Your Body: Under the Skin

 

 

 

 

Anneke Hansen mesmerized a Houston audience last summer with her incredibly dexterous feet in her piece we should call it many things (2009), part of The Big Range Dance Festival. Who would have guessed a foot could move with the fluidity of a hand? You wondered if she knew that there are 26 bones in the foot. Turns out Hansen, a self-confessed anatomy wonk, works with Irene Dowd (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” June 2005), the leading teacher of functional anatomy for dancers. “I’m fascinated by the slow use of the longitudinal arch of the foot and the way weight passes through the feet,” says Hansen, a New York choreographer and teacher.

 

It’s often said that a dancer’s body is her instrument, but dancers and teachers remain divided on just how much anatomy a dancer needs to know. Anatomical information can shape—and some feel even limit—a dancer. How can the hows and whys of the body be taught so that it leads to more expressive movement? And can too much information get in the way of the poetics of the body?

 

Hansen, a physician’s daughter, grew up surrounded by medical textbooks, which fostered a certain comfort with the body’s inner structure and workings. She has captured a way of using her body’s capacities that feels fresh. “When I go to the studio to make a dance, all that I know is with me and it’s all fair game. Understanding my inner architecture gives my work its texture,” says Hansen. “Yet the information needs to be in service to my choreography. It’s a problem-solving tool for me, and not the be all, end all. Anatomy practices need to point to a more sensual way of moving.”

 

If we know how the body works, could it inhibit us? Nancy Bielski, a renowned ballet teacher at Steps on Broadway and American Ballet Theatre, questions the value of anatomy for ballet dancers. “All knowledge is beneficial. However, knowing too much anatomy might prevent a dancer from fully performing the movement,” says Bielski. “Anatomy doesn’t want you to turn out. You are supposed to walk and run with your legs, not point your feet. It would be limiting to dance within the confines of anatomical knowledge, and ballet technique is limiting enough.” Although Bielski uses basic alignment terms in her teaching, she avoids anatomical terms. She remembers her own experience as a young ballet dancer with a teacher who used them. “I didn’t understand it or find it useful to my dancing,” she says. “Does a violinist need to know how the violin works to be a great player?”

 

Body science doesn’t have to be a drag on your artistic imagination, argues Lynn Simonson, who found her path to anatomy the hard way—through a debilitating knee injury as a young ballet dancer. She went on to create Simonson Technique, which emphasizes practical and functional body knowledge, taught succinctly within the fabric of the dance class. “Dancers need broad concepts,” she says. “Even more important is understanding your own body’s mechanics, and knowing your own range of motion.” A Simonson teacher might suggest to the class during a hamstring stretch to “relax the knees,” because when knees are slightly bent, the stretch goes into the belly of the muscles instead of the soft tissues at the back of the knee. “With an 8-count stretch there’s plenty of time to inject some usefully anatomical information,” Simonson says. “But it has to relate to the dancing body.”

 

Like Hansen, Andrea Miller thinks of anatomy as part of her ever-evolving dance-making toolbox. Miller, artistic director of Gallim Dance and a 2009 “25 to Watch,” creates dances of intense physicality. She also studied with Dowd while a student at Juilliard. As a member of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Ensemble, she studied Gaga and is currently immersed in Gyrotonics.

 

Miller likes to mine the capacities of the body, combining imagery and experimentation with the basic tenets of anatomy. She considers her understanding of anatomy when entering the studio but draws a line between what she feels the dancer in class might need and what a choreographer would find useful. “As dancers we work with the body. Thus its design, both anatomic and kinetic, are fundamental to the development of a sophisticated, virtuosic mover,” says Miller. But each dance artist, she notes, will approach knowledge of the body’s mechanics according to how much it contributes to their creative vision. For Miller, it’s an essential element. “I am interested in honoring the harmony of the body,” she says. “And in being able to expand its design.”

 

 

Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston.

 

 

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

Broadway
The "Merde" bag. Courtesy Scenery

Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: "I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash." The elaborate backdrops? Gone.

But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Sara Mearns in the gym. Photo by Kyle Froman.

New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.

"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "

She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox