Translating Geometry into Motionposted on May 2nd, 2011 by Sara Wintz
As part of Montclair State’s Creative Campus project, members of the UK-based dance company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance recently led a series of workshops with students in Montclair State’s Department of Theatre and Dance. Sitting in as an observer, Sara Wintz reports her impressions of these initial sessions.
On February 14 and 15, students from the Department of Theatre and Dance participated in the first of what will be several workshops led by researchers and educators from British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s dance company, Random Dance. Master classes took place in two parts: on Monday, February 14, with students from Lori Katterhenry’s Choreography II class, and on Tuesday, February 15, with students from Debbie Saivetz’s Theatre Studies class. The workshops were facilitated by Scott deLahunta, Random Dance’s R-Research Director; Jasmine Wilson, Director of Creative Learning; and Antoine Vereecken, a dancer from the company.
The workshops introduced “choreographic thinking tools” that McGregor and the company have been developing in collaboration with cognitive scientists from the University of California at San Diego, led by David Kirsh, and from the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit of the UK Medical Research Council, led by Philip Barnard. Kirsh’s research interests include interactive design, collaborative environments, and human-computer interaction, and Barnard’s include mood and memory, embodied cognition, and choreography and cognition.
The company is beginning to apply these newly developed tools to the development of its dance work. Their latest piece, FAR, will have its American premiere at Peak Performances in October 2011. Inspired by Roy Porter’s 2004 book Flesh in the Age of Reason, about the intersections between body and soul as it was studied in the 18th century, FAR examines the relation between thought and movement. It is the first piece that McGregor and Random Dance have constructed using the choreographic thinking tools.
The recent visit by deLahunta, Wilson, and Vereecken to Montclair State marked the first time the choreographic thinking tools have been used in education work with students outside the company. As a result, both Montclair State students and Random Dance benefit from this exchange: while the students are learning how to create their own movement vocabularies, Random Dance is learning how to teach its tools to dancers and nondancers.
At the start of both workshops, deLahunta began by explaining, “We’re going to look at the generation of a movement vocabulary.” He continued by leading the group in a sequence of visualization exercises. “Imagery is not purely visual,” he explained. “There is acoustic imagery—the sound of a friend’s voice is aural imagery—there is kinesthetic imagery, smell imagery.” The students sat on the ground around deLahunta, Wilson, and Vereecken, eyes closed.
“Visualize your favorite coffee cup. Where is that in space? Rotate your coffee cup in your mind’s eye. By imagining something that’s personal to you—let your coffee cup have some significance to you—you get more meaning, you get more emotional. That’s the kind of work that we’ll be doing today.”
Passing around reproductions of paintings by Francis Bacon, Jasmine Wilson instructed students to look at the geometry present on the page and to examine the movement within the picture, as an example of two-dimensional imagery. Then the students focused on a smaller section of the picture and studied the movement present there. Using tracing paper, the students added lines to a smaller section of the picture that they liked and transformed it on the page into a three-dimensional shape. Once the students had looked at the three-dimensional object they created, they put their drawings away and began to reproduce the shape from the page with the movement of their bodies.
Standing in front of the class, Antoine Vereecken demonstrated to students how to describe the shape with their elbows, as it existed in a fixed position. The students then learned how to move in relation to where they had assigned the shape in space. Vereecken instructed them to describe the shape fixed in space and to assign a body part to the geometry—a geometry that moves with you. Breaking up into pairs, students gave each other feedback, asking “What is moving?” “Where is it going?” “How is it moving?” “When is it moving?”
Students from both classes will come together for in-depth workshops in April, delving further into the choreographic thinking tools over several sessions. When asked how choreographic thinking tools worked for her in class, Elaine Gutierrez, a senior, responded, “I feel like, when it comes to improv, I have a tendency to stick to what I know. I don’t necessarily dig deeper… they helped to stay away from what I usually do.”
Or, as McGregor explains in his November 7, 2010, Sunday Times interview with David Jays, “We’ve been unpeeling the layers of the creative process. How do we understand better what happens in the creative process, and how do we arm dancers to build better imaginations?”
Random Dance’s residency at Montclair State was made possible in part by a grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Creative Campus Innovations Grant Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Sara Wintz’s writing has appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter, Jacket, HTMLGIANT, 6×6 and HARRIET: The Poetry Foundation Blog. She was communications assistant at Peak Performances from 2009 to 2010 and is a 2010 graduate of the MFA program in writing at Bard College.