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A trend toward self-reliance: dancers engineer their training to become smarter, stronger, more versatile performers.

WATCHING PAUL MATTESON DANCE--HIS lush control and smooth suspension--can take your breath away. But when Brooklyn-based choreographer Karinne Keithley first saw Matteson at the Bates Dance Festival in 1994, she gasped for different reasons. "I remember thinking, `That poor guy. He's so awkward he can barely even walk'--which sounds terrible out of context, but it was this very self-conscious effort at stage walking," says Keithley. "He was in the Doris Humphrey reconstruction repertoire class. He had a part carrying a woman around, sort of a processional." * Matteson agrees. The only reason he was onstage was because the Humphrey Foundation requested that the reconstructors use men instead of an all-female cast. "I volunteered," he says. "I had had about a day of dance experience."

He went on to earn Dance Magazine's award for outstanding student choreographer at the 1996 national American College Dance Festival. And today, less than ten years from his stage debut at Bates, not only does Matteson stand out in the companies of David Dorfman and Lisa Race, but Dance Theater Workshop will present his choreography in May at its renovated Manhattan theater. Even Karinne Keithley has asked Matteson to perform with her.

How did Matteson transform his dancing from pathetic to powerful? Pre-college, Matteson played sports and attended community improvisation sessions with his mother in Portland, Maine. At Middlebury College in Vermont, where he planned to major in theater, he took an introductory modern dance class.

"I started going to student auditions and, because I was a man, I was put in three pieces," Matteson remembers.

He continued his study at Middlebury with improvisers Peter Schmitz and Penny Campbell and with Andrea Olsen, and took classes at the American Dance Festival from Gus Solomons jr and Mark Haim.

Matteson's path from nondancer to sought-after company member was circuitous--including a stint as a ski bum--but it may be more typical than not in today's dance market.

The pursuit of technique today differs immensely from the time of Martha Graham and Jose Limon, when dancers would study, with almost religious devotion, the style of one choreographer. In an economic climate where companies fold and dancers support themselves by working with more than one choreographer, performers must adapt to new styles. They must navigate through technique classes and decide what training makes the most aesthetic and practical sense. They must consider what styles are in demand and which will work best for their bodies.

In 1976, Bill Evans opened the Bill Evans. Dance Company School. "Most modern dance technique classes were about passing on a very personal movement style," says Evans, now a professor at the University of New Mexico. "Realizing that only a very few of the dancers studying in my school would ever work in my company, I determined that we needed to guide our students toward development of their own styles and the ability to adapt to other choreographers rather than indoctrinating them with mine."

Unfortunately, Evans's training was very different. "By the time I was 29, I was chronically injured. It was 1969, and dance training was not based on harmony." Evans says he hired dance kinesiologists to work with him and his company members to help them understand the science of movement. "This helped [us] replace the overreliance of conventional modern dance training on the larger superficial muscles of the body with a balanced use of the deeper, smaller muscles closer to the bone."

By increasing strength and stability, particularly in what Evans describes as the "core support muscles--the deep abdominal wall, the pelvic floor, the psoas, and deep lateral rotators," Evans's training creates dancers who can adapt to demands of many choreographers.

At Manhattan's Peridance studios, Giada Ferrone has a cultlike following of ballet, modern, and jazz professionals, plus hobby ballerinas. "Dance has changed, dancers have changed; therefore their training must change," Ferrone says. "I believe that ballet is not an elite art anymore, which only the few with perfect bodies, arched feet, and 180-degree turnout can master. Ballet classes are safer, more relaxed, and more enjoyable because they are not so rigid. I constantly work on alignment. Until one can stand in first position effortlessly, one cannot dance at the best of one's potential. I like to challenge my students, to help them find their own voices."

"Today's dancer has a toolbox of techniques to train in," says Brenda Way, founder and artistic director of ODC/San Francisco, a company noted for its virtuosity and versatility.

Take for example, freelance dancer Jodi Melnick, who began as a gymnast in fifth grade, then started dancing seriously as a senior in high school. Her training spans modern, yoga, Pilates, Alexander Technique, jazz, ballet, tai chi, qi gong, even aerobics in order to "get really fundamental information that I need for my body." She adds, "It's magical to have this information," and cites her teacher, Sarah Stackhouse at SUNY Purchase, as an important influence on her career "She had such a strong technical base and encouraged expression and awareness," Melnick says.

The aerobics became vital when Melnick needed to build stamina "I would go and do a step class to get my endurance up, because I had been working with Tharp and I would be purple and feeling like I was going to throw up!" she says. "[Downtown choreographers] didn't stress that muscularity and detail then. But the downtown world was so formative because it emphasized alignment through skeletal structure. It's the most visceral training."

Melnick received a 2000-2001 New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Award in the performer category, and in November 2002 she appears at the 92nd Street Y in choreography by Sara Rudner, an artist she has worked with for twelve years.

"I connect to technique through movement and feeling," she says of her work with Rudner, Vicky Shick, Susan Rethorst, and Twyla Tharp.

Versatility is in demand not only for freelance dancers but also for company members. New York City Ballet, for example, performs an eclectic repertoire that includes works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon, and Miriam Mahdaviani. Aesha Ash, a member of NYCB's corps, chose ballet as a way to improve her jazz dancing.

"I started classes in jazz, tap, and lyrical at the Joyce Winters School in Rochester, New York," Ash says. "I got to the point where jazz wasn't much of a challenge. I started to get a little bored with it, but ballet was such a challenge and there were so few black ballerinas that I've been exposed to. It became something that I wanted to accomplish."

Since joining NYCB in 1996, Ash, 24, has been featured in George Balanchine's Western Symphony and The Four Temperaments, but it was in Albert Evans's new Haiku that she set the stage afire. Ash's jazz background allowed her to slither and strut through Evans's choreography with style: "I could relax and feel comfortable in movement like that," she said.

From the diversity of their training, these dancers have developed an intelligence about movement that translates into greater confidence, employability, and healthier bodies. Matteson, for instance, reports an injury-free career, and in spite of many years of rehearsing, performing, and touring, Melnick, now 39, has never had a chronic injury.

"I had knee surgery three years ago on the tiniest tear in my miniscus," Melnick says. "It was a freak thing from wear and tear."

"The advantage is that you find out what you believe in, in movement," says Matteson. "You get a sense of confidence when you perform and try new things out. I like the awkwardness [of attempting something new], the quirks. My movement is sensation driven. [I'm able to] trust that the dance is happening."

Kate Mattingly teaches ballet and dance history in New York City and has contributed to The New York Times, the Village Voice, and The New Haven Register, among other publications. She serves as a member of the New York Dance and Performance "Bessie" Award committee.
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Author:Mattingly, Kate.
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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