To Share With Students
Photo courtesy of NYCDA

In March 2018, Jennifer Knostman got a call from her son, Harrison. When she picked up, all she could hear was sobbing on the other end. After a brief second of anticipation, she finally heard him exclaim "Mom! I got into Juilliard!"

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Courtesy Juilliard

Lawrence Rhodes passed away on Wednesday, March 27, at age 80. Rhodes, best known as Larry, had a long and celebrated career as a dancer, teacher and director, most recently heading The Juilliard School's dance department.

I first met Rhodes in 2017, when we started work together on an autobiography charting his life and career. Over countless hours spent seated at the kitchen table of his Upper West Side apartment, Rhodes often reminded me that his dance career, both on and off stage, had spanned over 60 years; his passion for the work remained his driving force.

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Adriana Pierce made Acantilado on her colleagues at Miami City Ballet. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, Courtesy Pierce

Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."

Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.

Show Up Prepared


Setting an agenda for each rehearsal shows your dancers that you respect their time. In return, they may be more likely to respect your leadership. "With peers, you can't walk into the room and say, 'I'm the teacher; you're the student,' " says Pierce, who can currently be seen in the Broadway revival of Carousel. "Authority has to be earned."

Preparation can also ease nerves about your new role. When Maddie Hanson, a dance major at The Juilliard School, began choreographing on her classmates as a freshman, "I always came into rehearsals with a movement phrase and goals for the day," she says. Now a junior, Hanson has become more confident creating on the fly. Still, she strives to be organized, and to bring something new, like a particular image, to each session.

But preparing doesn't mean being inflexible in rehearsals. Elizabeth George, who teaches composition at the University of Arizona, explains, "You never want to be so rigid that if something spontaneous happens, you're not willing to explore it." A collaborative environment can keep everyone invested in the process.

Communicate Clearly

MCB dancers in Pierce's Acantilado. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, Courtesy Pierce


Last semester, George and her co-teacher Sam Watson asked their composition students what helped them most when choreographing on classmates. The top response: communication. "Dancers want information about what they're doing," Watson says, "whether they're working with a guest artist or a fellow student."

Communication should be a two-way street, Pierce adds. If a transition looks awkward, ask what would make it feel better. If your dancers seem exhausted, see if they have the energy for another full-out run.

Frame Feedback Wisely


To avoid hurting friends' feelings, frame criticism to be both positive and constructive. Rather than saying "That's not right" or "I don't like that," try acknowledging what a dancer is doing before asking to see it another way. "Then, you're offering options instead of barking orders," Pierce says.

When it comes to behavior issues, you may need to put your foot down. Pierce advises approaching the dancer the same way you would if you were having a non–dance-related issue. "Make it a conversation, not a confrontation," she says. "It can help to find out where they're coming from. Everyone is a human with emotions and a life outside the studio."

Cast Carefully


Juilliard students performing Hanson's work. Photo courtesy Hanson


Casting from a group of peers can feel fraught. What if your best friend isn't a good fit—or a strong enough performer—for what you have in mind? Hanson advises putting your vision first. "The people who support you will understand that you have to do what's right for your choreography," she says.

If the dancers you want aren't available, be open to what others have to offer. "I've worked with dancers I initially didn't see myself using," Pierce says. "They've always brought something surprising to the table." Stand by what you're looking for, but be ready to find the best in every dancer.

Lead with Confidence


Maddie Hanson in the studio, Photo courtesy Hanson


Even if you're new to running rehearsals, you already know what works for you when you're dancing for someone else. Call on those experiences when you're in charge.

Remember that you aren't the only one who wants the process to be productive and fulfilling. Your dancers—your classmates and colleagues—are on your side. "If you're considerate of your cast's needs and confident in your own abilities," Hanson says, "you'll have a better piece in the end."

Dance Teachers Trending
Kaylin Maggard at NYCDA Nationals. Photo courtesy of Maggard

2017 was a big year for Columbia Performing Arts Centre alumna Kaylin Maggard. Not only did she graduate from high school in Columbia, Missouri, and begin her studies at Juilliard, she won the title of Senior Female Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, was one of 22 YoungArts finalists in dance and was named the Dance Spirit magazine Cover Model Search Winner. Now on tour with NYCDA, Maggard shares some of her CPAC teachers' best advice and training tactics that helped her achieve her goals.

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Dowd on Dance Teacher's March 2008 cover

The American Dance Festival recently announced Irene Dowd (DT March 2008) as the 2014 recipient of the Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching.

A Juilliard faculty member and anatomy expert, Dowd teaches movement-based anatomy/kinesiology classes to help dancers use their bodies safely and efficiently. She recently shared her knowledge with our readers on topics like core strength and outward rotation. Dowd told DT, “I hope [my students] will go out with a lot more anatomical knowledge. I want them to become their own best teachers, so if they run into difficulties later, they will be able to figure out what to do on their own.”

ADF will present the award on June 15 at Duke University.

 

Watch the anatomy guru at work:

How I teach Cunningham technique

The young students at the Complexions Contemporary Ballet summer intensive exchange uncomfortable glances when Banu Ogan walks into what, for most, is their first-ever class in Cunningham technique. “Please take off your ballet shoes,” she says, after eyeing their feet. As the group—a mix of comp kids and bunheads—begins pliés and tendus in center, it’s obvious they’re struggling with the curvy, twisting Cunningham torsos. Their upper bodies are loose and disconnected, and their movement is timid.

By the time they’re moving across the floor, the dancers have gained more confidence. They lunge deeply into position and play with their balance in off-kilter shapes. They initiate leaps from stronger cores and grounded transitions. “What do my arms do when they aren’t choreographed?” says one student. “How do you know how much your body should curve?” asks another. A girl observes aloud, “The timing is different from ballet because of the weight.”

By the end of class, they’ve made marked progress with the style’s demand for technical precision. The biggest contrast, however, was evident in the chances they were willing to take. “It’s about going for the impossible,” says Ogan later, after the dancers leave. “Merce wanted dancers to not be afraid of failure.”

Ogan, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, now teaches at The Juilliard School and Marymount Manhattan College. She says she loved the risk Cunningham demanded in company rehearsals. “There was one time Merce wanted us to do a crazy jump. He held himself up with the barre and rattled off eight movements that had to happen: Twist, curve and make these shapes with your hands and legs just before landing,” she says, imitating an older Cunningham’s hunched shoulders and gruff voice with complete admiration. “He walked away to sit down and we all started eyeing each other. It was impossible! Then, he turned around and started chuckling. He knew it wasn’t going to work, but it was his way of trying to make something that hadn’t been done before.”

It was this fearlessness that allowed Cunningham, who passed away in 2009, to flip technique on its head. His modern approach to space (using all facings of the proscenium), timing (combining counts of say, five, seven and nine in the same portion of choreography to discover new phrasing) and chance operations (like rolling dice to determine the order steps are performed in) were radical in his day. “I try to teach a class close to Merce’s, but he had a sporadic quality I can’t re-create,” says Ogan. “Most important for me is helping students understand that the technique teaches you how to make choices, even in a non-Cunningham work. And that they should feel emboldened by that independence.” DT

“At its most basic, Cunningham technique uses a classical lower body with an upper body that is influenced by Martha Graham,” says Banu Ogan. Here, student Gia Mongell demonstrates basic and advanced versions of a Cunningham tilt. The exercise promotes core strength and correct placement, while teaching students to use weight to take risks and find power in transitions.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Irene Dowd has been on faculty at The Juilliard School since 1995. Her movement-based anatomy/kinesiology classes allow dancers to explore concepts physically as well as intellectually. Here, Dowd and student Leiland Charles demonstrate how a to use outward rotation to find increased flexibility and greater ease of movement.

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