Dramaturgy for Dancers

A new program at Montclair State University helps students understand dance from the inside out.

Donald McKayle coaches Montclair State University dancers for his work, Rainbow Étude. Donald McKayle coaches Montclair State University dancers for his work, Rainbow Étude.

A semicircle of 13 chairs faces the packed bleachers at the 2011 Informance, an annual event organized by the dance program at New Jersey’s Montclair State University. In the chairs sit MSU theater professor Neil Baldwin and the 12 student danceaturges, who, under his mentorship, spent the past semester analyzing choreographies composing the department’s yearlong Americana repertory and spring concert, working in a unique manner he describes as “from the inside out.” The danceaturges excitedly swap stories and pose questions to each other and an attentive audience of students and faculty. Baldwin listens eagerly, intervening occasionally to suggest a new prompt.

Within the last four years, a noteworthy sea change has occurred in the theoretical direction and ambitions of the dance program at Montclair State. The shift revolves around the innovation and application of danceaturgy, a new process of exploring the layers of performance works and the experience of a performing artist through exercises in writing, critical and imaginative thinking, personal reflection on kinesthetic experience, group discussion and historical research. After four years as an informal offering, the department recently elected to make danceaturgy a permanent and prioritized aspect of their future curriculum by formalizing it as an academic class offered for credit.

The concept was generated by Baldwin, who is also a widely published author and cultural historian. When he arrived at Montclair State in 2006, Baldwin’s only connection to the dance world was the wall his office shared with dance department chair Lori Katterhenry. Their physical proximity provided opportunities for frequent conversations, and mutual esteem and curiosity about each other’s work ensued. Katterhenry began to take note of ways that, although inadvertently, Baldwin was sparking the curiosity of her students and faculty, and how his physical presence and watchful eyes in rehearsals he sat in on inspired dancers to take new interest in the work they were doing. “His attention changed the chemistry of what we were doing,” she says. Dancers looked at their work with new attention and sought words to explain their experiences as movement artists. She liked what she observed and proposed that Baldwin teach a new course, similar to the dramaturgy class that he offered theater students, tailored to dancers and their medium.

In the world of theater, “dramaturgy” refers to the construction and deconstruction of dramatic work. A dramaturge typically conducts detailed and comprehensive research and becomes the resident expert on the physical and social milieus and the psychological underpinnings of a play and its characters. They also engage in in-depth study of the play as a piece of writing, through deep analysis of its formal elements, such as structure, rhythm and diction. They are able to provide valuable advice to directors during rehearsals and to make sure that the play works as a unified whole that will be decipherable to an audience. Dramaturgy is not a new concept to the dance world; however, Baldwin and Katterhenry felt the dramaturgy process needed to be refined and finessed for dance. Rather than looking at works as an observer, separate from the construction and creative process, and functioning only as consultants, their danceaturges would unpack choreography with which they were kinesthetically engaged and use their bodies as investigative instruments. They would learn to be both performer and spectator.

Experimenting with how to work as a danceaturge, Baldwin attended rehearsals for the college’s restaging of Martha Graham’s Steps in the Street. He interviewed Denise Vale of The Graham Company, who set the work on the students, and began tracing the chronology and context of the original piece. The dancers were amazed by the care and specificity he put into his research, and the depth of his thinking inspired many to deepen their own consideration of the choreography and its significance. His work showed students the value of taking time to deeply investigate the nature of their daily work, and his questions taught them the importance of being able to speak about their relationship with dance. However, his elaborate research lacked a crucial perspective for danceaturgical work: the experiential component.

This is where the students stepped in, and the trial course got off the ground. The faculty invited 10 students with exceptional writing skills to participate. Some of these students were nervous about squeezing another commitment in between classes and rehearsals, especially when most had only the vaguest idea of what this work would entail.

At the first meeting, Baldwin asked his students, “How does your physical experience inform your sense of meaning? And how does a sense of cultural context help your ability to perform?” They had the semester to consider these questions on their own, in written reactions to historical research that Baldwin provided and, most importantly, in conversation. The 10 students brought these questions to their fellow cast members and their choreographers, and they met weekly in a seminar forum led by Baldwin. “It’s not about answers,” Baldwin says. “It’s about exploration, critical thinking and empowering students to consider why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they convey this to an audience.”

This process allowed the students to appreciate new dimensions of the roles they performed. For instance, senior Sharrod Williams danced in Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Étude, and, with Baldwin’s encouragement, investigated the piece’s origin and the lives of chain gang workers like those represented in the dance. It enhanced the way he understood and approached the movement, and his dancing felt more human, empathetic and specific.

“It changed the way I approach a piece,” says junior Colleen Lynch. “My focus shifted from counts and costumes to society, community and getting a personal feeling for what I was doing and my relationship with this artform.” Recent graduate Melissa Sande, who worked with Baldwin for two years, agrees. “The pieces remained technically good, but they took on a new depth,” she says. For an aspiring choreographer like Sande, danceaturgy helped her figure out what she wants to say as an artist, who she wants to say it to and how she can make her vision legible. These are great sources of empowerment as she steps out into the professional world. DT


Johanna Kirk is an independent choreographer, performance artist, teacher and writer. She is currently completing her MFA in choreography at the University of Iowa.

Photo: Donald McKayle coaches Montclair State University dancers for his work, Rainbow Étude. (by Mike Peters, courtesy of Montclair State University)

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."

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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