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“FINDING THE DANCE PROGRAM THAT FITS,” Dance Magazine, April 2002

April 2004

April 2004

For many teens, summer means relaxing days by the pool. But thousands of
serious, young dancers spend their summer vacations in the studio
working harder than ever. Intensive summer training sessions are a great
way to try out new teachers and styles—or to delve more deeply into the
technique you enjoy most. They can also give you a feel for what
rigorous, conservatory training is like. Indeed, some young dancers use
summer programs to sample schools they might want to attend year-round.
That’s true for twelve year old Jane Yoon. The fact that she was
shopping for a great summer program that might also become her
year-round school made her choice especially exciting and challenging.

“I know I’m choosing good places to audition,” said Yoon, “but sometimes
it feels like I’m just going by the pictures in brochures. I’m glad my
parents helped me figure out what I really want. All schools have
hierarchies, and things that go on under the surface. I’d like to know
in advance if those things are ones I can handle, or maybe even ones I’m
looking for. How competitive will it be? Will I make friends easily?”

Whether your main interest is great summer experience or a long-term
program, deciding where to go can be a daunting task. There are many
great schools and programs that differ widely. Becoming familiar with
their different focuses and offerings will help you find a program that
meets your goals and interests.

At Idyllwild Arts Academy, for example, the emphasis is development of
the individual through the arts. Summer programs for students in every
age group are offered: ballet, jazz, tap and theatre dance among an
abundance of other art forms. Situated in the mountains above Palm
Springs, California, the academy’s curriculum concentrates on classical
technique and artistic expression. All dance students takes courses in
ballet, modern, and jazz. Says Tia Dionne, a senior in the year-round
program, “It’s not competitive. It’s all about inspiration. I’d like to
get into a company, but there are a lot of other things I’m planning,
too. The teachers here give you the tools you need to make it.” Most
graduates of the year-round program go to college and into a variety of
careers.

According to William Lowman, Headmaster, “Idyllwild students are highly
individualistic. They represent a cross-section of the world, but they
share one important character trait: a burning desire to do something
different with their lives.” Students view themselves as valued members
of an artistic community, and explore multiple avenues for
self-expression. Nearby Los Angeles, a 45-minute drive away, provides
opportunities for year-round students to view performances and enjoy the
city.

Interlochen Center for the Arts, in Michigan, is distinguished by its
affiliation with University of Michigan, and its 1,200 acre rural
setting. Although more than 2,000 students attend summer camp, just 100
are dance majors. The rest study creative writing, music, theater and
visual arts. Dancers live in cabins with students from any or all of
these programs, and in addition to dancing 5 to 6 hours per day, engage
in a variety of outdoor activities. The focus of the dance program is
modern and ballet, with courses in improvisation, composition, and
repertory. For school-year students, the academy offers an outstanding
academic education to students in grades 3 -12. Distinguished alumni
include: Mike Wallace, CBS News Correspondent; Tom Hulce, who played the
title role in the film Amadeus; and Tom Rawe of Twyla Tharp Company.
Each year, Interlochen presents more than 750 performances involving
students. Summer dancers are involved in two performances during each
four-week session (there are two dance sessions each summer). The school
also hosts prominent guest artists during the summer who perform and
offer master classes.

The Kirov Academy of Ballet offers a more urban experience. Located in
Washington, D.C., the school shares facilities during the summer
(swimming pool, residence hall) with nearby Trinity College. The
five-story building contains two large, world-class studios and three
smaller ones, air-conditioned dormitories, library, Pilates studio,
costume shop and classrooms.

Of the approximately 280 dance students who attend summer school, ten
percent continue in the year-round program. There are classes in ballet
(Vaganova method), pointe, character, Spanish, hip-hop, jazz and, during
winter months, Russian. SAT scores of graduating students are high,
averaging between 1100 and 1300, and most go directly into dance
companies. Students view one another as ‘family,’ and older students
look after younger ones.

Kirov is unique in its affiliations with the Kirov-Mariensky Ballet and
Universal Ballet companies. Many Kirov Academy graduates have gone on to
dance with Universal Ballet Company, or to study dance for another year
in St. Petersburg. Summer school students get the benefit of taking
classes with the same teachers who work with academy students year
round. One of these, Angelina Armeiskaya, was a student at the Kirov
Maryinsky Theatre School, and the lead character in the 1977 documentary
film, The Children of Theatre Street. Summer and academy students alike
become the beneficiaries of a tradition, transmitted from student to
teacher to student again—minds meeting minds across the years. The
academy also boasts a string of Prix de Lausanne and Varna medallists,
including Michele Wiles, who presently dances for ABT, and Rasta Thomas,
at NYCB.

Canada’s National Ballet School, set in the vital arts community of
downtown Toronto, provides access to overseas exchange in an
international setting. The school has partnerships with 12 other ballet
programs, including the Hamburg and Royal Ballet schools that offer
year-round senior students the opportunity to spend a summer in a ballet
academy abroad. The program has evolved its own style, combining
Vaganova, Bournonville and Cecchetti, giving graduates a “clean line and
exciting style, outstanding preparation for dancing with any company,”
says director Mavis Staines.

The expanding facility includes residences, nine studios, a theater,
pool, computer room, and physiotherapy clinic, all available for
supervised use by summer school students. For year-round students, the
academy offers a full curriculum of requirements and electives,
including French. In addition, students take courses in nutrition and
overall body fitness. All students who wish to attend the academic
program must audition and attend summer school first. It is a way for
the dance school and the potential student to try each other out. “The
atmosphere of learning is highly supportive,” says one administrator.
“The total package is a ‘home-away-from-home’ along with exceptional
training.”

National Ballet School alumni are in high demand. Currently, graduates
dance at more than 35 companies around the world. Audition tours are
held in each year, and approximately 25% of students admitted to the
summer program are invited to attend the school.
Another school that turns out sought-after graduates is the North
Carolina School of the Arts. The campus sits in a mixed
residential/warehouse district near historic downtown Winston-Salem, and
offers both a college-preparatory high school diploma and a BFA. The
dancers occupy a large building shared with both drama and music
students. Since summer programs are offered in other areas of
concentration besides dance, students meet contemporaries in other
fields and share ideas. (During the school year, students from different
disciplines even share dorm rooms.) At the conclusion of the 5 weeks of
summer study, there’s a demo performance, mostly for friends and
families. In the year-round program, however, dancers perform for the
public, both on campus and in a downtown theater. NCSA stages eighteen
performances of The Nutcracker each December. Revenue from these
performances funds scholarships. The department is also endowed with
Lucia Chase and Nureyev Guest Artist fellowships.

A distinguished faculty, including NYCB’s Melissa Hayden, Varna
medallist Gyula Pandi, and Kirsten Simone of the Royal Danish Ballet,
represent a variety of dance and teaching styles. “Most schools focus on
a single style,” says the school’s dean Susan McCollough, “Bournonville,
Vaganova, Graham, Limón, Arthur Mitchell. We do that [ALL THOSE?] and
more. Our faculty is diverse, and students show the effects by
developing strength in multiple areas.” The real focus is on perfecting
technique, from step to movement. “Your knees have to kiss each other,”
Hayden told one group last summer. “Otherwise, it’s not doing you any
good.” Students emerge with experience in Balanchine, RAD, de Mille and
Ailey among others. “It makes you flexible to change,” one student said.
“I’ve gotten a lot stronger.”

Summer school is used for recruitment, while year-round students tend to broaden

their horizons in other programs during the summer months. Graduates include Deanna

Seay, Miami City Ballet; Lynnette Hitchens, Pacific Northwest Ballet; Jeanne Ruddy,
Martha Graham Company, Mark Dendy, and Mark Dendy Dance.
So once you gather all the facts, how do you decide? One thing to think
about is whether you’re looking for exposure to a plethora of dance
styles or in-depth concentration on one. Many bright, talented dancers
with academic potential are happy in more diverse, less focused
programs. Also, every school has a “personality.” Administrators and
teachers create a culture that is modeled in class and even in the
dorms. You should look for programs that will challenge you—but that
also create an atmosphere where you enjoy learning and feel comfortable.
Attending summer study program auditions is a good way to check this
out. Trying out for a program can teach you a lot, even if you don’t get
picked.

And once you find the ideal place, it’s important to remember that you
still have to take responsibility for learning what’s taught. “It’s not
enough just to appear,” says Yoon, who decided to attend Kirov last
summer, and to put off year-round academy study until she’s older. “It’s
hard, but it’s fun, too. I don’t think I really knew how much I love
dance until I went there. If you’re lucky, you get a lot of corrections.
And nothing’s better than hearing, after all that work, ‘That’s right!’”

“Livin’ On Sugar Mountain,” Counting Crows website, November 2001

duritz 1Livin’ on Sugar Mountain

Neil Young tells the story that in his late teens, before he reached drinking age, he hung out at a club called Sugar Mountain.  No one over twenty was permitted in this club, so when his birthday came, he went through deep mourning at his loss of youth and passage into maturity.  From this experience, and very much to our benefit, he produced the song:

“Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain

With the Barkers and the colored balloons.

You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain

Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon.

You’re leaving there too soon …”

It may seem anachronistic to be talking about an almost comically mournful song from 1971 in association with Adam Duritz’s “Round Here”, released in 1993.  I think, however, that as Counting Crows’ signature piece (people who know little more of the band than what they hear on the radio are likely to be familiar with it) “Round Here” is almost doomed to be talked about.  As we continue discussing important works of art and literature long after their original exhibit or publication, so I think it is valid to continue talking about the popular music that makes up the lexicon of our experience.  Furthermore, it seems to me that  there are confusions about “Round Here”, perhaps because it is both an anthem and an elegy to youth. It celebrates the joys of being young while it mourns the pain that comes with dawning adulthood and the inevitability of change.

According to Carl Jung, the student of Sigmund Freud who contributed so much to our understanding of ourselves,  the human being is distinguished from other mammals by its tendency to think primarily symbolically, and to be able to manipulate communicative signs.  Jung talks about three categories of symbol.  The first, the universal symbol, is one that is recognized and carries similar meanings cross culturally, as the sun is associated with the godhead, the moon with madness, mystery and loneliness, and water with life.  The second, the conventional symbol, acquires customary meaning through agreed upon conventions.  Flags and uniforms, numerals and cars, brand names, dog breeds, and language itself are all examples of symbols that carry a conventionalized meaning for us.  Finally there is accidental symbol, which is personal, and acquires meaning through some accident of experience.  The scent of dry leaves or pine needles calls to mind seasonal holidays and can affect our attitudes profoundly.  A few notes of song, the vision of a building, a ball field, a balloon, a word uttered in anger or love – all call to mind a host of images and emotions.  When I was about nine years old, I walked in on my parents while they were making love.  My father said, “Scram!”, and even now, so many years later, the “scram” word, the old “s”-word, makes me squirm. I can’t stand it.  These are accidental symbols.

“Round Here” is rich with symbolism, as well as with images so concrete we feel they have to be real.  This realness comes from the landscape of youth we recognize, the neighborhoods, the streets, the parking lots in which we were children but have finally come of age.  It is a landscape that “radiates” the spirit of our present and our past lives and our sense of unity with friends.  Note the number of issues “we” are united in: we are “carving out our names,” our individuality, yet we cling to the forms of visual expression that present us to the world as a unified group.  “We all look the same.” We are old enough to enjoy certain milestones of achievement: sex, driving, and the right to stay up late. But we are also plagued with adult problems.

The character, Maria, is a case study for adolescent identity integration.  She is “walking on a wire” between childhood and adulthood.  Although sexually active, her energy to love truly is spent in romantic, and also safe fantasies about Elvis.  She is in the process of forming her personal conception of religion, and is “close to understanding Jesus.”  Therefore, she is thinking seriously, as we all do at certain stages of our lives, about life and death.  When she’s uncomfortable, “she has trouble acting normal”.  That is, she has no established personal identity, but must “act” her way through difficult situations.  She understands the concept that her problems are in her head, at least to the degree that she can choose how to feel about them.  “ There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, II ii. 247-48).  But she has not yet learned the adult trick of letting go, emotionally, of the things she can’t control.  Therefore she is “crying,” as a child cries when overwhelmed.

The speaker, who is also going through a crisis of change, expresses a melancholy, male bafflement at Maria’s tears, and at his own helplessness. Some part of his youth has already begun to die, and he expresses his sense of it primarily in symbolic language.  This dying self survives “like a ghost,” rendered nearly invisible, while his adult self struggles in the fog of his unknowing.  Perhaps only angels, he tells us – who witness silently – perceive the lack of integrity between the morality that is taught and applied morality we experience as adults, “the crumbling difference between wrong and right.”  Meanwhile the speaker searches himself, moving in and out between the perceived universe, “the rain” and his interior self, and doesn’t turn up much of anything.  “I don’t know,” he tells us.

The pivotal contest between child and adult occurs in the parking lot in the exchange with the suicide. She is swilling from an open bottle, drowning the remains of her common sense, and offering shots to all around.  But the shot taken is also a sort of mental photograph, an image permanently exposed on the brain.  “Round here, she’s always on my mind.” However, this image is a superficial one, and the speaker must accept his own inability, as must we all, to perceive what’s going on inside another person.  The answer to the question, “Can’t you see my walls are crumbling?” is: No.  Not only can he not see it, but he can not do anything about it.  The speaker expresses his annoyance and disgust: “She must be tired of something.”  The character is in some sense both parallel and foil to Maria.  Both young women feel desperation, and believe they are facing the possibility of death.  Both inspire the speaker’s helplessness.  The difference is the way the speaker feels.  In dealing with Maria, the speaker is essentially compromised by love, but in the case of the suicide, he takes a stand against being made responsible.

All of these characters, the we, the speaker, Maria and the suicide, are undergoing the same conflict with one another that they are feeling within themselves, and all suffer from a certain paralysis, an antithesis between word and deed expressed thorough the symbols of lion and lamb.  Yet, in spite of the pain, even grief, that each is experiencing, “Round Here” is, on the whole, an upbeat tune.  The confident tone is in part achieved by the music, a progression of chords which doubles the words rather than merely accompanying them.  Duritz builds from image to image toward a nearly chorused defiance in the final verse, and avoids sinking on a minor note until he reaches the very last bars.

So when the short series of arpeggios that make up the opening notes of “Round Here” soar over the crowd and you start screaming and singing, you know why.  For those minutes, although you know you are “under the gun,” you’re livin’ on Sugar Mountain and you still have “lots of time.”

“Adam Duritz Explores the Struggle to Declare,” Counting Crows website, October 2001

Adam_Duritz_4Stutter-Shook and Tongue-Tied: Adam Duritz Explores the Struggle to Declare

At some juncture, late in J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, one of the minor characters tells Bilbo: “Never seek advice from elves, for they will say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”

When I first heard Adam Duritz’s “Colorblind”, I took it to be a discussion of the conflict between the inner and the outer man, with reference to racial characteristics, specifically white and black skin.  The speaker is bi-racial and misunderstood.  I heard the word “colorblind’ as it most often used in contemporary speech: to refuse to make decisions or to draw conclusions about people because of physical differences between them, chiefly race.  I understood the limits between the inner and outer self to be set in playground political parlance: “No one gets to come in,” and the inner self, bound and unified in a series of declarative statements: “I am… I am… I am…”, to sustain a deep terror of human contact. The speaker is shaking and stuttering, his tongue stuck like taffy to the roof of his mouth.

The music accompanying the lyric reinforces this impression.  The piano moves between major and minor chords, hesitating and then rushing forward as shy people do, the triangle tinkles tentatively, and the woodwind floats over all in a timeless melancholy that mirrors the universal and unending nature of human suffering.  Duritz’s voice trembles with some words and soars with others.  Finally, he lets us know, he is “ready” for contact, and if we weren’t so sympathetic, and so deeply engaged by the speaker, perhaps we would feel he protests too much, for the “I am ready”s begin to sound like a series of deep breaths taken before a plunge.

Lately, however, I’ve started wondering if I’m really getting it right with this song.  It may be a manifestation of “the closer you get, the less you see” phenomenon.  It may be that the song, under too close an examination and against my will, is beginning to deconstruct itself.  Deconstruction theory postulates (and here it is in a nutshell, in case you’ve been wondering – it took me a year’s reading to figure this one out, and glossaries in lit texts don’t help – who writes this stuff anyway?) that no work of literature, or of any other type of composition, including music, has a determinable meaning.  It is, like the Seinfeld show, “about nothing’, although deconstructionism prefers the term “empty center.” Meaning is not a fixed thing you can find, they say.  It is not a rock in a field, and it is not your job to find the right rock.  Meaning is an EVENT that takes place when your mind plays with the words or sounds, or even when he words or sounds play with themselves. Yep.

I’ve never liked deconstruction.

Anyway, what I’ve been wondering lately is whether or not the song is really about the superficial self opposed to the real person, under the skin.  Maybe the color that the speaker is blind to is all color.  Maybe he sees only black and white, and is eager to declare what he knows for sure: coffee is black; egg is white.  Maybe his injunction that we pull him out “from inside” is not a request for contact but a plea for tolerance – for the limitations of his vision, for his internal contradictions, for his sense of being – in a multitude of ways other than racially – both black and white.  In that case the song would almost say what it seems not to say: that for every “I am” there is another, equally true but contradictory “I am.”  And, if you think about it, interior conflict is actually more true to human experience than is any absolute.  For example, if you say, “I am humane,” then you must also admit, “I am cruel.”  If you say, “I am civilized,” then you are also forced to acknowledge, “I am barbaric.”  “I am clever.”  “I am insipid.”  The more you do this, the more mutually exclusive assertions – all true – you discover, and also the more blurry become the distinctions, like “I’m careful with money,” and “I’m going to the mall.”

The fact that contradictions exist within the self is why, when Duritz’s speaker asserts that he is in the act of opening himself to the listener (“I am folded, and unfolded and unfolding”), he sounds only more or less sure of himself.  The series of declarative statements actually reveals the impossibility of declaring anything.  To make a claim is nearly always, like the elves’ advice, to say both yes and no.

One thing I want to make clear is my use of the term “speaker.”  I think it is important not to confuse the writer, Adam Duritz, with the voice of his creation, that is, with the character or speaker in this song, or in any song.  Some of his songs contain very obvious first person narrating personae, and there’s nothing new in this.  Consider the stalker who speaks in Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” or the idiotic fan in Mark Knopfler’s “MTV.” As Duritz’s audience we must allow him the freedom not only to draw on his experience, but also to invent.  No artist – nor anyone else, for that matter – should have to feel, as the “This Desert Life” cd cover suggests, that he not only lives his life in a fishbowl, but his thoughts are public property.

I have only once had the pleasure of discussing Duritz’s “Colorblind” in the classroom.  Although my primary field is literature, I also teach a humanities course which attempts to shovel together all of Western art, from the cave paintings to Basquiat, and all of Western music, from Gregorian chant to, well, how about Counting Crows?  On one of the last days of class students bring in their own favorites.  I think the student who brought in “Colorblind” was surprised to discover not only that his professor knew the song, but could talk about it with some authority.  At any rate, I had, ever after, his perhaps misplaced but hat-sweeping respect.

Popular music, to me, is a serious art form that deserves analysis.  To explore it is to find new ways to appreciate and enjoy it.

“MIAMI CITY BALLET: THE QUICK STEP: UNSPEAKABLE JAZZ MUST GO, BROWARD CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA, MARCH 2001,” Dance International Magazine, June 2002

Winter 2000

Winter 2000

Edward Villella is obsessed, we might say with little hyperbole.

In March, Miami City Ballet staged its world premiere of the second act of a work in progress, The Quick Step: Unspeakable Jazz Must Go, from the incomplete, four-act ballet, The Neighborhood Ballroom, destined to premiere in its entirety, Spring 2003. This stylish romp is grounded only loosely in story – an exploration of the jazz movement in American social dance during Prohibition as it appears in a single, New York City dance hall. The ballroom from Act I has become a speakeasy.  Its clientele are the rebellious youth who defy convention and threaten established values with intimate body-to-body dancing. The stock characters are predictably jocose, and the central conflict is an old one. The female principal, Kiki, danced by Mary Carmen Catoya, arrives on the scene, strikes some attitudes, seduces the Poet, Yann Trividic – it is a confrontational, Latinesque seduction – and departs with her suitor, her regular beau, as the Poet returns to his real occupation: the manuscript.

What this ballet does new is to present a serious argument about the cliché of female supremacy in dancing. It is a witty, thoroughly supported challenge (both in the quality of the choreography and of the dancing) to Balanchine’s much-publicized claim, “Ballet is woman,” a sentiment that seems to have stoked Villella’s continuing ire with some persistence.  For like the character in Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Hand,” “[a]fter so many years he still keeps finding/ Good arguments he sees he might have used.” Unspeakable Jazz Must Go is such an argument.

Villella’s choreography for men is fresh, rapid, frequently waggish, and requires a mastery of dance forms from male ballet dancers who defy facile classifications. By casting female dancers in support parts, as male dancers traditionally serve as backdrops to female, he is resetting the limits of our expectations. Even when women occupy traditional central placement, they frequently do so as props.  In one comic sequence, for example, the principal is lifted and supported by four lunch-pail aesthetes who bandy her about like a piece of lumber. The ballerina is dead wood, Villella’s comment seems to be. Her beauty is sham, her attraction negligible, and her engagement mere sport. Finally, she is simply not important.  Real men would rather be working.

Two sets of characters that delight are the cross dressers, Two Young Women, danced by Marc Spielberger and Evan Unks, and Three Gentlemen, danced by Arnold Quintane, Michelle Merrell, and Callie Manning in the first cast and Kenneth Easter, Claudia Bailetti and Jessica Shults in the second. One is not misled by the travesty, nor by the cigars, the drop-waist chiffon dresses, doll make up and fetching caps. This is a mockery that is intended to entertain rather than to deceive. Spielberger and Unks posture like characters in a Greek frieze, while Quintane’s sharp terre a terre jazz style conveys the elegance of Astaire, with the sure placement and solid return that speak to Quintane’s Paris Opera training.

The music for this piece is a compilation of mostly familiar tunes composed by Duke Ellington, Cecil Mack, Gus Kahn and Jack Yellen, including The Charleston, Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby and Ain’t She Sweet?

Unspeakable Jazz Must Go premiered sandwiched between a flawless performance of Balanchine’s Square Dance, and a sadly  – and I felt deliberately – tedious Paquita, the Grand Pas, Marius Petipa’s reconstruction of the 1846 Mazilier choreography. The sense in Miami is that ballet companies can’t sell tickets unless classical ballet is in the program. Paquita, here, presented beside Unspeakable Jazz, is a shaming finger. It admonishes us for this seeming preference, and presses us to admit to what we really enjoy.