The Everlasting Impact of Marcus White

Photo by Carlos Funn, courtesy of Clare Croft

It was freshman year, spring semester, and I was a part of a graduate student's thesis work. Some of the faculty members were coming to watch the progress that we had made so far, and Marcus showed up. At the time I didn't know who anyone was, but I could tell he was articulate, evaluative and thought-provoking. He was the first Black intellectual I had seen in college. He was someone I wanted to know.

The person who walked into the Arizona State University Dance studio that day was Marcus White. He was an assistant professor of dance at ASU and an artist/scholar who dedicated his career to working in the long legacy of the Black radical tradition. Marcus passed away suddenly—and far too soon—on May 14, 2020.

I could tell by his commentary that day that Marcus was invested, and he spoke out of genuine interest in the work. I would later find out that this was how he was in everything that he did. I knew that my four years would be a lot different having this man around, and they were.

White dances in an industrial setting, wearing cold weather layers and leaning forward, one leg outstretched to the side and behind him.

Photo by Carlos Funn, courtesy of Clare Croft

Reflecting on White's passing, the International Association of Blacks in Dance noted that "everyone Marcus reached has been blessed by his incredible perspective, voice and talent." White reached many. A native of Clinton, North Carolina, he began dancing at Quisan's Dance Academy with Quisan Parker, who would become a lifelong mentor to White. He attended University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on a prestigious Coca-Cola scholarship but eventually transferred to University of North Carolina, Greensboro: a shift he made to be a dance major. After graduation, White moved to Detroit, founded his company White Werx and earned his MFA from the University of Michigan in 2015.

White developed a range of classes, first as a visiting assistant professor at Penn State Altoona, and then at ASU. He joined the ASU faculty in 2016, teaching choreography, jazz, modern and hip hop at all levels, and mentoring students in the undergraduate and graduate programs.

Marcus was a prolific artist and collaborator for both stage and screen. He founded the Moving24 FPS film festival with Carlos Funn and often worked as both filmmaker and film curator. As a choreographer, White drew on what he described as an Afroqueer lens, creating works like Mas(k) or nah 2.0, Da Line UP and Pearls. He also made work with students as a guest artist at UNCG, the University of Montana and Penn State-Altoona, among others.

University of Michigan dance chair and White's thesis director Christian Matijas-Mecca wrote on the department's Facebook page, drawing from an earlier Facebook post by Michigan professor Amy Chavasse: "Curiosity and imaginative problem solving characterized everything Marcus did. He energetically opened possibilities for his collaborators through a steady, but sensitive stream of prompts and encouragement. Under his direction, the rehearsal space became alive and buzzing with possibility."

White on a city street, in an exaggerated running position\u2014one leg back in attitude and same arm extended in front of him. He looks at the camera, and wears a black suit.

Photo by Carlos Funn, courtesy of Clare Croft

The biggest lesson I received from Marcus was "doing the work"—as in understanding what it is I needed to do, finding the steps to achieve my goals and then moving forward with confidence. His work ethic was humbling, because there was no hesitation; when he walked into the room he was ready to commit. He would show up to everything, every dance performance as well as the rehearsals; he would come to all the outside events in the community. At many of the events, you could tell that Marcus was helping in some way, shape or form. He knew that preparation was a big factor in being an artist, that you have to "stay ready" at all times.

Marcus was bold and explorative, and he wanted to make sure that we took our time to find who we were in our artistry. He always had tools to help us accomplish that, and questions to help us look through different lenses. He had an unwavering faith that we would succeed in whatever we set out to do. Even when I did not have confidence in myself, he never doubted me.

Artist Marguerite Hemmings says the key to White was his oft said comment, "Let's be clear." "Every conversation I had with Marcus included that phrase, 'Let's be clear,' " Hemmings says. "Marcus' mentorship was thorough and meticulous. He asked the questions that pushed an idea or a thought into real, concrete, accountable, excellent existence. His mentorship was about accountability. Why are you doing, and who are you doing it for? And what ethics, what analyses are behind what you're doing? And what are the checkpoints or people you have in place to ensure that what you're doing still aligns with your values? Marcus' mentorship pushed us all toward a radical honesty and radical transparency."

Once I was getting to my junior year, my classes were hectic, and I did not get to see Marcus as much. But whenever he saw me, he made sure to check in on me. That brought me reassurance as I was coming into myself as an artist. I remember how I was always wanting to experiment and dance after class, so one day, I went into a studio to see if it was open. He was there, practicing his movement. He was one of the few professors who I saw still working on their craft. He always said he had his own work to do, as well. He let me join in on his session. We did not say anything; he just played music and went into his own world and let me dive into mine. Even though we were both dancing, I could tell that was a still moment for us.

He saw his students as multifaceted artists, and by junior year I was really seeing that in myself. As I graduate from ASU, I'm finding that I am complex, explorative and able to move with the utmost confidence—a lot like Marcus.

Clare Croft also contributed to this story.

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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