|David Leventhal, founding teacher, Dance for PD. Photo by Amber Star Merkens.|
David Leventhal danced with the Mark Morris Dance Group from 1997-2010, during which he performed over 40 difference pieces as well as principal roles. In 2010, he was given a New York Dance and Performance Award for his work with the company. David also teaches students ranging from young to college-aged dancers at numerous schools and colleges, both in the United States and internationally.
David currently serves as the program manager for Dance for PD, a collaboration between MMDG and the Brooklyn Parkinson's Group that offers dance classes for people with Parkinson's Disease. From its base in Brooklyn, NY, Dance for PD has spread to over 40 locations and offers workshops to train Dance for PD teachers. David was kind enough to share with us his experiences both as a dancer and as Dance for PD's program manager, about which he has plenty to say.
Remy: You danced with Mark Morris Dance Group for 13 years, including a number of principal roles. What about Mark Morris's choreography and company initially attracted you to the group?
David: I grew up in the Boston area (Newton), and Mark's company was one of the only modern groups that regularly came through to perform. So I was familiar with Mark's work in high school and college. But I was always very musical, in an amateur way, and was immediately attracted to Mark's direct and intelligent approach to music. I always thought he captured something in the score that was there, just beneath the surface, but that was difficult to understand without seeing it expressed through his beautiful dancers. I felt a strong visceral connection to that, and then grew to understand and love his aesthetic as well.
Remy: I would have to agree with you about that, especially since music is so complex and layered that it's very difficult to capture the feeling of it and incredible when it has been. You have also taught dance classes for younger dancers as well as college students. How do you go about constructing these classes for students? Do you try to capture this same musicality and expression that attracted you in the first place?
David: It's difficult for me, given my background and my many years working with Mark, to approach technique and phrasing without helping students explore rhythm and music as a fundamental template. There are certainly some examples of dance styles that don't necessarily relate to music (Merce Cunningham is one), but even Merce's actual choreography is inherently about music and rhythm on the inside. And for most dance forms around the world, you wouldn't even consider dance without music. They go together always. So I start with that as a focus because I'm always surprised how few dance students seem comfortable dancing inside the music, or trusting the rich information that the music is giving them. And I try to pass on the great joy that music has brought to my life in dance. I always say that I came to dance because of its physicality and freedom, but stayed in it for the music.
Remy: So when constructing a class or creating a piece of choreography, would you say that music choice comes first and then you build off of it? Or does having a live musician throw that off?
David: Certainly when choreographing (which I don't do very often), I would always start with a piece of music as the source for inspiration, though many don't, and other approaches are wonderfully effective as well. In class, I usually make up a phrase without music but with a very clear sense of what the rhythm should be, and fortunately, we have talented dance musicians here who can interpret what I made up and create a musical phrase from it, or find just the right piece of music to tease out everything I want the students to explore. The relationship between a teacher and a musician is a symbiotic and special one, and it's quite different than what most choreographers work with, unless, of course, they are predominantly working with a composer on a commissioned score. But even in that case, usually the choreographer and composer work independently at many points during the process, and run things by each other every so often. I don't know many composers who sit in the dance studio and write music as the choreographer is making things up. But that is exactly what does happen in a class.
Remy: I think that's the magic of live accompaniment- the musician and dancer get to work together to create something that is specifically constructed to connect seamlessly. Stepping aside from music for a second, would you say that there are any artists other than Mark Morris who have inspired you over time?
David: Oh many. Well certainly George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gene Kelly have provided great personal inspiration through their individual brands of genius. But I think we're most closely inspired by great teachers, and I've felt very fortunate to have a string of them throughout my dancing life: Bruce Wells, Marcus Schulkind, Jose Mateo, and Marjorie Mussman, among others. I'm afraid we've reached a point in dance instruction generally where students aren't comfortable actually being taught with honest, direct and constructive feedback and criticism so that they can improve. Lots of people just want to take class, or feel that they know everything there is to know, which of course is fine, but you won't transform as a dance artist that way. So I really value these four teachers in particular because they took the time and effort to nurture me, to be honest with me, to push me to improve. And Mark Morris is a knowledgeable and intense ballet coach who has an eagle eye for nonsense and bad habits.
Remy: Very good choices, and I'd have to agree about the value of having an honest and personal dance teacher- especially since entering a college environment in which dance classes are much larger, I've really learned to appreciate just how important it is to have dance teachers who connect with and understand you. But other than being a dancer, you are currently the program manager of MMDG's Dance for PD program. Can you tell us a bit about the program?
David: Sure. In 2001, Olie Westheimer, the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, approached the Mark Morris Dance Group with the idea for a real dance class for members of her group. Olie felt that people with Parkinson's spent lots of time thinking and talking about Parkinson's, shuttling between doctors' and therapists' offices. She wanted people to do something positive together and she believe that a dance class, taught by professional dancers, was that very thing. So we started with one class a month--taught by my colleague John Heginbotham, another dancer with the company and me, and accompanied by a professional musician--for about six people. Now, ten years later, we have a weekly class--provided free of charge--for anywhere between 40-55 people with Parkinson's, their families, friends and carepartners at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. And the program has been replicated in more than 60 communities around the world. The intriguing thing about our program is that on the one hand, it has nothing to do with Parkinson's--we don't talk about or address symptoms head on. But simply because of the way dancing and dance training are structured, the class has everything to do with Parkinson's. Dance seems to fit Parkinson's like a glove--but when you're in the class, people tell us they only notice the glove, not the Parkinson's. As program manager, I'm responsible for most aspects of program replication, our training program, maintaining and creating resources for teachers and other stakeholders, and many other things. I'm always busy, but I love being part of a team of people working together with a common vision that helps people with Parkinson's live well, and that helps expand the reach and power of the arts into previously unexplored territory. I'm constantly amazed by the strength of the demand--people with Parkinson's want new ways to think about movement, and new modalities in which to learn and feel confident again. Dance seems to be one of the things that people are very much drawn to right now.
Remy: So how much of an understanding would you say that you have of Parkinson's Disease? Do you have an idea of what movement and dance will help patients, or do you mostly learn as you go?
David: Remy, when we started, neither John nor I knew anything about Parkinson's. And Olie wanted it that way--she didn't want us to teach to the symptoms, or to address specific barriers that people had. She wanted us to trust what is inherent in dance training--that it addresses things like balance, movement sequencing, rhythm, spatial and aesthetic awareness, and dynamic coordination--which are many of the things that people with Parkinson's seem to want to work on to maintain a sense of confidence and grace in their movements. She didn't want us to add a layer of "therapy". Now, we know a lot about Parkinson's, and have attended many conferences to continue our education. We include a lot of information about Parkinson's in our training workshops for other teachers, but at the end of the day, we remind teachers about what we consider to be our unique approach--dance, when well-taught and well-constructed--is exactly right on its own, without trying to match a step with a symptom. A lot of what we learned about Parkinson's we learned as we went along. We got lots of feedback from participants at the beginning, and we still do get quite a lot. The other thing to keep in mind is that the more you learn about Parkinson's, the more you realize how differently it manifests in each individual, and how each individual's own experience changes by the week, day, and minute. It's a highly unpredictable and changeable disease, which is frustrating and difficult. Something you can do one day is very difficult the next. There's no platonic form of PD. But our class, we hope, is always a space about possibility, about what people can do in spite of whatever's going on for them that day.
Remy: Dance for PD is technically a collaboration between MMDG and the Brooklyn Parkinson's Group. How would you say that the company influences the classes?
David: The program is a collaboration in almost every aspect. MMDG is responsible for providing the artistic staff (dance instructors and musicians), fundraising for the program, and arranging logistics. BPG is responsible for outreach--getting word about the dance class and its other program offerings like singing and fitness out into the community. But our students, along with Olie, also give us lots of valuable feedback and in that way shape the approach and content of the class. This is not the kind of program where the teachers say, "We know what to do, just let us do our thing." We do have lots of experience, of course, and we all have varied backgrounds and a passion for what we do, but we are very open to things that our students and Olie bring to our attention, and are always looking for ways to make our classes more enjoyable and effective. So yes, the collaboration is vital and very real. Where things separate a bit is in the national scale of the program. MMDG, because of its touring schedule, is able to offer Dance for PD community classes in almost every city to which it tours. We offer these classes with the blessing of our colleagues at BPG, but it is an MMDG activity. And it is through MMDG's concerted efforts, with lots of guidance from BPG, that the training program and online resources have expanded to the degree that they have.
Remy: How does your approach for teaching Dance for PD classes compare to your approach for teaching classes to dance students?
David: Regarding my teaching approach, in the Dance for PD class, I'm much more animated, specific and interactive with students. Part of that is because the Parkinson's dancers are so eager and focused, it makes it a joy to work with them. It brings out my best. In professional-level classes, I often find that people are more closed off, in their own worlds, and less effusive. They are there for many different reasons, sometimes unexplored reasons, and I understand that. I give notes and corrections, but my general approach is not to get under peoples' skin because people come and go and I don't get to know them very well. In the Dance for PD class, we've been working with many of the students for years and they feel like family. The atmosphere is joyful and highly energized because movement is never taken for granted that way it can be with pre-professionals. The Dance for PD participants are by and large my best students. That said, I don't usually give individual notes in the Dance for PD class, but keep things general so that everyone can take what I'm saying and understand it at whatever level feels right to them. We see the class as a real learning environment, and break things down slowly and clearly so that the participants are learning the inner workings of what dancers do. But I don't want to put anyone on the spot. At the end of the day, we want them to feel confident and joyful.
Remy: Finally, what have you noticed in the patients with whom you have worked for an extended period of time? Any changes?
David: I'm going to speak to the benefits that we teaching artists observe. Certainly there are benefits that the scientific community is beginning to explore in some preliminary studies--improvement in gait, reduction of tremor, improved stability and short term mobility, increased facial expression, and a sense of social inclusion--but more serious research is needed. What we observe, day in and day out, is that people become more accomplished dancers. They're able to sequence movement more easily, and move with increased grace, confidence and musicality. They learn specific repertory and technique, and get to develop a sense of mastery over the movement and their bodies. Of course dance addresses very specific issues that start to go away with a Parkinson's diagnosis, but primarily we're interested in the change of attitude that comes when people with Parkinson's engage in an artistic learning environment like a dance class. Suddenly, they are surrounded by a world of possibility, not limitation, and it's liberating and inspiring for them and for us. We've seen the way that dance brings people together, and forms a strong community that engages and empowers. Out of that class, many important other activities have developed that serve to enrich and strengthen the community, and allow people to expand the sense of possibility in their lives. For example, the dance class has spawned a singing class. There's also a fitness program, and a wonderful Movement Lab taught by the amazing Pamela Quinn, a dancer who has Parkinson's. Pam focuses specifically on symptoms, so it's a wonderful complement to our Dance for PD class. In the course of the week, week in and week out, members of BPG have the opportunity to learn, to work on artistic skills, to socialize, to feel good about themselves through our class and through other activities. They are given a chance to succeed, and succeed they do.