One of jazz tap artist Katherine Kramer’s favorite tools – besides her tap shoes, of course – is a large pad of paper, the kind you might see on an easel in a classroom, and a bunch of markers. While she’s in her car (which, as someone who divides her time between Florida and Montana, she often is), listening to music and choreographing in her head, the paper rests on the passenger seat so she can pick up a marker and scribble thoughts and drawings even while driving.
when I went to Miami in June to work with her on new solo material, she got me
hooked on the same process.
initially met and worked with Katherine, the YoungArts Tap mentor for the Dance
discipline, when I was a finalist in 2009. Kismet had conspired in our
encounter, for several years earlier, my plans to attend her Rhythm Explosion
festival in Bozeman, Montana had been thwarted by an airline problem.
experience together was so successful – it was the solo I presented in that
year’s Dance & Cinematic Arts showcase, a product of her coaching, that I
used as my audition for “So You Think You Can Dance,” which aired that fall –
that we kept in touch and vowed to collaborate again.
this year, as I contemplated what dance opportunities I would undertake for the
summer, I thought about her. I thought about the new suite of solo material I
was developing for the fall, and how I wanted someone’s advice, guidance and
ideas. And I looked at my calendar, sent her an email and booked a flight to
of the many great aspects of the Dance discipline during YoungArts Week is that
all of the dancers get to work with mentors in their respective styles. This
format differs from the other disciplines, where the finalists work directly with
their panelists. Instead, the Dance panelists observe the finalists as they are
coached by their mentors.
a term perhaps more commonly affiliated with sports or acting, is a critical
portion of the dance finalists’ experience at YoungArts Week. The
coaches/mentors are not teachers – though they may, as part of the day’s work,
lead a warm-up, as a dance instructor would do, or teach an exercise or short
combination to his or her student(s) that addresses a particular skill or
concept related to what the student(s) is working on.
the coaches watch the dancers’ solos and offer new ways to approach and modify
their performances. Rather than simply give technical notes, they may ask a
dancer to run his or her piece again while thinking about a particular emotion
or idea, or without using their arms, or while making eye contact with everyone
in the room. They give dancers ideas to experiment with and challenges to
undertake with their routines. They talk to the dancer about the intention(s)
behind the piece, or the movement choices, or the staging, and discuss their
effects and consider other possibilities. And throughout this process, when the
mentors work with one dancer at a time, the other dancers in that discipline
are watching and learning from all that is happening. Everyone makes progress
by observing each other’s progress.
process was prominent during this year’s YoungArts week, as I wrote in one of my
previous blog posts:
When Hanss Mujica, the sole dancer
representing Mexican folk dance, presented one of his solos for everyone, he
was challenged to show more character by “flirting” with two of the girls, who
had to stand on the side of the dance floor, waving seductively and blowing
kisses at him. As Kristen Ramirez, a tap dancer, worked on utilizing all the
space and facing all sides of the audience, her fellow tappers moved around the
floor with her, forcing her to keep changing her focus and direction. One
modern dancer let herself cry as master teacher Aubrey Lynch worked with her on
the emotions of her piece.
developing new solo material with Katherine, we began, of course, with the
jumbo pad of paper. Using one sheet to make a storyboard of the piece, we
outlined it like a comic strip, filling each box with details of each dance, writing
down the images, concepts and song ideas I had in mind.
hubcap,” reads one cryptic entry, the dominant image. “Weights – drop – splats.
Lines to connect. Focus up and down.”
sheet was designated for notes, which we kept as a running diary of our work
together – what we did, what we thought about it, and what I could continue to
of being tall,” I wrote, with several diagrams of my body. “Reactions to
movement. Start small, get bigger? Move down body – explore all options.
another sheet we reserved for notating music. After selecting a piece of music
for one of my solos, we counted it out musically, transcribing the arrangement
– easier said than done – and the movement ideas we had for each section of
this was just what we did when we weren’t dancing!
we had a concept for the first solo, an ironic piece set to Shel Silverstein’s
witty poem “One Inch Tall,” the coaching began.
improvised with the poem and my taps in different ways. First, I danced across
the stage taking only one-inch steps. Then I added my body, making small
movements beginning with my head and progressing down to my knees. Next, I
toyed with my reaction to the movements: Deadpan? Surprised? Amused? Then I
tried moving on other planes and seeing how that changed my movements, my focus
and my reactions.
another incarnation of the piece, as a way of working specifically on my
reactions and thus honing my acting abilities, I shuffled around the room,
taking one-inch steps in a spiraling path toward the center, acting out the
entire story with hand gestures, facial expressions and other body movements,
much like I had seen the classical Indian dance finalists do.
the second solo, we worked conceptually and visually. I practiced directed
improvisation, whereby I improvised to the music while thinking each time of
certain images that Katherine would call out to me. I played with the idea of
being a graceful canoe. Then, after her feedback, I developed the movement by
thinking of being in or on water, which led to certain moves that I wanted to
keep. Thinking of each section of the song in relation to a particular image,
and letting the music and imagery guide me simultaneously, was a helpful way to
structure the piece.
just three days together, we finished two new solos, and I had the great
opportunity to present one of them as a work-in-progress at an open choreography
showing at inkub8, a studio-laboratory-performance space in the Wynwood Art
District. It was very well-received by the small audience that had assembled to
see what we had been working on!
like during YoungArts Week, my time with Katherine pushed me artistically out
of my comfort zone and made me think hard about what I was creating. (Of famed
composer John Cage’s “10 Rules for Students and Teachers,” #8 is: “Do not try
to create & analyze at the same time. They are different processes.”)
kind of coaching she provided – that all of the mentors for the Dance finalists
offer – was individualized and sophisticated. It wasn’t about working on my
technique, or learning or setting steps, or trying out fancy moves. It was
about digging deeper into my artistry and into myself. It was about experimenting with different ways
of moving, thinking and performing. It was about creating new work that was an
honest reflection of who I am – and, therefore, a bit of a self-discovery
process. It was about letting my instincts guide me (How else do you
choreograph a full solo – two of them! – in three days?) and trusting what came
out of my mind and my body.
beloved high school English teacher of mine had, as a coda to her syllabus,
this pithy reminder: “All academic inquiry takes places within a community.”
epigram has often recurred to me because I think it resonates just as soundly
with artistic inquiry, as well. As I write this post, I am sitting by myself at
a table in a quiet corner of my local Starbucks. When I’m done, I will go to
the dance studio and choreograph alone. And then I’ll drive home and, from the
privacy of my bedroom, edit music and upload the videos I made of whatever I worked
on at the studio. I suppose it should be no surprise that working on a one-man
show is mostly, well, a one-man job, but what happens when I need feedback on
this choreography or that music or those videos?
where mentorship comes in. Plato had Socrates. T.S. Eliot had Ezra Pound. The
role of a mentor in an artist’s life, or simply the development of a work, is
crucial. The mentor-mentee relationship is a catalyst within the artistic
community, in which inquiry is necessary for growth and progress. I am lucky to
have Katherine as one of my mentors – someone who can see me at my most
vulnerable, guide me through the process of inquiry and experimentation and
creation and cheer me along as I continue developing my work and refining my
hope all artists, and particularly all past and future YoungArts finalists and
winners in Dance, take a moment to appreciate the mentors they have, or soon
will have, in their lives. We all need great mentors to help us develop our
work, develop ourselves and develop lasting friendships.
Photo Credits - Top: Natasha Williams; Middle: Kristin Ramirez; Bottom: Natasha Williams
*** You can see the fruits of my labor with Katherine at Monkeyhouse's "Against the Odds" Festival this fall at Springstep! Stay tuned for more details. ***