I. Training the Aspiring Dancer: An Uncoventional Perspective in 2015
Developing the Thinking Dancer
Does traditional technical dance training fully prepare the young dancer in 2015 to engage with the requirements of contemporary choreography? Are we preparing dancers to integrate sensing and thinking, merge memorized sequences with real-time decision-making and combine technical prowess with creative imagination?
My engagement with these questions emerges from many years of conservatory teaching but is also deeply influenced by a choreographic journey that has taken me far from the dance studio and into the world of equines. I choreograph large-scale performance works with dancers and horses and create kinetic language that must effectively communicate with a 1200-pound creature of flight, a herd animal that looks to the alpha in the herd for decisive leadership. The dancer must be the alpha, prepared to make spatially clear, fully embodied decisions.
My horsemanship training introduced me to multiple techniques for teaching right brain and left-brain learners, combatting the dullness that results from endless repetition and provided me with tools to engage an equine both physically and mentally. As I trained dancers for my company I began to explore how to more effectively support dancers’ three-dimensional investment in space and train them to work with more empowered and dynamic interplay between thinking, sensing, and decision-making. I began to rethink some of the long-held dance conventions that are fundamental to dance training.
In his New Yorker article “The Physical Genius” Malcolm Gladwell writes, “What sets physical geniuses apart from other people, then, is not merely being able to do something but knowing what to do – their capacity to pick up on subtle patterns that others generally miss … When psychologists study people who are expert at motor tasks, they find that almost all of them use their imaginations in a very particular and sophisticated way.”
Dancers are experts at motor tasks, but they are not being trained to cope with the complexity of the motor tasks demanded of them today. Dancers are being asked to use their imaginations in tremendously sophisticated ways, yet I question whether training imagination is being fully integrated into their technique classes.
This question is foremost in my choreographic world when I ask my dancers to navigate fluidly between set choreographic material and in-the-moment decision-making. Learned phrase material cannot settle into memory in our work with horses, but must remain adaptable: Set phrases might have to be performed facing any direction, carving around the animal or leading from the front. A phrase that touches the horse might be performed with vehemence or gentleness depending on the kind of leadership the animal needs in that moment. Dancing is occurring in constant relationship to the animal.
Repertory experiences surely ask dancers to actively use imagination as they generate material and participate in the creation process. Improvisation and composition classes offer multiple opportunities to train the dancers’ intellectual and emotional imaginations. However the cornerstone of conservatory training is technique class. This is where the psyche of a dancer is being most powerfully shaped. Technique classes structured around repetitive, memorized warm-up sequences and phrases based on a set lexicon of steps are not training a thinking dancer. I believe that the imagination could be more actively engaged inside the technical training.
- Imagine a class in which dancers take set movement material and adapt it to different locations in the room or to a busy hallway. Spatial adaptability and imaginative problem solving begin to integrate into phrase-learning.
Developing the Thinking Dancer
I would like to make a case for training the thinking dancer. How we train dancers to make decisions is, to some extent, linked to how we treat them as human beings. This is not accomplished by hand holding. I am fully in favor of rigorous and demanding training that places the burden of responsibility on the dancer to show up, invest fully, work unimaginably hard and put in the 10,000 hours. But I do think that movement is often drilled and micro-managed to the point of dullness; that dancers over-rehearse. In equine training, long hours of repetitive training dull desire. Constant repetition is not the only pathway to learning.
In horsemanship, when teaching something new, the minute the animal does the correct move the trainer should stop, release. It is the release that teaches. Essentially you are giving the animal time to mentally process a new kinetic pathway. I question whether sheer repetition allows dancers to intelligently inform their bodies. Sheer repetition is only one of multiple ways to bring dancers into a choreographic landscape.
- Imagine alternating combinations that require lots of thinking with simple experiential warm-up material
- Imagine inserting assimilation moments into technique class – either personal time or conversations between dancers about “what did I learn”.
The dancer in 2015 must be a courageous problem solver. However there is also the lingering and tacit message that dancers must be obedient. They are often silent collaborators in the creation of works, generating original movement material as part of the creation process. I believe that dancers should be treated as collaborators, encouraged to ask questions and learn to ask questions respectfully, with honest curiosity about process rather than the need to be noticed. They should be encouraged to think about why they are asking that question. Training thinking dancers offers choreographers movers who operate from a place of curiosity and intelligence—setting the stage for empowerment of the working dancer.
Conclusion: Conscious Competence
Young dancers come into a serious training process with enormous unconscious competence. This is the passion for movement that led them to dance like demons when they were five years old. I believe that the dance educator’s job is to help them gain more conscious competence, more information about their bodies, about phrasing, about dance history and the legacy they are continuing. But it is also our job to help the young dancer fully own and trust the wealth of unconscious competence they already own.
II. Empowering the Working Dancer
As dancers move from training into the working world, my concern as choreographer/director shifts to empowerment. Empowerment is not accomplished by hand holding. As I’ve said, I am fully in favor of rigorous and demanding training that places the burden of responsibility on the dancer: to show up, invest fully, work unimaginably hard and put in the 10,000 hours. But lingering in the bedrock of dance convention are behaviors and conventions that do not serve to create empowered individuals. The traditional tyrannical leadership model is no longer effective.
Training truly empowered dancers calls for compassionate leadership. In horsemanship, the compassionate leader sets the horse up for success: Setting clear goals; making fair decisions, working on strengths in order to gradually tackle weaknesses; engaging curiosity; respecting legitimate cautiousness and assuming success. Over-rehearsing and micro-managing movement is one example of a dance convention that is counter-productive to training empowered dancers. Movement phrases are drilled and micro-managed to the point of dullness. Sometimes I suspect choreographers resort to cleaning movement when stuck and trolling for new ideas. In equine training long hours of repetitive training dulls the desire to learn, especially with a curious and confident horse. Repetition is useful with a fearful animal where the repetition creates a comfort level, a sense of safety in knowing the right answer. Repetitive training dulls curiosity.
Constant repetition is not the only pathway to learning. Technique classes that are formatted as a collection of repetitive exercises train dancers to work on automatic. The work ethic becomes passive, the ability to be cope with the unfamiliar diminishes and the courage and desire to try new material is not being nurtured.
Repetition should alternate with processing time. In horsemanship, when teaching something new the minute the animal does the correct move, the trainer should stop asking. It is the release that teaches. Essentially you are giving the animal time to mentally process a new kinetic pathway. I see dancers practice relentlessly, even when I know they know….I question whether sheer repetition allows dancers to intelligently inform their bodies. Sheer repetition is only one of multiple ways to bring dancers into a choreographic landscape.
Lingering Dance Conventions: Boys and Girls
How we train dancers to make decisions is, to some extent, linked to how we treat them as human beings. Training empowered decision-makers sits uncomfortably inside some lingering dance world operatives.
Young dancers should be treated as collaborators, encouraged to ask questions and learn to ask questions respectfully, with honest curiosity about process. They should be encouraged to think about why they are asking that question rather than functioning from a place of insecurity where they ask questions mostly because they are seeking attention or approval. Addressing young adults as boys and girls seems demeaning and anachronistic in this day and age.
In many dance environments the tacit message is that dancers must be obedient. This mode of subservient behavior does not sit easily with young female dancers brought up by mothers who fought for an equal voice. Knowing how and when to speak up inside a venerated dance institution, from within a traditional dance company represents for some women confusing navigation.
They are often silent collaborators in the creation of works, generating original movement material as part of the creation process. They are often not acknowledged for generating material, shaping trajectory and for contributing massive amounts of nuance to the execution of that material. The age of obedient 20-somethings is no longer. Treating dancers like silent servants is an anachronism.
Merging Sensing and Thinking
Contemporary choreographers are asking dancers to use their imaginations in tremendously sophisticated ways. They are asking dancers to be confident problem solvers who know how to integrate sensory information with thinking via an active, decisive imagination.
The highly skilled dancers I know have an uncanny ability to integrate sensory information and thinking. They sense where a movement phrase feels wrong and can suggest how to fix it. Now that I no longer perform and observe movement rather than always do the movement, I am far less able to do that integrated sensing and thinking problem solving. I leave that to my dancers who living inside the movement experience.
The dancers I know are very utterly brilliant kinetic problem solvers. This is one of the skills they bring into their training. It is a skill set that good training will reinforce and support.
Which brings me to the final issue of instilling, support and nurturing confidence.
Working dancers should emerge from serious dance training with enormous conscious competence. Trust in the process, the material, themselves and each other is part of the responsibility of the choreographer/director.
III. Never Rehearse in Order
Twenty years into this journey I have devised numerous ways to develop thinking dancers, empowered to work in unusual circumstances. As for the choreographer? A humbling lessons learned…Among them, never rehearse in order. The horses will learn the sequence and skip to the end.
In March 2004 The Equus Projects spent a month as Guest Artists in the Dance Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. We were commissioned to create a work for dancers and horses using local horses and equestrians and a cast of 16 VCU dancers. One section of the 50-minute work was a double duet for two dancers and an equestrian and her horse. The piece was set to the Prelude for the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suite No1 in G Major.
The Prelude from Bach’s 1st Suite for Unaccompanied Cello has a gorgeous arc. It begins with a sense of curiosity, gentle phrases that seem to ask intimate questions, continuously moving into slightly new territory with each question. At 1:11 in the music the inquiry becomes louder, more courageous. At 1:44 the sound tumbles out into the space. At 2:08 the cello line rushes into a huge arc and then, with a final sense of wonder, the phrase seems to advance slightly, then retreat and with a final breath, release into silence.
The choreography reveals itself to me in spatial pathways immediately. I envision a double duet – two dancers (Gina and Blake) in a round pen on stage left, a horse (Hamlet) and his human trainer (Maddrey) in a second round pen stage right. The two duets begin simultaneously with gentle touch, then move into longer strokes. Gina lifts Blake’s arm, ducks under his arm and moves into his backspace as Maddrey crawls under Hamlet’s belly. Blake and Hamlet move into the space around their respective partners…Gina directs Blake to carve the space around her at close proximity as Maddrey directs Hamlet into a pirouette on the forehand.
At 2:08 Gina and Maddrey send their partners into a large loping circle. The expansiveness of the movement suggests a joyful release into the space. At 2:15 the coda approaches and the expansive running is redirected into a turn towards the center of the round pen. Gina and Blake, Maddrey and her Arabian horse Hamlet face each other. Hamlet and Blake back up two steps, then advance forward into a soft embrace and release.
The four creatures move in synchrony, biped and quadruped exploring a shared language that hovers between dancing and horse whispering. The effect is beautiful. I am delighted. Our trainer David has traveled from Sacramento to coach us. He is moved to tears. The Prelude is still rough, but with rehearsal it will work.
In preparation for the VCU residency, I began rehearsals with Blake, Gina, Maddrey and her Arabian horse, Hamlet in January. It is the dead of winter and we work every Monday from 10am until 4pm in a large indoor arena in central Pennsylvania, 50 miles from Manhattan. Our session with equine trainer David Lichman is immensely encouraging and we are confident that we have a terrific piece well on its way to perfection.
Two weeks and two rehearsals later Hamlet has decided that once the initial stroking is over, it is time to move out into that final circle. Clearly he knew the choreography and simply skipped to the end.
We call David at his home in Sacramento. “David, Hamlet is skipping to the end of the Prelude. What do we do?” David chuckles and responds, “You are not rehearsing the piece in order, are you? The circus never rehearses an act in order. If they do the horses begin to anticipate. The circus never rehearses in order.”
I am reminded of our Richmond experience every time I see the New York City carriage horses at the end of their workday at 6:00pm trotting at a noticeably fast clip down 10th Avenue heading towards their stalls and dinner.
Twenty years into this choreographic journey I have devised numerous strategies for training my dancers to work in choreographic modules that are often not rehearsed in order. We have experienced numerous humbling situations in which our equine partners have learned what comes next and simply changed the plan or and skipped to the end.
The choreographic result has been a series of magnificent discoveries: Opportunity to create works that are never performed in the same sequence twice; opportunity to train dancers to function with real time decision-making; opportunity to invent strategies for splicing improvised material inside rigorously set sequences such that the performance has the feeling of being invented in the moment.