Developing a Good Eye

The Harkness Dance Festival models a program for teachers to help students observe and talk about performance.

Chalvar Monteiro and Maleek Washington demonstrate a basic arm phrase from Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show.

Ask middle school students their thoughts about a modern dance performance and watch how quickly the battle of “I loved it!” or “I hated it!” begins. Too often young dance students have tunnel vision on physical training and rarely care to see performances outside their personal aesthetic. But K–12 education should expand students’ field of vision. By guiding their eyes to openly observe and their minds to analyze the viewing experience, you can teach your students to appreciate a variety of choreographic styles.

The 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center in New York City created a new course this spring for just that purpose. Over the five weeks of the Dance Education Lab (DEL)/Harkness Dance Festival Intensive, a group of 16 K–12 educators attended performances and worked with the dance company members in the studio, all with the goal to help their students view, understand and talk about dance.

This year’s Harkness Dance Festival was inspired by choreographer and festival curator Doug Varone’s Stripped/Dressed performance concept, wherein the audience is given a peek into the creative process to see what the choreographers are motivated by and how the editing process shapes their work. Before performing, the choreographers informally share their unique modes of movement generation and their approach to themes and music.

Educators participating in the DEL/Harkness Dance Festival Intensive attended the five festival performances, then they spent four hours working in the studio with each company to delve into the creative devices and choreographic themes of the work. The 2014 intensive included Kyle Abraham, casebolt and smith, Nora Chipaumire, Netta Yerushalmy and David Dorfman—an innovative and eclectic group of choreographers.

“We learn directly from the choreographer or company member how their work is created, then we establish connections between these choreographic strategies and the NYCDOE Dance Blueprint,” says Ana Nery Fragoso, Dance Education Laboratory faculty member and intensive facilitator, referring to the New York City Department of Education’s curriculum guidelines for teaching dance. The workshop is unique in its focus on guiding dance educators to become well-informed viewers, not just dancers.

The first half of class is for improvisational and imaginative tasks, so participants can get a flavor for the choreographer’s way of working. “The choreographer designs strategies to help us create movement material on the spot,” says Fragoso.

The second half puts these strategies and themes into practical classroom perspective, using such tools as Laban Movement Analysis categories of body, dynamics, space and relationship. Participants have time to brainstorm ideas for K–12 dance curriculum and formulate lesson plans.

For students to effectively discuss a choreographic work, Fragoso suggests they experiment with creating choreography, developing their personal voices. One of the workshop’s main goals was to spark ideas for guiding the creative process, to ultimately open students’ minds to all styles of choreography.

Kyle Abraham’s workshop, taught by company member Chalvar Monteiro, began with an arm phrase from Abraham’s piece The Radio Show. He then guided the group through a loosely structured improv—create three arm gestures that repeat, while the legs and body move freely below—then scaffolded new ideas onto the initial task. He requested level changes, encouraged borrowing other dancers’ gestures, incorporated music changes and finally opened the improv into a circle wherein three people were moving at all times. The participants were excited that the structure allowed them to become a cohesive group discovering a common thread, regardless of their varied training backgrounds.

Joel Smith and Liz Casebolt worked with K–12 educators during The Harkness Dance Festival.

An underlying premise of the intensive is to reveal that no matter how complex a work appears onstage (especially when performed by virtuosic professionals), there is often a simple beginning structure. For example, one of Abraham’s basic movement tasks works for all ages: Dancers must travel from one side to the other using three action words, such as dive, wiggle and pop. Netta Yerushalmy also used a word-oriented game, making movement sentences inspired by words in a Gertrude Stein novel. “For younger students, you could use a Dr. Seuss book and create a simple gesture for each word,” says Fragoso.

Going hand in hand with comprehending choreography is the need for a common vocabulary for students and teachers to discuss dance. This language elicits clear observations, descriptions and evaluations of their experience watching movement. The course description states that educators will honor their students’ “emotional and instinctive responses,” while guiding them to express responses more mindfully than saying “I liked it!” As Fragoso puts it, “We as teachers must learn how to form and ask open-ended questions, so students really analyze the work in their own way.” For more: danceeducationlaboratory.com DT

Jen Peters is a former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.

Photo (top) by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of 92nd St. Y; by Mariliana Arvelo, courtesy of 92nd Street Y

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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