Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dumbing Up

by Paul Gordon Emerson

There is a tendency in arts education -- maybe in most education -- to "dumb down," to assume that people, particularly children, won't get it if you challenge them. It seems to come from a place of insecurity. Not the insecurity of the people to whom you are presenting, but of the people doing the presenting. And its never, ever the right answer. And, if there's a place where its even more not the right answer, its with kids. If anything, you have to dumb up. You have to take your preconceptions as an "adult" who "knows" and raise the barre from what you think they're going to take in. 

I remember as a kid always having that reaction when some adult was talking to me. Anytime someone who was 20 years or more older than I was said "you'll understand this one day" I wanted to either crawl under a rock or hit them with the rock. 99% of the time I got it then. And, as Josh liked to say in West Wing, my IQ doesn't exactly break the bank. If I got it, then all those kids in front of us week after week are just as able to get it. More, probably. 

Whatever it is that makes us talk to kids like they're suffering from some sort of cognitive dyspepsia, where challenging them just results in intellectual heartburn, we are constantly reminded by our audiences that we've got it wrong. If you talk to them like they get it, then they'll go with you, and they'll not just get it, they'll get on it. They'll take a story in. They'll take the enchantment you offer and do it with enthusiasm. If anything, kids have a "bull____" meter that is better than ours as adults. 

Jungle Books has been a clear and present reminder of this. From the 5 year olds at the front to the 11 year olds at the back, their questions are smart and their attention to detail is startling. And they are completely willing to be enchanted. Its really just a matter of making sure that we, as the people at the front of the room are genuinely willing to, interested in and inspired to do the enchanting honestly and with passion. If you offer that, if you offer the best story, at the highest level you can manage, dancing and story-telling for 400 kids goes from being a challenge to being a delight. Why we make it more complicated than that -- that's the question, and the place where we get dumb ourselves. Maybe we should just make sure every performer spends a show sitting in the middle of the audience. 

Monday, April 21, 2008

Teach Your Children Well

By Paul Gordon Emerson

The old Crosby, Stills and Nash song has a stanza in it --

Teach your children well,
Their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.

As CityDance embarks on a two week journey into 15 elementary schools throughout the DC area, for some reason that line -- "feed them on your dreams" -- recurs for me. What is it that we are trying to do, and what is it that we dream, both for ourselves and for them, and how are we sharing the dream with them? We're traveling and touring a version of Jungle Books, the adaptation of the Kipling tales that is a concert program for us and now a road show. Today we shared that story with some 300 children who lost themselves in a story about a fictional boy that was written 112 years ago and set in the heart of a Central Indian jungle. The dancing made them sigh and wonder. The story help them. But what resonated was something which had nothing to do with the tale. It had to do with illness, injury and perseverance.

As departure time neared this morning, as the van was loaded with costumes, props, stereos and a five pound bag of coffee, our lead character, our Mowgli, came through the Strathmore doors. Jason, the star of the show, was too sick to do more than tumble into a chair and mumble something like "I'll be fine." An hour later, as we were preparing to go on stage for our first audience, he was in the Emergency Room of Sibley Hospital. We had a show. He has pneumonia.

Christopher Morgan, who has become our all-purpose utility player, who was supposed to be, intermittently, our narrator, was suddenly Mowgli. With no notice and no warning the company embraced him, and embraced the change, and wondered and worried about Jason alone in ER and told the tale of a young boy, a bear, a snake and a tiger with such skill that no one knew what was different from what was planned. And we could easily have just not told them.

But the lesson -- the teach your children lesson -- the dreams lesson -- is that sharing yourself with little people is something that goes far beyond the flash of a trained dancer and the adaptability of a professional performance troupe. What was memorable for them is the same thing that was memorable for us -- that you train, you practice and in so doing, you persevere. They loved the story and the dancing. But they'll remember Christopher, who shared that he had just stepped in, and that he succeeded because he practiced, because he was willing to take a risk and because we wanted those kids to have a great day with us. We succeeded because all the company was determined. But the kids got something more, and something we often try not to let them see -- the challenge, and thus the humanity, of the day.

Our dream, to share, to dance, is also about that -- to be the people we are with the people they are. That's what made the day special. That's "the one they picked, the one you'll know by."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Earth Day '08

By Paul Gordon Emerson

Art has a role to play (literally and figuratively) in the political questions of the day. That role can be direct and political. But it can also be communal and very non-political. Both matter.

The Green Apples Earth Day Festival on the National Mall is Sunday, April 20th (Earth Day itself is two days later, on the 22nd). CityDance is dancing on the main stage of what is being called the Flagship Event of a worldwide festival. Its an honor, an extraordinary honor, to be invited.

My God-Daughter, Lucy, is 17, and she said the other day that "her entire school is going." Her passion is two-fold for the day, and herein lies a part of the power of art on a day like this that few other more traditional, and political, participants can claim. That power is to pull people in. Its an irony that so often we complain in this field that we can't sell enough tickets to shows, that there isn't enough interest in our programs and blah, blah, blah. Earth Day is just one example of how that isn't -- and must not -- be true.

Earth Day is about fundamental things --- the need to change our practices on this planet, and our stewardship of it -- if we aren't going to be talking about beach front property in Orlando and the consequences of watching the entire Delta in Bangladesh vanish beneath the surface. But to get people to "buy-in" to fundamental things you often have to make such fundamental things something that feel like a positive and not like a penalty. You have to build community. You have to inspire. You have to draw folks together in common purpose, not divide them in the petty details of difference. Earth Day is a deep and defining opportunity to do this, and art is serving a vital mission in making it happen. It is a source of unity -- the celebration of the art as well as of the message that will be on the concert hall stage.

Its a safe bet that at least as many people are coming to see The Roots as to wander the booths of all the business, NGOs and not-for-profit organizations who are there to demonstrate their "green-curriculum vitae's." And its absolutely the truth that more people are into the idea of listening to Chevy Chase or Chris Rock than the Senate Majority Leader. Rock is there because he believes. Whether Harry Reid (the Majority Leader) can convince anyone of the same is unimportant -- he holds the power of change in a way none of the rest of us do. But that's not the point. The point is that people are being drawn in by the art as much as well as by the cause -- and many are simply being drawn by the art. But they're coming, and that -- particularly in Washington -- is how movements begin. Celebrating the day opens the door to positive ways of changing, and of getting us together to say "this is how we do it."

There are going to be political statements from the artists, as there should be. But while all the focus is on the politics of the day, its too easy to forget that you can inspire change without a sledgehammer, and that its often more effective, and more lasting, when you realize that it doesn't all have to be heavy. There's nothing wrong with taking on the question of a heating planet by doing things which are cool.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Revolution: Reflections

by Paul Gordon Emerson

Coming to the end of the first phase of creating "Revolution" is both a bit sad and also very inspiring.

Sad because Isabel has journeyed back to Chile, and left the magic she makes in a room to memory (at least for now). Inspiring because she has made something extraordinary and done what gifted choreographers do -- challenge the performers to be more than they were when she entered the room for the first time. Normally those journeys take months. She had three weeks. To create a dance in three weeks is challenging enough. To create a culture on stage is vastly more difficult. But this is what she did. To ask dancers, who are driven by their DNA to move, and most of the time to move at exceptional speed, to forsake the use of their legs would create its own revolution in most companies.

But in this one, it didn't. It created a willingness to understand. As esoteric as that may sound, its critical to the success of any art. Artists paint. They make music. They use inanimate objects to generate color or sound. But dancers are the color and they are, in many ways, the sound. So if something is going to succeed in the mission of challenging, inspiring or captivating an audience, the performers must embrace their roles. These did. The result was a wave of comments about "Revolution" being "breathtaking" and "brilliant."

As an outsider, what captivated me was the dual brilliance of making a work on an impossible subject not just compelling but embracing, and of making it on a group new to the concept and giving them the opportunity to thrive, and thus to realize the mission of the work.

For choreographers, this is a pinnacle. Its what makes something last. Its what makes something captivating for more than a few minutes, and makes it stretch in the consciousness into the days and weeks after the performance is long gone from the stage, but is lingering there in the heart.

There were two "Revolutions" at Warmer. One was the literal revolution -- the dance. The other was the one in the hearts and culture of the dancers. Rare indeed.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dance Is A Miracle That Happens When We Are There

by Isabel Croxatto

I believe that artists are catalysts of their communities and social, political and cultural environments.

As a choreographer I feel as an antenna, capturing and sending signals. I can´t help seeing, hearing, sensing, smelling and tasting "movement" of all kinds, (visible and invisible), in my own personal life, in a crowded metro station, in a poem or music, in the streets, in a political speech, in nature, history...everywhere!..movement talks to me, and sometimes it just gets into my organic, spiritual and mind system until I do something about it...and that something is a dance.

I ask my self many times, do I know how to dance ? do I really know how to do this ?...after 25 years of trying, I realize that I will never know…and that probably it is not important that I do.

The truth is that when something “calls” me and “moves” my heart, I have to start to work: create, research, explore, learn, develop, practice,... what ever it is need, no matter how long it takes, till I find my way to put it out in a movement that I can transmit back to the world.

And in that process I start to involve others and others start to get involved with that call as if they were hearing it too: dancers, artists, composers, musicians, family, friends, etc. And when I realize that the original movement that had urgently touched me so deeply is already out and expressing itself through a poetic language of movement that we have come to or invented and that has inspired it´s own propitious environment (costume, music, setting, lighting, etc ) - for that to become a visible movement in a time and space that we can share and experience with others, I realize that we are a part and witnesses of a little miracle…that is called, ART.

Sometimes I would also like to know and understand what is moving us to go on dancing and creating dance when nobody seems to care any more… and many times, concerning the apparently insolvent relation between the artist´s work and the audience, I also, ask myself "was that supposed to mean something?"... but that is only my head, reading too close to really see!

And many times, I say to myself,...go home, drop it, their is nothing you can do about it...but then a unexpected angel with many names, crosses my way and brings me back to trust, belief, hope, passion, purpose, love…and back to DANCE and ABUNDANZA!

And here I am in Washington DC, dancing with Butterflies and Trees ... extending our roots and branches to fly directly to your heart, so you can join us in a "revolutionary" movement towards a better future for the generations coming and the amazing planet in which we live.

Do we need to intellectually understand a movement that is happening in a space and time that we are part of as and audience ?... I believe that dance only declares it self when we are all there, but once it starts to unfold we can not stop it and the fact that it is happening is already meaningful beyond our understanding. Dance is a MIRACLE that refreshes and nourishes life, and we together (audience + artist) are part of it. We can open ourselves more and let her come in, touch us and move us ... and why not dance with her. We might at the end come to a different understanding or conclusion, (is that bad?), or maybe we will not like it at all. But coming to experience what artists have to say with no words is a significant ritual to cultivate and exercise, in these days where social pollution is threatening bonds to extinction. I believe that only for that matter it might be worth the risk of intellectual understanding. Do you?

Isabel Croxatto
CoreĆ³grafa y Directora
Santiago, Chile

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Was That Supposed To Mean Something?

by Paul Gordon Emerson

While we've been focusing on the evolution of Isabel's "Revolution of the Butterflies," there have been other things happening in the company. On Friday, April 4th CityDance had a performance in the studio for a group brought together by the Education Department at the Music Center at Strathmore (our Montgomery County home). Ostensibly, they were coming up to see us doing something related to the theme of their package -- Broadway. Except that we don't really do anything that has anything to do with Broadway other than that we all like going to it.

We opted to show "On A Train Heading South," the dance that is the bookend to Isabel's for our upcoming concert, "Warmer." As I've mentioned in earlier posts, "Train" takes a very different approach to the question of climate change. We picked "Train" because of its narrative line -- its sense of being a story with a beginning, middle and end. That led us to the idea that there are similarities between a musical and a modern dance. In this case the similarities were about story and the dissimilarities were in that our story had no words and a musical usually has a zillion of them to get you through and to the story. And that, in turn, led to the question everyone in modern dance has hanging over their heads whenever they set out to make a dance -- "was that supposed to mean something?" If you want a question that sends a chill into a choreographer, artistic or executive director or, perhaps most important, a potential patron, this is it. Our friend and colleague Gesel Mason has made a dance about it -- and its a brilliant take on how quickly an audience can, and usually will, get lost watching this stuff. Her take through "How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert" was to just go right at how obscure this can get even when the choreographer thinks he or she is being as clear as the water in Lake Tahoe (something that is apparently about to change due to algae growth in the lake because of, you guessed it, climate change -- hmmm, Lake Tahoe in a stunning, anaerobic green, now that's a realtor's dream).

The further into a field, whether art or inorganic chemistry, you get, the easier it is to forget that you are really just learning a language, and getting better and better at speaking that language. The fact that that excellence is taking you into very rarefied company is fine if you only intend to talk to people similarly skilled (think the annual convention of the American Society for Chemical Engineering, where I suspect a coffee order comes with a request for sugar in its chemical designations), and if your purpose is to investigate, and discuss, with people who are in the know the same way you are.

What happens, though, when your existence is predicated on communicating, not with the 10 people you work in a room with day in and day out, but with tens or thousands of people who have absolutely no experience with you and, more, who haven't spent 20 years learning how to "speak dance?"
You spend 6 weeks making a dance filled with an endless amount of "deep meaning" and concept, put it on the stage convinced that the audience will rise up at the end in celebration of all that you've said. And what happens? Someone at the reception, someone exceptionally well informed, bright, inquisitive and just a little bit poorer for having plunked down his or her money, sheepishly walks up to you and says, in a quiet undertone "I really enjoyed it, but....was that supposed to mean something?" At this moment you typically spend 20 minutes trying to explain your profound concept, turn the question back and ask "well, what did you think it meant?" which is pretty much the kiss of death most of the time, or you head for the bar.

Then you commiserate with colleagues about how "no one gets it." They share in your pain, 'cause they feel the same way. That would be the art world's road to hell. If we want people to come and share in an experience, then, at least in my view, we better meet them way more than halfway. Assuming that building an audience, expanding a love of an art form, communicating thoughts and ideas and creating a great and entertaining environment is a significant part of the point, then the transformation of how we get people the language skills to "speak dance" better be a key part of the conversation we have with ourselves, our colleagues and our marketing departments.

If its not, we should be content with tiny houses and low priced tickets, similarly tiny salaries, few returning patrons except those 50 devotees (and the families of the dancers), and a better come back to "was that supposed to mean something?" than Isadora Duncan's unfortunately famous phrase that "if she could explain what she meant, she wouldn't have had to make it." There are those who would argue, whatever her CV, that she didn't. Ordering dinner in a restaurant in a country where you don't speak the language and can't read the characters is fun and an adventure, despite the fact that you have no idea what you are about to eat, but it probably won't keep you alive very long.....

Time to find a Starbucks.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Butterfly Effect

by Paul Gordon Emerson

Sometimes a phrase or a word finds its way into the lexicon and becomes a symbol. "Just do it," comes to mind -- and that's a brand slogan. Sometimes these things become a catchphrase for strength; sometimes for weakness. And then there are phrases that become popular despite the fact that none of us really know what in the world they mean. That would be "the butterfly effect." How is it, exactly, that a monarch butterfly beating gorgeous yet stunningly fragile wings in Chile can have any impact at all on whether it rains in China? Getting caught up in the scientific truth of that is probably the source of endless Science Channel programs, but getting caught up in it misses the point. In a turn-of-the-century beaux arts mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington in the first week of April I saw it first-hand, and it had nothing to do with high pressure and air flow. If its possible to witness a change in the wind brought about by a tiny creature whose habitat is being obliterated by loggers clear-cutting to get us our hardwood floors, it was there on a much older hardwood. It was there in the form of a different kind of wind -- that generated by inspiration.

Why we make dances, or any form of art, is a similarly obtuse question, because we've been doing it as long as we can clearly identify ourselves as being human. Whatever the synaptic "air flow," we trace civilization back to our earliest forms of art. We celebrate the birth of our humanity in the creation of our paintings, our buildings and our delicately detailed jewelry and ornamentation. We are creatures who seem to need to do this. And getting lost in the science gets us similarly lost from the point that to make art is to find symbolic forms for changing the world. Each impression is individual, because we can only take it in individually. But collectively, each impression becomes multiplied and creates a high pressure zone of its own kind, and the wind comes and the climate changes -- not in temperature change and the making of monsoons, but in the perceptual and human change that leads us to gather, to watch, to question and to ask. This is what Isabel is doing in the forms she makes and the questions she causes us to ask. Whether the temperature is any different today outside a village in China, it is different, ever so slightly, in that mansion on Mass. Ave. The people who came to to that mansion, the residence of the Ambassador from Chile, on a hard storming and cold April night, came into a building with one mood -- often as strangers -- and left a tiny bit changed. Incrementally changed. But 70 people changed by a degree can add up. And this is how art takes on the world in the "modern age."

We are extraordinarily fortunate that Ambassador Fernandez saw his home as a vehicle to celebrate this possibility, and to celebrate a gifted artist from Chile. Her idea and inspiration comes from a creature living in a long strip of land on the Pacific. It would seem that such a tiny creatures life, or death, can have absolutely no impact on those of us in Washington. But the world is smaller now, and the effect -- the butterfly effect -- of the work was felt thousands of miles beyond. In Washington.

Apocryphal or not. Metaphorical or not, the butterfly effect works. The question becomes, will those of us caught up by and in it do what we can, and what we must, for the creatures who inspired it.