Candid Web camera in the classroom: the Jillana School brings technology to Taos. (Young dancer[R]).
Since 1998, during July, 80 to 100 ballerinas ages 11 to 17 from around the country and the world have gathered in the Swiss-style studios of the Jillana School. There, nestled in the mountains, surrounded by aspens, dogwoods, and wildflowers, they study Balanchine technique and repertoire with Jillana, along with other former New York City Ballet dancers such as Bart Cook and Maria Tallchief. According to Jillana, it is easier for her students to focus in Taos, miles from the dance meccas of New York and California. "There are no distractions in Taos," she said in a telephone conversation from her home in San Diego, California.
"It's peaceful in Taos: no traffic, no noise," says Tiffany Perkins of Riverside, California, who will be entering her fourth summer at the school in summer 2003. "It makes it easier to focus on what you're doing. At Jillana it's a rigorous dance schedule."
Like other rural summer dance programs, the Jillana School serves as a retreat, pulling students out of their normal daily routine and immersing them in an experience of ballet away from the bustle. And yet, despite the naturalism of the setting, Jillana opted to install technology in her classes so that the children wouldn't seem too remote to their families and friends.
In 1999, the second year of her summer program, Jillana installed a Web camera in the largest studio. This camera is switched on during technique classes but off during the teaching of Balanchine choreography, in accordance with a licensing agreement with the Balanchine Trust. With the proper password, outsiders can log on to Jillana's Web site and observe the students in class. For the viewer, it isn't like being in the classroom, however. The slow Internet connection in Taos doesn't allow for a fluid, moving picture of class. As Perkins says, it's not "like watching TV." Even so, students frequently call their parents to tell them what time to watch them dance.
University of New Mexico dance professor Jennifer Predock-Linnell wonders if our creative work habits are being "permanently altered by this evolving partnership of dance and technology."
Jillana doesn't think so. Because of its unobtrusiveness, she says, she believes the Web camera has had no effect on the processes of teaching and learning ballet. "The camera is the size of a golf ball or raquetball. I even forget it's there. I don't think the students remember when it's on or off," she says.
"I think most people forget it is on, it's so small," agrees student Tracy Furhmann. "Sometimes we'll do funny things for it, but it doesn't take over the class at all."
The major impact the camera has had is on the parents, who, in general, are said to be delighted to be able to watch their children taking ballet class. "My mom enjoys it the most. She'll print out pictures of me in class," Fuhrmann says.
Student Marlee Bailey agrees: "I think it's great that my parents can watch. I'll call Kansas and tell my mom when to turn on the computer. It's the highlight of her day."
Jillana's decision to install the camera came in part out of her own memories as an 11-year-old student of ballet from New Jersey, setting out to study at New York City Ballet in Manhattan and having to cope with her parents' desire to watch her in class. "I know my mom and dad were always wanting to watch classes, so I wanted to give parents the chance. The only difference the camera makes is for the parents and grandmas and grandpas--they love it."
The camera can help to allay parents' concerns and fears about their children, especially younger students. But broadcasting the class on the Internet, Jillana says, also aids in her mission to "pass on the Balanchine technique." It lets her carry out her mission on a much larger scale, she says, potentially letting her reach dancers around the world.
Although John Meehan, director of the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, has never used a Web camera, he says he is not averse to his dancers being viewed, and he welcomes observers. All the studio doors at ABT are equipped with windows, through which visitors and other dancers can watch class. The observers are not in the space with the dancers and the instructor, Meehan says, but do have access to what is going on inside. "I am very comfortable with having people look into the class. In fact I encourage it," he explains. "It's good for the dancers to get used to being watched."
Some artists argue that the Web camera's ability to compress space and create the illusion of a shared presence is exciting. New York choreographer Jessica Lang has used the camera to give corrections to dancers in Minneapolis from a studio in Manhattan. In March 2002, Lang watched a group of dancers perform her choreography on a TV monitor in a studio in downtown Manhattan. She was able to touch the screen to tell a dancer how to move her arm or bend her head. "I remember leaving and thinking: I'm in New York. How did I just critique something in Minnesota [when] all I had to do was take a subway?" she says.
For Lang, the Web camera is a positive addition to the world of dance. "It's a neat way to experience a different quality of movement and to make connections between performing-arts schools and choreographers," she says. You might not be able to convince a master teacher to travel to your school, she explains, but with the Web camera the master teacher might be willing to be a "virtual visitor" to your far-off studio.
But according to Gloria Govrin, associate director of the San Francisco Ballet School, any audience, virtual or real, hinders the process of learning dance. In her view it is essential for the ballet student to have private, unwatched time with the instructor and the other students. "Balanchine used to have guests all the time. He didn't mind having an audience. But he also used to say that any time you have an audience, you have people judging you. So it was just as important not to have an audience. He wanted people to feel free to make mistakes, to be able to make a fool of themselves in the studio. That's the only way you learn. If you have a camera on in the studio it's not a class," she says, "it's a performance. I wouldn't use the Web camera in class; it's not a good idea for the parents, teachers, or students."
The San Francisco Ballet School policy allows parents to watch classes twice a year, during designated observance weeks. In Govrin's view, giving the parents access to the class every day creates a competitive atmosphere among the students and offers the parents a false sense of knowledge about what their children are learning. It also doesn't allow them to see the child's real progress--growth, she explains, that is better appreciated when seen infrequently. To Govrin, the Web camera image adds the additional problem of misrepresenting the movement because it is not three-dimensional.
The Web camera can create new bridges of communication, giving us access to people and art as never before. But as Govrin cautions, even in live streams of data an entire dimension of reality falls away. The camera may seem to close the gap between us. It may also relieve parental anxiety. But as it does, the dance world will have to ask itself if, in the process, a vital aspect of dance and dance training vanishes into cyberspace.
Madeleine Rogin is dance program coordinator for the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque and teaches dance to children.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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