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What Touring the U.S. Taught These Choreographers About Stereotypes and Prejudice

Vander Hoop and Clements driving down the highway. Photo by John Suhar

Sometimes as an artist, you need to leave the studio behind.

Just ask Summation Dance co-founders Taryn Vander Hoop and Sumi Clements. In 2016, the U.S. election was dominating the air waves just as they were finishing their company's fifth season in New York City. Feeling burned out by the assembly-line-like hustle of pumping out new work, they decided to hit the road.


Clements takes to the road. Photo by John Suhar


"We were looking at the divisiveness we saw happening," says Clements, "and thought it was an appropriate time to go interact with people who inhabit this country who are very unlike ourselves, and give them a voice by presenting anything they wanted to share."

The goal of their HabitUS project is to create an evening-length work that incorporates interview footage and soundbites from the people they meet.

So far, they've traveled to 14 states, organizing the tour around a series of university residencies. In each place they visit, they engage with the local community.

So what have been the biggest surprises so far?

Kentuckians Pointed Out The Power of Speech

Working with college dancers in Kentucky. Photo by John Suhar


In Kentucky, Vander Hoop and Clements had fun asking residents whether they considered themselves to be part of the North or the South. The answer changed every time.

But locals pointed out something even more elemental: "How we in New York speak and understand words is not how people in Kentucky would understand those same words," says Clements. They found out that when a politician gives a speech, what's said reads very differently in different parts of the country.

North Carolina Taught Them That Sticking Around Can Lead To Connection


A pro-life rally in North Carolina. Photo by Taryn Vander Hoop


Last month, the choreographers attended a pro-life breakfast rally and march in North Carolina. "We wouldn't normally attend an event like that in New York," says Vander Hoop. But once they got there, they realized they were surrounded by people who reminded them of their own friends.

"We stayed after the march and ended up having an amazing conversation with a man who explained his stance in a way that made total sense, even if we didn't agree," says Vander Hoop. "The moments of connection that happen after an event is over are often more magical than during the event."

Texas Overturned Their Assumptions About Trump

The choreographers and their camper van in Texas. Photo by John Suhar


In the border town of Laredo, Texas, Vander Hoop was surprised to learn just how narrow the Rio Grande is. "You can have a conversation with someone in Mexico very easily!" she says.

Even more shocking? Many of the Mexican immigrants they met supported Donald Trump because they didn't identify as the Mexicans he had disparaged during the election. "We learned that they were prejudiced against other Mexicans, just as society as a whole is prejudiced against each other," says Clements.

The Trip Has Changed The Way They Think About Stereotypes

Music on the streets of New Orleans. Photo by John Suhar

"With contact grows empathy," says Clements. "Part of the reason this country has so much division is that we don't have contact with each other."

Getting to meet people and turn strangers into friends has given them new perspective. "This country relies on categorizations—black/white, right/wrong—that make us unable to have productive conversations and listen to each other," says Vander Hoop. They've realized that when we understand other people as more than an oversimplified category, more often than not, we begin to find common ground.

Follow more of Clements' and Vander Hoop's adventures—and hear from people they've interviewed—on their blog.

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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