Tiny Stages, Big Performances

In ballet classes, I've often heard teachers say, “The people in the last row of the balcony have to see your every move.” Or, my favorite variation of the same theme: “People in the ‘nose bleed’ seats paid to see you, too!” So at an early age, we (as students) learn to make our movements big and bold and over-the-top, and we exaggerate our facial expressions. We are trained for the proscenium stage—black box theater performances are not the norm. But in February, Juilliard opera students proved that moving large-scale art forms into small-scale spaces can make performances more honest, personal and in their case, chilling.
   
Juilliard students performed Transformations: An Opera in Two Acts in their new 100-seat Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater in Manhattan. Based on the book Transformations, by Anne Sexton, composer Conrad Susa uses Sexton’s text to transport the audience through nightmarish versions of ten familiar fairytales. The opera’s uncomfortable themes were propelled by the students’ insightful and candid character portrayals. The students’ proximity to the house allowed them to intimately direct their voices and gestures to the on-lookers. “We knew that we could make the smallest or most natural movement, and someone in the audience would catch it,” says Timothy McDevitt, a Juilliard graduate student. “We learned we could really layer our performances.” Instead of inflating false actions, the students embodied their characters’ idiosyncrasies and motions, and truthfully connected to the audience. And as a result, the show became eerily real.
   
It is maturity of an artist that allows him or her to make performance choices, depending on the size of the house or the audience’s viewpoint. As teachers, we can encourage our younger students to think about these choices—just to get the ball rolling. How would my students dance the waltzing combination if they imagined the audience was 300 feet away as opposed to 5 feet away? Would they change parts of the choreography? Giving our students the tools necessary to become intelligent performers will help them dance with more confidence and certainty, so when the time comes, they really can “dance for the people in the back.”

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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