Teacher's Wisdom

November 19, 2008

Lise Houlton is part of a dance dynasty that began with her mother, the eminent Minnesota choreographer and teacher Loyce Houlton, and continues with her daughters, Kaitlyn and Raina Gilliland. Both attended the School of American Ballet, and Kaitlyn is now in the corps of the New York City Ballet. Artistic director of the Minnesota Dance Theatre & The Dance Institute in Minneapolis, Lise brings extensive experience in both classical ballet and modern dance to her teaching. As a dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, Lise performed in works by Glen Tetley, Antony Tudor, and Paul Taylor, among others. Linda Shapiro recently spoke with her after watching her class.


What did you learn from your mother that you bring to the classroom?


My mother had enormous curiosity and respect for a variety of dance forms. I encourage that in my students—by investigating many kinds of dance, they have more resources to draw from in their artistic development. My mother also taught me to expect the very best from every dancer, whether student or professional. And I learned from her that there isn’t an effective “recipe” class. Each class is unique to the dancers and the day at hand.


You emphasize a continuous flow of movement in the exercises and corrections you give. Why?


For younger dancers, the learning process can be slow. They have so much information to digest. But for advanced and professional students, the classroom experience is closer to the experience of being onstage. They need to let the mind go so the body can fall, fly, and fill the entire space. They need to build strength and stamina. Even just warming up at the barre—the more they are moving, the more the blood will be coursing through the veins. I also like to see dancers exploring the space between the landmarks of beautiful positions, so I give combinations that allow for play in that realm, where every movement serves the next.


What elements of your modern dance training have influenced your teaching?


I love to give an unconventional barre. I grew up in my mother’s classes where the barre might include grand battements, then turning around, hanging by the elbows, and dropping to the floor in a contraction. I often incorporate exercises that work the back in spirals and curves to develop the movement potential in the torso. The strength and suppleness of the back is something I look for in dancers. Glen Tetley once asked me, “Do you remember when you were a bird?” Glen’s movement was so organic and animalistic; it all began from the power of the back extending through the arms like a bird.


You often stress that “Everything has to be engaged.” What do you mean by that, and how do you teach it?


Take pirouettes, for instance. I think people get too much in their heads about turning. So I ask students to remember the feeling of getting picked up and spun around as kids. Turning is not a position—it’s a dynamic. It’s grabbing and pushing from the floor. Once students get the coordination of arms, legs, focus, and the thrust up from the pelvic floor, turning becomes really fun. People are sometimes a little shy of that force; it’s like a hurricane. It’s also important to jump from the pelvis and not expect our poor feet to do all the work. That’s where the “boing” comes from.


How do you define musicality?


I think it’s knowing when to accentuate, attenuate, anticipate, or just ride the music. I remember fondly dancing with Kevin McKenzie; we used to sing, sometimes in harmony, while we were dancing. When there is that dynamic play between the energy of the music and the energy of the body, the movement becomes emotive. It’s one of the great pleasures of dancing.


How should dancers prepare for class?


Get there with enough time to inhabit your space at the barre. Students should respect the classroom by having their hair out of their eyes and being appropriately dressed. I would love to see every student with a Thera-Band strengthening their feet, doing some core work like sit-ups, rolling through their feet to get the circulation going, swinging the legs. And they should be stretching before and after class.


What do you think is missing in the training of dancers today?


A sense of history. It’s shocking to me when students don’t know who Martha Graham or José Limón or even Anna Pavlova were. I would also like to see dance students being more curious and open-minded. How does one train to be in Billy Forsythe’s company, for instance? You have to be intelligent, quick, and inventive. You have to be able to immerse yourself in the brain of a choreographer.


Apart from you mother, who were your mentors as a dance student and what did you learn from them?


I had profound experiences with Mary Hinkson, Madame Pereyaslavec, and Madame Volkova. Mary Hinkson was a goddess Graham dancer. She would spend 45 minutes on just walking across the floor and somehow the house was on fire when she did it; she had us spellbound. Pereyaslavec and Volkova were Vaganova teachers but very different. Pereyaslavec gave a slower, sustained class—lots of big jumps; Volkova’s class was quicker, lighter—lots of petit allegro. From her I got lightness and fleetness of feet. I give specific combinations from both to my students. I also had the great fortune to work with David Howard and Maggie Black, who taught me that as long as you can hang on to correct placement, you can do multiple pirouettes and higher jumps.


What have you passed down to your daughters?


Discipline and respect. Those values are introduced in the classroom sanctuary from day one. Being a part of an art that makes you feel insignificant by its power and beauty, and at the same time significant because you are participating in it—that’s something.