what I did on my summer vacation

I danced.  I attended the American Dance Festival, an annual summer event that occurs right here in Durham, NC, and I danced.  Thanks to a generous scholarship, I got to take three two-hour dance classes a day, four days a week, for six weeks, starting in early June.  We finished classes a week and a half ago, whereupon I promptly fell ill and couldn’t leave my bed for five days.

I had no idea what kind of a life change it would be, to wake up and go to so much dance class.  I don’t think I’ve danced this intensively since the North Carolina School of the Arts summer sessions, eleven and twelve years ago.  I never went to a conservatory for school, so I’ve always had a lot of control over how much dance is in my life at any particular time.  And I usually want more … especially since moving to North Carolina - more class, more opportunity, more inspiring performances, more rehearsal, more dancers.  This summer, for the first time in years, I didn’t want more.  In fact, I struggled with the opposite craving, of wanting less.  After I explain more about the structure of the festival, I’ll come back to this.

The first five days of the festival were spent in “preview classes”.  These were designed like little bite-sized samples of the teachers and their classes.  After meeting and taking class from each of like fifty teachers, we signed up for the courses that would see us through the next five and a half weeks.  I decided on a Modern Technique class, a Ballet Technique class, and a Modern Repertory Class.

The Modern Technique class was taught, its first three weeks, by Abby Yager.  She is a former Trisha Brown dancer.  Trisha Brown is a genius of a choreographer, revered within the dance world perhaps more than outside of it.  She is the queen of pedestrian movement, which is movement that looks really easy but is INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.  Like, so difficult.  It requires so much preparation, and so much presence.  With Trisha Brown, these things are one and the same.  It’s a constant practice to remain present, present with gravity / weight / direction / momentum / your fingertips / where you’ve been and where you’re going / intention / the task at hand.  Abby’s dance class was extremely subtle most days.  We would wake ourselves up with Qigong, then lie on the floor, where Abby would say “Fall back … fall back … fall back”.  Eventually we would move, starting from our fingertips moving through our arms then down to our toes and back up through our crowns.  We talked, and experienced, the gravity / weight / direction / momentum principles I mentioned above.  And we practiced presence in movement.  It was actually striking, how much my teachers this summer spoke to presence in movement.  I don’t remember a lot of this from previous dance training, so it’s either a 2011 fad or, more likely, something I only recently learned to pay attention to.  While this isn’t the only thing I took away from the summer, it’s one of the most significant.  Presence in movement.

The second half of the summer, Modern Technique was taught by Leah Cox.  Leah Cox comes from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, with whom she danced for nine years and continues on as their Education Director.  She blew my mind.  I’ve never experienced a class so informed by the instructors intelligence and self-awareness.  She taught us technique, but more so, she gave us tools to use in dance class and onstage.  Every week she approached movement from a different angle - physically, mentally, or socially.  We did the same exercises during the week, but Leah gave us different things to think about or feel or imagine as we did them depending on what she wanted.  The first day she came in, she stopped us in the middle of what we were doing (some across-the-floor thing) and said “no!  you are not here to check your alignment!  you are here to dance!”  I was like, I’m in love.  It’s so easy for me to become more engrossed with the details of where my body is, and so much more difficult to remain present in the experience of the movement.  She demanded presence of herself and of us, and I am ever grateful to have taken her class.

Ballet Technique was taught by Elizabeth Corbett, the third ballet teacher in my life who didn’t make me feel like a fat and talentless failure (Carol Richard was the first, Christine Wright the second).  She was a Forsythe dancer, incredibly talented, with patience in droves.  The class was full of people like me, lovers of modern who recognize how useful ballet can be.  The reason I took this class, in fact, is because in the very beginning of the summer I auditioned for Martha Clarke’s Repertory piece.  I made it pretty far, but got cut in the last round.  I realized that my ballet technique holds me back - and even if ballet technique has nothing to do with an audition, I’m always insecure about things like turnout and pointed feet, and I figured if I spent six weeks trying to get a little bit better at them, well, I probably would.  I looked forward to this class, for Elizabeth’s quirky teaching style and the time spent at the barre.  Christine Wright, a former Lar Lubovitch dancer and brilliant ballet instructor, once said “Barre is all about opening your heart”.  I didn’t understand this quote at the beginning of the summer.  While I still couldn’t write a thesis on it, I’m a little closer to knowing what she meant.  I look forward to continuing my ballet studies, and continuing to open my heart in new ways.

Modern Repertory, for those who don’t know, means that a choreographer either creates a piece or sets an already-existing piece on you.  We had to audition for spots in the pieces, because they come along with a performance opportunity.  I was invited into Monica Bill Barnes’ group, which I felt pretty psyched about.  She’s a pretty hot New York City downtown choreographer, up-and-coming and such.  Also extremely intelligent.  She’s very sure of what she likes, has done a lot of work to find her voice, recognizes who will speak her voice onstage, and is very gifted at explicating what she wants.  Monica was full of useful advice, good energy, and interesting movement.  More than anything else, what I got from her was a reminder that the choreographer’s job is not only to create movement, but also to direct it.  As a choreographer I get so preoccupied with the What of the movement, I neglect the How.  Monica led me to remember that both are necessary.

Now that I’ve written all this about the experience, I can’t imagine having wanted less of it.  The experience was life-changing.  It inspired me, it definitely made me a better dancer, and the lessons I learned from it are invaluable.  The one thing I can say about wanting less is that at times I felt like a mute automaton.  No one asked for my opinions, no one asked for me to express myself in my words (or movements), I had no outlet for using the knowledge I was acquiring.  This would have been easily remedied if I’d taken a composition class, but alas, not a one fit in my schedule.  Next year …

World, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to take class at the American Dance Festival before I die.  Durham Arts Council, thank you for funding my scholarship.  And sun, thank you for shining all summer long, never sparing us sweat in those hot, un-air conditioned dance studios of Duke University.