Choreographers connect in workshop Mysteries of modern dance explored at UMBC

January 29, 1995|By Charlotte Sommers | Charlotte Sommers,Special to The Sun

When a ballerina points her toe, no one asks why. Yet, let a modern dancer curl into a contraction and everyone strains to get the meaning.

What is it about contemporary dance that connects the choreographer with the audience in a way that classical dance doesn't? Is movement for the sake of movement valid?

These are just a few of the mysteries of modern dance that were explored during the Maryland Dance Showcase Workshop for Choreographers, sponsored by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture and held recently at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

"The glory of contemporary dance is its visceral nature," declared Jennifer Muller, the New York-based choreographer who led the workshop. "Physically, it combines athleticism with the lines of sculpture and the skills of acting. But each choreographer has to find a particular voice, and say something valid.

"There's a lot to be enjoyed in classical dance," she continued, "the technique, the bravura and in some ways the story. But unless you happen to be a sylph, 'Swan Lake' doesn't say a lot about your life. Modern dance, on the other hand, speaks to things in our lives right now."

Fifteen choreographers participated in this year's workshop -- a seasoned, ethnically diverse group, with the average age in the mid-30s. There were jazz and ethnic choreographers, Asians, African-Americans and even one who specialized in classical Indian dance. "It's a good mix this year," observed Dr. Iantha Tucker, an associate professor of dance at Morgan State University who has attended most of the six annual workshops held so far.

"The choreographers' workshop started out six years ago as a direct result of members of the dance community asking for help to build audiences and develop professionalism," said program coordinator Jane Vallery-Davis.

"Dance is tough in Baltimore," acknowledged Ms. Vallery-Davis. "The Mayor's Committee is working hard to help build audiences, and we're available to help companies with marketing strategies. These workshops provide good support and fill a niche for locals, who don't have many networking opportunities."

Nancy Wanich-Romita, who has choreographed in Baltimore for the past 10 years and is currently artistic director of the Moving Company, called the workshop "an incredible opportunity. We usually work in our own little pigeonholes at our craft, and it's easy to get too insulated."

The six-day workshop -- funded through the Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Foundation -- was open to all choreographers living in Maryland. Those selected to participate submitted videotapes of their work, which were reviewed by Ms. Muller.

A professional dancer since 1960 and artistic director of the contemporary dance company Jennifer Muller/the Works since 1974, Ms. Muller has created more than 55 works and toured extensively.

Draped from head to toe in layers of black, the pale Ms. Muller cut a dramatic figure. Her observations about dance were articulate and passionate, and she would throw back her head or fling out an arm to make a point.

"Dance should be a communication, and the audience members are active participants," said Ms. Muller. "If the choreographer is vague, it leaves them in the dust."

Each workshop session began with a group warm-up and technique class. After a break, Ms. Muller led the group in a discussion. One day's topic was "Shape."

"There are qualities of shape -- circular, linear, direct and indirect, up and down," she explained. Suddenly, she slumped over in the chair, her head dangling an inch from the floor. "I can't exult here. This has to be hopelessness."

Ever so slightly she pulled up her shoulders, creating tension. "This says something entirely different, doesn't it?"

The afternoon was devoted to the choreographers working to create a piece of movement that communicated a clear intention through shapes.

One choreographer sat and contemplated the problem without moving a muscle, while another walked in circles, and another stood rigidly staring at the wall of windows and then spiraled to the floor.

Finally it was time to present the pieces. One choreographer's piece was a strong statement of thrusting moves. He began in the corner, was propelled diagonally to the center and back again. As he took his seat, the class applauded.

"One sentence only about what you saw," said Ms. Muller as she paced the room, her eyes on the floor.

After a beat, a voice spoke up: "There's a certain power in knowing where you're going." Ms. Muller stopped in her tracks, considered the response, then paced on without comment.

After the session, the choreographers spoke about the value of the workshop.

First-time participant Branch Morgan III, said the workshop not only gave him a chance to be part of a supportive creative circle, it also reinforced his commitment to working from personal experience.

"A lot of what was said here was about authenticity and made me realize that I don't have to wear a coat," said Mr. Morgan, formerly with the Baltimore Dance Theater and a free-lance choreographer for the past 20 years. "It's not about Alvin Ailey or Eva Anderson [technique]. It's OK to let it be Branch Morgan."

Ms. Wanich-Romita said the workshop dealt with topics addressed in most compositional classes -- such as space, time, weight and shape. "What's unique about Jennifer Muller is the way she showed me how to look at my relationship to these things and ask myself how I can articulate them with the craft of choreography."

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