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!