From Sole to Soul: A Choreographer's Journey, Part 2

By Ryan P. Casey

As proud as I was to have created and performed my original tap choreography with my original poetry, I had not initially envisioned a solo piece. I had sacrificed my original vision to produce something that was, at the time, more feasible given time and budget constraints. The solo turned out to be more successful than I had imagined, but I was still itching to get to work with a group of dancers and incorporate other styles besides tap.
Earlier this year, my opportunity arrived. Boston’s own Urbanity Dance announced that they were seeking a ‘wildcard choreographer’ to set a piece for their spring show, “Mixtape” – someone whose background was not necessarily in dance. I was already familiar with the company, having been to some of their previous shows to support Lori LoTurco, a company member who had been my jazz teacher for many years, and having recommended them for a segment on The Steve Katsos Show, on which I had previously made an appearance. Eagerly, I submitted my proposal and was thrilled days later when director Betsi Graves Akerstein called and offered me the position.
My excitement was matched only by my anxiety. Urbanity, while featuring dancers with rich backgrounds, is primarily a contemporary dance company. And my dancers would not just be using my recording, but also reciting portions of the poem aloud. I not only had to craft an entirely new structure for the routine, playing with which lines and stanzas would be spoken and which would stay in the recording, but I had to develop a very clear vision of what I wanted to see so that the dancers could help me choreograph in a style that was not my own. And I had only seven hours in the studio over the course of a weekend to work with them.
I reverted again to the “first thought, best thought” strategy, going through the poem and writing down precisely what I had first envisioned when I had written it. As I now had six contemporary dancers to work with, rather than just myself tapping, I had the opportunity to take a more visual approach to my choreography. In some cases, it was much easier to adapt themes or ideas from my solo for an ensemble. For example, the walking motif that formed the backbone of the original piece was more effective when I had a group of dancers who could easily bring to life the image of a crowded Manhattan sidewalk. As I did not have to focus on the rhythms of their feet, I could experiment with the rhythms of their upper bodies and their legs and how those more visual rhythms told the story. I was also able to develop a cast of characters by costuming the dancers uniquely and giving them individual, pedestrian movements to repeat throughout the routine. The sensations of confusion, overstimulation, and isolation that pervade an urban setting were easier to depict with an ensemble of dancers. I maintained my tap roots with a body percussion section as a reminder that the crux of the piece was still rhythm, even though the dominant style of dance had changed.
Perhaps the most effective choreographic decision derived from Betsi herself, who found a brilliant way to utilize the Boston University Dance Theatre to adequately set the scene. During my piece, the shades were raised on the windows on the stage’s back wall, revealing the sidewalk and street behind it. The lights from cars and buildings outside, and the shadows and movements of pedestrians – including curious ones who peeked in to see what was happening – provided the perfect backdrop to a piece about assimilating into city life.
I was fortunate to work with a cast who were willing to explore with me, offer their own ideas, implement my cues quickly and creatively, and learn their parts as both dancers and slam poets.
Company member Kate Patten Cook reflected on the experience:

It was unlike any choreographic experience I've been involved in. I'm used to being told what moves to do to which parts of the music, and how those moves should work alongside of the tempo and melody. With Push, we had no specific moves, no music, no tempo, and no melody. I was scared at first to dance through the silence. I was scared to have to improvise and invent more than I'd ever had to working on a piece in the past. I was scared that we might not be able to work through the whole piece in a way that was outside of all of our comfort zones in a short period of time.
But almost instantly, things started coming together. We learned to hear the rhythm and the beat and even the melody of the words that were being spoken. The more time we spent with Ryan, the clearer his vision became. Some of the phrases we tried didn't work, so we threw them aside. Ultimately, each one of the dancers had some creative input in what we did with our bodies. And Ryan wove it all together.
The experience of speaking onstage while dancing might have been the scariest bit of all. I hadn't been in a play since the third grade, and had never had to talk while dancing in the past. At first, I felt discombobulated - and exhausted - to force words out of my lungs while turning, swooping and kicking. But bit by bit, we all go the hang of it. It was an experience of discovering a new layer of strength as a dancer and performer. And I loved it.”
In retrospect, I think both the solo and the ensemble piece have their respective strengths. They both approach the poem in different ways, emphasizing different themes while staying true to my original purpose. And there is still so much to explore that neither piece covers. I would love to set this piece on an ensemble group of tap dancers; or to create a duet with a contemporary dancer in which I represent the Pedestrian and s/he represents the City; or to do the same with a group of tap dancers and a group of modern dancers; or to revamp my solo so that I can say some of the poem aloud. The poem itself offers so many creative avenues to follow that I have not yet begun to investigate. For now, though, I am pleased with both pieces.
What do you think about each piece? Is one more powerful or engaging than the other? Does one stand out to you? What else could I do to interpret the poem and my ideas onstage?


Monkeyhouse Workshop @ Mass Dance Fest

The hurricane that swept up the East Coast in August, forced the Massachusetts Dance Festival to postpone its events. We are delighted that Monkeyhouse will be able to lead our partnering workshop on the new date, October 30th.

Massachusetts Dance Festival Workshop Schedule

Workshop I - 10:30-Noon
  • Intermediate Ballet - James Reardon
  • Classical Indian - Mouli Pal
Workshop II - 12:15-1:45
  • Advanced Beginner Tap - Thelma Goldberg
  • Modern Partnering Intermediate - Karen Krolak
Lunch Break - 1:45-2:45

Workshop III - 2:45-4:15
  • Modern - Annie Kloppenberg
  • Hip Hop - Sarah-Kay Jerome
 October 30, 2011
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA
The Mass Dance Festival Studios 
are in the Totman Building on Eastman Lane on the campus.
Enter in the back door off the parking lot.
Register here!
Each workshop is only $15

Season 11 - Outside Voices

Monkeyhouse, an award winning nonprofit that connects communities to choreography, needs YOU to take us all the way to eleven.

Against all kinds of odds, we have survived since September of 2000 on brash ingenuity and a shoestring thanks to the amazing support of donors, volunteers, and dancers. But, if YOU want us to continue to counteract society’s sedentary tendencies and get communities moving with meaning, YOU need to invest in our double long season of 2011-2013 celebrating Outside Voices. Please donate now to help us raise $25,000 this fall to launch this ambitious season. (We have already raised $2100!)

Your support is critical to our success. Monkeyhouse’s programs defy easy categorization and therefore we must rely on visionary donors to bring them to fruition. For example, consider these highlights from the last year:
  • Æ, our collaboratively created site-specific piece for Dance in the Fells, lured hundreds of people up the steep path to Wright’s Tower in Medford, MA. We were so honored when Dance in the Fells was awarded a Gold Star from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
  • Moving for Meaning, an afterschool program for kids at the Healey School in Somerville, sprang out of a conversation after the first Somerville-Tiznit Sister City trip. Our Somerville students, most of whom do not speak English as a first language, are gaining public speaking skills, acquiring a better grasp of English grammar, connecting to students in Morocco and exercising.
  • Against the Odds: Stories of Adaptation, Interpretation and Survival, Monkeyhouse's first mini-festival, gathered together over 40 artists over the course of 4 weeks to examine the intersection between sculpture, stage combat, body percussion, puppetry, architecture, and choreography. Months later, people still contact us to bounce around ideas for new pieces or to share stories about how Against the Odds nudged them to explore their world differently.

By donating to Monkeyhouse today, YOU will be an early investor in our next two seasons.  After evaluating the first decade, we have realized that we can accomplish more by taking the long term view of our organization and activities.  As we delve into the theme of Outside Voices, Monkeyhouse will be inviting other Boston based artists to set work on the company, introducing blog readers to choreographers/dance styles from around the globe, and expanding Moving for Meaning to incorporate deaf students in Morocco and possibly a Passamaquoddy school in Maine.

YOU can usher dance activities to the streets of suburbs and cities, provide mentoring for artists, and encourage economically challenged children to excel.

YOU will be at the center of the conversation about how choreography can be used to solve problems in communities, fill the gap between languages, and overcome challenging medical conditions. 

This extraordinary season is all about YOU and we are grateful for that – thank you for being a part of our journey.

With endless gratitude,
Karen Krolak
Monkeyhouse Founder/Artistic Director


Dance Around the World: The Asante People

By Sarah Friswell

Two summers ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Ghana in West Africa. It's commonly referred to as "Africa for beginners" since it has been a very stable and peaceful country for over 10 years. While in Ghana, I had hoped to learn about the dance culture and rituals and I stumbled across tons of awesome dancing. Kumase, the second most populated city and the center of the Asante (ah-shan-ti, ah-san-ti) culture was bursting with markets and art of all sorts.

Photo Credit: Brie Zupko

The Asante people are ruled by an Asantehene, an elected king. At one time, a qualification of his election was that he was a good dancer. The Asantehene is called "master of the music and the drums" or "master of the dance", since drums and dancing go hand in hand for the Asante people. The most accomplished drummers have the ability to make their drum "talk" to the dancers and communicate what the dancer should do with his/her body.

The Asantehene is expected to dance in front of his people to display his royalty and to honor the ancestors, who are very important in Asante culture. There is one dance, played by the fontomfrom drum, that beats out a challenge to the Asantehene as if to say, "Some men fight, some men run away. Which kind of man are you?".  The Asantehene then returns the challenge with his own choreographed display of strength as he jumps, hops, stamps, turns, and sways. He makes motions to say, "These are my people, I gather you together. I sit on you, I am your chief".  He does not move fast because they say a king is more majestic when he moves slowly.

Once the Asantehene has danced, chiefs, leaders, and anyone who wants to pay homage, may dance in the drum circle. These dancers must proceed with caution though, because they have high standards to live up to. If a dancer does not dance at the highest level or chooses inappropriate dance movements, the drummers may use drum censorship. This means they will just stop playing and the dancer will get humiliated in front of all the onlookers.

So dance in central Ghana is used as a celebration, a homage to ancestors, a visual display of power and royalty, and a display of respect to those above you. I was lucky enough to dance with some women in a village called Bolgatanga in the Upper East region. Thankfully, I proved to be good enough, but I think they just enjoyed watching my very "strange" movement style.

Watch some Asante dancers and drummers here.

For more reading on the Asante people, I suggest Dancing
by Gerald Jones.

The old Asantahene Palace, now a museum
Photo Credit Angel Chinea


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