When Disability Sparks Creativity

As dancers, our bodies are our voices; our means of expression. And for much of the dance world, there is an expectation of physical perfection, beauty and ability that is central to the idea of what makes a dancer. Like dancers, singers also rely on their bodies as instruments of artistic expression and there is a long tradition of exquisite voices, in all genres of music, thrilling audiences through vocal prowess, musicality, phrasing and interpretation. But unlike the world of dance, there are also singers who are considered truly great artists, who’s voices are not “exquisite” in the traditional sense. Superb vocalists, who possess voices that lack traditional beauty, sonority and timbre; singers with vocal equipment that displays the ravages of time, have always been able to captivate audiences. Singers like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland and more recently Bonnie Raitt have the ability to transfix audiences. Their communicative approach to their music reaches deeply into the hearts of their listeners. Their artistry transcends their physical limitations. In fact, it is the imperfections that make them great. I have always been very much aware of this difference; believing that for a dancer to be great, they needed to possess a great body; a great facility.

And then I found this video

And here is a dancer who isn’t dancing despite his limitations, he is dancing BECAUSE of his limitations. And instead of allowing his disease to dictate what he can not do, he uses it to his advantage. And what is born, out of a physically debilitating disease, is a dancer of great artistic expression who reaches his audiences in a unique, beautiful and profound way. His “disability” was the seed of his great creativity.

When my teacher and mentor Luigi was paralyzed in a car accident, the doctors told him he would never walk again. Determined to dance, Luigi developed his own means of rehabilitation. The exercises he developed became part of his technique and what grew of a tragic accident was a brilliant and completely new way to train dancers. Luigi went on to a highly respected career as a dancer, followed by the creation of a legendary teaching method and school that has reached millions of dancers. One day a new student came up to Luigi before class and said “I wanted to tell you before class starts that I’m disabled.” Luigi looked at her, and without missing a beat said with a shrug “So am I.”

When the acclaimed Broadway dancer Ben Vereen was hit by an automobile, he feared he might never dance again. He reached out to the great Chita Rivera, his friend and colleague. She too had also been horribly injured in a car accident. He asked “Chita, will I ever dance again?” Her response: “You will dance again. But it will be different. And VIVA LA DIFFERENCE”.

So the next time we see that dancer in a wheel chair, or with a physical disability, or some other limitation I believe we should look; really look at what they have to give. And we should be open to what they bring to the stage; what they have to say. Because sometimes what can at first be perceived as a handicap can truly be an inspiration to create. There is nothing more exciting to watch than a completely vulnerable and fully concentrated artist. And what a thrill it can be when we are touched by that artist and moved in a way that we didn’t think possible when it is least expected. And what a gift it can be to an audience to be truly and deeply touched and moved by great inspiration and creativity, Why should we deny ourselves that gift?


Competition Dance-just some thoughts

The time that I spend on social media, participating in dance teachers’ groups, websites, and blogs, has opened the door to the world of competitive dance. I am finding what I see through that door extremely intriguing. My personal experience with competition dance has been limited. I have never been a regular teacher at a competition school. I have only judged one dance competition and that was more than 20 years ago. I have been learning and reading about this aspect of the dance industry on social media and I recently read two posts that really peaked my interest. Both of these pieces related to “turning” and both of these pieces have got me thinking about what we teach our students, how we choreograph for our students and what our goals are of our students.

The first post was about a competition piece, in which a student uses something called a turn board to execute seven pirouettes. I do not know what a turn board is. I did not google “turn board”… but I’ve got a pretty good idea as to what it is and what it is used for. As I mentioned in my piece about “tricks”, I am not a teacher who hates tricks. In fact I love technical brilliance and pyrotechnical steps…when they are used to enhance the artistic vision of the choreographer, express something in the music, or add to the dramatic narrative of the piece of choreography. I am not interested in “tricks” when they are used as a vulgar display of prowess. One of the comments on this post about the “turn board” suggested that the judges might consider it a prop. I would like to offer as an example a clip from Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. In this number, choreographer Michael Kidd uses “props” as well as brilliant virtuoso “tricks” to enhance the story telling, highlight the musical intention and bring  his vision to the screen. (The piece is a good 6 minutes…stay with it, it is really worth it.)

Now granted, Michael Kidd is one of the greatest choreographers of all time. He had at his disposal, dancers with an incredible level of technical ability who were brilliant artists; the kind of dancer we seldom see today. It would be unfair to expect every dance teacher who sends a group to a competition to be able to choreograph and set a piece at this level. However, I do know for a fact, there are some exceedingly talented teachers and choreographers in the competition dance world. And perhaps if we can expose those talented teachers and choreographers to THIS way of working, we might not see “turn combinations” that are shoehorned into pieces merely to display the dancers technical ability. And maybe if the competition dance studios and choreographers embrace other aesthetics, other ways of working, rather than seeing a turn board on the stage, we might see some truly original use of props to enhance technical feats.

The second post that caught my eye questioned whether dancers should be given “turn combinations” in competition pieces that they can not execute perfectly. There was a certain amount of discussion on how judges score pieces, how deductions are made for mistakes and what the technical requirements are for pieces at various levels. All of this was very informative to me, as I have no knowledge as to how competition pieces are constructed and how judges score them.

In the previous clip, we saw dancing that had an incredible level of technical “tricks”. I would like to contrast that with a piece that has no tricks at all (and yes, I reference this piece often.) Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity:

This piece is constructed in a completely different way. It requires a very high level of technique, as well as a very high level of style, nuance and artistic expression. I have danced this piece and it is extremely difficult. Everything is choreographed, including the fingers. Every detail is worked out, planned, and perfected. Style, musicality, phrasing, control, quality of movement…all need to be as close to perfect as is humanly possible for the piece to have the effect that it does in this clip. I have often wondered how something like this might be viewed by competition judges. The piece is one of the most challenging I have ever danced and was very difficult to learn, yet…there are no tricks; no turns, no display.

So, getting back to the question as to whether dancers should be given “turn combinations” in competition pieces that they can not execute perfectly, I think it depends on what we are trying to achieve, what we have set as our goal. If our goal is to win (and that is certainly a valid goal) then the experts in dance competitions will tell us that we should not be presenting tricks that the students cannot perform perfectly, as point deductions will certainly be taken. However, there might be other goals. Perhaps we are trying to create an experience for the students; perhaps we are trying to give them an opportunity to try something new. And creating that opportunity without worrying about winning is also a valid goal. And we also might be teaching our students to take risks. And nothing is more thrilling to an audience than an artist who takes risks… And this, too, is a valid goal. But if we have students who are lovely artists who cannot turn well or do not have high extensions, perhaps we can look toward the work presented in Mr. Fosse’s clip. Perhaps this kind of work could inspire the talented, creative competition teachers and choreographers to create pieces that can enthrall the audience and impress the judges in a new and different way.

So with each visit to a competition school, with each guest teaching engagement, I am trying to bridge the gap. I am trying to bring different ways of working, different approaches, different ideas and different focuses to competition dance. Clearly these teachers and choreographers are not going to abandon their entire training, history, way of working and artistic vision because I show them my point of view; that would be ridiculous, and incredibly ego-maniacal. But maybe, as I present a different way of working, a different way to approach composition, musicality, movement…dancing, I can bring some new ideas. And maybe some of these ideas can blended into the way these artists are already working to bring something different, fresh and exciting to the competition stage. Maybe these artists might be moved to take a risk…and what could be more thrilling?

Attention Span

I’ve read some posts recently that made me stop and think about “Attention Span”. There was a post made by a young teacher in which the teacher asked for suggestions of possible songs for a recital number that prompted me to write a post. The teacher was looking for two songs to cut together to create the Music for the number. Now please understand that this post is absolutely not a criticism of this teacher’s idea of cutting two songs together. I would never presume to tell a teacher or a choreographer what music they should use when creating their work. What got me thinking was the teacher’s reason for wanting to combine two songs. If the idea was to combine two songs that just sounded great together, or to combine two songs that in someway related to each other thematically or musically, or told some sort of story, I would probably applaud the creativity. But what caught my eye was that the teacher said that as a choreographer and as an audience member, using only one song was boring. Now it’s very possible that in the end this teacher will create a fantastic number using two songs that work beautifully together. I am not at all criticizing the idea of using two songs. What is concerning me, and making me think (and write) is the idea that someone could be bored by using only one song in a number. Especially since the kind of studio where this teacher taught will typically produce numbers that are between 2 1/2 and 3 minutes. I have been mesmerized by brilliant choreography set to very long pieces of music both in the ballet world and the modern dance world as well as extensive and lengthy numbers from Broadway musicals, using one piece of music .

In this excerpt from Sweet Charity, Bob Fosse creates a nearly six minute number that is positively stunning. There is “one song” and interestingly, there are no pirouettes (or turns of any kind), no legs higher than 90 degrees (for the most part no legs higher than 45 degrees), and only a couple of jumps done by a soloist. The number is positively brilliant, completely engrossing, beautiful in its style and construction.

When it comes to attention span and focus in the studio, I have always been keenly focused in class. In fact, the study of dance and the training of dancers is pretty much an obsession, leaving little room in my brain for other concerns. Is this unique to me? Is this unique to people of my generation? I keep reading that the digital age has shortened the attention span of the younger generations. This just seems to be evidence of that. Another example: Regardless of the rules that my studios have prohibiting the checking of cell phones during class, I constantly see students trying to get a quick peek at what is going on on their phone in the middle of class. They clearly can’t seem to be able to focus intensely for an hour or an hour and a half class without the additional stimulation a cell phone provides. Once, while taking a professional level class at Steps on Broadway in New York City, I saw a rather famous principal dancer from American Ballet Theatre checking her cell phone while the teacher was demonstrating the adagio. Apparently this teacher (perhaps the finest teacher I’ve ever had the good fortune of taking class with) was not interesting enough to hold his dancers attention. (I really don’t care how good a dancer is or how successful their career is, when they are in class they should be focusing). It has started me to try think of strategies for helping dancers learn to focus. I teach in three serious pre-professional programs. My students’ careers are in my hands and in the hands of my colleagues. I know for a fact that in the professional arena the competition is brutal. Training dancers with an intense ability to focus, the way I was focused in class 30 years ago, would definitely give these dancers a competitive edge when it came to securing employment. But how?

Notes on Cultivating Artistry in Students

I have always loved these clips of Gelsey Kirkland & Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gene Kelly.

They recently resurfaced on my Facebook feed with a number of new “comments” and “shares”. One of those comments by Betsy Ramlow: “Yes. Dance Greatness. This is unteachable.”

I could not agree more. The BRILLIANCE of these dancers can NOT be taught. But that kind of talent must be nurtured. As dance teachers, it is possible that the next Gene Kelly or Gelsey Kirkland may one day be placed in our charge. We are all aware of the technical demands placed on today’s professional dancers in every genre of dance. Dancers are expected to have soaring jumps, dizzying pirouettes and sky high extensions. It is the responsibility of dance educators to be sure that we are raising dancers that can meet these technical demands if they are going to be employable. And I admit, that this sort of technical brilliance is incredibly exciting. Sometimes, though, I get the feeling that in an attempt to create a brilliant technique, many teachers are “training the artist out of their students”. If we are going to train great ARTISTS then we must expose our students to the kind of training that will cultivate their artistry. We must teach them to go deep; way deeper than the artificial and superficial emotionality and facial expressions so often seen in kids’ contemporary and lyrical classes and choreography.

We must train dancers that are MUSICAL. We have to teach them that not every piece of music is constructed in even phrases of 8 counts. That not every count gets one movement. That the accent is not always on the “1” and the “5”. We should be choreographing combinations to complex and interesting pieces of music. Our choreography should be rhythmically complex; the body should be like another instrument in the orchestration; the rhythm of the choreography should be like an independent thought in the fabric of the music. I say to my students: Don’t dance with the music. Don’t dance on the music. Dance INSIDE the music.

We also have a responsibility to train dancers with a beautiful quality of movement. Look at Kirkland’s exquisite port de bras; or the turn and steps that follow at 1:33 in Gene Kelly’s clip. That quality can only be developed by working slowly. Many young dancers look like professionals when performing high energy, fast paced choreography. But slow those same dancers down and what is revealed is a struggling performer; rough and unpolished. Making dancers work slowly, teaching them to fill phrases, having them watch themselves in the mirror as they perform slow, simple movements, will help guide them toward a beautiful quality. I tell them to “Find the power in the simplicity” “Don’t shout the choreography at the audience; instead, draw the audience in to YOU”.

We have to give them the freedom to be unique. I ask them to find something special, make their dancing deeply personal, astonish me! BUT DONT CHANGE THE CHOREOGRAPHY.

There are as many ways to cultivate a dancer’s artistry as there are teachers and dancers. As educators we must be creative. We must explore ways of helping our students become ARTISTS.

I believe that artistry can’t really be TAUGHT; it must be CULTIVATED. On this point I do disagree with my teacher, the legendary Luigi. Gelsey Kirkland was a student of David Howard and Maggie Black. If her EXQUISITE artistry was simply taught to her by these great teachers, then the multitude of dancers that studied with these two teachers would have the artistry that Kirkland had. Trust me, I know many of these teachers’ students…there is only one Gelsey Kirkland. But without brilliant teaching, without a highly educated, discerning, and tasteful outside eye telling the artist what is working and what isn’t (we all know that the mirror lies), and nurturing the artistic growth of the dancer, I don’t believe that the creation of a Gelsey Kirkland would have been possible. Sadly, we have lost David Howard and Maggie Black, and my former teacher and mentor, Gabriella Darvash (who nurtured many great careers, most notably NYCB’s Judith Fugate and ABT’s Nancy Raffa) spends little time in New York. I still take class regularly, with today’s prominent teachers: Fabrice Herrault, Nancy Bielsky, Karin Averty…and I watch how students study. I am shocked when I see dancers “zone out” or worse PRACTICE PIROUETTES when the exquisite Fabrice Herrault is discussing the fine points of musicality, epaulment, phrasing…artistry. I have seen perfectly adequate professionals in ABT and NYCB exhibit this sort of behavior; and they will continue to be perfectly adequate dancers for the rest of their careers. There may not be another Kirkland for a very long time. Sigh

No teacher can “MAKE” a Fred Astaire or “MAKE” a Mikhail Baryshnikov. We can only nurture the growth of a talented student. But imagine if a 9 year old Gene Kelly or Gelsey Kirkland had been trusted to a teacher that merely taught them to jump, kick and turn and then pointed them at a stage. That would have been tragic.