Paige Cunningham Caldarella Keeps Cunningham Technique Relevant for Students at Columbia College Chicago

Paige Cunningham Caldarella. Photo by Philip Dembinski

It's the last class of the spring semester, and Paige Cunningham Caldarella isn't letting any of her advanced contemporary students off the hook. After leading them through a familiar Merce Cunningham–style warm-up, full of bounces, twists and curves, she's thrown a tricky five-count across-the-floor phrase and a surprisingly floor-heavy adagio at the dancers. Now, near the end of class, she is reviewing a lengthy center combination set to a Nelly Furtado song. The phrase has all the hallmarks of Cunningham—torso twists atop extended legs, unexpected timing, direction changes—which means it's a challenge to execute well.

After watching the dancers go through the phrase a couple of times, Caldarella takes a moment to troubleshoot a few sticky spots and give a quick pep talk before having them do it again. "I know it's fast," she tells them. "I know it's a lot of moves. And you're hanging in there! But stick with the task of articulating everything—try to hyper-explore that."

She pauses for a moment, and then smiles. "After all," she reminds them, "this is the last class. What do you have to lose?" The pep talk works: This time, the dancers nail the timing, which gives them the freedom to find the length of every développé and hit each step of even the fastest triplet. Class ends on a high note.

In today's higher-ed dance landscape, it's rare to find a technique class devoted to one technique. Few dancers graduate and go on to join a company that is steeped in a single technique, like that of Martha Graham or José Limón. Students now take a variety of modern classes, with a little bit of everything thrown in—release technique, contemporary, Bartenieff Fundamentals. But Caldarella, who performed with Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 2000 to 2004, is committed to keeping Cunningham relevant for this generation of Columbia College Chicago dancers, even as she continues to discover on her own what makes this technique special and worthy of continued attention.

"With the current generation of college students, technology plays such a huge role in their life—this ability to be on six different devices at once," she says. "Cunningham feels like the physical solution for multitasking in the body. You might have your leg out to the side as you're tilting in the opposite direction. A lot has to go on in your body at once."

That multitasking approach can lead to frustration, Caldarella has noticed, which doesn't always sit well with her Generation-Z students. "I was talking with a student the other day who said, 'My generation has been taught not to fail,'" she says. "This whole idea of 'teach to the test' means failure is such a bad thing. But this is a space where you can create, you can make mistakes, you can figure things out. That's what Merce did. He opened up the space to take the time to figure it out."

Caldarella readily admits that she didn't have all of this figured out during her tenure with the company, which she had joined as a brand-new Juilliard graduate. "I don't think I recognized wholeheartedly what I was a part of," she says. "I was very young and naive. At that point, Merce was still teaching class. He was such a gentle soul. He didn't say much, and at the time, I didn't understand that he didn't say much because he was really allowing space for people to figure things out for themselves and not mandating what he wanted them to do."

Now, after honing her teaching style at Columbia for the last 12 years, she has a much clearer idea of how to pass on the knowledge she's accumulated—and had time to let marinate—about this famously difficult technique. "I try to be very transparent from the very beginning, telling the students about my own personal highs and lows, what I struggle with," she says. "It's me letting them know: I recognize what you are doing, and I know how hard it is, and we're in it together."

Much of this year has been spent looking backward in time. This year is the centennial of Cunningham's birth, and Caldarella has taught for an American College Dance Association regional conference in March and three solos for Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April, where a new generation of dancers performed Cunningham's work for the first time. "I've been looking at a lot of old Cunningham footage, and there's so much about finding your own way into the movement," she says. "When I look at dancers in his company doing the same phrase, they have very different interpretations—all equally gorgeous. There's something about that individuality in this work."

And that's just one more reason why she knows that it makes sense to keep teaching college dancers a technique that's more than 50 years old. "I think about how much this generation is into their individuality," she says. "They really just want to be themselves."

Dance Teacher Magazine Technique Sept/Oct 2019

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.