Teacher's Wisdom: Bill Evans

July 24, 2007

For almost as long as he can remember, Bill Evans has been a teacher. As a preteen, he taught tap and ballet, and at 17 he founded the Bill Evans School of Dance in Utah, which grew to have three locations and more than 200 students. Today Evans, 66, numbers his past and present students in the tens of thousands. His choreography and performance have been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2005 NDEO Lifetime Achievement Award. Although he is known for his unique blend of modern and tap, Evans studied ballet early on with Willam Christensen and was an apprentice to the Harkness Ballet. He danced with several ballet companies, including Ruth Page’s Chicago Ballet and the Utah Civic Ballet (later, Ballet West). Currently he is a guest artist at SUNY Brockport, director of the Evans Summer Dance Teacher Intensives, and a solo performer. In 2005 he compiled
Reminiscences of a Dancing Man: A Photographic Journey of Life in Dance, a book outlining the modern dance technique he developed, is due out next fall. Writer Gigi Berardi, who was first introduced to Evans when she was dancing in 1985, caught up with him last summer in Port Townsend, Washington.

How would you describe your technique?

It emphasizes the elegance and musicality of classical ballet, as well as the dynamics and phrasing of modern dance. Thirty-five years ago I was asking students to stop and savor the kinesthetic feedback they could experience in technique class. That was unusual back then. Since those early days, I have acquired more knowledge in anatomy, kinesiology, and somatics and am a certified Bartenieff Fundamentals practitioner and Laban Movement Analyst.

What is the purpose of technique class?

I believe that technique class is a communal event. It is ceremonial, almost tribal-where we connect to the earth by moving together for a common purpose. Students come to technique class to feel part of something larger. They learn what they need to let go of and how to make the process of moving as pure, simple, and rich as possible. Not everything we bring with us to class is useful-many habitual movement patterns inhibit us. So class allows us to shut out the rest of the world and focus on sensing, feeling, and renewing.

Is there anything else that technique class provides?

In class, I help to facilitate the development of tools that allow students to become more expressive. The whole point is to bring personal voice to technical skill. You don’t have to stop being who you are to learn technique. Class is also about overcoming physical limitations so that each student can become a virtuoso in her or his own way. My virtuosity, for example, was in rhythm and turning. Virtuosity is a metaphor for overcoming and pushing through barriers. My classes allow students to dance vigorously and become neither spent nor worn out but, rather, invigorated. It is a revelation to some that dance class can regenerate rather than exhaust you.

What is the role of the teacher in technique class?

The crucial role of the teacher is to inspire. Students certainly are their own teachers, but they need others for inspiration. A teacher should model commitment, passion, joy, satisfaction, and a healthy work ethic. The teacher is a guide and facilitator. The teachers who really changed my life knew when to push me.

How do you structure your classes?

Most experiences in a dancer’s life are imbalanced. So, I structure classes to provide balance. They’re like whole food, which is critical to health and well-being. Even with an injury, good balance-building technique allows the injured part to heal and to become reintegrated into the rest of the body. In my class, we move in the back space as well as front, experiencing a balanced access to the kinesphere. For every flexion, there is an extension; we balance abduction with adduction, slow movements with fast, small with large. My teacher’s checklist has to do with variety and balance-physically, spatially, and dynamically.

In the classroom, I am alive in the moment. I have my concepts that guide me and a form I like to follow, but all that becomes secondary. There, I’m responding to people in the room. I ride that intuitive thread from beginning to end-thinking, sensing, feeling, and intuiting.

Why is teaching your passion?

Teachers inspire students, but students also inspire teachers. If I see a student struggling, and if I can share some perception or information to help her or him become a more efficient, expressive, and vibrant mover, that is life-affirming for me. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the destructive, debilitating things going on in the world, and all the suffering, but I know that humans don’t have to be that way. When we make positive neuromuscular changes, we’re opening up the possibility of positive change in all other aspects of our lives. I teach to make my corner of the world a better place.

What’s the biggest error dancers make in class?

Sometimes students come to class to show off. Technique class is not an audition. In class, the only appropriate competition is with yourself.

As a dancer, what’s the best advice you ever got?

Once I arrived late at the theater in Chicago and I was rushing through barre when guest ballerina Kirsten Simone suggested that it would be better to do two or three things thoroughly than to go through the whole barre superficially. I also remember taking a class as a member of Repertory Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City and feeling inadequate because of my limited physical range. I wasn’t getting my leg as high or arching my back as deeply as others, but Betty Jones stopped the class and said that class was not about “how much” and “how far” one could do and go, but about intent and clarity. She said that watching me dance she could see “all the little grains of sand shifting,” the inner shaping so important in Limon technique. To me, her comment validated my concern for texture, nuance, and subtlety. It was a turning point in my life.

Who are your role models?

Annabelle Gamson, Eleanor King, Daniel Nagrin, Erick Hawkins. They are-or were-qualitative, not just quantitative, dancers. They were extraordinary soloists who embodied passion, focus, belief in self, and commitment. In their work, they drew on who and what they were. As they grew older, they didn’t slow down or give up. They never underestimated their abilities. And they continued to believe in themselves and the beauty and power of dance.