Swooping in to save Spider-Man
Brock rehearses Spider-Man dancers on the stage of NYC’s Foxwoods Theater.
Brought in as part of the creative team tasked with overhauling Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, 27-year-old choreographer Chase Brock had his work cut out for him. The cast, besieged by injuries and bad press, had already endured a grueling five months of previews. The financial stakes were high. And to top it all off, Brock had only about four weeks this spring to create and set his new material.
But Brock took it all in stride; after all, he was no musical theater newbie. He’d made his Broadway debut at 16, in Susan Stroman’s revival of The Music Man, and has assisted directors such as Kathleen Marshall and Robert Wilson. He’s proven to be both prolific and versatile, choreographing for the stage, film, TV and even video games, in addition to creating work for his own Brooklyn-based dance company, The Chase Brock Experience. Dance Teacher talked to Brock about relaunching Spider-Man and the challenges he’d like to face next.
DT: Were you a Spider-Man fan as a kid?
CB: Not at all. I knew about Jem and the Holograms and She-Ra Princess of Power, but I didn’t know a thing about Spider-Man. So the day I got this job I started reading the comics. And now I’m a little bit in love with comic books and graphic novels.
DT: The show had a pretty rough start. Did you have any reservations about taking the job?
CB: My first thought was that I really loved the old version and I was sad they were changing it. But I accepted the challenge and thought, “I’ve got to do everything I can to make the show as clear and focused as possible, and get it to the finish line with the same sense of integrity and impetus that the original creative team had.”
DT: How did you approach the changes?
CB: It was an interesting experiment because I got to bring the editing side of my brain and the creative side of my brain. In act one, we had to clarify things and make sure that we were pursuing a particular arc from beginning to end, so I took existing numbers and finessed them. The old show was so artful and beautiful, but perplexing. We’ve restored a lot of elements of the mythology that were curiously absent. I truly believe that a mass audience, which is who this has to speak to, will now get it—which was my assignment. The second act was intensely rewritten, so that is 90 percent new choreography.
DT: How did the company handle it?
CB: For three weeks, the company performed the old show while learning the new show. They did their last performance of the old version—their 145th preview—on a Sunday at 3 o’clock, and on Monday at 10 am they launched into five days in which we did run-throughs of the new show with notes. It was crazy. For the first three weeks of that rehearsal period, there were four to six people out, injured or sick, every day. Their bodies were broken and they were in a state of genuine exhaustion. But they all got on board, unbelievably. In the rehearsal room I received nothing but enthusiasm and respect.
DT: What’s next on your agenda?
CB: I want to get back to my company. I love to jump back and forth between worlds, and right now I’m really ready to jump back into something of my own, something where there are no rules.
DT: Do you feel more at home in one world than the other?
CB: It’s a question I struggle with a lot. The dance world is really my first love. But I suspect that the theater world is where I actually belong. Hopefully I can just keep going back and forth. I would love to do another Broadway show, something that deals with fantasy or animal characters. If there was a Disney project, I would be very excited about that. It would be great to be able to develop and direct a project. DT
Michelle Vellucci holds an MA in dance and education from the University at Buffalo and was a 2009 fellow of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism.
Photo by Michael Cohl
Denise Jefferson, who led The Ailey School to international renown during her 26-year tenure as director, died July 17 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 65.
Alvin Ailey himself appointed Jefferson to the post in 1984, and in the years that followed, she built the school into the world-class training ground it is today.
“It is a testament to her leadership that 87 percent of current Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers honed their skills through training from The Ailey School,” Artistic Director Judith Jamison said in a statement. “Dancers trained under Denise’s
nurturing direction have also gone on to successful careers in the ranks of other prominent national and international dance companies.”
Jefferson, or Ms. J, as she was affectionately called, was known for her tireless dedication and strong vision of quality dance education. She expanded the school’s professional and junior divisions, creating programs for children ages 3 and up and instituting dedicated classes for young boys. In 1995, she forged a partnership with the Professional Performing Arts School, through which talented public high school students received fully subsidized training at The Ailey School.
Three years later Jefferson created the groundbreaking Ailey/Fordham BFA Program, which combines Ailey training with a liberal arts education at Fordham University. More than 160 dancers have graduated from the four-year, full-time program to date.
For now, Ana Marie Forsythe, chair of The Ailey School’s Horton department since 1979, has taken the helm of the Ailey/Fordham program as acting director. Melanie Person and Tracy Inman, co-directors of the Junior Division, have been named acting co-directors of The Ailey School.
“Ms. J was patient and motivational. She always knew the right thing to say during 8:30 am class to make you want to dance all day,” says Kile Hotchkiss, recent Ailey/Fordham BFA graduate. “As a mentor she was always open to hearing my concerns and giving kind words as guidance. I hope to influence others with my art the way she has influenced me and so many of my fellow dancers.”
Photo by Eduardo Patino
When Leonid and Adriana Kozlov founded the Youth Dance Festival of New Jersey six years ago, their goal was to foster artistry, not anxiety.
In keeping with this spirit of encouragement, every dancer receives a certificate of merit and written evaluations from the judges. The festival’s competition winners are awarded medals and scholarships, but the Winners’ Showcase, which wraps up the event, features performances by award winners and non-winners alike, as well as special guest performers. At prior festivals, these have included dancers from Buglisi Dance Theatre, Battleworks Dance Company and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, as well as past competition winners such as April Giangeruso of American Ballet Theatre and Whitney Jensen of Boston Ballet.
“Even the kids who walk away without any special recognition leave feeling good about their performance,” Adriana Kozlov says. “From experiences that we had going to some other competitions, we could see how petrified the kids were and how the atmosphere was not beneficial for them. We started our festival to make it a joyful experience. We create a warm atmosphere for the participants, and a lot of them become friends. People are always cheering for each other in the wings.”
The annual festival is hosted by Kozlov Dance International, a Ridgewood, NJ–based dance studio founded by former Bolshoi and New York City Ballet principal dancer Leonid Kozlov. The event attracts about 200 young dancers from across the country each year.
This year’s festival takes place October 9–10 at the Berrie Center for Performing and Visual Arts of Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ. Participants compete in three age categories—Division I (9–11), II (12–14) and III (15–25)—in classical ballet, contemporary, jazz and folk dance. In addition to competing, the dancers share the stage for workshops in ballet, modern and jazz.
The all-star lineup of workshop leaders and adjudicators includes Christine Dakin, former artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Juilliard faculty member Hector Zaraspe and Carolyn Clark, artistic director of New Jersey Ballet. Dance luminaries participating in years past have included jazz master Luigi and English National Ballet principal dancer Katherine Healy.
When it comes to judging performances, the adjudicators are more interested in aesthetics than tricks, says Adriana Kozlov. “Of course they want to see people who are studying and have technique, but they also look beyond that for artistry and expression,” she says.
The return of past winners to perform is one of the highlights of the festival. “I think it’s really nice for the kids to see that continuity,” Kozlov says. “Even those who have received gold medals still come back every year to participate. It’s nice to see them grow and develop.”
Students may register independently or through their dance schools. For more information, visit www.ydfofnj.org.
Michelle Vellucci is a freelance writer in New York City.
Photo: Le Corsaire pas de deux by Catherine Whiting, NJ School of Ballet, and Albert Davydov, NJ Ballet. (by VAM Productions, courtesy of Adriana Kozlov)
Members of the dance education community have chosen to treat the recession the way they would a tricky piece of choreography: as an opportunity for creative problem solving. “I think it’s important to look at how we can keep shining a light on what’s best for the students and offering the best possible work, given the restrictions,” says Cathryn Williams, director of strategic alliances at New York City’s Lincoln Center Institute, which facilitates arts education in public schools. “In a way, it’s a wonderful creative problem to have.”
Many schools and organizations say interest and participation have remained steady, and some are even experiencing growth. LCI, for instance, is adding new sites this year for its National Educator Workshop, one in Albany and one in Chicago.
In the greater Houston area, teachers report that while overall enrollment is down, there are pockets of good news. Dana Loving-Sparks, owner and artistic director of In-Step Dance and Performing Arts Center, notes that class attendance is up in hip hop, ballroom and musical theater. Michelle Smith, executive director of Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, reports that all enrollment is up and that her children’s classes closed with waiting lists. Others report that they are reaching out to recently unemployed parents to work out arrangements to keep their children in dance. “I think parents want to keep their children involved as much as they can,” says Lori Pergament, artistic director of the Greater York Dance Nonprofit Center for Dance Education in York, Pennsylvania.
“For the most part, people are still very hopeful and positive. In many cases they’re looking at the economic challenges as opportunities to rethink the way they’re doing things,” says Barbara Shepherd, director of national partnerships at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. For instance, LCI reduced the amount of time its teaching artists spend in schools and is focusing on helping classroom teachers learn to carry out the Institute’s methodology on their own. San Francisco Ballet opted for a similar solution, choosing to shorten the length of its in-school residencies rather than lose any of the 36 public schools it currently works with.
In Columbia, South Carolina, Anne Richardson, dance program director at Palmetto Center for the Arts, a fine arts magnet school, is cutting back on performance costs in a unique way. “Instead of doing a lavish production, we’ll be simple,” she says. In preparation for the next production, based on West Side Story, the students studied Romeo and Juliet and researched the history of Puerto Rican immigrants. “I’m really focusing on the research component,” she explains. “We’re having our kids do podcasts, which we’ll insert between the numbers to set them up. This costs us nothing.”
In Minneapolis, the nonprofit school Young Dance found a way to share programming paid for by another entity—in this case MacPhail Center for Music, which benefits from access to additional collaborators at no cost.
The recession has taught dance educators that they can do more with less. “Rather than cowering down and being fearful, we’re all just giving more of our time,” says Pergament. “We’re more enthralled with our art than ever before, I guess because we have to be.”
With additional reporting by Nancy Wozny
Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet
Almost 30 years ago, Karole Armitage burst onto the dance scene with a brash new choreographic style that combined classical ballet technique with a punk-rock sensibility. In 1986, Vanity Fair fittingly dubbed her the “punk ballerina,” and the moniker stuck. Throughout her long and eclectic career, Armitage has commissioned work for companies and performers ranging from the Paris Opéra Ballet to Madonna. She recently branched out to Broadway, choreographing 2008’s Passing Strange and last year’s hit revival of Hair, for which she earned a Tony nomination.
But today, Armitage creates primarily for her New York–based company, Armitage Gone! Dance, which she founded in 2005. For her latest piece, Three Theories, Armitage found inspiration in Columbia University physicist Brian Greene’s best-selling book, The Elegant Universe. (In 2008, her company debuted a work titled The Elegant Universe at the inaugural World Science Festival—an event co-founded by Greene.) Three Theories will premiere in New York City, June 3–6, as part of the third annual World Science Festival.
Dance Teacher: How did the idea for Three Theories come about?
Karole Armitage: My father is a scientist and I’ve always loved science, so I was already drawn toward it as a system for understanding the world. I read Brian’s book and, by coincidence, met him at a dinner. He gave a speech about what relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory are, and the way he clearly articulated these ideas was inspiring. I read his book over and over, and finally digested it so deeply that I decided I could do something quite simple with these three theories.
DT: How did you develop a movement vocabulary for this piece?
KA: I found one basic physical image for each section. In relativity it’s warping and twisting. Einstein said that gravity is the warping and twisting of space-time fabric. Quantum mechanics is all about off-balance, precarious volatility, so that’s just wild and exciting—like hard rock. And string theory is based on the idea of these folded-up complex geometries. For example, a group of dancers surrounds one person who represents a string, and the shape of the group determines the vibration of the string—the cluster influences the individual.
DT: Was the creative process different than, say, choreographing a Broadway musical?
KA: In dance it’s more poetic and you’re illustrating internal states of mind or emotional states, and in a musical you’re helping to create the environment that tells the story. In Passing Strange it was about making the riot in Berlin feel really wild, with the actors pounding their hands and throwing themselves on the ground. There weren’t any dance steps. And with Hair I just let them improvise on images. I wanted it to look like an organic group of people who were spontaneously expressing themselves.
DT: You recently said that you’re less interested in pop culture now than in the past. Where do you currently turn for ideas and inspiration?
KA: There’s an energy in pop culture that’s really interesting, but I think art should be something different. These days my inspiration comes from finding new geometries for how dancers can move. I always seem to be drawn to this experience of dreaminess and sensuality. That punk thing is still in there. But I’m really just exploring what the body can do.
DT: Do you think the “punk ballerina” label is still relevant?
KA: It’s relevant in a sense—certainly not socially, since punk just doesn’t exist anymore—but in an attitude of something raw and direct and a certain independence of spirit. Punk ballerina—it’s not a bad label. DT
Michelle Vellucci writes about the arts in New York City. She holds a master’s in dance and education.
Photo of Karole Armitage's The Tarnished Angels (1987) courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives.
As a professional dancer and choreographer, Patricia Dye often videotaped her pieces to judge what worked. Now a dance teacher at Science Skills Center High School in Brooklyn, New York, she has found video as useful for assessing and promoting student growth as it was for perfecting her own choreography.
A growing number of teachers are discovering the value of video in their K–12 classes. Some, like Dye, use it for both formative and summative assessment, allowing students to reflect on and improve their work, while providing teachers an extra reference point when it comes time for grading. Others use video to document classroom success for parents, administrators and donors. As a visual rather than descriptive record, video is an especially appropriate format for dance. But making the best use of it for assessing class progress requires thought and planning. Before you start shooting, carefully consider your goals and how video might best help you meet them.
Assessment within the classroom
Dye uses video to encourage her students to evaluate their own progress. Final dance compositions are taped at the end of each unit and students conduct self-assessments based on the video. “When they see themselves on the monitor, they say, ‘Did I really do that?’ or, ‘Oh, I didn’t do that step completely correctly,’” Dye says.
At P.S. 165 in Flushing, NY, Kathleen Isaac’s students watch themselves on video, identify three things to improve and then make the corrections. Their performances are then recorded a second time so they can watch and reflect on whether they made their corrections. Isaac says one of her goals is to eliminate paperwork because written self-assessments eat up precious class time and a student’s writing isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of his or her dance ability. “It’s not really a fair assessment of student achievement in dance if I want them to use their bodies to solve problems,” she says.
Some teachers, like Rebecca Hill of Randolph IB Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina, show video footage from years past to give current students a clear picture of what’s expected of them. “It lets my sixth-graders see what I want them to look like in eighth grade,” Hill says. Looking at past videos can also aid in the planning process, says Dye: “We look at the previous lessons and say, ‘What can we improve on?’”
Sharing success with an outside audience
While in-class assessment requires little more than shooting footage and playing it back, creating a video to share with outside observers takes more planning and effort. Think of it as a mini documentary that opens a window into how your students learn and grow.
“A moving image enables you to show product and process,” says Nelle Stokes, executive director of Magic Box Productions, a company that offers video services and training to arts organizations and schools. “You can see someone practicing something and mastering it and hear them talk about that process. If you really want to advocate for what you’re doing, you need to show people.”
To begin with, you’ll need to determine who your intended audience is and what your message will be. What moments will best demonstrate your students’ learning? You might chronicle a unit from beginning to end and interview students about the process.
That’s what Sharon Scarlata, program manager with the New York State Alliance for Arts Education, did when she documented a recent dance residency with the dance and music performance group The Vanaver Caravan at Glenmont Elementary School in Bethlehem, NY. “Over time you begin to know which angles work best and what questions will help students open up,” she says.
How video impacts the learning environment
Educators say that while some students may initially find the camera distracting, it ultimately ends up helping them focus. “I’ve seen students, particularly adolescents, be more reflective on camera than off camera,” Stokes says. “It elevates the moment. They are being taken seriously enough to be asked a thoughtful question on camera.” Isaac adds that because video is so central to kids’ everyday experiences, it provides a familiar, fun way into the material. “It’s a good way to challenge kids who would otherwise get into trouble,” she says.
In fact, when it comes to shooting and editing, students may be your most valuable resources. “You have a whole roomful of people who probably know how to do things with technology that you don’t,” says Stokes. “They’re excited, they’re eager. Kids are used to documenting all aspects of their lives, good or bad, and sharing them.” DT
Equipment and Editing 101
- Most computers come with editing software—iMovie on Macs and Movie Maker on PCs. Both have easy “how-to” instructions.
- Flip Video Camcorders and Kodak’s high-definition Zi8 Pocket Video Cameras are inexpensive and easy to use.
- You can use an external mic with the Zi8 for clearer sound.
Shooting and editing tips
- When filming, keep footage short so it’ll be easier during editing to find the parts you want to use.
- Use a tripod to keep the camera stable. If zooming, do it smoothly.
- If using the recorded sound as your soundtrack, limit distracting noises (chatter, fans, chairs moving, etc.).
- When editing, use only the best moments of your footage to keep viewers engaged.
- When splicing, make sure not to cut the completion of important lines and movements. If the movement’s peak is obscured, choose a different shot.
Michelle Vellucci writes about dance and the arts in New York City. She holds a master’s in dance and education from the University
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Isaac.
"I’m looking for the big idea,” says Jody Gottfried Arnhold on a recent Friday afternoon at the 92nd Street Y. Trim and petite in a zip-up track jacket, black athletic pants and sneakers, Arnhold looks ready to chase this big idea down Lexington Avenue if that’s what it takes. “There are 1,500 schools in New York City and more every day. There are close to a million and a half kids in the school system, and less than 200 certified dance educators. It’s just not enough.”
Arnhold is the founding director of the Y’s Dance Education Laboratory (DEL), which has been training and supporting teachers since 1995. DEL’s approach is modeled on Arnhold’s own pedagogical practices, honed over nearly 25 years spent teaching dance in the New York City public school system and mentoring others who wanted to do the same.
Today, thanks in large part to Arnhold’s tireless work through DEL and the New York City Department of Education (DOE), more and more certified teachers are flowing into the school system fortified with the knowledge and practical skills to build stellar dance programs.
But, as Arnhold says, it’s not enough. Her goal is to offer high-quality, sequential dance education to every child in the public school system—but to reach it, she needs that big idea. Her friends and colleagues have no doubt she’ll make it happen.
“The great inspiration about working with Jody is that she will never give up the dream,” says Joan Finkelstein, who has worked closely with Arnhold for many years, first as director of the Y’s Harkness Dance Center and currently as director of dance programs in the DOE’s Office of Arts and Special Projects. “It gives people energy to be around that kind of idealistic persistence—and it’s more than idealism, because she’s also very practical. She truly believes that if we all band together this can happen. She’s brilliant, she’s dedicated and she’s unstoppable.”
A Grassroots Effort
Name a dance-related initiative and chances are Arnhold is involved in it, from co-chairing the committee to draft the New York City Department of Education Curriculum Blueprint for Teaching & Learning in Dance to chairing the board of Ballet Hispanico. She advocates on behalf of dance education to “everybody who will listen.”
“I think that every child deserves an arts education, and I’d like to see that dance is first,” Arnhold says. “Imagine what the culture would be if we raise generations of dance-literate children. We would encourage young people’s artistry and also their creativity and humanity. We would bring life and energy into their schools.”
Arnhold wants to put a certified dance teacher in every public school, and she emphasizes that dance education must start when children are young in order for it to properly take root. It’s an ambitious goal, to be sure. But for Arnhold, the value is multidimensional—she sees it as fundamental not only to children’s development and learning but to the survival of the dance field as a whole.
“It’s a grassroots effort for our art,” says Arnhold, who was honored with the National Dance Education Organization’s Visionary Award in 2009. “I’m involved in many dance companies, and I think that their interest has to be dance education, otherwise there’s not going to be anybody coming to see them. If we could raise dance-literate children, we would have an audience for dance. We’d also have more performers because the talent is going to be uncovered.”
A few powerful experiences and key people helped shape Arnhold’s vision, the first being her own dance training, as a child, with Erika Thimey in Washington, DC.
“Her influence on me was huge,” Arnhold says of Thimey, who trained with Mary Wigman in her native Germany. “Dancemaking was part of every class, where we talked about the dances we created, performed for each other and made dances based on stories and ideas. It was this very rich, deep experience that I loved.”
Still, when Arnhold headed to New York City after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, she had no plans to teach—it was a performing career she wanted. But she quickly realized it wasn’t to be. “I needed real structure in my life, and I recognized that,” she says. “I was a teacher at heart.”
Fortuitously, the city happened to be in need of teachers at the time and was recruiting young talent through the Intensive Teacher Training Program. Arnhold enrolled at New York University in the summer of 1967, and 12 credits later she was plunged into her first teaching experience, in a first-grade classroom. “I loved it,” she says.
But she missed dance. Arnhold earned a master’s degree in dance education from Columbia University’s Teachers College and soon after landed a job as a dance teacher at P.S. 75 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “That was in the ’70s when the arts had been decimated,” she says. “But I found a principal who was excited about the idea of having the arts in his school, and he really wanted dance.”
Perhaps more importantly, Arnhold found Joan Sax, a fellow teacher at P.S. 75 who had just returned from a year of study at the Laban school in England. “It was through Joan Sax that I came to appreciate the application of Laban Movement Analysis to teaching dance to children,” she says. “The Laban material has guiding principles that apply to teaching process rather than product, the idea that everybody’s movement is valued and everyone can express themselves through movement.”
As Arnhold’s program came together, dance became central to life at P.S. 75. If there was an event, Arnhold and her students created a dance for it—whether it was a dedication ceremony for a new playground, a change of season, a math unit in symmetry and asymmetry or the death of a teacher. She knew she had something special on her hands, and she wanted to find a way to replicate it in other schools.
“Dance became the heart and soul of that school,” she says. “I was always thinking, ‘How can this happen someplace else?’”
Arnhold mentored the student teachers who flocked to her classroom each year, and eventually she began sharing her practices with other schools through a grant from Teachers Network. By 1991, she had left P.S. 75 and was focusing her efforts on teacher education. A few years later, DEL was born.
Bringing It All Together
With DEL, all of Arnhold’s experiences, feelings and ideas about dance education have coalesced into a fully formed whole. “Jody is the heart and soul of the program,” says John-Mario Sevilla, who joined DEL as administrator in 2007. “It’s very much an embodiment of her vision.”
Arnhold continues to teach DEL’s Foundations of Dance Education course, and many of her protégés have taught alongside her, among them early childhood dance educator Ann Biddle and Barbara Bashaw, coordinator of dance education and teacher certification at Rutgers University. “We are all bringing something special to it,” says Tina Curran, director of the Language of Dance Center. “Her vision for providing quality dance education is so big that there’s room for it to come about in many different ways. And I think that’s what attracts people with a diversity of expertise to work together.”
In addition to her work at DEL, Arnhold partners with Finkelstein at the DOE on a variety of projects aimed at recruiting and supporting certified dance teachers. “She recently initiated a grant to the Fund for Public Schools supporting programs for new dance teachers,” Finkelstein says, adding that the grant includes mentoring, a stipend for each first year dance teacher’s school, a toolkit of instructional resources and a discount on DEL courses.
Another recent initiative is the Arnhold Dance Fellows program, which identifies current teaching fellows with an undergraduate dance degree and helps them add a dance license to whatever teaching certification they are pursuing. Arnhold is also chair of the Hunter College Dance Education Advisory Committee, working with college President Jennifer Raab on plans to launch three new graduate dance education programs.
“All of these good things are happening, but there is still much work to do,” Arnhold says. “We still need the big idea. Training for more prepared, certified, inspired dance
teachers is critical. More dance and cultural organizations must make education of our children a top priority. Most important, we need more principals and schools to provide fertile ground for all the arts—dance especially—so that all children have access. We all have to join together to make this happen.” DT
Michelle Vellucci holds a master’s in dance and education from the University at Buffalo. She writes about dance and the arts in NYC.
About 92nd St. Y's Dance Education Laboratory
Jody Arnhold was a classroom teacher in the early 1970s when she was asked to start school-based dance programs. There was little to guide her. Fast-forward 25 years. In 1993 Joan Finkelstein, director of Dance Programs for the New York City Department of Education, was the newly appointed director of the Harkness Dance Center. To help re-establish the innovative role the Dance Center had played under founder William Kolodney, director from 1936 to 1969, Finkelstein asked Arnhold what contribution the Center could make to dance education. Arnhold suggested teacher training.
From that seed has grown the Harkness Dance Center’s Dance Education Laboratory, which offers intensives, weekend workshops and ongoing coursework. Since 1994 when Arnhold and Ann Biddle taught the first one-day workshop, more than 2,800 dancers have participated in DEL courses.
“We are committed to the premise that every child should have an in-school dance experience,” says Director John-Mario Sevilla. “We think of dance as connected to other subjects; as a way of thinking and communicating fundamental to articulating who you are in body, mind and spirit; to understanding space and time; to knowing who you are as part of a community. It’s holistic.”
The DEL approach is built on Laban Movement Analysis, a language and system of notation developed by Rudolf Laban. In addition to
guiding unit and lesson planning, the vocabulary provides a mode of clear communication with classroom teachers.
DEL now provides professional development for the New York City Department of Education and college credit is available through SUNY Empire State College. In addition to approaches to technique, improvisation and composition, participants study classroom management, conflict resolution, dance history, dance anatomy, biomechanics and health.
“We’re giving people tools for creating lesson plans, a process that can be as fulfilling as creating a piece of choreography,” says Arnhold. “The lesson plan is a beautiful arc starting with warm-up, development, elaboration, culmination and cool-down. I want each person to understand this methodology and take it to where they will come out with a personal voice.” —Carrie Stern
Photo by Rachel Papo
In the age of Pixar and Avatar, Ghostcatching, a computer-animated dance film created in 1999 by choreographer Bill T. Jones and digital artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, might at first seem quaint. In it, an abstract male figure sketched in simple lines leaps out of a box and begins dancing, his movements inscribing chalky trails against a black background. He moves through different environments, dancing in front of a mirror and picking his way through a tangled mass of squiggles. We hear Jones singing and humming. The whole thing lasts seven minutes.
But the apparent simplicity of the piece belies the richness of its meaning, from the technology used to create it to its themes of capture and freedom. And that’s what makes it ideal teaching material for Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, a New York City–based organization whose method uses guided encounters with works of art to foster imaginative teaching and learning in K–12 schools.
Before students lay eyes on a piece, however, their teachers must first experience it for themselves. Each year, LCI selects new repertory—including theater, dance and visual art—and educators attend a series of workshops to immerse themselves in the works in preparation for bringing them into their classrooms the following school year. Last summer, Ghostcatching was one of the new additions, and 218 educators participated in workshops related to the piece, making it possible for this dance work to reach more than 4,000 students in their K–12 classrooms.
“We get to experience as students the same thing we are going to guide our kids through as teachers,” says fifth-grade teacher Trent DeBerry, who attended a Ghostcatching workshop last year. Like many of the teachers who participate in LCI workshops, DeBerry is a classroom teacher with no formal dance training. “It pulls you out of your comfort zone and gets you to feel what it must be like for the kids when you’re asking them to step out of their comfort zones. Even when I’m leading my students through the inquiry, I’m still learning new things about the piece, and if I did it again I would learn more things about it. So we’re all on the same page.”
DeBerry, who teaches at Heathcote Elementary School in Scarsdale, New York, is one of thousands of educators around the world who are currently using LCI’s approach in their classrooms. Just how teachers apply it varies according to need and geography—some in the NYC metropolitan area work hand-in-hand with LCI teaching artists to co-teach units based on LCI repertory, while others weave the pedagogical principles into their own material. In either case, the end goal is the same: to use the arts to kick-start the imagination.
Imagination, Creativity and Innovation
The idea that classroom teachers should play an active role in the LCI process was one of the key tenets on which the institute was founded in 1975. “We’re not really coming in and taking over,” says Executive Director Scott Noppe-Brandon. “We’re empowering and collaborating.”
Formed in response to a study showing that arts-in-ed programs across the country were failing to engage students, LCI created an approach that went beyond simple art appreciation and allowed children to connect deeply with the material. The method, based on the ideas of progressive philosophers like John Dewey and Maxine Greene, asks students to approach a work of art the way an artist would: by noticing deeply, asking questions and bringing elements of their own experience into the inquiry.
In this way, they not only learn about the arts but also develop new habits of thinking and learning that can be applied across many disciplines. In short, they learn to use their imagination—and that’s the magic word at LCI.
“We define imagination as the ability to ask what-if questions, to think of new possibilities,” Noppe-Brandon says. “Done well, the arts are one of the best natural generators of it. It’s almost like a back-door argument for why the arts are important, but from our perspective the front-door arguments have not led us to much success.”
LCI’s argument is particularly resonant today, at a time when many schools remain focused on standardization even as the workplace increasingly demands innovation and creativity. To date, LCI’s method has reached more than 20 million teachers, students, administrators, parents, community members and professors of education worldwide.
Its offerings include professional development workshops at Lincoln Center in Manhattan and at host sites in seven cities across the country and in Mexico, as well as online courses and customized consultancies. It partners with New York metropolitan–area schools that want to implement LCI’s approach throughout their curricula, and in 2005 it opened the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, the first public school founded on LCI’s educational model.
Teachers as Experiential Guides
LCI’s mandate to empower classroom teachers calls to mind the safety instructions you often hear on an airplane: Put on your own oxygen mask before you help the child sitting next to you. In other words, a teacher has to first engage her own imagination before she can help her students tap into theirs. That’s where the professional development workshops come in. “It helps me connect with my class, for them to know I’ve been through it,” says DeBerry.
The workshops are a rigorous experience for both the educators who attend and the teaching artists who lead them. One of last summer’s Ghostcatching workshops, led by longtime LCI teaching artists Lynn Brown and Vicki Angel, was a two-day course that explored technology and the imagination.
Like all of LCI’s teaching artists, Brown and Angel—both professional choreographers—remain active in their field in addition to working as TAs. In fact, Brown says his teaching dovetails nicely with his choreographic work. “It parallels the creative process for me,” says Brown, who was invited to become a TA about 15 years ago after successfully completing LCI’s lengthy training process. “Facilitating a workshop is like structuring an improv for a whole group of people. It has challenged me intellectually and loosened me up. It’s really taught me to step back and listen and question, and never assume that I know anything.”
There was plenty of questioning going on in Brown and Angel’s Ghostcatching workshop. The group viewed the piece and discussed how the artists used motion-capture technology to transfer Bill T. Jones’ movement to a computer, where it could be edited, rechoreographed and staged in a virtual environment. It was unfamiliar territory for many of the teachers, and it sparked impassioned discussions.
“I think it’s valuable when a teacher can articulate any kind of question when trying to understand a work of art, because that cracks the conversation open and we start to create meaning based on our collective ideas,” Angel says. “We want works of art that don’t just hand the answers to us; we want ambiguity. We want to be able to explore, take a little journey and then go even farther.”
Teachers also took part in activities that mimicked elements of the artists’ creative process and allowed them to make personal connections to the work. In one, they thought about places that were meaningful to them and then built those environments using string and paper. In another, they made wire sculptures of movement, and Brown photographed them and used the images to create a flip book, an early predecessor of film. One teacher led an activity in which the participants put glow tape on their bodies and moved around in a grid.
“We were doing the movements as if we were in the virtual screen,” says Christine Trotta, a K–12 dance teacher in New Rochelle, NY. “It was great because it had an X-Y axis, so you could really use a math example. You can tie in academic courses through this.”
Ghostcatching in the Classroom
Teaching artists work with teachers to develop strategies for incorporating the material into their classrooms. “Over the summer we do a lot of reflection on the piece of art and brainstorm different activities we can do,” says DeBerry. “We design a line of inquiry by coming up with essential questions that might be interesting and work from there to develop lesson plans.”
This past fall, DeBerry taught a Ghostcatching unit with the help of TA Paul Thompson. Typically, a unit consists of four lessons taught by the classroom teacher and four taught by the TA. It includes experiential workshops, in which students participate in activities like those the teachers take part in over the summer, a viewing of the work and then a post-performance session for reflection.
“My students had a really interesting discussion about why they called it Ghostcatching,” DeBerry says. “They said that it’s because you see the ghost of the movement—after the dancer has moved on to the next set of steps you’re still seeing the lines that are left behind. It’s not something I’d thought of.”
In order to mimic the ghostly traces created by Jones’ movement in the piece, the students attached crepe paper ribbons to chopsticks, which they stuck in their shoes and held in their hands to create trails as they moved. In another activity, they performed choreographed movements while their partners sketched the lines and shapes they saw. They also talked about the technology and related it to Pixar’s animation technique.
“One of my kids happened to have personal connections [to Pixar] and knew the process, so he explained it to the class,” DeBerry says. “You never know what the kids’ experiences are until you open up the conversation, and that’s a huge piece of this: creating an atmosphere where the kids are sharing and respecting each other, and respecting the risks that they are taking by doing and speaking.”
Indeed, risk-taking, so often discouraged by test-driven instruction, is one of the benefits of the LCI work most often cited by educators. “It’s hard for students to feel that it’s OK if they do something wrong,” says Trotta. “I always say, ‘No, that’s great—keep going.’”
Though Trotta did not work with a TA on a Ghostcatching-related unit in her classrooms this year, she did incorporate many of the activities and ideas she picked up from last summer’s workshops, including role-playing, call-and-response in movement and developing dances based on drawings. “A lot of times I give them a simple concept and then let them go with it and see what happens,” she says. “Then I go in and help dissect. It’s similar to what Bill T. Jones did with the artists he worked with.”
All of LCI’s work goes through rigorous evaluation and scrutiny. “We look for trends and inconsistencies,” says Noppe-Brandon. “We look at things like graduation rates and attendance, because if a school is improving and we’re taking credit for it, we should know why. And if the school is not improving, we have to take credit for that, too.”
LCI is also in the second year of a five-year research study looking at the efficacy of its process across grade levels in a number of its partner schools. Part of the study involves developing both qualitative and quantitative assessment tools. “I am from the camp that we do have to evaluate what we do to be taken seriously, and we have to help define how those tools get decided,” Noppe-Brandon says. “Just providing arts services is not that difficult of a challenge. We have to show why it’s important to learning, how it’s related to learning overall and why it’s important as a discipline.”
For DeBerry, whose school is part of LCI’s study, the answers to those questions are already evident. “On a social and emotional level, I see that it builds community because of the risk-taking and the collaborative work they do together,” DeBerry says. “On an academic level, the interpretation skills and getting students to move from concrete to abstract thinking helps them in subjects from reading comprehension to math.”
Adopting the LCI method of education—from teacher training to the classroom—is a painstaking, time-consuming process. But it’s in the service of a far-reaching goal: To not only teach children about the arts but also change the ways they think and learn in the process, thereby creating adults who are imaginative enough to take on the challenges of the 21st century. “It takes a lot of dedication, and you have to make sacrifices to give it the time it really deserves,” DeBerry says. “But it’s well worth it.” DT
The company is currently developing a version of its work, Serenade/The Proposition, for LCI to present during 2010–11. The full Serenade/The Proposition, using text, video, music and dance to explore the nature of history through the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, will be performed live at Jacob’s Pillow, July 21–25.
Ghostcatching can be viewed in 3-D as part of “The Dissolve,” SITE Santa Fe’s Eighth International Biennial exhibit:
June 20, 2010–January 2, 2011
SITE Santa Fe
Santa Fe, New Mexico
To learn more about Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, visit www.lcinstitute.org
Watch excerpts of Ghostcatching and read about the piece at: www.openendedgroup.com/index.php/artworks/ghostcatching/
Michelle Vellucci holds a master’s in dance and education from the University at Buffalo. She writes about dance and the arts in NYC.
Digital art by Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, courtesy of LCI
Photos from top: by Paul Thompson, courtesy of LCI; by Nancy Bareis, courtesy of Lincoln Center Institute; by Kevin Fitzsimons, courtesy of Wexner Center for the Arts