Featured Article – Kristin Kusanovich discusses dance success.
Dance Editorial – Producer as Educator by Beth Megill.
Upcoming NDEO Conference – CDEA to meet Friday night of NDEO conf.
Making “Me Time”
October in California is the thick of the season. We have all found our routines and are plowing forward week by week, taking on what we can and hoping it won’t burn us out this time. There will always be more work, more challenge, more effort on the other side of tomorrow. So, how do we allow ourselves to do what we need and let go of the burdens that weigh us down? The key is making space. CDEA encourages you to do something for yourself this month— perhaps a casual meal with friends, or attending a dance class, or attending a concert. Avoid that temptation to book yourself solid. Resist it with all your might and discover the gift of recuperation this fall.
On Behalf of CDEA, Beth Megill (SoCal President)
Some Musings on The Concrete Versus The Ephemeral
by Kristin Kusanovich
I used to think that the convergence of modern and ballet over the last few decades, those two utterly rich forms so different in their beauty, was a big surprise. Who could reconcile the parallel and obtusely angled feet? They were literally not going in the same directions as each other. Now, the regular blurring of those distinctions and the ubiquitous crossover training ethic that is advocated by virtually all dance teachers and demanded by virtually all students is not such big news. Though throughout the 1970s I did tire of seeing pointe trained ballet dancers trying to do contractions in a cosmetic fashion, and modern trained dancers creating some insufferable petit allegro sections in their works, these were just byproducts of the early phases of the merger. After being weaned on stories of Isadora Duncan’s flinging off the proverbial corsets and rediscovering earthy, joyous, and yes, free movement, and seeing what generations of modern dancers did without a huge nod to ballet (though it was always present in their or their dancer’s training waiting to serve) I felt it was front page news, for the art world at least, when I came to understand that Alvin Ailey had choreographed for ABT in 1970.
That would probably be for me when the merger of these two differently intended styles began in the world of dance, though some would put it earlier or later for sure. I am glad the perceived distance between the two fields has narrowed; and there is still some space for difference. It used to seem that to go from one world to the other was to leap over some gaping chasm, maybe never to return; these days in training, choreography and even intent the crossover from ballet to modern or vice versa is done all the time because it is more like crossing a friendly brook than some precarious canyon.
So ballet and modern/ contemporary dance perhaps needed to be foes at first, but have become well-matched competitors, each making each other’s game stronger. At present, they are at last like friends who have reconciled most, but not all, of their attitudinal problems about each other. It is fascinating to me that during this same period another dichotomy has sprung up that presents a fundamentally new aesthetic boundary to be watched. There is a distinction in the field of dance that now seems more important than any other distinction formerly held by genres (which we now know can be blurred endlessly and reconfigured ad nauseam). This new boundary is widening, and is creating a tension that always existed in the arts but never had so much speed of light marketing behind it. That is the distinction between dance on a spectrum of success measured more concretely versus dance on a spectrum of success measured more ephemerally.
This is not the same as the perennial question of commercial dance versus non commercial dance, because that duality always implied a sellable versus unsellable classification and even some sense of the mindless ability to dance for the pleasure of a paying audience and the mindfulness of dance as an art. Yet, there are shades of the commercial/noncommercial tension in this even though either can be done with mindfulness, or mindlessly for that matter.
Concrete measurements of the success of dance can come in many forms. Undeniably virtuosic technique can be concretely experienced and agreed upon. Thousands and millions of hits to a youtube channel are concrete evidence of likability. Competitions involving winners and losers use concrete systems of evaluation and suggest that the ability to judge an artist’s worth is a concrete, indisputable ability. Commercial appeal, coolness, marketability, are all concrete factors that draw people out to the latest wine and cheese and dance choreography showings. Audiences are fairly sure from the way the website looks, the wittiness of the twitter feed and the promises of beverages, snacks and art, that their concrete needs will be met during this time spent with dance. A lot of great work is being done in this concrete realm. The hipness, and there is much of it, has a rational, almost quantifiable veneer.
So what are the ephemeral measures? Or as others before me who have wished to acknowledge the unknowable and mysterious foundations of the dance arts have asked, where is the doubt? In considering dance on a spectrum of success measured ephemerally we are already taking an unorthodox definition of success that is unhinged from monetary and other quantifiable measures and perhaps commercial viability, but one that enjoys totally dedicated, committed fans. Just writing this one knows that most readers will have already jumped back to the concrete paragraph and said “well that’s where it’s at.” The chasm created by the ephemeral approach involves an ethical stance and what might be called a spiritual intent. It is at once very old fashioned and extremely current. The ephemeral approach is teaching ballet, modern, contemporary or any blend of the three for some higher but unexplainable gain. Perhaps the nature of the success sought out by teachers and choreographers and hard-working dancers working on the ephemeral side is, simply put, irrational. Ephemerally minded dancers are perhaps looking at the internal landscape as much as or more than externals. They might tend to create something for the sake of the creative process, or the community it builds or transforms or artfulness of the experience, for gain, but not for the predicted concrete gains it brings. A lot of great work is being done in this ephemeral realm. The non-hipness of it has an irrational veneer.
It would be easy to say the two can just get along and everything goes so “hey, no worries.” But this space between the two, in which neither the ephemerally minded dancers nor the concretely minded dancers can see the value in each other’s work reminds me of the chasm between ballet and modern long ago. It will be important to proceed thoughtfully and check out the trends for both areas. It is hard to see a convergence of these two states of mind and differently placed artistic passion down the line, because the mutual dismissal is rather polarizing at present. This is a defining period in dance. It might be interesting to sift through our myriad of projects and experiences in dance at present to distill whether we understand the concrete and ephemeral aspects of our own engagement in the work. How do our dance communities thrive in a challenging age? It might be important to own and acknowledge, to honor and wonder about the impetus behind all the long hours and where we find that most dynamic intersection of self and community and world. Whether concrete or ephemeral in nature, I am confident that the endeavors we gravitate towards, do ultimately define us all, as dancers, quite beautifully and I imagine a place where that which is parallel seems to ultimately converge, meeting perhaps like the heels of two well-turned out feet.
Producing Audience Appeal
How to find the balance between experimentation and entertainment.
by Beth Megill
As educators we are also required to be incredible concert producers. But, how many of us actually list that on our resume? Producing a strong concert goes beyond the nuts and bolts scheduling, resource acquisition and “talent management.” The act of producing implies that we are designing concerts to serve complex needs and goals of our students, our audiences and our own artistic vision.
We often find ourselves in such a rush to make it to the finish line that we make decisions on the fly, decisions that make sense in the moment or are simply the easiest solution at hand. Producing can often feel like the last push in a marathon semester, something we just want to survive. But, are we producing the best show we can? What does a good show look like for dance educators at different levels? Is there a way we can redirect our focus toward a better balance between the demand for entertainment and the sometimes less glamorous student learning objectives? Let’s start by taking a look at the goals of educational dance concert production.
Serving Student Need
This is the big one, the ultimate reason behind it all. Our students perform in concerts for a variety of reasons. Performance can be a testament to their learning and achievements. It can pose a challenge for students to rise to the occasion. It can be a final assessment process. Sometimes we make dances to teach cultural heritage, choreographic constructs, technical challenges or social interaction. When I first came to my current position at Moorpark College, I was uncertain about the practice of holding a recitalstyle concert for all of the technique classes at the end of every semester. I thought, “Surely this would take away much needed time for practicing technique and improving skill!” To my amazement I discovered that a huge amount of learning occurred in preparation for these end of semester showings that may not have otherwise have happened. Students who were formerly unmotivated, started to push themselves to learn the material when faced with dancing in front of an audience. Others found such joy in performance that it was a primary reason they returned semester after semester to even as Nursing, Chemistry, or English majors. So, I started to shift my approach to these concerts. I asked how I could firmly interweave the learning objectives of the class into performance. I started choreographing to serve the needs of the class. If the students struggled with inversions, I made a dance full of cartwheels! My choreography was not just a reflection of the students learning, it drove the student learning. The cartwheels may not be perfect in performance but they will have improved!
As producers and choreographers, we have aesthetic vision that cannot be denied. Each piece of our choreography reflects who we are as artists at that time. In a culture in which we are asked to repeatedly create material to teach (as opposed to theater which draws on scripts or music that draws on a cannon of scores), we continually wear an additional hat as creative artist. The challenge with this as an educator is working with the resources we have—student age, level, time for rehearsal, costume budget, etc. We are often faced with compromising our vision due to surrounding circumstances. Let’s take a simple example of a dance in which a choreographer desires the entire cast to do the splits. But, two out of the 30 dancers cannot do the splits and no amount of practice over the next 4 weeks will change that. So, we compromise. We become as flexible as we need to be in order to make the circumstances work and the best learning to happen. We often do this gladly and without reservation. Flexibility is part of the job. This is what makes us great educators. But, there is one other aspect to our aesthetic vision that we continually confront and that is audience appeal.
Although dance is a beloved arts practice by many communities, the concert producer is often faced with strong expectations about what dance should be and what “good” dance looks like. People love to watch entertaining dance and often misconstrue good dance with entertaining dance. This is a reason why So You Think You Can Dance is still such a hugely popular show. But as dance educators we know that entertainment is not always at the heart of what we do and certainly not always at the heart of what we are trying to teach our students. We work all semester trying to broaden the minds of our students, exposing them to new ways of choreographing, of looking at dance, of appreciating the obscure, and, then, we put them in front of an audience that expects to be entertained. This seems like a recipe for disaster and yet we do it year after year. We are in many ways obligated to challenge our students to experiment with their choreographic voices. We want them to discover their own ways of making and performing dance.
Yet, the result is often choreographic work that even a willing audience member may not appreciate. Of course, there are exceptions. However, we all have experienced family members or administrators who comment “Why is it so dark and depressing?” or “I can’t understand modern dance” or my most commonly received feedback “Why wasn’t there tap in the show?”
As producers what is our obligation? Are we doing what we set out to do? What are our values? Are our choices helping us or hurting us? Are they getting more people to the shows? Are they providing a stronger foundation for our dancers to find their voices? I don’t have the answers, but I believe we must take these questions into consideration as dance educators. And, I propose the following possibility.
Each of our concerts is our chance to educate our audiences. We have them held captive for 2 hours! What do we want to do with it? I have seen and created concerts that use the performance opportunity to include the audience in the learning and appreciating processes. One concert used a slide show of historical images and facts about Hanya Holm in the lobby before and during the intermission as context for a solo based on Holm’s personality and style. Other shows I have seen include extensive program notes. There is not one right way to inform the audience. But, it seems that it is something we need to consider as producers semester in and semester out as the students keeps changing and the audiences who come to see them keep changing.
Educating the audience is not a onetime deal; it is a goal for a lifetime. It is our chance as dance educators to simultaneously teach hundreds of people how to better understand, interpret and appreciate what we do. We don’t have to cover the entirety of dance history; we just need to give them enough information to enjoy the performance they are seeing. It might be information about the process of how the dance was created and an acknowledgement that there is no narrative to be “gotten.” Just as we explain to our students, we can explain to our audiences that the goal of a piece is to reject the grip of entertainment standards and to challenge the status quo. By letting them know that they are witnessing a rebellion, they can feel good about being a part of the experiment. The unfortunate alternative is a family that grumbles about every concert and asks their students what they really plan to do with their careers!
Our culture is no longer the risk-taking rule-breaking world of the 1960’s and 70’s. Audiences are accustomed to being entertained. They are not necessarily interested in pushing the envelope as much as they want to see a pretty dance. For better or worse, this is how our audiences come to see our concerts, and we have a choice to make about how we want to respond. We can each do it in our own way. We can find balance with a piece, within a concert, within a year of concerts. But, the more keenly aware of what we are doing and the affect it has on those who support us, the more we have agency in directing the future of the field.