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Gus Solomons jr: How I Teach Cunningham

Photo by Kyle Froman

From the corner of his window-lined studio near Manhattan's Union Square, Gus Solomons jr has his eyes carefully trained on the dancer before him. The dancer is struggling to remember the quick-footed combination, with rapid-fire directional changes and difficult spinal shifts, that he's just reviewed with Solomons in preparation for this photo shoot. When he's successfully completed a pass of the exercise—Solomons calls it "fast feet"—his relief is visible. Solomons swiftly approaches him from the corner, his arms outstretched for a hug: "That was hard," he says appreciatively, enveloping the student in his embrace.


Like his hugs, Solomons, 78, is warm and effusive. He's also whip-smart, eloquent and a legend in New York City's downtown dance scene. He's spent the last six decades performing, choreographing, teaching, mentoring and writing dance criticism. But it's his association with the famously avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham that is perhaps his most lasting—despite the fact that he only danced in Cunningham's company for three years. Widely regarded as a master of the Cunningham technique, Solomons spent more than two decades teaching its intricacies and benefits to New York University undergrads and grad students.

Dance has been a part of Solomons' life from nearly the beginning. At 4 years old, he got up during Sunday school—"which was not appropriate," he chuckles—and began dancing to a hymn. Though he briefly studied tap, acrobatics and ballet as a preteen in Boston, Massachusetts, he was more interested in forming what he refers to as a "subtle" theater company in his basement with his brother and two girls who lived on his block. Later, he discovered puppetry, which he found attractive due to its solitariness. "I could do that all by myself," says Solomons. "I was in control."


Photo by Kyle Froman


While pursuing a degree in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ("Architecture seemed like the least reading," he quips), he was tapped to choreograph a school musical. Soon he was taking dance classes at The Boston Conservatory and other local studios. A successful audition for a Broadway show choreographed by Donald McKayle brought him to New York after graduation, and although the show closed in previews, Solomons found other concert dance work easily. "There weren't that many male modern dancers, so I had a lot of jobs," he says. He danced briefly for Pearl Lang and Martha Graham but found himself most drawn to Cunningham, never missing a class at the West Village studio.

What he appreciated most about Cunningham's technique was its self-sufficiency. "His technique did everything it needed [for the work]," he says. "I was always enamored of Merce Cunningham's approach because it was so articulated. So quiet. With Graham, you used everything all the time—you emoted it. With Merce, you became really calm and asked, 'What muscle do I need to do this?' And then you could do everything, because you had a sense of where everything was."

Solomons was as surprised as anyone when Cunningham invited him to join the company in 1965. "I never aspired to dance in his company, because there was no one in his company who looked like me," he says. "I was taller than he was. I was black. But then he asked me to dinner one night—we went to a little Italian restaurant on 16th and 6th—and said [here Solomons lowers his voice and speaks much more softly, in a gentle imitation of Cunningham], 'I think I'd like for you to come dance with us.'"

A debilitating back injury forced Solomons to leave the company after three years and was the impetus to begin seriously making his own work. The Solomons Company/Dance enjoyed a 22-year tenure before closing in 1994. Around the same time (1992), he was approached by NYU's then-dean of dance, Lawrence Rhodes, about an adjunct position. That eventually became a full-time professorship, in which Solomons taught technique, composition and improvisation.

His technique classes, though rooted in Cunningham, were an amalgam of things he'd learned from other choreographers—plus a few things he'd picked up on his own by learning what felt good in his body, like spending the first 10 minutes of each class warm-up doing floor work. "They were all based on the Cunningham approach," he says, "but I had Don McKayle in my body, I had Graham in my body, Merce in my body, I had Pearl Lang in my body. I wanted to give the dancers stability, balance, speed and control. How do you do that? Well, Merce knew. You have them move very slowly. That gives you strength and control, when it takes 10 minutes to do a passé. And you have them move very fast. Merce would say, 'When you want to move fast, move your feet.'"


Photo by Kyle Froman


Though he retired from teaching in 2014, Solomons still has fingers in many dance pies. His second company, PARADIGM—which he created to celebrate mature, older dance artists and with which he won a Bessie Award—is on hiatus, but he helped found a mentoring program, the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation's New Directions Choreography Lab, and occasionally coaches Cunningham pieces at New York City Center. Coaching, he says, has given him a new perspective on many of the pieces he danced while a part of the Cunningham company. "There's a solo in Walkaround Time that I had, and I didn't really appreciate it," he says. "I entered the stage in a long lunge, and the whole company picked me up and carried me across the stage. I didn't even think of that as a solo. But when I saw it this time, I thought, 'Holy moly!'"

His perspective on the importance of Cunningham technique has evolved over the years, too. "When you learn an instrument," he says, "you learn the basics of how to play it. You learn rhythm, reading notes, different timbres. So you have choices. You can pick up a violin and just scratch on it—that makes interesting sounds—but that's not playing it. When you're a dancer, you have to learn how to marshal your body, to learn how to get it to do what you want it to do. And that's where technique comes in. It's about the mechanics. It teaches you how to play the instrument."

Gus Solomons jr is a graduate of MIT and danced in the companies of Pearl Lang, Donald McKayle, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. He founded two companies of his own, The Solomons Company/Dance (1972–94) and PARADIGM (1996–present), and is currently a mentor in the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation's New Directions Choreography Lab. He writes dance criticism at solomons-says.com and has been honored with two New York Dance and Performance Awards ("Bessies") in 2000 and 2010.

Nicholas Grubbs
is a BFA dance graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

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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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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