Teacher's Wisdom: Susan Rethorst

Just as Susan Rethorst’s dances bristle with a quiet, alert curiosity, so does her teaching. “I don’t use the word ‘about,’” she told the small group of students at her choreographic workshop last December, assuring them that their work didn’t need to be “about” anything in particular. Rethorst sees dancemaking not as an expression of neatly formed ideas but as a means of discovering “things that you didn’t know you knew.”

 

Based in New York City since 1975, and splitting her time between NYC and Amsterdam since 1995, Rethorst has presented work extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe. She is the recipient of two Bessie Awards and a 2010 Alpert Award in the Arts. A renowned choreography teacher, she has helped establish post-grad programs in Amsterdam, Salzberg, Cork, and Copenhagen. DM’s Siobhan Burke watched Rethorst’s winter workshop at St. Mark’s Church, part of the Movement Research Fall Festival, and caught up with her afterward.

 

Learning to choreograph is so much about finding your own voice. Can you teach someone to have a voice? Anyone’s voice has to be unearthed. You can’t hand that to somebody. But you can help to excavate it from myths of making, from received definitions. It seems that choreography students are walking around with a lot of things that grate against their gut instincts. I try to empower people to trust their voice, which is there anyway—to liberate them into what they already know.

 

I also try to get people involved in the pleasure of making—a kind of deep pleasure that’s also of the intellect, of the whole person, that actually goes hand in hand with rigor. I read once that good art comes more from the play instinct than the work instinct, and I think that’s true. Play is this very profound thing that kids do. Their curiosity about the nature of things, the world and their place in it—that’s a profound investigation.

 

By any and all means I get people working and showing and making, until it’s just not a big deal. When they’re stuck, I say, “Go for quantity, forget quality,” just to get the motor going. Then you can move on to more interesting questions and away from “How do I start? What’s the right move?”

 

What makes starting points so paralyzing? One thing is this sentence I hate: “If you don’t have something to say, you shouldn’t be in this class.” You become paralyzed with the stated importance of the thing. I also think that in the U.S. there’s a nervousness about art being elitist and self-indulgent. So that in order to do it, you have to prove you’re not a bad person, and the way to do that is to make it a moral education or social contribution. People don’t ask that of every profession, but somehow art has to prove its validity every time.

 

So how do you help your students get started? I relieve them of that responsibility, because I just say, “Do this.” They have a task, and before they know it, they’ve started making. I say often that nobody is exempt from hesitations and self-doubt, and it doesn’t go away. But you develop strategies. My personal strategy is to have a deadline, or rent space that I have to pay for, or schedule rehearsals with people so I have to show up. That gets me going, and once I’m involved, I’m fine.

 

That reminds me of your essay Dailiness. What does “dailiness” mean? I don’t know if I talked in that article about Judith Dunn, but she was a member of Judson Dance Theater and my teacher at Bennington in the 1970s. My senior year she did a tutorial called Dance A Day, where we made a dance every day. She didn’t give us any studio time or starting points or themes. You just had to show up and show your dance. It was terrifying. But I realized that making is something you just put into your life and do all the time. You don’t have to wait for a bolt of inspiration. By making work, I saw what I was interested in. And I saw that dancemaking engenders knowledge—it sheds light on and deepens the things you’re thinking about, brings in other facets that you couldn’t have anticipated.

 

You began your workshop with a simple game. Everyone chose a few things from a pile of objects and, with a partner, took turns arranging the objects on the floor. Why this exercise? I see the game (which Simone Forti taught me to illustrate something else) as a metaphor for allowance. People never hesitate. They pick the objects they want. You know what you want. You’re attracted to it. You go for it. And you have to have that in your dancemaking. It’s easier during the game because it’s just a bunch of junk. I’m not asking, “What do you want to say with your dances?” I’m asking them to choose a bright shiny object. Given that allowance, things start to happen.

 

Is teaching in Europe different from teaching in the U.S? Very different. In Vienna, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, where I’ve been most involved, the language around dancemaking has a lot to do with “research”—and “transparency,” meaning that your research question is visible in your finished work. Reading a lot of theory and philosophy is often considered as important as studio time.

 

What do you want students to take away from your classes? Hopefully they see that where their interests take them are valid places to go. I want to help them get on the other side of fear and find excitement, on the other side of beating themselves up and find that sense of profound play. If people do that, I’m happy. 

 

 

Susan Rethorst (left) talks to a student about sequencing choreography at her Movement Research workshop last winter. Photo by Sarah Keough

The Conversation
News

Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.

The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.

As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Lorenzo Di Cristina/Unsplash

When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.

The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."

Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Quinn Wharton

What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.

So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

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.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Still of Fonteyn from the 1972 film I Am a Dancer. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance As Activism
Courtesy #Dance4OurLives

Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.

When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.

The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave

A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.

I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.

There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.

While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Getty Images

Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.

"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.

The key is choosing your loaf wisely.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending

It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.

We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Unity Phelan in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Photo by Niko Tavernise, Courtesy FRANK PR

"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.

News
Walsh's Moon Fate Sin at Danspace Project. Like Fame Notions, the title was derived from Yvonne Rainer's "No" manifesto. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace Project

The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Via YouTube

What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

The heart of his message: Be generous.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox