Mary Seidman brings Remy Charlip’s books and methods to life at Bank Street School for Children.
It’s a Monday morning in March at the Bank Street School for Children in New York City, and Mary Seidman’s class of 7- to 8-year-olds is demonstrating “airmail shapes” for an audience of 200 peers. A woman walks onstage with a white cloth banner. She holds it up to the audience, revealing a black painted outline of two abstract shapes. At the sight of the shapes, two boys jump up from the front row and re-create the shapes with their bodies: One boy assumes a tabletop position, planting hands and knees into the floor; the other perches on folded knees atop his friend’s back, with arms stretched out in wide blades like an airplane. They hold the position for roughly 10 seconds, and then as the woman drops the banner, they quickly return to their seats. Another two kids jump up to create their shape in front of a banner held by another dancer.
This demonstration is the culmination of Seidman’s first-ever 10-week integrated arts unit on the books, visual art and choreography of the late Remy Charlip (based on a unit created by Catherine Gallant). A children’s book author, illustrator, actor and founding member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Charlip created a choreographic method called the “airmail dance” in the 1960s. He would draw a series of poses and then send them to a dance company. The dancers would arrange the poses in whatever order they liked and then add transitions to move from one pose to the next. In this way, Charlip provided the framework for a dance without ever being present.
Seidman had been teaching at the Bank Street School for three years when she became inspired by Charlip’s work. “I identified with him a lot because, not only was he a choreographer in the downtown dance scene like I am, but he was highly empathetic with children,” she says. “He knew how to write books for kids and his stories translate so naturally into choreography.” She saw a huge potential for learning through multiple mediums using Charlip’s methods and literature, so she decided to create a unit of study on Charlip for her movement and physical education classes at Bank Street.
Seidman established age-specific goals for each of her classes, with the children ranging from 3 to 8. For her oldest class, the 7- to 8-year-olds, she challenged them to re-create Charlip’s weight-bearing shapes with partners using his airmail drawings. The children paired up, picked drawings they liked and re-created the shapes in a series. Seidman describes their process: “They had to figure out the body balances and connections necessary to help them hold the shape and then had to decide on transitional movements from one shape to the next, without collapsing!” After mastering their shapes, the students then worked with the art teacher to draw outlines of the poses on large banners.
For her younger age groups, Seidman knew she wanted them to improvise to Charlip’s children’s books. She’d begin a lesson by reading one aloud to the students, and then together they would improvise movement. Fortunately was a favorite. It tells the story of a boy named Ned who undergoes a series of fortunate and unfortunate events and is a good way to explore the concept of opposites. “We went from happy, when Ned gets the invitation to the birthday party, to glum when he realizes he is too far away to attend,” Seidman explains. In response, the children put their arms up above their heads with big smiles on their faces and then transitioned to a contracted, curved-over position to demonstrate how Ned was feeling.
“Because Charlip was a choreographer, there was so much kinetic energy in his stories,” says Seidman. Action words like “jump,” “explode,” “fall” and “run” provided the children with clear cues for movement exploration.
At the Monday school showing, Seidman had her company, Mary Seidman and Dancers, perform Charlip’s Big Red Day (1961) and Contra Dances (1980) and her own airmail duet called Let’s Hang On, based on Charlip’s airmail drawings. “The marvelous thing about showing the adult work was that it raised the level of understanding for the children,” she says. Having another visual reference reinforced what the children had learned in the classroom.
“Children learn in so many different ways,” says Seidman. “This unit was a way to learn through various media.” Over the course of the 10 weeks, the children covered literacy, language development, visual art, kinetic energy and musical movement and theatrical training. “It’s the best way to learn, if you ask me,” she says. DT
Photos by Jeff Kulick, courtesy of Mary Seidman and Dancers; courtesy of Remy Charlip estate; Thinkstock