Dancing with the Dirt Eaters

Dancing with the Dirt Eaters
“I wrote this because of thoughts that came up while we were planning the Headlong Performance Institute and thinking with the faculty about how to train students in dance theater.” – Amy

The Dance Insider Essay, 2-7:
Dancing with the Dirt Eaters
Time to bring cross-training to U.S. Dance Education

By Amy Smith
Copyright 2008 Amy Smith

By now, many of us in the American contemporary dance community can agree that we have lost our place of prominence on the world stage. Europeans and Asians used to come to New York to hone their craft at the knees of the great teachers and choreographers of the 20th century. Today, young American dance artists go abroad to learn new techniques and choreographic concepts, and to soak up the sophisticated, irreverent, boundary-pushing atmosphere of European dance.

When my partner Andrew Simonet and I were about to graduate from college in 1992, we knew we wanted to continue our dance study — but where? Some of our peers went to Austin to study with Deborah Hay in her months-long intensive program, but we wanted a broader experience than that. Others of our peers moved to New York and hit the usual studios and workshops — Movement Research, Dance Space, etcetera — but we couldn’t afford New York, and we didn’t just want to study dance techniques, we wanted choreographic tools. A graduate program at most universities would’ve been too dance-y. I think it was actually Deborah Hay who suggested that we check out the Center for New Dance Development in Arnhem, Holland, where she had taught.

We applied and were accepted at CNDO as guest students, and went for almost a year. There we were immersed in an intensive program (10 a.m. – 5 p.m., five days per week) where we learned dance-theater techniques and tools from people like Steve Paxton, Stephanie Skura, Ishmael Houston-Jones, and other luminaries of the contemporary dance world. We dove into dancing and dance making with other dancers and dance makers from all over Europe and the world. We learned how to lie on the floor for hours, how to feel our sit-bones (and each other’s sit bones), how to speak and scream and use our faces in performance. Andrew and I jokingly and lovingly called our cohorts there “the dirt eaters.” These artists were not concerned with pirouettes and jumps. They wanted supple spines. They wanted to yell about injustice in their native tongues and call it a dance. They wanted to eat dirt on stage and roll around in it. Needless to say, it opened our eyes wide to the possibilities of dance as a theatrical form.

It was funny that we had to travel thousands of miles to study with Americans, who were the majority of the faculty at CNDO. Why weren’t these people teaching in the U.S.? Stephanie Skura landed at the University of Washington, but most of the teachers we had in Holland didn’t have a teaching home here in the States. When Ishmael Houston-Jones teaches at the American Dance Festival, which he does often (I accompanied him there one summer as his teaching assistant, not long after meeting him at CNDO), he is seen as the Token Weirdo as much as he’s the Innovative Genius. I’m sure some of it is by choice, their not wanting to be full-time teachers or get bogged down in an institution, but I suspect that these boundary-blurring dance artists have often been denied the respect they deserve by the pedagogical dance institutions in the States.

Years later, now that Headlong Dance Theater, the company I founded with Andrew and David Brick in 1993, has teamed up with some of our peers in Philadelphia to start a semester intensive program for college students in dance-theater, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. Why don’t we have an accredited program for studying New Dance or Dance-Theater here in the States? Where do college students or recent graduates go if they want to immerse themselves in dance-theater training? There are a lot of cities even outside of New York, like Philadelphia or Chicago, where one can go learn from the scene and start making work. But where can people go to learn the tools? In a word, Europe. Or, specifically, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the U.K..

Sara Wookey, an American choreographer who recently returned to the States after spending 10 years living in Holland, thinks the Pina Bausch effect has a lot to do with the acceptance of dance-theater in Europe and the focus there on actually training dancers to be good performers and creators. “In America people aren’t used to this kind of dance, using character [and] humor, with relationship issues played out like in Pina Bausch’s work. She’s the founder of the form, and a lot of [the aesthetics of much of the European dance scene] is driven by her work and how it’s trickled out into other European countries.” From Wookey’s perspective, teaching at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam, the European dancers she encountered living in Holland] are often less strong technically, but more creative. They actually study voice, somatic work, Body Mind Centering, and other forms as part of their dance training, rather than focusing solely on technique.

Wookey also noticed a big difference in how citizens of Europe and the U.S. value dance art, which has a big effect on how the artists are trained and the art is seen. “In Europe, people spend less time at work and have more time to see art, and do continuing education. The general citizen in Holland takes a dance or art class or creates as a hobby. They have an engagement with culture in their leisure time, and our U.S. obsession with economic gain has squashed that.”

Similarly, Janice Im, a recent Swarthmore graduate (who performed with Headlong in our piece “Cell”), says that at the London International School of Performing Arts, where she’s now studying, she’s “being given tools to not only become a better performer, but also a better person. I really appreciate the fact I am looked at as an individual, and the lessons I am learning are not just on the craft of theater, but how to live in a healthier, more connected and conscious way. In the U.S. I think the usual conservatory program’s approach is… the sink or swim approach — your days are crammed with classes and projects, and you are overworked until you have no life outside of the program. Here, the program is intense, but it is not our whole life. People can work part-time jobs outside of class; they have time to go to the museums, performances, etcetera. There is a lot we have to observe from everyday life, and bring with us to class. We have time to breathe, and absorb what we have been learning. It all feels more balanced, somehow.”

Melanie Stewart, a choreographer and dance professor here in Philadelphia, went to Europe in the mid-1990s to learn from the man who taught the people whose work she loved: “I went to Europe to study because I had the opportunity to see dance/movement-driven theater in Edinburgh unlike any I had seen in the U.S.. Much of the work forged new definitions of dance for me — companies like DV8, Volcano Theatre (Wales), John Wright Company, Complicité, and Benchtours. I decided it was time to go to the source — to study with Philippe Gaullier, who most of the artists I worked with had trained with. I did two ‘stages’ with Philippe — one in ‘Bouffon’ and one in ‘Clown.’ I also studied movement with members of Complicité while at L’ecole de Philippe Gaullier in London. It is hard for me to describe, but my experiences with this work in the U.S. has always felt like an imitation of something.”

One aspect of the weakness, or watered-down nature of dance training here in the States is the false dichotomy placed here on the separation of “Theater” and “Dance.” Most training programs, whether college, conservatory, or even studios, separate the students based on genre. If you want to learn about clown, or using your voice and your body simultaneously on stage, you’d better cross the pond. Maybe we have the French clown pioneers to thank for that?

…. And speaking of clown pioneers, one of the hybrid practitioners that Janice Im extols is none other than Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, James Thierree. But in addition to such cross-disciplinary projects, she also points to “major collaborations between prominent cutting-edge artists in the same field, like between Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and between Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant. (Click here and here to read Dance Insider reviews of these respective projects.) Then there are also fun, irreverent companies like Constanza Macras/Dorky Park from Berlin (reviewed today on the Dance Insider) that are reinventing the idea of contemporary dance performance. Here in London there is a genuine enthusiasm for anything that’s new and exciting in the performing arts, especially dance — people will buy tickets and shows sell out very quickly.”

I’m sure there are many reasons why Londoners care more about dance-theater, pre-eminent among them the UK’s long tradition of narrative dance. But having training programs filled with students and faculty from around the world, crossing disciplinary boundaries and making work together can’t hurt. It’s good for the young artist students, the faculty, and the audiences. (And the public shows its appreciation not just by turning out for events, but through state funding including the National Lottery; check out Siobhan Davies’s relatively new building if you don’t believe me.)

Come on, ADF. Come on, Bates. Come on, university dance programs. You know who you are. Aspiring artists need this stuff. We need to be figuring out how to train the next generation of dancers and choreographers right here in the United States. Yes, they need to know how to jump and turn. But they also need to learn how to eat dirt.