Arts & Leisure
See, It’s Not Mysterious.
You’re Already an Expert.
BY SYLVIANE GOLD
This is the time of year when ballet lovers rub shoulders with swing dancers, salsa fans and Lindy hoppers at Lincoln Center. And while most if not all of the balletgoers have wiggled their hips to a dance tune somewhere along the line, many of the people crowding the plaza for Midsummer Night Swing have probably never gone inside the Metropolitan Opera House of the New York State Theater to see professionals perform.
And that’s a mystery to people like the choreographer Pascal Rioult, whose company last just completed a run at the Joyce Theater. “Dance is so directly accessible and understandable,” he said. “The clubs are full of young people exhibiting freedom in their dancing, taking pleasure in their dancing. But when you take it out of the club, it becomes something totally different. It seems to be the most difficult of art forms to get into.”
The choreographer Hilary Easton has spent much of her career introducing neophytes to watching dance performances. “People feel that it’s a language they don’t understand,” she said. “They’re afraid of being mystified.”
Which is why she was standing in a dance studio in Clinton a while back surrounded by public school educators who were squirming, jumping, turning, bobbing their heads and waving their arms in a cacophony of miscellaneous motion. She had asked them to think of a memory – any memory – and translate it into a movement phrase as part of a workshop intended to demystify the process of looking at art.
The particular program, run by the non-profit Center for Arts Education, was specifically for classroom teachers and teaching artists, to help them develop guidelines for assessing student efforts in the performing arts. But similar events, in which dance professionals try to forge connections between their work and an intimidated public, take place regularly throughout New York City, in school gyms, in dance studios, in theaters.
It’s known as outreach, and nearly everybody in the dance world does it. Large organizations like American Ballet Theater and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater employ outreach specialists; in small troupes like Hilary Easton + Company, Chamber Dance Project, and Pascal Rioult Dance Theater, the artists themselves handle the task.
In part it’s about earning money: arts grants often stipulate that recipients offer educational programs, and even an hourlong classroom demonstration can provide a dancer with a bit of extra income. But it’s also about dance’s future: audiences need to grow if the art form is to grow. And choreographers approach the task with a mixture of missionary zeal and sneaky ingenuity.
“I come to these kinds of occasions,” Ms. Easton said of her session with the teachers, “with the premise that everyone has very interesting ideas about what they’re going to see, that they’re all expert perceivers, even if they’re not expert in the art form of dance. My job is to help them understand that about themselves, to help them to know that they have many compelling insights into any work of art.”
She had brought along members of her company to perform some recently completed sections of a new work. But before presenting her own choreography, she paired off the participants and had them all perform their little memory dances as their partners watched. The Ms. Easton surprised them by asking everyone not to interpret what their partners had danced but to reproduce it. Amid much groaning and grumbling and muttering of “Unfair! You didn’t tell us in advance,” the teachers pretty much managed to duplicate what they had seen.
Ms. Easton’s point was to encourage the teachers to think about memory, the subject of the dance piece they were about to see. But what was striking was how remarkably these untrained amateurs of varying ages and body types were able to express themselves through movement and almost unconsciously to internalize the movements of others.
Dance is a very intuitive art form that everybody understands on a personal level,” said Mr. Rioult, whose company runs outreach programs at several schools. When he introduces dance to new audiences, children or adults, he tells them “Dance is something you already know even if you think you don’t. Look in the street or in the schoolyard, and you will know right away if a person is sad or happy by the way they hold themselves, by the way they walk.”
But guiding people past their initial uneasiness can be difficult. Diane Coburn Bruning, whose Chamber Dance Project also performed in the workshops offered by the Center for Arts Education, says preparation is the key.
“The body as an expressive instrument is not something we’re comfortable with,” she said. We’re used to seeing it as either athletic or sensual. The gray area in between isn’t introduced to people.” She added that when students, for example, haven’t been briefed about what to expect, their initial response is often to giggle when the dancers come onstage in unitards.
Before Ms. Bruning presented her piece for the teachers, she had each participant devise a melody for his or her name and then create a movement phrase to accompany it. “Now let’s do duets,” she told them. The result was a jumble of sound and movement. But the assignment elegantly demonstrated to the teachers that while dance can indeed be a metaphor, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to precise decoding by an audience.
Russell Granet, the director of professional development at the Center for Arts Education, ran the workshop series for the teachers. He said he had been impressed by how much more “comfortable with ambiguity” the participants had become over the five sessions.
For Karen Phillips, who teaches seventh grade at Middle School 217 in Briarwood, Queens, dancing her name and translating a memory into movement evoked the long-ago anxieties of girlhood dance classes. “I loved them, but they made me nervous,” she said. She added that she felt priveledged to be watching the professional dancers up close, in a room with only a few others. “The intimacy, discussing the choreographer’s goals and hearing the dancers’ thoughts, made the experience personal, and therefore more meaningful,” she said.
Another participant, David Mitnowsky, also said that he appreciated have “the backstage view.” A theater director who works in the schools as a teaching artist, he said the sessions had made him “more informed on how to watch.”
Ms. Bruning, who often uses open studio rehearsals as part of her company’s outreach efforts, said she discovered the power of taking audiences behind the scenes when one of her brothers visited the studio and watched the company put the finishing touches on a new dance.
“He was totally in awe,” she said. “He told me, ’I hope you’re not offended, but this rehearsal was more interesting than any performance I’ve seen you in.’ It broke down the barrier for him, the intimidation factor. He was right next to it. He heard us tallking about it. He saw us problem-solving. All of a sudden he felt he had a license to talk about the dance.”
That license takes some people beyond just feeling confident about watching dancers do their thing. Mr. Rioult recalled a question-and-answer session at a school where his company was conducting a program. A student asked one of the dancers how he had first become interested in dance.
“He replied that a group had come to his high school,” Mr. Rioult said.
Score one for outreach.