The celebrated composition teacher who redefined the study of dance in higher education

Schönberg at Bennington College, 1930s

Throughout her expansive 65-year career, Bessie Schönberg (1906–1997) became one of America’s most revered composition teachers. She possessed the unique ability to help her students find their own creative voices, and she nurtured the groundbreaking styles of artists as diverse in their approaches as Annie-B Parson, Jerome Robbins, Carolyn Brown, Lucinda Childs, Meredith Monk and Ronald K. Brown. “Bessie honed in on the exact characteristic that set a person apart from everyone else,” says Norton Owen, director of preservation at Jacob’s Pillow. Ironically, Schönberg developed this gift without becoming a choreographer herself. Her mentoring mission was simple—“my heart is with the new, the unexplored”—and she favored all styles equally, on the basis that dance was difficult to make.

Nearly every American dance organization (and several across the Atlantic) has bestowed its award upon Schönberg, and two Manhattan theaters bear her name. Since 1983 her first name has been synonymous with Dance Theater Workshop’s New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards. This annual honor celebrates the creation of innovative work in tough times and reflects the life that Bessie lived. In an era when college dance classes were considered little more than a way for young women to become graceful wives, Schönberg proposed a radical shift in focus—the study and performance of student choreography. And despite criticism, Schönberg directed the nation’s first college dance department, at Sarah Lawrence College, for nearly four decades, establishing a model that future university dance programs would adopt.

Born in Hanover, Germany, Schönberg’s interest in the “new” developed early. As a child, she loved to watch performances by Mary Wigman, who was creating an expressive European dance-theater form called Ausdruckstanz. Schönberg’s parents considered dance to be an inappropriate pursuit for a middle-class girl; however, when Bessie turned 10, her father let her study rhythmic gymnastics as a tool to learn music. Enthusiastic about her new activity, Schönberg began teaching moves to classmates. But her extracurricular lessons abruptly stopped after a concerned schoolteacher informed Schönberg’s parents about these playground ministrations.

At 19, Schönberg moved from Germany to Eugene, Oregon, where her American-born mother, Rose, was on faculty at the University of Oregon as a voice teacher. (Her parents separated during World War I; her mother returned to the United States to pursue an opera career, and her father served as a colonel in the military.) Schönberg studied painting at the University of Oregon, until a newly hired professor named Martha Hill introduced her to contemporary dance in 1927. The former Martha Graham dancer forever changed Schönberg’s life.

Two years later, 23-year-old Schönberg followed Hill to New York City and took her first Graham class at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Schönberg immediately caught Graham’s attention; she was invited into the modern pioneer’s company and danced in breakout works, including Heretic (1929) and Primitive Mysteries (1931). Unfortunately, a knee injury in 1931 prematurely ended Schönberg’s performance career.

With encouragement from her husband, Russian economist Dimitry Varley, Schönberg turned to teaching. In 1934 she earned a BA from Bennington College and served as Hill’s teaching assistant during the college’s first summer program, where Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman famously taught. Observing these masters, Schönberg began to rethink the traditional role of a teacher. “I became an enemy of the regularized warm-up,” she said. She believed that students trained to imitate movement were missing the exploration of their own expressive style.

She expanded these groundbreaking ideas during her next post, first as dance professor then as dance department director, at Sarah Lawrence College. From 1938 to 1975, Schönberg provided students with the tools to choreograph. Her unique approach included focusing on fundamental movement principles (like locomotion, gesture or partnering), and then exploring all possible variations, before defining a set of boundaries and developing a short study to perform in class. Her teachings expanded dancers’ analytical reasoning, their communication skills and interest in each other, and they gave students the freedom to constructively critique their peers’ work.

When 70-year-old Bessie took mandatory retirement from Sarah Lawrence, she embarked on the most expansive lap of her career, teaching everywhere from Dance Theater Workshop, London School of Contemporary Dance, Laban Centre and Dance Theatre of Harlem to The Juilliard School, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and New York University. In 1997, Bessie died of a heart attack in her Bronxville, NY, home. She was getting ready to attend a student dance showcase at Juilliard. DT

 

Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds graduate degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Photo courtesy of the American Dance Festival archives

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

Keep reading...
Site Network

2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox