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Boot camp for dancers: pushing personal boundaries at Austin's Glenda Brown choreography project. (Summer Study Guide 2003).

Two dancers jointly clutch a roll of paper towels overhead. Their arms are fully extended; their bodies pressed closely together. As they move sinuously across the stage, a bossy voice suddenly booms from the theater, "Make it less sexy. And change it quickly! Time is money!"

This is a moment in a mock TV commercial in the Glenda Brown Choreography Project, a summer training program based at the University of Texas at Austin. The exercise is an assignment in interactive choreography in which students create a thirty-second dance promoting goods ranging from paper towels to breakfast cereal, while faculty pretend to be corporate executives. As the dancers perform, the choreographers are ready to make on-the-spot changes to please their would-be clients.

The mood is upbeat and lighthearted. Choreographers, who are directing from the stage apron, banter with the teachers. One faculty member, in a fake German accent, says, "I don't like it. Make it hip-hop." "Aye, which part?" quips the choreographer in a Scottish brogue. Dancers erupt in giggles as they wait for their choreographers' orders. Despite the playfulness, the challenges for choreographers and dancers are real: The assignment demands creativity, adaptability, and most of all, the ability to work quickly and efficiently.

During ten days in August 2002, the workshop offered hands-on instruction for nine choreographers and thirty-five dancers selected from across the country. Rigorous, intense, but intended to be fun, the total-immersion program appeals to emerging dancemakers as well as mid-career professionals.

According to Glenda Brown, the program's director, the workshop's purpose is to provide skills for devising formal, concert dances as well as routines for music videos and other commercial forms. It's like choreographic boot camp: Participants endure a relentless daily regimen of technique classes, choreographic assignments, rehearsals, performances, and late-night critiques. To help the students keep pace with the demanding schedule, the faculty stresses focus and discipline. Morning ballet and modern classes are followed by improvisation and theory sessions, where students receive individual assignments. After lunch, there are jazz and theater courses. The only breaks during the day are for meals.

The most intense work begins each afternoon, when choreographers and dancers have only three hours to create, rehearse, and polish a three-minute work to be performed that evening. Assigned specific music, movement styles, and performers, choreographers have to develop a dance quickly. That evening, each group performs on a proscenium stage with lights and, if appropriate, costumes and props. Afterward, everyone returns to the dorm, where the faculty critiques each work.

"We learn from each other here," says Margo Sappington, a Broadway choreographer and director of choreography at the project. "There's no sense of competition," she said, taking a break in a conference room at the University of Texas. "It's a nurturing, healthy environment. We give only constructive criticism and encourage students to take risks and make mistakes. Experience is the best teacher."

Sappington's own choreographic experience began in 1969 when she choreographed Oh! Calcutta! on Broadway. A former dancer with The Joffrey Ballet, she has since created dances for ballet companies, Broadway shows, grand opera, music videos, and commercials.

The customized assignments devised by Sappington and Paul Hodgins, the program's music director, usually push students out of their preferred movement styles, forcing them to explore new vocabularies. Dancers with balletic backgrounds might be assigned a contemporary piece; modern choreographers could be given a pointe assignment. Initial exercises usually involve abstract movement, but by the end of the workshop, choreographers are asked to create emotionally charged dances.

According to Hodgins, some students find it difficult to work outside their comfort zone. "It takes a lot of guts to get out there every day and create a work and then get critiqued each evening," Hodgins says. "Creative process is a personal thing, and it requires maturity to take criticism and learn from it."

Since the emphasis is on process, not product, Sappington and Hodgins continually probe each choreographer's strengths and weaknesses, and they craft assignments accordingly. "Almost anyone can choreograph for fabulous dancers," Sappington said. "Part of our challenge is shaping movements to match the dancers at hand. This prepares you more for the real world."

Hodgins, a critic, composer, and music director for college dance programs, says he brings more than 150 CDs featuring music from traditional to non-Western, medieval to rap, and assigns each choreographer a separate selection.

"Dealing with the music is hard," said Jonathan Tabbert, 20, a choreographer from Charleston, South Carolina. "The staff concentrates on choosing music that you wouldn't ordinarily use, but it forces you to break your own patterns and find new ideas."

Since all workshop participants, including faculty, live in the same dormitory, interaction is continuous, and impromptu exchanges of ideas and movements emerge in the corridors, dining hall, and in the shuttle vans that run between the studios and the dorm.

"It's more than an artists' colony," said Bob Boross, a freelance choreographer and professor at the University of California at Irvine, who serves as the project's director of jazz and theater. "For ten days you forget about the outside world and focus totally on creating dances. It's exhausting, but ultimately, rewarding."

Other faculty agree. Lyn Wiltshire, the project's modern dance director and associate professor of dance at the University of Texas, has taught choreography workshops for several years. "This program is unique. Where else can you simultaneously learn performance skills, music theory as it relates to choreography, stagecraft, and time management? Few places outside of academia offer this type of concise training," she said.

"As dancers, we are learning about performance and how to work with different choreographers each day," said Allison Whited, a 17-year-old student from Silsbee, Texas. "The emphasis is on communication and focus, not just honing our dance technique."

Glenda Brown has served as co-artistic director of Houston's Allegro Ballet for more than twenty years, and directed the Regional Dance America's (RDA) Craft of Choreography conferences for fourteen years. When the RDA board voted last year to revamp its choreography workshops, Brown decided to start her own program. Lyn Wiltshire immediately offered her a partnership with the University of Texas.

"I wanted a choreography workshop in the central part of the country, so I was delighted to be invited to Austin," Brown said. "The university's facilities allowed us to expand the program to include jazz and theater forms. Now we're considering additional courses and are using student composers to work directly with our choreographers." Choreographers must be at least 18 years old to apply, although the program accepts dancers aged 13 and up.

Unlike the RDA choreography conferences, applicants do not have to be members of an established company or have RDA affiliation. To audition for the program, choreographers submit videotapes of their work; dancers send a photograph and a recommendation from their teacher. Brown says she often recruits dancers and choreographers from regional companies, private studios, and university programs around the country. In 2002, choreographers ranged in age from their early 20s to mid-40s, with backgrounds in professional dance, acting, and teaching. Most of the dancers in the program were teenagers with varying levels of experience.

Since each faculty creates its unique synergy and personality, Brown prefers to invite new teachers each summer. Alternating the faculty also encourages students to return.

Megan Forgas, a choreographer from Beaumont, Texas, is a workshop veteran, having attended two previous RDA conferences before auditioning for Brown's project. "It's tough here, but fun," Forgas says. "When I first attended, I was only 16, and the daily critique sessions were hard to take. Now that I'm 23, I can appreciate what those critiques offer. Every teacher brings different insights and advice."

Brown says a goal is to build toward a summer dance festival in Austin that culminates in the choreography workshop. "There are already [summer] programs here ... including Ballet Austin ... and American Ballet Theatre. The Rockettes are even starting a workshop here in 2003," she said. "Austin offers so much for dancers each summer. This is where we want to be."

Sondra Lomax is an associate chair in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes for the Austin American-Statesman.
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Author:Lomax, Sondra
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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