Urban Practice

First-year students in the studio

In a desire for multiculturalism, many dance programs have added world and hip-hop classes to their curriculums, but, with few exceptions, ballet and modern still reign supreme. At the University of East London (UEL), however, bharata natyam, breaking and other styles favored by East London’s ethnically diverse residents take center stage.

“We wanted to create a new dance program without replicating what was already on offer elsewhere,” says Mark O’Thomas, director of UEL’s Institute for Performing Arts Development. “We asked the East London Dance agency, a range of practitioners and students at other universities, ‘If you were creating a new program from scratch, what would you wish for?’” The answer, now entering its fourth year, is a new BA in dance: Urban Practice.

 

Housed at Trinity Buoy Wharf beside a complex of artists’ studios built from recycled shipping containers, Urban Practice not only teaches students how to break, pop and lock, but also to investigate the global origins, history and cultural significance of these popular dance forms. (Students get a dose of ballet and modern technique, too, but these traditional dance degree headliners take a backseat to global and urban forms.) Designed to produce versatile dance practitioners and critical thinkers, the program prepares students for a wide range of academic and professional careers.

 

“East London is transnational,” says Kate Sicchio, the BA’s program leader. “Everyone is from somewhere else and our curriculum reflects that diversity.” Students take four 90-minute technique classes each week ranging from street, house, breaking, popping and locking to capoeira, Afro-contemporary and kathak, the last of which is unexpectedly popular with students who were originally drawn to UEL from their love of MTV and the show “Britain’s Got Talent.” In addition, students spend nine hours each week in traditional lecture courses that focus on historical developments in urban dance, dance and health, arts management, community dance, arts administration and other subjects. They also take choreography and performance modules during the three-year program and are required to complete an internship and an 8,000-word dissertation.

 

Since its start in 2007, the program has grown from 12 students to nearly 80. For the upcoming semester, 325 dancers applied for 75 places. Prospective students are not judged on technique alone. In fact many arrive without any formal dance training at all. Applicants are evaluated on their critical-thinking abilities in addition to audition results.

 

UEL has established partnerships with numerous community arts organizations and currently employs 10 London-based practitioners to teach technique classes, in addition to a full-time faculty of young lecturers whose research interests range from transnational B-girl “battles” to dance and film. Because of the wide range of classes, students are graded not on their technical proficiency but on their understanding of the “core principles” or aesthetics of each form, as demonstrated through a 10-minute practicum performed at the end of each term.

 

Technique classes reinforce lessons learned in theory classes and vice versa, with teachers from both ends of the spectrum regularly collaborating on assignments and grading. “We’re trying to move students away from the idea of, ‘Okay, first we do theory, then we do practice,’” says O’Thomas. Further more, styles are taught according to traditional modes of transmission. Students studying kathak, for example, learn according to an observational guru model, whereas breaking students work with training partners.

 

Exposure is key at UEL. Student goals range from postgraduate degrees in dance science to careers in choreography and performance, but all are encouraged to investigate a breadth of options. UEL prides itself on preparing students for sustainable careers in dance, which, especially for performers and choreographers, will likely require more than just stage work. The students who are interested in performance (a good number hope to join contemporary or street dance companies or to become choreographers) tend to echo Sicchio’s assertion that “dance is a portfolio career,” in which performing is just one of many professional possibilities.

 

But is the exposure good enough? Can students ever master a single technique when they study so many? These are just some of the critiques cited by Sicchio. “Since we’re not based on contemporary dance, there is a snobbery from some members of the dance community. Also, hip-hop purists criticize our inclusion of global styles—they want us to include modules on graffiti—but we’re not a hip-hop conservatory,” she says.

 

UEL will graduate its first class of Urban Practice students this month and will launch a corresponding, practice-based, student-centered MA program this fall. While skeptics may question the legitimacy of a dance major with more breaking than ballet, O’Thomas says, “An undergraduate program is not about producing an actor or a fully qualified musician, and we’re not trying to produce a prototype dancer.” DT

 

 

Kat Richter holds an MA in dance anthropology. As a freelance writer and tap teacher, she divides her time between London and Philadelphia.

 

Photo by Pete Tweedie, courtesy of UEL

Music
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.

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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.

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