Creating Ballet Choreography, continued

As I mentioned in my last post, one of our latest assignments is to create two pieces of ballet choreography, each about a minute long, using classical music. One piece is for ages 8 to 9; the other for ages 11 to 12.

We've spent the past week observing the choreography created by our peers and then getting a public critique on it by our instructor Raymond Lukens. Actually, it's not quite accurate to say that we get to observe the choreography--many times, we are cast as dancers in the pieces, so we get to experience what various movement choices would feel like for little legs, arms, and bodies.

I haven't shown my pieces yet, but here’s the way the process works: I will need eight dancers for my younger piece, and four for my older piece. I will have about 15 minutes to set one piece, while another choreographer sets one of her pieces in another studio. We then come back to the main studio, have a mini showing, and then start all over again. With 20 students in the program, we'll end up seeing 40 different pieces.

This exercise has not only been a unique way to channel the inner child, but also to learn about creative music and choreography choices. We’re using ABT's National Training Curriculum as a guideline for what steps to use, and it was strongly suggested that we tailor the movements a level below what the students are currently dancing, so they always look their best on stage.

At first I was alarmed at the 15-minute timeframe to set an entire piece, but it turns out that some of the best pieces are those that use steps that would already be in the dancers’ vocabulary along with simple basic patterns and counts. Lukens said that when he owned a private studio, he never spent more than two weeks rehearsing a piece for a demonstration. So, if the timer starts to run over the 15 minutes, the instructor has an indication that perhaps the choreography (or the way it is presented) might need a second consideration.

Here are some additional tips and thoughts from Lukens about this process:

- Always, always, always showcase the children in the best possible light. They should feel special on stage and the parents, of course, want to see them looking beautiful as well. For example, in a class where all the students had weak arms, he choreographed an ice skating scene and all the dancers wore muffs.

- Music choices, especially for young children, should have a clear, easy-to-follow beat or rhythm.

- Children love props, such as baby dolls, stuffed animals, Spanish fans, etc.

- Make the best use of the performance space. Avoid segmenting dancers into groups on either side of the stage as this will cause a tennis match effect on the audience.

- Remember that running in patterns and using clean movements can look gorgeous. Think of some of the elements of Balanchine's Serenade.
I’ll likely have more to say as we continue to view the choreography of my classmates this week. In the meantime, I'm curious: No matter what genre of dance you teach, how do you go about choosing music, and what steps do you take to make sure the student is dancing a piece that’s appropriate for his or her level of development? Share your thoughts on the Dance Teacher message board.
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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