Friday, August 31, 2012
WCCHS, Dance-a-Rama, and collaboration
… Way back in the mid-'80s, while researching a piece using whale songs, I read a poem called "For A Coming Extinction" by W. S. Merwin, and it has haunted me ever since… (here's just a taste, the last stanza: "When you will not see again / The whale calves trying the light / Consider what you will find in the black garden / And its courts / The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas / The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless / And foreordaining as stars / Our sacrifices / Join your word to theirs / Tell him / That it is we who are important") I felt that now, when we are facing environmental catastrophe (and while I was teaching part time), it was definitely time to finally respond to it in dance.
So — I would have been okay with just doing a little solo, but I started getting ideas that really needed a group… and by the time I had worked with the WCCHS students for a while, I could see that they might be up for a serious choreography project. So I put it to them one day — said it was totally optional, but I would like to see if anyone might be interested in working on a (semi) professional dance piece with me — and the four seniors were completely enthusiastic! I did warn them that this would be a blend of my ideas with some of their movement, that I would mostly be asking them to collaborate with me the way a choreographer collaborates with her dancers — and since they were up for it, we agreed to get started the next week (I did ask the rest of the class to work on it with us, at least at the beginning, so that they could have the collaboration experience also).
My big structural idea was to keep the beginning a solo, danced to the poem, but to have the group enter during that last stanza — and to have the group section based on an accumulation in reverse: the group would repeat a ground bass phrase over and over as each dancer solos; then one by one, each dancer would freeze, hold her shape, and slowly melt to the ground; and as she melts, the group would subtract her movement from the ground bass, until the last dancer would be performing just one movement over and over again… to somehow symbolize in movement the loss of diversity, the "dark and gathering sameness" (to borrow a phrase from Terry Glavin) of extinction...
So I asked each dancer to create a solo symbolizing in movement any animal she chose, and to pick one movement from it for the ground bass. We did a lesson on abstracting animal movements, taking off from a lesson in Mary Joyce's book (I had done a very simple version with kindergartners earlier in the year, so it was really interesting to expand the lesson and see what accomplished high school students could do with it). They chose a good range of different animals: crab, flamingo, lion, and bear. The movements they abstracted came out beautifully, as all were so different from each other — tiny, quick hand gestures for the crab; large, flowing movements for the flamingo; strong low-level movement for the lion... The hard part was setting the de-accumulation — we found it was really hard to remember to do each shorter version of the phrase (even though we could see each dancer melting away!)... We did need a few rehearsals outside of class time, but not too many.
Performance time was at the end of April. It was lovely for me, as Dance-a-Rama takes place at the Eighth Street studio complex, where I have studied Hawkins technique for years (no, decades) with Ruth Botchan — so it was quite wonderful to be able to bring students to perform in that setting, with various dance friends watching. We started out at 10:00 to be there in time for the morning run through; then we went for lunch, so we were able to sit down and just talk about stuff other than dance — their college plans for this year, favorite food, whatever… Our performance was at 2:00 (second out of four shows) — they performed beautifully, and since we were the first piece, they got to come out to the audience and watch the rest (and when I went back to the dressing room afterward to pick up their costumes, I found they were all folded — I have never known teenagers to fold their costumes without being nagged!)
The dancers weren't able to stay for the audience reception at the end of festivities, hours later (finals coming up soon, and all those conscientious seniors had plenty of schoolwork after a full day of dancing), so I was the one to hear all the excellent feedback. When we got to our next class, we were moving right along into work with the rest of the class — so my only regret on this one is that we didn't really have a time to debrief and talk about how it felt for them, to dance for the community… But it was certainly a memorable experience for me — having students mature enough and open enough to collaborate with on a piece so close to my heart is an amazing gift; and, much like the group who created "All Arms Open…" four years before, this is one group of students I am not likely to ever forget.