Wanted: Inspired Choreographers

Students and audiences of tomorrow deserve exposure to great dances, but they are not always getting them.

By Debra Cash

School’s back in session and piano students are fumbling their way through “Fur Elise” and Bach inventions. High school drama clubs are rehearsing “Hamlet” or in more progressive neighborhoods, “The Laramie Project.” Art students are squinting in front of bowls of apples much as C?nne and Rodin did in their ateliers. And dance students? By and large they are mastering combinations of steps made up by their teachers and their peers.

Dancers’ technical level and cross-trained versatility has never been higher. Like ever rising Olympic standards, feats that were once the cherished achievements of a gifted few are now “de rigeur.” High legs, speedy changes of direction, and complex polyrhythms that go far beyond “rub-your-tummy and pat-your head” are now executed by dancers still in high school.

But choreography is a different matter. I’ve sat through enough tedious concerts in the past few years to recognize that there are choreographers who don’t have a clue about their chosen craft. They doodle as they devise. Or perhaps more disappointingly, their craft has stalled at an uninspired level of achievement. These young and no-longer-young choreographers make one good dance and then repeat it over and over and over again.

You could blame the choreographers, or even the university dance programs from which some of these artists have degrees. But finger-pointing is beside the point. Most dance students are never exposed to great choreography, ‘down deep, take-it-apart and put-it-back-together exposure.’ ‘Climbing the mountain because it is there’ exposure.

Is it an accident that many of the most distinguished choreographers of the last two generations started out as dancers in the companies of other important choreographers?

Dance is an oral tradition, passed down through apprenticeship. Performing well-crafted choreography is a muscle-deep lesson in getting from point A to point B, organically or discontinuously. Well-crafted choreography has visual and emotional pacing: it is also about creating traffic patterns, of keeping performers from colliding. As the late Bessie Schonberg, perhaps the greatest dance pedagogue modern concert dance ever knew, used to say, it has a punchline. A dancer can’t learn that by doing classroom variations focused primarily on getting their thighs to turn out in a ‘ronde de jambe’ or recovering gracefully from a back fall.

Last spring, two very different projects effectively exposed great work to young dance students. Adam Luders, a balding, low-key Dane who had been principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, worked with high-school aged dancers of the Massachusetts Youth Ballet. He had been invited by the students’ teacher, Jacqueline Cronsberg, to stage Balanchine’s first great American ballet, “Serenade.” Cronsberg is a Balanchine insider: her daughter is Sandra Jennings, Ballet Mistress of the San Francisco Ballet and a certified repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, which authorizes stagings of his copyrighted works.

Luders, who was nursing a broken rib after having fallen off his bicycle in Copenhagen, exhorted the kids to go beyond their too-careful steps. He offered one visibly rattled young man a partnering trick, saying “as she starts turning the left hand comes in,” later commiserating that “I did that when I was your age. It’s a strange part: you feel like you haven’t done anything.”

Around the same time, 84-year old Yuriko of the Martha Graham company was teaching undergraduates in Boston Conservatory’s dance department. It was the first time any student dancers had been allowed to dance Graham’s 1931 “Primitive Mysteries,” a challengingly stylized masterwork. Yuriko was relentless, at one point running an ice-cream scoop from a dancer’s sternum down to her hipbone to show the young woman how to hollow out her center in a “contraction” and explaining that one particular reaching leap was meant to read as the visual equivalent of a scream.

Of course, even a “qualified” performance by students will not deliver the artistic finesse — or even, sometimes, the coherent expression — of professional casting. Still, as long as the audience understands it is a partner in an educational initiative, the results can be quite satisfying. In November, audiences will be able to see the Boston Conservatory dancers in Jose Limon’s 1966 “The Winged,” staged by Conservatory faculty member Jennifer Scanlon, who was a principal dancer with the Limon company. If anyone can inspire the young artists to meet its demands, she can.

Unfortunately, hiring experienced artists to teach famous choreography to student dancers is prohibitively expensive and is typically available only to pre-professionals.

An alternative track has been established by former Paul Taylor star Carolyn Adams, who now teaches at Julliard, and her sister Julie Adams Strandberg, who teaches dance at Brown University. Together they launched the American Dance Legacy Institute (ADLI), housed in Strandberg’s home in Providence, “to inform and empower [dance students and audiences] through ongoing access to an evolving and enduring canon of dance masterworks and to the process by which they are created.”

ADLI’s “Repertory Etudes” project distills works by important choreographers into “teaching etudes.” Most of the condensed pieces are created by the choreographer in question; these short solo or group works can be performed royalty free. The current offerings include a teaching version of Donald McKayle’s “Rainbow Round My Shoulder,” Sophie Maslow’s “The Village I Knew,” and works by Danny Buraczeski, Pearl Primus, and Danny Grossman. The ADLI package includes a videotape with performance, instructional, and coaching footage, a CD of commissioned music, a notated score for those who have Labanotation skills, suggestions for simple costumes and lighting, and a resource guide which includes a bibliography.

Strandberg explains that ADLI is necessary because, in some places, great dance is inaccessible. “It’s like saying you can only know about the Mona Lisa if you go the Louvre,” she says. “We want to give dancers a kinaesthetic entry point, and give them a standard to aspire to.” It may seem quixotic after a generation of cuts to arts in the schools but Strandberg and Adams continue to work on K-12 curriculum development. They hope to bring dance on tape and in teaching guides into regular classrooms, where they can be integrated into ongoing lesson plans, such as in American history classes or during Black History Month programming. The students don’t have to be training to be professional dancers to be exposed to dance. For some, movement may unlock the door to a broader range of issues.

Will projects like ADLI’s “Repertory Etudes” make a substantial difference to our dance stages? Time will tell. Education by itself does not create innovation nor, truth be told, insure excellence. But for the dancers who have a spark of choreographic inspiration, it could make the difference between work that goes forward with confidence and dances mired in mediocrity.

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1 Comment

  1. Johnny on January 15, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Okay … interesting. Interested. Time I gave something back, perhaps.

    26 years experience. Choreographed everything from world tours: (Rolling Stones, Pet Shop Boys, etc. Operas., pop videos, adverts, Eurovision Song Contest … and all the rest.

    Interested in doing a bit of charity work; (ie, you don’t have to pay me £3000 per day.

    Gimmi a shout … perhaps.

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