From Sole to Soul: A Choreographer's Journey, Part 1

By Ryan P. Casey

When I made the great transition from suburban Massachusetts to Manhattan in the fall of 2009 to begin my studies at New York University, I was thrilled to learn that my Fifth Avenue residence hall, unlike the others, had its own dance studio. While some of my peers were out drinking and carousing, I envisioned myself spending late nights sweating it out in the studio, the thrill of new rhythms and musical explorations a more practical and useful endeavor than beer pong. I was rather disappointed to discover that the studio was no bigger than my own room, with a slippery tile floor, crooked ballet bar, and no sound system. And it was typically invaded by study groups or student theatre companies. While I did fulfill my dream of late-night choreography sessions, shuffling in my sneakers to avoid a wipeout, I knew I needed a better space in which to practice.

I soon decided to cash in on some of the hours of studio time I had accrued from my part-time position at the American Tap Dance Center. I penciled myself into the schedule for two hours and showed up on a Friday afternoon with the full use of a brand new studio at my fingertips – or toes, really – complete with sound system and sprung wood floor.

But after half an hour, I was bored. Finally, I had the perfect practice space, space I had earned, and I was uninspired to use it. I found myself putting on different songs and growing thoroughly disappointed with my improvisation. I would experiment with choreography I had planned in my head or in my sneakers and find that it didn’t fit the music or was not interesting at all. I ended up letting my iPod play while I walked around in frustration, trying to let myself be inspired by something, anything. What was wrong with me?

Five years ago, in high school, when I had set out to choreograph my first solo, I hadn’t encountered any mental barricades like this. My teacher, Thelma Goldberg, and I had selected a song together, and agreed that I would work alone in the studio every day for a week and then show her what I had created. It was a slow process, I remember, and not just because I spent a lot of time raiding the studio cabinets, trying to find something to eat (all I could find were strawberry NutriGrain bars, though I could hardly complain). But at the end of the week, I had a pretty good rough draft of my routine, which turned out to a big hit at Tap City that year. Okay, so there are no granola bars in the ATDC studios. But that could hardly explain my lack of motivation.

Part of it, I know, was related to a revelation I had had in Barbara Duffy’s improvisation class earlier that year: I am a very self-conscious tap dancer. No doubt this characteristic is a result not only of my generally anal ways, but of my continuing quest, sparked by Thelma, to be the best dancer that I can be. I had earned a reputation for being a very clean, clear tap dancer, and I felt pressured to live up to that expectation all the time. As a result, I was being too careful, ironically limiting my abilities in my attempts to perfect them. It was when Barbara encouraged me to let go, let loose, BREATHE, and ignore my mistakes for once that I realized I do not have to be careful in order to sound good; my technique is polished enough that I am confident I always will.

After experiencing this same frustration and failure a second time, leaving halfway through my scheduled three-hour session, I decided that I was truly bored with myself. I was not seeing my technique improve; I was not creating anything new and interesting; and I was effectively wasting my time in the studio. As discouraging and upsetting as it may be to fail others, I think it feels worse to fail yourself, and ultimately I was doing just that. Where was my mettle, my drive, my confidence? Surely I had not abandoned them back home in Lexington, MA.

While struggling with my lack of productivity, I was also battling the typical demons of the first semester of college: homesickness, loneliness, an obnoxious roommate, and the absence of purpose and identity in my new environment. As these were not emotions that I knew – nor, it seems, was able – to confront through my dancing, I resorted instead to words.
Playing the stereotypical struggling writer, I found myself, one brisk fall afternoon, sitting at the window of a Starbucks on the Upper West Side. From within the toasty, coffee-scented confines of my favorite hangout, I scribbled in my notebook, a gift from my best friend after graduating high school. I had a front row seat to an urban comedy of people hunkering against the wind and grappling with unwieldy umbrellas on Broadway, while I somewhat guiltily sipped hot cocoa that, while satisfying my caffeine craving and keeping me warm, did little to quell the first-year jitters dancing inside me. For several hours, I expunged my emotions through my pen – writing in cursive; crossing out; rewriting in shorthand; tapping the cap contemplatively against my front teeth, adorning the margins with question marks and alternative words. When at last I had drained my cup of cocoa, I had completed the final draft of my poem. Eager, in what I now recognize as a puerile, self-indulging sort of way, to share my distress with the world, or whatever small percentage of it would read what I had to say, I published the poem online.

I see a dance in the making with your voice and a musician as accompanists,” Thelma wrote. “Beautiful... an image I can imagine and embrace! Thank you for sharing!”

I agree...merge the dance with the poetry. It can be done,” one of my cousins concurred. “So, go to a recording studio in New York and record one of your poems, then choreograph to your own voice.”

But the poem I had written, as proud of it as I was, was too short to become a dance. So, what could I write about? The answer could not have come to me at a different time. As a pilgrim to Manhattan and a new student at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I began to envision not just one dance, but a series of dances inspired by my impressions of and experiences with the city. I started writing other poems, sketching a storyline, and contacting fellow dancers and musician friends who might be interested in collaborating with me.

When applications for my school’s arts festival were posted, I recognized my first opportunity to experiment with and present my ideas to the ideal audience. Its acceptance gave me the confidence that my idea was feasible and had a future, and that I could take charge of my own creation and develop it further with successful collaboration.

Prior to the arts fest, I had only seen a few attempts at fusing tap with poetry, but never in a setting where the two forms were performed simultaneously so that the rhythms of one could interact with the rhythms of the other. As a dancer who has been trained rhythmically in all disciplines for so long – for which I am endlessly grateful to the instruction of Billy Siegenfeld and Jeannie Hill, and to Thelma, for introducing me to them – I thought that this was a severe injustice to both art forms, which are inherently rhythmic.

A big part of this project, therefore, derived from my desire to create something that was uniquely mine, and to discover who I am as an artist in the process. Fusing writing with dance seemed to be the best way to showcase my skills both as a writer and a dancer, as well as an appreciator of all kinds of dance, and respect the rhythmic roots therein.
My following sessions in the studio were more productive and rewarding than ever. Following Brenda Bufalino’s advice, “First thought, best thought,” which I hold as a key tenet of the creative process, I choreographed a solo to the first New York-related poem I had written, “When Push Comes to Shove.” My advisor, Kathryn Posin, helped me through the process, and her late husband John helped me produce a professional recording of the poem. The experience forced and allowed me to find an authentic voice for myself – literally.
Aside from hating my own voice, like most people, I also dislike reading my own work – but with this project, I had no choice. Recording the poem reconnected me with my work, brought a new level of personal meaning to my writing and my routine, and was a process of self-discovery and experimentation.

The final product was a success. Praise from friends, family, and faculty assuaged all fears I had had of whether the audience would understand or appreciate what I was trying to accomplish. It renewed my inspiration and confidence as a soloist, and allowed me, as Barbara Duffy had encouraged me, to let go and explore more of myself, rather than feel caged in by some recorded jazz groove or Michael Jackson song. So pleased was I with its reception that I immediately proposed an independent study for the following semester that would allow me to produce more pieces in the same style. Little did I know just how far out of my comfort zone it would take me. . . .

Stay tuned for Part 2 next month!


Musing Photo of the Day

I am very excited that Sarah is back in the Boston area and will be joining us for Musings!  She is fearless with that blindfold on and was a great addition to our adventure!


Musing Photo of the Day

It looks a lot like Sarah is about to catapult Caitlin into the sky.  And Caitlin's got her wings ready to go!


Musing Photo of the Day

Even while blindfolded we still find a way to turn ourselves upside down!  Luckily Caitlin was on hand (with eyes uncovered) to keep everyone safe!  
Springstep was all decked out for a wedding that night so we had an especially sassy rehearsal space with the paper lanterns on the ceiling!


Musing Photo of the Day

We've been doing a lot of improvisations where one person is blindfolded during Musings lately.  I took lots of photos this week!
Courtney could hear the camera clicking so came over to investigate.  Check back tomorrow for another sneak peek into Monkeyhouse Musing time!


Musing Photo of the Day

Don't worry, kids!  I don't have a blindfold on!  I can SEE!

Keep an eye out for more photos from today's Musing all week!


A Little Bit of Improvisation

Last weekend Monkeyhouse headed out into Medford for a little blindfolded improvisation.  Led only by the information given to them by their partners, Karen and Courtney were blindfolded and let loose to climb, shuffle, hang, roll and otherwise discover the neighborhoods around Springstep in a whole new... light? 


Inside SPUNKandCOmpany

by karen Krolak

Word on the web is that SPUNKandCOmpany's debut this weekend at the Dance Complex has already sold out! If this interview with Artistic Director, Jillian Grunnah, whets your appetite for dance, be sure to get on the waiting list now.

karen Krolak: So what prompted you to start a company this year?
Jillian Grunnah: It was the collaboration with the dancers during the Green Street Emerging Artists February "edition" that spurred the choreographic necessity to start something. We gelled so well and all seemed to want the same thing at the same time. The energy that we all brought to the table was so real and ripe that we knew we had to jump on it. I was bit by the choreographic bug a long time ago, but the time is now. I feel more confident and ready to make a commitment to producing work on a regular basis.

kK: I am so glad to hear that you gained so much from the Emerging Artists experience and I seem to remember reading that you are going to include your piece from the Green Street Studio concert in Eleven. Is that right?
JG: That is correct. After working on Thick/Thin a bit more, harnessing the relationships between the women on stage, and adding a new "dancer," I feel like I can't wait to show this piece again. It is one of my favorite out of the many I've made. It's very layered, and I hope that people who've already seen it can look at it and find something new this time.

kK: Excellent! I am excited to see how it has evolved. After reading your post about participating in Emerging Artists program, Arthur Fink sent along several great questions about the process of building Thick/Thin. He wondered how your mentors interacted with your artistic project? He wanted to know if it was it with any intention or message or with your fascination with any kinds of movement or presence? I realize that it could be awkward to talk about the specifics of your mentors in this case since I was one of them. However, could you talk about it abstractly to address his questions?
JG: Sure, the mentors provided feedback that fueled my thought process more than my movement analysis. I needed assitance with building a strong concept and reaching a specific goal towards developing female friendships on stage. The mentors were the outside eyes that my subjective and narrow ones couldn't be.

kK: Arthur also asked,  "Is the mentor a critic, or something else? Does the mentor become a collaborator, or just (not just) another source of light and enlightenment?"
JG: The mentor is at once all of those things. In any kind of art, it is almost impossible to remove the subjectivity, as we all come from very different backgrounds and with different baggage, if you will. The mentor certainly provides a critical perspective, but it is hopefully one that inspires and encourages the choreographer to reach a deeper level in her work. As the mentor views the work over and over, she becomes a collaborator as she becomes more invested and educated in the developing work.

kK: What do you think SPUNKandCOmpany will add to the Boston Dance Community?
JG: I hope that the company brings a fresh vitality to the scene in the raw physicality of what we do and that it provides another mode of storytelling through dance. We exist because we are all dancers and dance makers. We start from a very collaborative place, and we hope that reads in the work. Dance does not have to be authoritative; in fact it's extremely communal. We hope to be a laboratory of sorts for dancers/dancemakers, sort of like singer/songwriters.

kK: I am curious to know more about your collaborators. How did you select people for your company?
JG:We were all close artistic friends who had a drive to work on our own schedule outside of full-time jobs and who had similar aesthetic, athletic, and creative ideas. We felt comfortable dancing with and giving feedback to each other. The company, just like the first dance, grew out of a very natural place and organic process. It just felt right. We are all, minus one, the original dancers/choreographer of Thick/Thin, an ironic tale of female friendship in itself!

kK: Well, congratulations on launching SPUNKandCOmpany and I will see you Saturday after the show.
JG: THANKS, Karen!


Dance Around the World: The Haka

by Sarah Friswell

As I thought about what to blog about this month, it dawned on me that my passion (lately) has been cultural survival. So I'd like to share a bit about some unique cultural dances that I've found interesting during my studies of dance at the University of Tampa and beyond.  I hope you enjoy!
Photo Credit Sarah Friswell
This past May, I had the pleasure of traveling to New Zealand. While I was there, I saw beautiful landscapes, met wonderful people, had fantastic food, and saw some great visual and performing arts. The indigenous peoples, or tangata whenua, of New Zealand are the Maori people, and their culture is often shown alongside modern New Zealand culture. They have used dance for a few thousand years in ways we would never think of.

Woman and men both danced with and used poi (ball on a cord) to keep their wrists supple for maneuvering weapons in battle. It was a very good way to increase flexibility and coordination. Poi can be on a short cord or a long cord and they are swung in varying patterns to rhythmic music and singing.

The most famous Maori dance is the haka. It is a dance used for many reasons, although most people think of it as a dance of war. The predominant performers are men, but women also sing in the background.

Early on in Maori history, the haka was used to intimidate when two tribes would meet, similar to hip hop battles today. It ensured that each party was alert and aware of the other so that neither could be taken advantage of.

Haka is a dance used to show strength and dominance. The men stand upright in an open stance and rhythmically pound their feet on the ground and/or pound on their bodies to show strength and to intimidate their opponents. The facial expression is what most people remember about the haka. The performers/warriors open their eyes very wide, frown and show their tongue, as if to tell their opponents that they will eat them if they make a wrong move.

The haka is said to be derived from Ra, the sun god. He had a child with Hine-raumati, the essence of summer, and they named their child Tenerore. It's said now that the shaking of the hand, or wiriwiri, represents the sun glistening on the water and they say that is Tenerore performing for his mother.

To read more about the history of the haka, click here.

Today, the New Zealand national rugby team, The All Blacks, perform the haka at the beginning of their matches to intimidate their opponents. While I was in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to speak with community leaders in Napier who teach the haka to young Maori boys who are involved in gangs. They said that it's important to show the boys a look at their own history and teach them traditional ways. When they learn these traditional lessons, they feel proud to be Maori and most of the boys have chosen to let go of all gang ties and help to rehabilitate others.

You can watch an example of the haka here.

For more information about the haka and dance in New Zealand, check out these links!
Maori Performance Art
Maori Dance and Culture
Kahurangi Maori Dance Company
The All Blacks Haka

Photo Credit Brianna Vaughan


Another Call for Choreographers

Since we have been discussing mentoring, Boston choreographers will be thrilled that the Dance Complex is hosting another Shared Choreographers' Concert (SCC) this October as part of the organization's 20th anniversary festivities. Don't miss this chance to be mentored by Brian Crabtree, Kelli Edwards and Rozann Kraus (Read up on her mentoring philosophy
here!) in preparation for a fully produced concert in the Julie Ince Thompson Theatre on October  21st and 22nd. This is a wonderful opportunity for both novice choreographers and for more experienced artists who could benefit from critical feedback. Proposals are due on September 14th, so do not dither.

In your proposal describe: 
  • the dance style
  • the number of dancers
  • the main concept of your piece
  • include your contact info (email & phone).  
  • any time constraints you have during the early afternoon on 09/18, the day of the first showing
Please note that your piece can not exceed 10 minutes. Send your proposal to scc.dancecomplex@gmail.com by September 14. For more information on this program, check out the Dance Complex's website.


Cultivate Memories (part 3)

by karen Krolak
Returning again to my impressions from Selene Colburn's and Paul Benney's Bethlehem Walking Tour at Cultivate 2011, I was amused by this trio of pictures. In each one the landscape was giving movement instructions. Something that was even more interesting since I could not fully accomplish them. The door in the first photo was locked. Alas, no one had mentioned that I should bring a horn for the second one. And my phone did not have coverage to look up the website of the sticker on the window.

How often is our behavior choreographed by the environment around us on a daily basis? What happens when we can't or don't want to obey?

Again, I have no idea if this is related to what Paul and Selene intended their piece to evoke. These questions just sprang from my observations about the things that captured my attention during the experience.


Joffrey Call for Choreographers

photo by Herbert Migdoll
by karen Krolak

Listen up everyone. You have exactly one month to get your application in for Joffrey’s Second Annual Choreographers of Color Award, designed to recognize promising young choreographers of color. The three winners will be notified by November 1, 2011.

Selected choreographers will receive:
  • 30 rehearsal hours to set their pieces on the Joffrey Academy Trainees, 
  • $2,500 stipend,
  • the opportunity to work directly with Joffrey Artistic Director, Ashley C. Wheater, and Academy Artistic Directors, Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik,
  • and housing for the duration of the two-week residency if your permanent residence is more than 100 miles from Joffrey Tower,

Choreography created for the Joffrey Academy Trainees will be presented at the Joffrey Tower and the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and must be:
  • original work developed by the applicant,
  • minimum of 10 minutes and maximum of 12 minutes long,
  • and created by applicants 18 years of age or older who are naturalized or permanent residents.

photo by Herbert Migdoll
To apply, interested choreographers must submit the following by mail: 
  • a DVD with a five-minute or less excerpt of their choreography with a brief written description; 
  • a letter of intent describing their interest in the competition and the kind of work they will create; 
  • a headshot and curriculum vitae with three references; 
  • and, a general application, which can be found online at joffrey.org/choreographersofcolor.  
There is no submission fee.  Materials can be mailed to:  
The Joffrey Ballet, 
Attn: Choreographers of Color Competition Selection Committee
10 E. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL, 60601.


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