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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.

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