Saturday, August 4, 2012

All Arms Open...

All right, here's a story (although I know a few of you out there may have heard this one before, in some form or another)… This is from about four years ago, but it's a good introduction, I think, to where I've been teaching and what my priorities have been: for a long time, one of my big goals as a teacher had been to move young choreographers past simply fitting their favorite steps to their favorite songs, and somehow teach them that dance can be about creating and communicating meaning — and this is a story about how I started to find a way to do that...

A little background: I was teaching at East Oakland School of the Arts, a small high school in a part of Oakland often sensationalized in the local media as “East Oakland’s killing zone,” where kids walk around in t-shirts saying “RIP, gone but not forgotten” and miss school for way too many funerals of their peers. It was the fourth year of the school and the dance program, so some of the seniors in my Dance Production class had been with me since they were freshmen. I had set the focus of the class that year on dance as a way to respond to history or social issues.

In the Fall, we were asked to put together a dance/ritual for EOSA's Dia de los Muertos celebration. We started off by having each dancer make a very short (one- or two-movement) motif that somehow reminded them of someone close to them who had passed. We combined those movements into a group phrase, which was repeated over and over as a ground bass background for solos: each dancer came on stage and joined the group phrase, and then each dancer soloed around and through the group. The repetition gave the final dance a meditative, ritualistic feeling, which was perfect for the celebration.

While we were working on this piece, we got a call from the Dance IS folks. The Dance IS festival was a local multigenerational event, combining high school, college, and professional dance groups on the same stage — very cool, and very empowering for my high school dancers. We had been in the festival for the past two years, and had applied that year with a proposal that would have used a storyline to combine a lot of different dance forms. The word from the panel was that this year’s proposal sounded... well, a lot like our last two festival dances. They wanted us to concentrate more on one dance style, and especially wanted to see more evidence of the EOSA dancers' growth as choreographers and artists.

So I came to the class and told them that, essentially, the panel was really looking to see them use dance as a medium to express something bigger and more meaningful than "we like to dance and here are the kinds of dance we like to do." I reminded them that their focus that year was on dance as a way to respond to history, and that it might be good to think about some specific Oakland history or issue to express (to fit with the theme "local") — and asked them to think about it overnight.

When I asked for any ideas the next day, bubbly, enthusiastic Y___ said, so quietly we could barely hear her, “I think we should do a dance about the killings in Oakland... and we should use the Day of the Dead piece as one part of it.” Nobody said a word... I had to take a really deep breath, and said that this would be very serious and very hard — and that I thought the group was ready to take it on. I asked if there were any objections, and K___ spoke up and said “I want to make a dance that makes people leave the theater crying...”

We brainstormed a little on music and structure — settled on some instrumental beats, and a slow beginning feeding into the Dia de los Muertos part, the rest to be determined — and wrote up a new proposal, which was accepted by the panel a week after the Dia de los Muertos ritual.

So then came the hard part — actually choreographing a piece that would do justice to their experiences. I had pretty much no idea how to go about guiding them through this process, without telling them how to do the choreography or doing it for them... so, when in doubt, I had them pull out their dance journals: “how has this issue affected you personally?”  “how would you choreograph the dance if you were doing it alone?” “what visual images do you see...?” The stories that came pouring out into their journals were amazing, and scary — and I knew we couldn't possibly do this piece without including their words. I asked them if we could add their voices to the opening slow section, had them each choose one or two sentences from their writings and mixed them over the music — and it became the entrance, as each dancer entered to his or her own words.

Then I needed some explorations to move the dance along. I started with some work with different energies, then with the five emotions that had mostly come up in their journals (anger, sadness, fear, confusion, and tranquility). Then my mentor suggested something about proximity — moving toward and away with different variations (rush... creep... as if you're scared... concerned... shocked... afraid to be seen... afraid to look but just can’t stop yourself... as if this happens every day and you don’t care anymore...), and they did it so beautifully we incorporated it into the dance and it became a central image, as one dancer fell in the center and others either rushed to her or walked unseeingly over her.

All through the process, the kids were on edge — sometimes having emotional outbursts, sometimes just wanting to give up — which I assumed was because of the extreme emotions of what they were working on. They got through it, and created a stunning piece — titled "All Arms Open, All Eyes Closed, All Hearts Speak," hence the title to this post — without doubt fulfilling K___'s wish to make the audience cry (some audience members who didn't know the dancers did confirm that for us). Being able to take the often tragic reality of their lives and turn it into art was incredibly empowering for these dancers... and I suspected that once they had found they could make something truly meaningful in dance, there would be no going back.

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous success story. On so many levels. So many educators should see this, and administrators, and politicians. Can you publish it more places? Op ed piece in newspapers? Education journals?