Dd Critical Conversation: Dance Appreciation Course at Juilliard
Dd guest contributors, John Hoobyar and Amy Jacobus, are members of the Dance/NYC Junior Committee, which facilitates communication, raises awareness of available resources and opportunities, and organizes events among and with a peer group of administrators, performers, choreographers, and educators in the dance field aged 20-30 in consultation with Dance/NYC. Concerned with a prevalent insularity in the field, they are both members of a Junior Committee think tank devoted to brainstorming and researching solutions for the dance community’s problems reaching a wider audience of non-dancers. John and Amy each attended recent class sessions of a dance appreciation course at The Juilliard School taught by Henning Rübsam. Recently, they compared and evaluated their experiences in these classes:
That Henning is offering such a course is a step toward creating a culture for appreciating dance where people talk about these other issues in class that we care about too.
John: I didn’t really know what the audience was going to be, because it was a Juilliard class that was open to the public as well as Juilliard students. I expected it was a dance appreciation course that would mostly attract students of other disciplines at The Juilliard School, but it was only the general public as far as I could tell. I didn’t know if it was going to be historical appreciation or inroads to dance literacy, and in the class I attended it was pretty much a dance history focus. Specific attention to Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais.
Henning had invited guest speakers Janis Brenner and Alberto Del Saz to talk about Murray Louis’s work. They discussed the technique and philosophy of his choreography, and since Henning has danced for Nikolais’s company, he shared his perspective on that work as well. The background provided was geared towards understanding restaging of Louis’s “Four Brubeck Pieces” on Juilliard students this spring. Questions from the students in class brought up conversations on how these professional companies trained in relation to how the Juilliard dancers train today with comparisons to when Henning was a student at the school. It was interesting to hear about these techniques – I wasn’t very familiar with the choreographers’ work– but discussion contained a lot of familiar language and ideas.
Amy: I think there’s a qualification we should bring up – it was my understanding that normally there’s more of an introductory class and framework for leading from one class session to the next, but this semester there were scheduling issues with the guest speakers. I also had a guest speaker in my class: Keith Michael, who has done a bunch of everything in the dance world from creating and designing sets to stage managing to choreographing and performing in ballets…and clogging. He’s done a lot of things. He’s the Dance Production Coordinator at Juilliard now, and we had a long discussion of what goes into creating a dance performance for an audience outside the choreography and dancing. All of the technical elements that come into play…
J: Like all the things you do…
A: [Laughs] Not even that! We didn’t even get into the marketing and tweeting that goes into putting on a dance performance! We got into all the stage management, lighting—things that are really technical that people don’t understand are happening behind the scenes. A light plot has to be installed and then programmed and then set into cues and then you test them and refine them and you record them again and then people backstage have to call them for them to happen in the moment. Those concepts. People seemed astounded by how much technical work happens during a show.
The class session started with a biographical look at Keith and his relationship with dance: how it has changed throughout the years and how it’s multi-faceted. And later, this tour in the theater led to more conversation about specific production elements coming up in the upcoming show.
The trajectory of the course is leading up to seeing this show (with the Brubeck Pieces and other repertory), and it seemed like the goal for people coming in as students to gain context for the works they’re going to see at the end of the course.
Like you, I was surprised by the people in the class. I didn’t think I had any preconceived notions about who would be there, but I must have because I surprised when I arrived that they were an older crowd, mostly non-dancers. I was surprised that was the demographic, and that the class was really small. And I asked Henning afterwards – a lot of them are repeat customers.
J: That’s the focus – you like to go see dance and you can get all this great background and context in the time leading up to it.
A: It’s a great concept and something a smaller company that doesn’t have the strength of a big institution like Juilliard can’t easily accomplish. That’s part of the difficulty right? Finding ways to show people what’s going to happen to engage and educate them.
J: The course is really an audience engagement tool. Which is great.
A: Yes. And I didn’t know it would lean that way so it was interesting. There is homework. There’s reading about Dave Brubeck and Louis and Nikolais and those associated with the upcoming show. It reminded me… I’m obsessed with BAM’s new email practices with their concertgoers. If you buy a ticket to see Pina Bausch, you will receive an email 1 or 2 nights before you go to the show with background information on the pieces being performed, some video segments, etc., as well as recommended restaurants in the neighborhood, directions, parking, practicalities. It provides a way to dive in before the performance. And it’s exactly what I want as a viewer to prepare myself. There’s a comfort in feeling more familiar with the tone and scope of the work. I think a lot of what makes dance seem less accessible is that people don’t know what to expect. Lately, with my own choreography, I’m thinking more and more about how to set people up to know how to engage with my work.
J: This course seems like it would accomplish that really well. So much more context can really make a difference.
A: When I think of the class as an audience engagement tool, I’m definitely appreciative of its efforts. I wish it could also reach new people, though. A lot of the students have done this before and already “appreciate dance.” So they may not understand some components of dance or of making dance or putting together performances backstage, but they do appreciate the art form. Finding a way to bring people in who are really unfamiliar by finding a way to make the art form more enticing and interesting for them – how do we do that?
J: You obviously have to have some interest in dance in order to sign up for this kind of class. These students, well beyond having an interest in dance, had a strong appreciation for dance. It might be interesting to conduct a course that focuses on things like finding parallels between dance and other art forms, bringing in artists of other forms who seem like a group ripe for engaging with our field.
A: Right. When I was listening to the Q&A at the end of class, I realized the people in this course are not yet equipped to have deeper conversations about contemporary dance issues or they are simply not interested in that way. They were incredulous that you can choreograph something without the music. If that is still where we are in explaining a choreographic process, that people still think you get a piece of music…
J: You choose your Bach score, and then you make dance to it. [Laughs]
A: [Laughs] Yes. So I’d love to see something along these lines that engage people in these more experimental, smaller scale works that are happening throughout the city and in a way that was contemporizing their presence. People our age are trying to do this. (Recent Rooftop Groundfloor performances come to mind.)
J: It would be interesting to ask these students to evaluate whether they view movement or perceive dance differently from how they perceive other art forms and why? Are there cultural constructions that influence that? It’d be great if we had tools like this for other live art happening through the city. But if the students aren’t interested in conversing in that way, you won’t be able to fill the class or the event, and you won’t be able to talk about dance at all.
A: I like that idea though. Learning from the class what they think of dance in relation to visual art or dance in relation to television. Why are they perceived differently? Why is dance less widely appreciated? Then again, are these people the people to ask? I’d say even the small sample sizes of these classes of people who already have one foot in the door to the theater would be helpful and illuminating in locating sources of our dance-bubble problem.
Read more about the guest contributors: