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Arts Umbrella Prepares Dancers for the Demands of Professional Life

Arts Umbrella Dance Company. Photo by Chris Randle, courtesy of Arts Umbrella

Dance students at Arts Umbrella in Vancouver, British Columbia, spend their first week at a remote camp overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The retreat, led by artistic director Artemis Gordon, prepares them to make the most of the next two years of this residential program that is intended to be a bridge between high school and a professional dance career.

Gordon facilitates the week with a boundless curiosity and a tendency to follow every big question with another, even bigger, question. Instead of starting right into their physical practice, Gordon prompts the group of 28 who've come from all over the world to think about such questions as: What is technique? How does artistry interface with technique and are they different or the same thing? Discussions tend to go deep and broad: What is the zeitgeist right now? Culturally speaking, what countries are doing/promoting what? How do economics and politics affect our daily conditions as artists?

In essence, Gordon's organizing principle for her program is to embody the answer to one very poignant question about the future of the art and profession of dance: "What world do we think we are going into and what skills do we need to prepare for that world?"


"This is education, not training."

Arts Umbrella began in 1979 as a small project led by five artistic parents teaching dance, theater, music and visual art. The original class of 45 students has since grown to more than 20,000 through a variety of programs and disciplines offered for ages 2–22, some free of charge. In 1992, after graduating from Canada's National Ballet School Teacher Training Program, Gordon took over as artistic director of the dance program. Under her leadership, Arts Umbrella has forged an affiliation with Ballet BC that gives the school's international group of postsecondary students opportunities to work with more celebrated choreographers like Crystal Pite (who mentors the young choreographers). With graduates in prestigious companies around the world—including Batsheva Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theater and Ballet BC—it appears Gordon and this two-year program are onto something.

One underlying ideal is that Gordon sees no need to differentiate between the intellectual, spiritual and physical needs of these young dancers or to prioritize one over the other. Rather, she sees an increased necessity that they all work in tandem to meet the growing demands on young artists.

"Everything we do here has to be transferrable," says Gordon. "This is education, not training: for how the body works, for who we are in the world, and how we can have control over what we want to do with our bodies, minds and spirits."

Gordon has no use for training models that are not fully researched or digested. "If you focus only on aesthetics, you do not know how to use something like your turnout in practice, and then you are prone to becoming a position-oriented dancer, stuck in one genre, and more likely to become injured." For students, this approach means being responsible for processing and embodying a large amount of information, just as they will need to do day after day as professionals.

"Everything is about your relationships."

Which brings us to a key word for Gordon that generates almost as much excitement in her voice as her bubbling lines of inquiry: responsibility. "Every person is really important in what we are achieving, which means everyone has to commit to their responsibilities—to be here every day and on time," she says. "I tell them often 'Everything is about your relationships: with me, dance, your peers, yourself, so we have to figure what is going to work for us and how you are going to define your success.'"

Some students are leaving their home for the first time to be in this program, while others have been at arts boarding schools for many years. "Some have left home too early," she says, "or have been in dysfunctional school environments. Many don't know how to speak up or how to have a relationship."

Gordon believes in taking the time to address these issues by having students research what it means to be a valuable company member and analyze elements of the rehearsal process that require etiquette, ego and efficiency. The students use their own journals as places to work out their own responses to questions like: What do I need to be valuable in the new realm of dance: speed, musicality, partnering, focus, improvisation, voice, and how do I insert my voice into the process with respect?

"'Being healthy' is vague."

The days can be long and exhausting, and the program supports finding ways to regenerate energy in order to stay healthy. "'Being healthy' is vague," says Gordon. Weight and nutrition are discussed within the context of larger topics like gender and the demands of different dance traditions. Injury prevention is often addressed in the morning workout before ballet class. And the students are encouraged to find ways to refill themselves, whether it is getting more sleep, finding more breath, staying hydrated, making eye contact or simply staying present.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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