Ten educators and choreographers speak on preserving classic modern dance traditions.
While the field of dance grows broader and more eclectic by the day, classic modern dance technique increasingly takes a backseat. It’s not uncommon for young dancers to arrive in New York City to pursue their profession without knowing who Martha Graham was, much less Lester Horton or Alwin Nikolais. Yet modern continues to be the predominant genre your students will encounter in college, and for good reason. Here, educators, many of whom trained directly with the masters, remind us why classic modern dance still matters, and how they keep the work alive and relevant for today’s students.
Elena Demyanenko, on Trisha Brown
Demyanenko performed with Trisha Brown Dance Company from 2009 to 2012. She is on faculty at Bennington College.
“Trisha herself never talked about her moving as a technique or never developed a technique around her kinesthetic intelligence. The approach is that there’s no body identical to another, and each person will struggle with different ideas and concepts. Each will play with her or his own solutions. Stephen [Petronio] and Trisha represent milestones in my own growth and were certainly aware of embodied somatic practices to enhance the incredibly intelligent approach of their own physicality, always in readiness to change the direction and surprise the viewer. That, for the students, allows more virtuosic and complex and idiosyncratic relationships with the parts of their limber or available bodies. If I continue to pass those principles along, I hope it will benefit younger dancers.
Working with Trisha or Stephen for so many years made it clear that technique doesn’t necessarily stop there. The classes I teach at Bennington are centered around the human person as a whole. They’re not limited to the efficient articulation, but I’m looking at wider skills of relationships or understanding of space, real-time composition and ability to communicate and relate to each other. This is not separate, for me, from technique. If I would name things, I can say…the ability to recover, for sure, and keep falling as much as possible. It will teach you to recover.
I think what I’m carrying on from her is that openness to invent, more than anything, since she wasn’t trying to codify herself. It was all about what are the principles that can serve you as an inventor, that can keep opening up perspectives.”
Brown is chair of the dance program at Middlebury College in Vermont. She danced with Urban Bush Women for three seasons as principal performer.
“I’ve worked for companies that have always laid a precedent that dance is a catalyst for becoming human. So I try in my teaching not to alienate the human by focusing so much on the technique itself. All those things come into play, having worked for someone like Chuck Davis, where the communal aspect of dancing is more powerful than the steps themselves. I think the same thing is true for Bill, the way he holds a container of space within the studio—where the ritual of the rehearsal process and the ritual of unearthing the information out of the body transcends the actual movement and takes the ensemble to another level.
The work that Jawole makes might be sparked by her own artistic inquiry, but it’s fulfilled by the people in the room and the way that they/we are divulging ourselves to make the body of work complete. I’m often asking my own students to fill in the gaps, to really make sure that even in something as simple as pliés, they are putting themselves in the canon of information.
There’s one story that I tell my students when they think things are hard: You have no idea what it’s like to graduate from an undergraduate institution that was mostly release technique, and you had one West African class your whole life, and then you get into a West African dance company right out of college, and it’s with Chuck Davis, of all people, and you have peppermint oil in your nose to make sure you can actually keep up the stamina to keep breathing through the set, and he’s in the wing shouting, ‘Let’s go, Christal, let’s go!!!’”
Patrick Corbin, on Paul Taylor
Corbin danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company from 1989 to 2005. He has recently joined the faculty of University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
“Paul doesn’t necessarily have a technique, but a style, a Graham-based style. His influences are great and varied. You’re creating a sense of weight and weight change, and a certain use of the spine that makes a body available for a multitude of dance styles.
I think the contemporary ethic is phenomenal, this new eclectic way, using yoga and ideas out of space, along with postmodern stuff and modern stuff and ballet. It does create a certain kind of movement invention in class. It’s a big tent, and we need it all. These [traditional] exercises and these principles were built on single people’s bodies and minds, and so it’s a real physical connection to them. I just think it’s so important. And it’s fun! Students discover things like, ‘Oh, we can sustain a jumping combination.’ Because that’s something that’s lacking in the whole contemporary movement, being airborne for long periods of time. The floor work is phenomenal, and the movement invention, but they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we never jump. That’s right, so let’s jump.’
Usually a Taylor class is built on exercises from different dances. Within that, you also have some of these iconic shapes and patterns he normally uses. I always give the students an opportunity to experiment in little ways with the Taylor-based exercises, or with some of Paul’s choreography, whether we’re improvising spatially or on some other kind of principle. That’s how I keep it current, to open it up to the young people in class. They are interested in their own process. So, if I can click into what that process is, what’s going on in the dance community right now, then it gets the students jazzed about seeing Paul’s work through their own experience.
The biggest thing I learned from Paul is that you’re trying to get to the truth of a dancer. And I think that is something very important when I’m teaching people to connect with these exercises. Paul says that technique is a means to an end for communication. So we’re trying to communicate through these, at this point, decades-old (and one day they will be centuries-old) exercises that go to our human core.”
Earl Mosley, on Lester Horton
Mosley is on faculty at Montclair State University and The Ailey School in New York City.
“If you don’t have a strong foundation, you’re going to come up short. So I always try to keep students captivated. We might be doing what you’d call a traditional modern dance combination in class, and I’ll throw in a hip-hop element, or funky pedestrian movement combinations, and students love that. But no matter what I do, the warm-up is always built on the foundation of keeping the Horton technique as pure as possible, based on what Ms. [Ana Marie] Forsythe and Milton Myers and other teachers handed down to me.
During those times of Pearl Lang and Ethel Winter and all these great teachers—Denise Jefferson—it was a matter of learning not just the big positions, the end result, but how do you get there, how do you get from one place to another honestly, through doing the work? You have to be clever to help students understand the importance of process. I myself would go see a Taylor Swift concert. I would watch the VMAs, and I will make sure I’m as current as I can be with the latest Beyoncé video. A lot of the dancers who work with those artists, I’ve been fortunate enough to teach. I’ll use them as examples of doing work that demands a versatile dancer. Underneath more contemporary, very edgy, street styles are still strong technical bodies that went through a process of making sure they could speak loudly in many different voices.
I no longer dance, as a dancer, but every now and then I go take Ms. Forsythe’s classes, just to reimmerse myself within the technique. Trying to stay relevant with today’s dancers, it would be so easy to change it. Going back to the source helps me to stay grounded and remember, ‘That’s where this is coming from.’ And how to move it forward so that today’s dancers can say, ‘OK, it’s useful for me.’”
Sandra Neels, on Merce Cunningham
Neels performed with Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1963 to 1973. She is associate professor of dance at Winthrop University in South Carolina.
“I almost think that Merce was the first contemporary teacher, because my idea of contemporary is a fusion between ballet and modern. Because I’m in the South and things are softer down here, as well as hotter, I do something called a lyrical Cunningham. The students seem to really like it because it is much more free-flowing and not as erect all the time. I’ve added things, like threading through a negative space with the opposite body part, to give it more flow. And I did that in Merce’s studio when he was watching, and he didn’t say anything bad to me about it. He liked the class.
His classes were definitely the hardest classes I ever had. He wouldn’t give a lot of hints other than just, ‘Hold your torso, hold everything.’ For him, it was all about being centered. He would say those words, ‘Center yourself.’ But he wouldn’t say how. If anything, now, I use visualization and shapes to refer to, in order to achieve the Cunningham positions that are innate in his technique. I’m changing all the time, and I can’t stay in one place because dance is evolving.”
Miller is distinguished professor in dance at The Ohio State University. She formed the Bebe Miller Company in 1985.
“My experience with Nikolais technique was formative, from age 3 or 4 ’til about 14. The beginning of my own professional training was with Nina Wiener, who came out of Tharp. Working with Nina was more about standing on my leg, ballet influence, really technically hard, which was different from the fun and the snap and the space, and the line and volume and all the abstract, energy/time dynamic that I got from Murray [Louis]. That said, I think that as I’ve gone on, I definitely feel that the things that I ‘rejected’ maybe from Nikolais, I’ve come back to see in another light. I’ve found myself in my composition classes talking about tensile involvement, (which is a direct title of Nik’s) in order to convey something about the inherent dynamic in the body.
I can imitate a Murray phrase like, boop! Your eyebrows go up, and you feel the spirit, and you prance across the floor. That’s not necessarily what I do, but I know where it comes from in me, and I add my own abstraction or substitution of other elements. I’m speaking not necessarily of Nikolais technique, but Murray’s teaching of Nikolais, to be specific. His use of improvisation is deeply rooted in me and is something I feel is utterly necessary for dance training—its sense of abstraction, its sense of width, its sense of dynamic exploration, is in my fundamental tool kit.
I still remember two really specific improv prompts: empty chocolate box and spice jar. Make that happen with six other dancers—jump up and do it. Like all fantastic teachers, I see Murray moving and paying attention to us. My choices of how I want to give over information are related to him. Not that I do what he did, but I have that as some kind of a reflective base, to either move away from or toward.”
Lewis danced with the José Limón Dance Company from 1962 to 1974. He is founding dean of dance (retired) for New World School of the Arts in Miami.
“The thing about Limón technique is every teacher teaches it differently. José never codified his technique. He did that deliberately. He didn’t believe that any movement or any teaching could only be done one way. Therefore, a lot of us have our own approaches. We all come up with our own terminology. José had his. He always talked about the body as an orchestra, and each part of the body is a different part of the orchestra.
I don’t feel a loyalty to maintain José’s technique the way he taught it. I feel a loyalty to the style he created. José once said in a commencement speech at Juilliard, “Don’t spit in the face of tradition. Remember the old girl, your mother.” And it makes sense. You’ve got to have something to go from. My loyalty does lie with José, but I’m open to taking it wherever it needs to go.
How do you achieve José’s style? It’s a universal technique—it’s not like Graham; it’s freer. It’s built on gravity: how you fight away from gravity and how you give in to gravity. The giving in is probably more important, because other techniques have always fought gravity. When I teach it, I add centering to it, which comes from my ballet background.”
A Fulbright-Hays scholar steeped in African Diaspora dance, music and theater, Sherrod is chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University dance department.
“When Dunham was creating this work, there was not a lot of opportunity for black people to study dance. It was catch-as-catch-can. I call it teaching from scratch; she pulled a lot of things together. It’s a very holistic approach to teaching. You’re not only teaching movement, but the meaning behind the movement—the breathing, why the student wants to dance, how you’re engaging the student in understanding the importance of dance, preparing the student for performance, preparing the student to work in ensemble, preparing the student to make certain kinds of choices, understanding the musicality, understanding the origins of some of the movement, the rhythms, the songs.
I recall once in a class, in Ms. Dunham’s last three years of teaching, she did something that veered from the way it had been done. One of the Dunham people whispered in her ear, tried to correct her, and she said, ‘Well, it has to evolve, and that’s the way we’re doing it now.’ She was about 95 or so when she said that. She was always talking about the evolution and the development of the practice and the technique. But at the same time holding onto the fundamental aspect of what it is: this system that would allow dancers to learn a technique that had their bodies ready, open and available to learn any kind of dancing.”
Katherine Duke, on Erick Hawkins
Duke was a member of Erick Hawkins Dance Company from 1986 to 1991. She is now artistic director of the Erick Hawkins Dance Foundation.
“I think Erick’s floor work was the first time I ever found my center. It opened the door to flexibility, and then not tensing the muscles—the letting go. It’s a good letting go that can make these incredible changes happen. I try really hard not to change the floor work. I do add stuff in, because I think you have to do that just to be real. But as far as the work, the technique, I really try hard to stay very close to what I was doing when I was working with him, and what he showed me and inspired me to do.
I do try to share Erick with students, in a real sense. My favorite quote is, ‘The natural state of man’s mind is delight.’ I think Erick is the epitome of that, because when your body is moving the way it should be moving and you’ve got that conscious, in-tune mind, and your soul is dancing out through all that, it is delightful.
At the end of class I ask, ‘Did you do something that you liked today, or that you didn’t like?’ I ask them to share. I like to know that they learned something. It’s very important to me that they don’t just go and have a workout. To me, that’s the technique. It’s mind, body, soul; it’s not just physical.”
Deborah Zall, on Martha Graham
Zall has made a career as a solo dance artist. She has been on the faculty of the Martha Graham School and conducts independent workshops in Graham technique.
“I teach the orthodox technique. It’s exactly what Martha Graham taught me. I think we have to keep that orthodoxy alive in order to understand and do the repertory, because the repertory comes out of that technique. I may change a count, or the musicality may change, but the fundamental technique is there. The floor work, the falls, the knee work, everything I know. The internalization, the organic thrust, that it’s within the body, that it’s the body that does the movement. It’s not the arms or the shoulders or the back—it’s from the pelvis.
When I was at Juilliard, we were doing the turns around the back. Martha was teaching and she ran up to me and slapped me across the face. She said, ‘It is not face-body; it is body-face. And so when you move, you move from here’—and she hit her pelvis—‘not from there,’ and she hit me again. And I will never forget that, and I tell the story to my class whenever I’m teaching it. I also tell the story as an illustration of the movement coming from the pelvis. And that I remember. I didn’t wash my face for a week.
The thing that we have to understand is that the Graham technique comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. We were taught with images. Give students something that they can relate to, like, ‘You’re embracing someone with the contraction.’ Or the breath: ‘You’re crying, you’re laughing.’ That’s what they’re going to do when they perform, I hope.”
Photos (from top): by Julieta Cervantes; by Johan Elbers, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Alan Kimara Dixon, courtesy of Christal Brown; courtesy of DM archives; by Lois Greenfield, courtesy of Paul Taylor Dance Company; Jack Mitchell, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Paul B. Goode, courtesy of PTDC; courtesy of Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts; Matthew Murphy; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by James Klosty, courtesy of Merce Cunningham Trust; Annie Leibovitz, courtesy of MC Trust; Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Bebe Miller Company; Fred Hayes, courtesy The Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance; by Rose Eichenbaum, courtesy of New World School of the Arts; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; courtesy of Sherrod; Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The NYPL for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; Nan Melville, courtesy of the photographer; courtesy of DM archives