Wednesday, July 27, 2016

new dilemma - student choreography and inappropriate movement

I guess this has turned into an occasional blog — since I'm not exactly a prolific writer, I'll most likely continue writing whenever issues raise their heads (instead of daily/weekly/monthly...). So — I came upon a situation this past semester that was a new dilemma for me, after all these years, and I am still wondering how I could have handled it better, and how I can tweak my class projects in order to head off anything similar in the future...

In the past, at EOSA, I had given my Dance Production students very specific assignments for their final choreography projects for the spring concert (one year it was dance in the style of a dance ancestor, another was dance as a response to history or social issues, another was dance responding to words or text, etc.). This year, for my first Dance Production class at my new school, I reverted to the more open-ended system of my student-teaching mentor — each semester we had an "idea day" in which students presented their dance ideas to the class; then dancers signed up for dances they most wanted to perform, choreographers gave me lists of their needs for dancers, and I set casting accordingly.

This worked beautifully in the fall concert, with 11 choreographers presenting interesting pieces in widely varied styles. In the spring, we again had some intriguing ideas presented; but I also noticed a lot of choreographers talking more about the popular music they wanted to dance to than the dance itself. Of more concern were various references to "hardcore popping" or "burlesque-style" dance, as well as some of songs that were fairly offensive (in which bouncing, jiggling, and showing off your booty is the entire point) — the tone of the day felt to me as if some choreographers were competing for dancers by using popular and sexualized songs and movement. So I reconnoitered, told the choreographers to come back in a week with a written proposal including what they intended to communicate to the audience, and tried it again. The second idea day went better — most choreographers came back with complete proposals, with more well-thought-out movement ideas and nothing overtly unacceptable at least.

As we moved into rehearsals and in-progress showings, I could see there were still a couple of dances (or parts of dances) that made me uncomfortable as a director. The first was pretty simple: in a group dance about love, the very first movement looked to me like stereotypical "stripper dance" — dancers squatting on their heels opened their knees sharply in unison before slithering to standing level (a movement which undoubtedly appears in countless music videos, but in context seemed very suggestive). I talked to the choreographer about what she intended to convey to her audience, how the opening movement sets the tone for the whole dance, and that at least parts of her audience were likely to see her beginning as an allusion to striptease. She agreed that it might not be the most appropriate opening, and changed it so that each dancer (still in unison) sharply made his or her own dramatic, low-level shape — which turned out to be a much more interesting opening in any case.

The second instance was more difficult. This choreographer had originally proposed one of those "shake your body" songs; for her second proposal she changed to "Flawless" by Beyoncé. Ironically — given that the song includes a talk by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the importance of feminism, specifically deploring girls in our culture competing for the attention of men — her dance seemed to be permeated with subtly (or sometimes overtly) sexualized movement. After the first showings I asked her to tone down some parts of the dance, which she did (though reluctantly); but it remained problematic for me —not blatantly inappropriate enough to take it out of the concert, but still not what I wanted to showcase in my dance program.

The heart of my dilemma is that this choreographer's intention was to create a dance about "empowering women to love their own bodies" (as her dancers agreed). I think these young women genuinely believe they are conveying women's empowerment by performing movement that looks to me very reminiscent of striptease. I know this style of movement is very much a part of pop culture through music videos, and that burlesque and even pole-dancing are now popular recreational dance classes; yet I also know, in a historical context, how much this is still a product of a male-dominated culture in which women are objectified as sex objects. What I have been asking myself is: how do I expand my students' focus (or raise their consciousness, as we used to say) to understand how these movements they are drawn to are objectifying, decidedly un-empowering, and borderline offensive for some of us, without coming off sounding like an anti-sex prude? I worry that I am simply being too sensitive — but I do not want my (nearly all female) students learning to demean and objectify women, however inadvertently.

This, again, is a new problem for me — at my previous school, every student in my (small) Dance Production classes presented their choreography finals on stage, and somehow I never had to deal with movement I considered inappropriate.... So I wonder — has the culture changed that much? Is it something in the culture of this particular school? And how do I adjust my class to prevent the problem in the future — going back to specific assignments? Requiring instrumental music only? (both of which I am definitely toying with.) Or perhaps some readings in classic feminist literature...? Or do I just frankly talk to the new class about how sexualized movement objectifies women? I hope that these are just growing pains of a new program and that we will get over it as our culture of dance develops, but I do feel a need to address it proactively as the new school year starts.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

new rubrics (part 2)

The second new rubric I needed to create last fall was for the Dance Production class: since we were working with a new (for me) class structure, I needed a new rubric to assess the final choreography projects. In my previous DP classes at EOSA, there had always been a final choreography assignment with specific guidelines; but this year's open-ended structure, with choreographers signing up to create whatever they envisioned, demanded a new assessment structure as well.

So I went back to the beginning — I started by looking at the peer critique form from my student teaching mentor (Marcia Singman at Berkeley High), which asked students to look for variety in dance elements, use of stage space, entrances and exits, and the like. Choreography feedback guidelines from Mills College were also helpful, stressing dance elements as well, but also originality, willingness to take risks, clarity of ideas, and attention to detail — all things which I value and want to see in my students' choreography. I looked a little farther afield and found a a few choreography rubrics online, which gave me ideas for some specific things to include in various categories... then to put it together!

I began with a couple of categories that are standard in my rubrics for group choreography projects in class: "Dance structure" and "Creativity and Variety." In ordinary choreography projects, I use "Dance structure" to stress the point that all dances have a beginning, middle, and end (as well as well-planned sequences and transitions), and that the beginning and end are vitally important as the first and last thing the audience sees — so students know they lose points for just standing in neutral waiting for the beat, or dropping the last movement or shape and walking away. For the Dance Production projects, it was a given that no choreographer was going to put a piece on stage without some kind of beginning and ending, so I added language to indicate whether the beginning and ending were clear but uninspiring, strong, or dynamic; and that the dance has a clear flow and sense of purpose. Then since "creativity" could fit into this rubric in may forms, I converted the general "Creativity and variety" category into the more specific "Variety and contrast" — use of variety in the dance elements of space, time, energy, and relationships. Harking back to Ms. Singman's work, I also inserted a category for "Use of stage space" (including entrances and exits). Those three categories took care of the purely "craft of choreography" aspects of the rubric.

Of course, creating a rubric is still an exercise in setting — or simply recognizing — priorities and values. My goal for years has been to move students beyond setting their favorite steps to their favorite songs, and toward expressing and communicating meaning, so much of the remainder of the rubric is concerned with how student choreographers are (or are not) finding original ideas and bringing meaning to their works. For this I turned back to the Mills College guidelines. I made one category focusing on originality — this is where I brought in movement invention versus movement clichés as well as willingness to take risks. For the category most specifically focused on communicating meaning I chose the title "Artistic intention," which allowed me to bring in not only what the dance is intended to communicate (whether ideas, emotions, a narrative, or simply a mood), but also whether the dance demonstrates the choreographer's artistic growth — which I realized, as I worked on this, is also one of my high priorities.

Those categories added up to 90 points, so I completed the rubric with a 10-point category for "Attention to details." This gave me the chance to bring in the dancers' performance of the piece in a relatively small way. In our ordinary in-class group choreography projects, preparation and performance quality are graded as a part of the project — since the group works together as a whole, the dancers' preparation, confidence, and attention to details of technique do generally reflect how hard the group worked on the assignment. In this case, I was focused on assessing the choreography itself, not the dancers' performances; but I did feel that attention to detail among the dancers (precision of movements and shapes, floor patterns, and relati onships) shows something about how the choreographer worked with the group, so I found that it was appropriate to include.

That rounded out my rubric — here it is, I would welcome any feedback!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

new rubrics (part 1)

In the course of the fall semester I developed a couple of new rubrics and put them to use. A good rubric can be invaluable in organizing your thinking to make the process of grading a physical art form as objective as possible. Over the years, I've come to realize that creating a rubric is an exercise in deciding what is important, what you truly care about seeing and consider excellent; and this process was certainly no exception.

The first new rubric was for performance tests. The rubric I had used and revised over many years had up to five categories (three or four for minor tests): Preparation/sequence, Energy, Technique, Musical timing, and Focus/stage presence. Here is that one:

As I was grading my spring performance finals, I grew more and more dissatisfied with the categories. "Preparation / sequence" was pretty straightforward (ranging from "solid enough to lead the rest of the dancers" to "lots of mistakes or completely dependent on other dancers"), as was "Focus" (taking into account things such as engaging with the audience, covering mistakes, and staying in character). But "Energy" felt a bit problematic, as "advanced" in that category — "full-out performance with excellent energy" — often seemed to be not quite what I was looking for in many dance styles. "High energy" would not come close to describing the subtle energy dynamics of 'auana hula, for just one example. So I started to think in terms of the dance element Energy and all it entails — smooth vs. sharp, weight, tension, flow, movement qualities — and moved that category more in the direction of using force and energy appropriate to the dance form.

I had also had trouble with the "Technique" category for years — I had started out including things like "clean lines, precise footwork, arms and legs stretched and feet pointed" as examples of attention to technical details, but ended up again feeling that my wording did not cover what I was looking for, as stretched arms and pointed feet are not necessarily a part of good technique in all dance forms. So I remembered something my mentor Patricia had said years ago (in relation to teaching creative work versus teaching technique): "after all, what is technique if not the elements of dance, applied?" That set me thinking that what we ordinarily think of as technical skill includes the energy dynamics and musical timing that I had broken out into separate categories... And then it started to click: so what was it that I was really looking for (what was important to me) in that category I called "technique"? Of course — shape! All those years, when grading "technique," I had really been most concerned with students creating the shapes appropriate for the dance form (which may include those pointed feet... or not). And if I started to think more broadly about Space, then amplitude, facings, and so many other things I had neglected to include would be covered...

From there, it was an easy jump to realizing that I simply needed to base my rubric on the elements of dance. It would still contain five categories, as the Preparation and Focus categories would remain; but the other three would reflect Space, Energy, and Time. Here is what I came up with:

I used the new rubric for all the fall semester performance finals, and it did work much better for me — no longer was I looking at details which seemed to fit into more than one category and having to decide where to note them. I found I could be much clearer in my thinking, now that I had acknowledged what I had really been looking at all along!

Of course, all rubrics are works in progress, so I will continue to refine this one... 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

(late) fall semester wrap-up — dance showcase... and moving ahead

(sigh)... Somehow I completely fell off the map here since the NDEO conference — time for writing fell by the wayside during performance season and finals, and then inertia set in as I tried to figure out how to write a condensed version of everything that happened since the fall (impossible, I'm afraid). So, I guess I'll try to do a quick wrap-up of the end of the semester, at least, and then try to pick it up again for this one...

Of course, the main culminating event for fall semester was the new Dance Production class' dance showcase concert. This year I tried out a new (for me) system: instead of requiring a choreography final for every student, I let those who wished to create work for the concert present their proposals to the class on "Idea Day" (as Marcia Singman, my mentor teacher when I was student teaching, called it). I was pleased at the wide range of projects proposed, all with serious intent. The day after Idea Day, all students in the class signed up for which pieces they would most like to perform in — and then came the hard part, figuring out casting! Unfortunately, rehearsals started later than I had planned, because figuring out who cold dance in which pieces, and then (this was the hard part) which pieces could rehearse on the same day, turned into a three-week process. Aaarrrgh! (for this semester, I'm having choreographers sign up for rehearsal days before dancers sign up for dances to eliminate all that juggling).

Once rehearsals finally got under way, things went pretty well. Although almost all the choreographers chose to work to relatively current pop music, making for a rather more monotone concert than I might have ideally liked, they all took their work seriously — they remembered to use plenty of variety in the dance elements and structures we have studied, and all stayed away from the "front-facing unison" trap. We did end up with a fairly wide range of tones and styles, within those pop-song boundaries: while one choreographer set a love duet on two pairs, another created a group praise dance, and another arranged traditional Bhangra steps into her own dance. One of the stronger pieces had a Carnival theme and a dark tone, with dancers in pairs and one partner always controlling the other. In all, eleven choreographers showed their own work, along with a couple of class repertory pieces; the Jazz 1 and Jazz 2 classes also showed their fall semester jazz technique dances.

We had a good and enthusiastic audience, and are looking forward to expanding into a two-night concert for spring!

Friday, October 23, 2015

NDEO conference

I recently returned from the NDEO (National Dance Education Organization) annual conference – the first I have attended in three years, since I will not fly (if you’re curious, here is why), and so I only get to it when it rotates to the west coast, in train or bus range. As usual, it was completely rejuvenating and inspiring (although the travel to and from Phoenix was a bit tiring), and I came back with so many ideas to try out on my classes!

There were many wonderful sessions, most incredibly useful for my teaching practice, some simply restorative and interesting to me as a dancer and dance scholar. I was thrilled to be able to take a modern dance class (“for the maturing dancer”) from Anne Green Gilbert, one of the mothers of creative dance education – it was lovely to warm up with the Brain Dance, right from the source, and to see how she combined work on energy qualities with Bartenieff floor work and technique combinations.

One highlight of the conference for me was a presentation by Ann Hutchinson Guest, a preeminent dance historian and authority on notation and a true grande dame of the dance education community, on reviving a ballet choreographed in 1844 by Arthur Saint-Léon from his own notation. Contrary to how we often think of 19th century Romantic ballet – ethereal ladies in white dresses floating effortlessly and fluidly across the stage – this dance turned out to be extremely vigorous and virtuosic, full of sissones, entrechat-six, and straight-leg pas de chats. As part of the session we were taught a few phrases from the dance — simpler phrases for the corps dancers, not the virtuosic solo variations — and their difficulty (even for the youngsters among us) was an eye-opener. Another surprise was a variation in which the lead ballerina (Fanny Cerrito in the original) stayed on pointe for the entire length of her solo. I have always heard that in the early days of pointe work, ballerinas would only rise to the tips of their toes for brief moments, since they were dancing in nothing more than soft ballet slippers with a little extra darning around the toes, not the hard boxes of fabric and glue we are familiar with today... yet this variation (recreated faithfully from the original notation) kept the ballerina on her pointes, performing posé arabesques, chainé turns and the like, for at least a minute. Ms Cerrito must have had incredibly strong toes!

Another highlight was a session I attended on my first day, called "POP! From Literal to Abstract." We were taken through a project (designed for undergrads, but just as applicable to high school dancers) that ingeniously combatted the tendency of young choreographers to depend on following pop song lyrics for generating movement ideas. We were broken into small groups, and each group was given a printout of lyrics to a popular song. We were then tasked with interpreting those lyrics as literally as possible. The results were often hilarious... Our group drew the song "Toxic" by Britney Spears, and creating movement from the lyrics felt almost like playing charades — miming shooting up drugs for "I'm addicted to you" and throwing a pair of dice for "paradise"; and of course miming rocking a baby showed up in multiple groups ("baby. baby" is pretty ubiquitous in pop songs). The humor, of course, is the point — though students often use rote, clichéd gestures as a jumping-off point, when forced to go so far overboard with the idea they often begin to see the stale and vapid choreography that emerges for what it is.

Phase two of the project is to leave aside the lyrics completely, to take the gesture dance created in phase 1 and to abstract all of those gestures (using the usual devices — size/range, tempo, level, body parts / instrumentation, etc.) — working without music, of course. The results of this part of the project were equally enlightening, as the abstracted dances turned into some lovely and original compositions. If we had had more time, it would have been interesting to see them again, set to the original songs, to see how the juxtapositions might have turned out.... but what we did (in only an hour!) was plenty. I left the session knowing that this is a project I must give to my Dance 2 and Dance Production classes this year — preferably before they start composing dances for the final concert!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Motif and development

Although none of my students have fully experienced all the elements of dance yet — last year we primarily focused on Space, with one Time unit (tempos) — I still wanted to jump my Dance Production class ahead into some work with forming before they take on creating full dance for the fall showcase. So for their first composition project, I tried them on motif and development. I had thought of giving them a strict theme-and-variations form, but decided against it because this is a pretty creative group and I wanted to give them the freedom to mix up their movements a bit (I do plan to give the Dance 2 class the strict theme-and-variations project later in the year, to set them up for further work if they continue on to Dance Production next year). They completed their projects with somewhat mixed results, but for the most part at least successfully enough to know that they did grasp the concept.

For lead up lessons, we began with each dancer creating a personal phrase using an accumulation process of seven elements, then editing them down to five (the seven elements were: 1. make a fabulous twisted shape; 2. look somewhere in the room and travel to it; 3. reach out, fold in; 4. your "signature movement"; 5. a turn; 6. a jump or spring; and 7. a variation on your fabulous twisted shape). The next day in the week was a short day, so we used it to play the Adverb game with an already-learned phrase from their lyrical dance. The next day we reviewed the personal phrases created the first day, then manipulated them with various choreographic devices (tempo, size, level, repetition, range, embellishments, retrograde...).

The project was: create a dance motif of eight distinct movements, then expand it into a dance three times as long using any of the devices we worked on — and you must show your motif in its original form, in unison, somewhere in the dance. I also required instrumental music, so as not to distract them from the movement variations and development. As mentioned, the projects were somewhat mixed, but overall pretty well – some came out beautifully, while even those that were a bit less successful in the extent of their motif development at least showed enough movement variation that I believe they did at least understand the concept well enough to use it in the future.

One trio began with quick, intricate arm gestures on a standing level, then ended on a seated level with their arm gestures huge and in super slow-motion. They chose to perform in silence rather than spend time choosing music (I loved that, it is so rare!) – if that happens again, I hope to have time in the showings to try the dance with a selection of different musical choices. Another trio essentially performed a strict theme and variations: they began with their motif phrase in unison, then each dancer performed it in turn with each solo growing progressively slower and bringing in each dancer’s personal movement style. One duet used repetition and canon form to develop their motif; a quartet began with their motif in call-and-response form, then ended the dance by repeating it in unison; and another quartet began with a walking pattern moving from a line into a diagonal, then ended by retrograding the walking pattern from the diagonal back to the line.

In general, I might have liked to see a bit more development of each motif, but for the first project of the year they did fairly well. I will be interested to see how this class progresses!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

first choreography projects — energy qualities for Dance 2

After a couple of weeks of technique (basic jazz for Dance 1, more complex jazz for Dance 2, lyrical for Dance Production), we moved into our first creative work / choreography unit. The Dance 1 classes started with Directions and Facings — simple and accessible for new dance students who have never created before, and which I wrote about at about this time last year...

While the Dance 1 classes are focusing primarily on the element of Space, I plan to emphasize the element of Force/Energy in the Dance 2 class. To that end, we began with a lesson on smooth and sharp — beginning with concrete images ( float down a smooth-flowing river, slash through a jungle, hiccups...), then using action words to find movements that can be done both smoothly and sharply — then moved on to further qualities of movement. I know that (at least according to Blom and Chaplin) there are as many movement qualities as there are adjectives in the dictionary, but for the purposes of this unit I focused on six: sustained/smooth, percussive/sharp, swinging, suspended, collapsing, and vibrating (which are the same qualities I learned from my master teacher, Marcia Singman, at Berkeley High school when I was student teaching, long before I learned much about creative dance teaching). The group project was simple: create a dance showing clearly at least three of these movement qualities, but making one the most important.

The Dance 2 class is small, so they worked in groups of 2 - 4, and I was intrigued by the variety of movement choices in their projects. One quartet created a dance in the form of a traditional Tahitian ‘aparima, with mostly sustained movements punctuated with some percussive arms and vibrating hips. Another group created a narrative about one person controlling a group, using percussive movement to carry the dramatic elements.

A third group began as a trio, with a lovely abstract dance of sustained in contemporary style punctuated with collapsing and percussive accents. Partway through the creating and rehearsal process, one dancer rejoined the class and this group after being sick at home for most of the week. The original trio was about to try to teach her all their movement in one day... but I told them my story about Balanchine’s Serenade — how one dancer was late to rehearsal, ran in midway through the dance and took her place, and how Balanchine kept the dancer arriving late as a central image and perhaps the most iconic element in a very famous dance. I always appreciate an opportunity to tell this story, because it is such a perfect example of how you can turn rehearsal difficulties to your advantage to make your dance more interesting and creative. So after hearing this little pep-talk, the group created a coda to their dance in which the original trio froze while the fourth dancer entered, weaving around and through them, and releasing them to exit as she circled each one in turn; the dance ended with this last dancer sinking to the floor in a low shape. It was lovely, seeming to imply a subtly mysterious narrative — and perhaps the group learned something lasting about working with what comes...