Michael Blake: How I Teach Contemporary Jazz

It’s probably not a coincidence that Michael Blake’s speech patterns align closely with how his contemporary jazz class operates—at lightning speed, with wavelike inflection and syncopated rhythms. In a narrow, ninth-floor studio in lower Manhattan, he guides 25 of his Joffrey Ballet School students through a warm-up. They move swiftly from swinging pliés to hyperarticulate flicks of the feet and ankle stretches, all layered on top of tricky balances and high releases of the upper back. It might feel a little manic to an outsider, but Blake’s students (ranging in age from 13 to 18) are attentive, thorough and eager to please.

Blake’s eclectic performance background is evident in the structure and content of his classes. Off-center suspensions and classically curved port de bras mark the influence of his time in the Limón Dance Company, and the frenetic, highly physical center combinations harken back to the eight years he performed for contemporary dancemaker Donald Byrd.   

As head of JBS’ year-round jazz and contemporary program (as well as its popular NYC summer intensives), Blake, 57, is determined to produce what he calls “21st-century dancers.” Unsatisfied with the watered-down dramatics he sees in current contemporary dance, he jumped at the chance to create a unique curriculum when he joined the Joffrey faculty in 2011. “I said, ‘Let’s have a program that’s based in old school but has one big foot in the future,” he says. “So you’re studying these codified techniques, Horton and Graham and Limón and Cunningham, and then finding out how contemporary dance came out of that.” He’s assembled a faculty of more than 30 instructors for the Joffrey Ballet School. “I want it from the horse’s mouth—that’s why I hire a teacher who is an expert in each discipline,” he says.

In class, Blake’s directives to his students are few but effective: “Top of the head. Ribs! Stretch,” and then, his voice deepening a full octave and lengthening to match the next step, “pliééé.” There’s no sugarcoating here—he’s willing to call the dancers out (“You’re faking it,” he says bluntly to one after a run of the center combo) and forces them to think on their feet. When he throws them several eight-counts of new choreography near the end of class, he says, “Just move. You’ll figure it out. Problem-solving is 95 percent of what we do.” Later, when the students take a seat against the mirror to critique classmates performing a solo, Blake takes a backseat. His students readily speak up, offering thoughtful feedback and easy encouragement—21st-century dancers and thinkers. DT

Michael Blake graduated with an MFA in dance from Purchase College, SUNY. He performed in the companies of Joyce Trisler, Murray Louis, José Limón, Donald Byrd/The Group and Gus Solomons jr’s PARADIGM. He’s taught at universities throughout the Northeast, including Purchase, Marymount Manhattan College and Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. In 2011, he joined the Joffrey Ballet School faculty as director of the jazz and contemporary program and revamped the curriculum. Over the past five years, he’s helped grow year-round program enrollment from 18 to 120 students and now heads JBS’ summer jazz and contemporary intensives in New York City.

Jordan Stephens, 15, is a first-year student at the Joffrey Ballet School.

 

Photos by Kyle Froman

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