Teachers Trending

How This Stanford Professor Brings Her Eclectic Modern Class to Zoom

Photo by Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner

It's a Wednesday in May, and 14 Stanford University advanced modern ­dance students are logged on to Zoom, each practicing a socially distanced duet with an imaginary person. "Think about the quality of their personality and the type of duet you might have," says their instructor Katie Faulkner, "but also their surface area and how you'd relate to them in space." Amid dorm rooms, living rooms, dining rooms and backyards, the dancers make do with cramped quarters and dodge furniture as they twist, curve, stretch and intertwine with their imaginary partners.

What had been a joyous exercise in full-bodied expression in the spacious studios on campus abruptly came to a halt in March with California's shelter-in-place mandate due to COVID-19. Like dance teachers everywhere, Faulkner got a crash course in online dance classes when Stanford shifted to remote coursework. Through trial and error and the utmost dedication to maintaining a sense of continuity for her students, she adapted her eclectic modern class—a Laban-informed amalgamation of various techniques—for an online platform. Incorporating improvisation, more upright movement and less floorwork, and keeping a heightened focus on choreographic details, Faulkner found a way to keep her students active, engaged and inspired from home, despite the trying circumstances.

Katie Faulkner, wearing a flannel shirt, leans over with her hands on her legs, smiling

Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner

Following a yoga-infused warm-up in which students "dance their downward dog," Faulkner asks the class to create a sense of aliveness and mobility in their torsos during the pliés. (New pliés, new day!" she says.) Using vivid action verbs and descriptive language to draw out dynamics and three-dimensionality, she faces her computer screen and mirrors her students throughout the sequence. "Bulging the torso forward and then hollow," she says. "The inner space of the torso has an incredible amount of malleability and shapeability. It's incredibly expressive."

"How we doing, y'all?" she asks, checking in after a particularly agile foot exercise containing rapid weight shifts. "Thumbs?" Students gesture their assent, so Faulkner moves on to some brisk dégagés.

At the core of her approach is a firm belief in student-centered learning. Faulkner grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, taking class in a modern dance studio, and didn't realize quite how rare it was to have improvisation and composition but next to no ballet in the curriculum. "My training was very eclectic. My approach honors that eclecticism and helps students to feel the value in eclectic points of view," she says. In every class, she includes opportunities for exploration and reflection to facilitate ownership of the material. "I give them space to work seriously but not take themselves too seriously," she says. "It's about them deciding what's important and learning the range of options."

Katie Faulkner jumps, crossing one ankle in front of the other and swinging her arms out to the sides

Yvonne M. Portra, courtesy Faulkner

In addition to the way she's adjusted her teaching for the online classroom ("It takes longer to demonstrate things, so I don't get through as much material," she says), she's encountered challenges in using the technology. "The lag in Zoom makes it hard for me to engage musicality," she says. This shows up later during the final combination—a luscious sequence full of carving limbs and an ever shape-shifting torso—when a student asks what the counts are. "No counts! Dancer's choice," Faulkner says.

Despite the challenges, being able to continue working with her students is what has kept her going during this pandemic. "Many of them are very serious about dance and aren't sure how it is supposed to fit into their lives," she says. "My number-one goal is to make sure they have an opportunity to really dance. The how and the why are so much more important than the what."

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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