but took on heightened significance this year in honor of the beloved ballet’s 50th anniversary.
“The movement that you do in your body is bigger than your body,” says Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, who is leading today’s session with the help of three assistants. “You gotta think about the space around you. Dance is bigger than that.” The girls and boys watch “Miss Nasha” with rapt attention as she demonstrates a deep plié leaning to the right and then the left while emphasizing, “wide, big, like I have the world.”
A former Ailey dancer, Thomas-Schmitt has been nurturing children’s creativity for more than a decade. As co-director of Ailey Arts in Education Program and national director of AileyCamp, she demands discipline: no talking unless called on, “yes” instead of “yeah.” But despite her no-nonsense demeanor, the vibe is genial. Kids giggle when she refers to a vibrating motion as “Beyoncé” and an arm position as “Egyptian.”
“Alvin had done outreach before it was a buzzword,” Thomas-Schmitt says; it was his idea to use Revelations as a teaching tool. Kathleen Isaac, a dance educator and former Ailey instructor, developed the codified lesson plans, which have since been introduced in many cities, among them Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, DC, and London. The middle-school curriculum gets kids moving, but there is also an academic component. In this interdisciplinary approach, dance is the vehicle through which students learn language arts and social studies.
During a typical five-day residency, young people with no previous dance exposure explore the life and contributions of Alvin Ailey. “We want them to see him as an interesting person, someone they can relate to,” says Thomas-Schmitt. They also examine the historical, cultural, and political themes of Revelations. To help these abstract concepts resonate, students are encouraged to find their own creative voices. For one assignment, the Bea Fuller Rogers kids rewrote the words of the opening spiritual to reflect their experiences. One student replaced “I’ve been buked and I’ve been scorned” with “I’ve been bullied and I’ve been put down.” They also write poetry.
But the most powerful device is the drama and dynamism of the dance itself. The students learn parts of Revelations, then alter the steps with their own ideas. An exercise based on reaching and bending motifs in “I’ve Been Buked” requires pairs of students to come up with 48 counts featuring six distinct elements (reach, bend, move away, come together, turn, reach). They must mirror each other when presenting, which adds another degree of difficulty. After each duet performs, Thomas-Schmitt leads a class assessment. “We talk about the movement quality. Are there patterns? Is it fluid or percussive?”
For many kids, the chance to choreograph is a highlight of the week. “You get to express yourself inside and out,” says 12-year-old Jhonay Allen. “I think of a story or topic I really want to dance about. For angry, I’d probably punch or do sharp stuff.” One group experimented with a peeling motion inspired by a student’s suggestion of plátanos, or plantains. When a new term, like canon, emerges in these sessions, it is added to the “word wall.” (Earlier, when the children wrote what dance means to them on the wall, José Baez, 12, eagerly penned “passion.”)
As the culmination of the residency, students get to watch the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations live. This has a profound effect on them, says Denise Brown, a teacher at Bea Fuller Rogers. “The athletic strength required is amazing to a child. They want to emulate that.” Her class attended the 2010–2011 New York City Center season, which kicked off a 24-city tour. As the national celebration of Revelations at 50 continues, the residency will travel to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, and other locations.
Thomas-Schmitt marvels at the residency’s impact. “It’s a big self-esteem builder,” she says, noting that in the past 10 years she’s seen more participation from boys. Few of her public school students go on to pursue dance professionally, but to her that’s not the point. “Computer scientist or gourmet cook or electrician—everyone has to be in touch with their creative self to develop critical-thinking skills and to problem-solve. And also to enjoy what they do. The arts are tools that help us engage on that level.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal and Time Out New York Kids.
Nasha Thomas-Schmitt teaches Revelations at Bea Fuller Rogers Middle School. Photo by Rachel Papo
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."