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Outside Eye

Philosophy of Teaching Dance Composition:

There is no manual for how to choreograph a dance, as much as I sometimes wish there were. However, each dance does have its own rules. What must be taught is the ability to recognize them. Since the process of choreographing, or all artistic creation for that matter, boils down to the ability to make choices, my job as a composition teacher is to make my students aware of the large palette of options that is available. I then must guide and encourage them to make the most distinctive, challenging, creative, constructive, skilled, intelligent, relevant, or daring decisions they can for their work.

To accomplish these goals, I begin by making the students conscious of all the elements involved in making a dance, all the areas in which they can have play. These range from inventing, differentiating and developing movement itself, to possibilities for distributing that movement in space and in time, to strategies for finding/evolving structure and form, and finally, to its various possible relationships, be they to music, other dancers, décor/props, location, the audience, context or reference. Deeply investigating these areas through exposure, discussion and experience, brings the student skill and facility in their use. To increase awareness, it is also vital the students experience a range of artists’ works, across visual and performance spectrums, and know of the ideological stances generating them or generated by them. Depending on circumstances, this can be done through a combination of viewing videos, artist interviews, readings and research, and attending performances. I want always, however, to avoid the pathology of the mind/body split, the disjuncture between theory and practice. Making dances is nothing other than theorizing and doing so repeatedly, and the relationship between mind and body while dancing is one of simultaneity and reciprocity.

Along with giving students these tools, I must also nurture the individual artist. This is the more difficult part, a more tricky negotiation between the teacher and the student. Not only must I make them conscious of their movement habits, biases, and preconceptions, I must also help them to meet the parts of themselves they do not yet know, all the while exposing them to a broad range of aesthetic points of view. In the end, they are not to make my dances. I must let them make their own decisions, encourage them to trust their own instincts, to follow what resonates, to encourage that individual voice and the courage it takes to follow it, but to demand they do so with discipline, knowledge, and by choice.

I must also teach the dance conventions of the day, or as it is usually termed, the craft of choreography. Culture and time bound, they are nonetheless necessary for the student to know as a point of reference, no matter where a young choreographer ultimately places him/her self on the continuum of traditional to experimental. I believe there are few, if any, absolutes in dance making. Although common issues arise across dances and can be discussed, be they of design, materials, intention/rationale, style, or structure, the answers lie within each dance, not as a general formula to be applied.

Over my years of experience, I have found that I must strike a balance between assignments that are open ended and those that are highly structured. Different students respond better to either kind of stimulus but all need both and I must not favor one over the other. I have also found that the most important part of the composition class is the discussion following the showing of a student’s work. A well designed assignment is useful, as is a pedagogically sound progression of them, but all of the learning really happens via the environment I create, in how I guide those exchanges and the relationships I establish among the students and between them and me. This environment must be a demanding one, but not one of fear. I must help the students to perceive more, to be artistically and intellectually curious, to try again, to love the process of trial and error that is the journey of creation. In my interactions I must train them to have both an objective and a subjective eye, for both are necessary for art. By encouraging and insisting they articulate their thoughts and feelings about what they see in those discussions, I can train that objective eye. By tuning into each student and finding a dialogue that allows them to be productive I can nurture that subjective eye. My hope, in the end, is that they come away with skilled awareness, knowing who they are as artists, with the courage and capacity for rigorous decision-making and with the ability to make work with clarity, challenge, and relevance and to perceive each dance’s needs and proscriptions.

I believe it is important before taking a composition course that students have at least one semester of improvisation to help them claim their own movement instincts and as an antidote to their experiences in traditional dance training classes. In my own improvisation classes I do not favor one approach, such as contact improvisation, over another. I draw from those used by theatre, jazz improvisation, traditional modern dance and postmodern strategies. I reference the work of Daniel Nagrin, Richard Bull, Dianne McIntyre, Charlie Todd and Billy Forsythe as well as that of the Grand Union and Steve Paxton. In my more advanced classes we look at improvisation used in non-western forms like Kathak or Argentine tango or other genres like tap dance. In all, I approach improvisation as not only a tool for choreography and the development of a dancer but also as a performance genre and training practice in itself and the subject of scholarly inquiry.

In my own choreography I have endeavored in my forty-two years of art making to never repeat myself and to remain independent of the forces that encourage allegiance to an aesthetic model. I have found each piece is a lab for the next one, that in answering the questions of one work, new questions are posed or something lingers that is yet to be developed. Philosophy, world events, dancing itself, other artists’ works and writings, my dancers, opportunities, venues, music, and photography inspire me. In the last few years I have developed a new choreographic process. It is a nonhierarchical system that takes the body-to-body transmission process out of my hands and allows the dancers to be the authors of the meanings that emerge from the movements I give rather than teach. It embraces the impermanence that is dance rather than trying to fight it and acknowledges the mutability of meanings that describes the way dance functions expressively.

I was blessed as a young person to have two great, but very different, composition teachers: Bessie Schönberg and Martha Myers. Bessie gave me brass tacks craft skills and an appreciation for the humility engendered by high standards. Martha made me value intellectual curiosity and the importance of asking great questions rather than pronouncing judgment. As part of my Graduate Seminar Course when I taught at Sarah Lawrence College, we examined the art of teaching dance composition. In the course of that investigation we interviewed seven renowned teachers of composition, asking all the same set of questions: Robert Dunn, Maida Withers, Phyllis Lamhut, Elizabeth Keen, Doris Rudko as well as Martha and Bessie. Though their teaching styles and aesthetic frames were different, I discovered all seven wanted the same results: artistry and skill. My teaching has been informed by what they had to say, by my experiences making over a hundred dances, by the many artists whose work I have seen or with whom I have worked, the many different teaching situations and programs where I have been employed, as well as by every student I have taught.  

© patcatdance