How I teach modern dance

On a Wednesday morning in Brockport, NY, Bill Evans watches half of his advanced modern dance class perform a set movement phrase while the other half observes. As the students’ dance flows into improvisation, Evans calls out cues like “press, flick, float.” Afterward, the observers and performers pair up to reflect and discuss, and the cavernous studio (a former gymnasium) buzzes with their chatter.

This interaction is central to the class structure. It amplifies the students’ role in the learning process, says Evans, whose technique class is as much about self-discovery as it is about reproducing shapes. His Laban/Bartenieff-influenced method not only provides a solid foundation for movement but also helps dancers build the kind of confidence that is essential to their success as artists and educators.

Evans has influenced the dance field with his thoughtful approach over a long and fruitful career. He began performing professionally in 1963 with the Utah Theatre Ballet (now known as Ballet West), and he has danced and choreographed for Repertory Dance Theater, served as artistic director for Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers and started two companies of his own (a modern dance group and a rhythm tap ensemble). He is currently a visiting professor of dance at the State University of New York The College at Brockport, after more than 20 years on the faculty at the University of New Mexico. Teachers everywhere flock to his summer intensives. In August, Evans, who just turned 70, will accept the 2010 Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award.

In six years, he has made an indelible mark at SUNY Brockport. All dance majors, for instance, study Bartenieff Fundamentals, which allows Evans to saturate his classes (including choreo-graphy, tap and pedagogy) with Laban principles and vocabulary. “I build my phrases to include a variety of directionalities, effort qualities and spatial relationships,” he says. “This makes students understand the deliciousness and value to dynamic dancing.”

Each student works with a buddy throughout the school year, and together they create artistic challenges and goals for self-improvement. “I encourage students to practice coaching each other in preparation for their own rehearsal processes,” he says. Students who learn only to reproduce phrases without this kind of analysis are less likely to apply the concepts to other techniques, and even less likely to find their own choreographic voices.

“My goal is to create an environment of trust, as well as a place of increased challenges,” he says. “Dancers learn they’re not threatened, and that they can take risks.”

Here, see excerpts from Evans' class and watch him and graduate student Kathy Diehl demonstrate an under-curve exercise. It stresses weight-shifting and directional changes—concepts that can also be applied to other types of dance, including jazz and ballet.

ABOUT THE LESSON:

Under-curve: Shifting of weight from one leg to another while dropping the pelvis lower in the center of the curve. The under-curve is a basic movement, especially central to modern technique.

Inversion: Moving the body upside down in space while bearing weight with your arms, hands, shoulders or head.

“I include both under-curves and inversions in this pattern to help dancers get the hang of shifting weight smoothly in every direction,

as well as upside-down.

“Much of contemporary choreography requires dancers to be able to move through inverted positions safely and confidently. Often, a young dancer will dive into a handstand, keeping her torso in a fixed line, stressing her lower back over time. Instead, she should practice sequentially folding each vertebra and sliding her arms forward, easing into the inversion to aid her spine’s shock absorption.” —Bill Evans

TIP: Let the movement ride the breath, creating an organic acceleration and deceleration that guides each curve.

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Bill Evans is the artistic director of the Bill Evans Dance Company (founded in 1975) and the Bill Evans Rhythm Tap Ensemble (1992). As a visiting professor and the undergraduate program director of the dance department at the State University of New York at Brockport, he teaches modern dance technique, rhythm tap, Laban Movement Analysis/Bartenieff Fundamentals, dance kinesiology, improvisation, choreography and pedagogy. Certified as a Laban Movement Analyst with both LIMS and IMS, Evans is also a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico and has served on the board of the American College Dance Festival and National Dance Association. He was resident choreographer for Utah’s Repertory Dance Theater (1967–74) and artistic director and choreographer for Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (1983–85). He directs the annual Bill Evans Dance Teachers Intensives and Evans Technique Certification Program.

Kathy Diehl graduated with an MFA from SUNY Brockport this past May. In April 2010, she performed with the Bill Evans Dance Company to celebrate Evans’ 70th birthday.

 

Photograph by Kevin Colton at SUNY College at Brockport  

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