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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
New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.
Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
José Greco popularized Spanish dance in 1950s and '60s America through his work onstage and on screen. Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater's American Spanish Dance & Music Festival is honoring the icon in recognition of what would have been his 100th birthday. As part of the tribute, Greco's three dancing children are reuniting to perform together for the first time since their father's death in 2000. Also on the program is the premiere of contemporary flamenco choreographer Carlos Rodriguez's Mar de Fuego (Sea of Fire). June 15–17, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. ensembleespanol.org.
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Christopher McDaniel and Crystal Serrano were working on Nacho Duato's Coming Together in rehearsal when McDaniel's foot hit a slippery spot on the marley. As they attempted a swinging lift, both dancers went tumbling, injuring Serrano as they fell. She ended up being out for a week with a badly bruised knee.
"I immediately felt, This is my fault," says McDaniel. "I broke my friend."
What's on the minds of college students today?
I recently had the honor of adjudicating at the American College Dance Association's National College Dance Festival, along with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and former National Endowment for the Arts dance specialist Douglas C. Sonntag. We chose three winners—one for Outstanding Choreography and two for Outstanding Performance—from 30 pieces representing schools throughout the country. It was a great opportunity to see what college dance students are up to—from the issues they care about to the kinds movement they're interested in exploring.
Here were the biggest trends and takeaways:
It's summer festival season! If you're feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying array of offerings, never fear: We've combed through the usual suspects to highlight the shows we most want to catch.
Subscription box services have quickly gained a dedicated following among the fashion and fitness set. And while we'd never say no to a box with new jewelry or workout wear to try, we've been waiting for the subscription model to make its way to the dance world.
Enter barre + bag, a new service that sends a curated set of items to your door each season. Created by Faye Morrow Bell and her daughter Tyler, a student in the pre-professional ballet program at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, this just-launched service offers dance, lifestyle and wellness finds in four themed bags each year: Spring Performance, Summer Study, Back-to-Studio and Nutcracker. Since all the products are specifically made for dancers, everything barre + bag sends you is something you'll actually use, (Plus, it all comes in a bag instead of a box—because what dancer can ever have enough bags?).
barre + bag's Summer Collection
Today, American Ballet Theatre announced a new initiative to foster the development of choreography by company members and freelance dancemakers. Aptly titled ABT Incubator, the program, directed by principal David Hallberg, will give selected choreographers the opportunity to spend two weeks workshopping new dances.
"It has always been my vision to establish a process-oriented hub to explore the directions ballet can forge now and in the future," said Hallberg in a press release from the company. Interested? Here's how you can apply to participate.
Back in January, Chase Johnsey grabbed headlines when he resigned from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, where his performances had garnered critical acclaim for over a decade, alleging a culture of harassment and discrimination. (An independent investigation launched by the company did not substantiate any legal claims.) Johnsey, who identifies as genderqueer, later told us that he feared his dance career was at an end—where else, as a ballet dancer, would he be allowed to perform traditionally female roles?
But the story didn't end there. After a surprise offer from Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, Johnsey has found a temporary artistic home with the company, joining as a guest at the rank of first artist for its run of The Sleeping Beauty, which continues this week. After weeks of working and rehearsing with the company, last week Johnsey quietly marked a new milestone: He performed with ENB's corps de ballet as one of the ladies in the prince's court.