Education & Outreach
DANCING ON THE KEYBOARD
by Felice Lesser
I needed an out. If asked why there was to be no performance scheduled for the end of this year's Dalton Elementary School residency (in Coeur d'Alene, ID), I would say, The emphasis this year is on process, not project. That was the excuse. The real reason was that I had no idea how this residency was going to turn out. It was the first time I was teaching dance composition to students this young, and more importantly, it was the first time I was bringing my computer choreography and animation work into the classroom. My intention was to teach fourth graders how to choreograph dances, both in the studio and on the computer screen (using Life Forms, a computer animation program, developed by Dr. Thomas Calvert of Simon Fraser University). It all came down to whether or not children could be taught how to use this rather sophisticated software. And if they could, there was still that little matter of teaching kids with almost no dance training how to make a dance. Choreography is generally something one approaches long after one has studied dance technique for years. How much could be accomplished in ten days?
This was the second year of a two-year residency at Dalton, organized by visionary Idaho arts specialist, Jane Morgan for a core group of sixty third graders. During the first year they learned the rudiments of dance -- through a study of folk dances from different countries. The second year (with the students now in fourth grade), they would move to more formalized study, with daily technique classes -- and exercises in dance composition. Simultaneously, they would be exposed to Life Forms in the computer lab, where dance composition would be seen in another light. Dr. Calvert generously arranged for Credo Intermedium to donate the software to the school, and with a grant from the Idaho Commission for the Arts, we were on our way.
I arrived at Dalton in April, feeling as if I had never left. The boys were a few inches taller; one or two of the ten-year-old girls were prematurely experimenting with new hair colors and make up, but were more or less the same. Especially nice was the fact that for once I didn't have to go through the usual tests that students throw at a stranger in their midst. I had passed those the previous year. By this time they were used to me, and were eager to get to work. We embarked on our exploration of ballet, modern dance, jazz, and tap. Everyone was having a great time. Kids love the challenge, energy and excitement of dancing. After one particularly grueling physical workout learning a rather intricate and difficult jazz combination, they were sent out to the water fountain. As they trickled back into the gym, I noticed they were practicing -- without having been told to do so. Within minutes the gym was filled with children lost in their own worlds, concentrating intently yet fully enjoying themselves. They were laughing and yelling out loud, one-two-three-four-shift-turn-step-touch, dancing unselfconsciously. Those are the moments you remember.
Meanwhile, in the computer lab, they learned very quickly how to move the limbs of the Life Forms figures into poses, to link a number of these figures into phrases, and then animate them, much like a cartoon. Once we began looking at dance composition in the studio, correlations were made between what they were doing on the computer screen and with their own bodies. The concept of symmetry was easily understood by using the mirror command. You could pose an arm in a half circle for instance, and then using the command, make the other arm give you exactly the opposite image, completing the circle. They were learning anatomy and kinesiology without realizing it. I'd ask them how they'd make a computer figure do a step we were working on in class. They'd have to visualize it -- breaking down the components of the movement, so that they could recreate it on the screen. That also added to their understanding of how to execute the step in the first place. Then there was the fun part. Imaginations were allowed free reign. One of the best things about Life Forms is its ability to do away with the limitations of the human body. Gravity doesn't exist, a dancer can turn indefinitely, or jump through the roof. Nothing is impossible. It was interesting to watch the students try out these wild things on the computer, and then, alter them in the studio, so that their very real bodies could execute the movements. It seemed they understood (perhaps better than I) the difference between reality and fantasy.
The kids worked in groups, collaborating on their choreography. As there weren't enough computers to go around, four or five students were assigned to each, making it necessary to share and take turns. Everyone had a different colored figure, a place, a voice, an equal chance to participate in the process. For me the most rewarding moments came when a student would accidentally stumble onto a fundamental concept. It's easier to teach what unison or a canon is, or how you use a soloist with a group, when the students' studies would demonstrate just those things.
I learned a lot about dance composition in those two weeks. Kids with no preconceived notions about what a dance is, will force you to question what you thought a dance was all along. And I learned more about handling what is generally quite a struggle in this country--turning boys on to dance. I thought I had found a pretty successful way -- teaching them the fun steps (such as grand jétés and other big leaps) in ballet first, and then once they were hooked, going back and teaching them the fundamentals of executing the technique properly. But this residency presented me with an additional weapon. Computer animation. This generation is as familiar with computers as my own was with TV. What a non-threatening introduction to dance and movement this turned out to be! It was no challenge at all to have them create a dance on the computer. Once they had done that, getting them to recreate it in the dance studio was no problem, whatsoever. It was the logical next step.
In the end we did have a performance -- a demonstration of the different dance techniques we had studied in the two weeks, and then a presentation of short movement studies choreographed both in the studio, and on the computer. The kids then brought their parents into the computer lab and showed off their Life Forms assignments. The evening was a huge success. But for me the very best moment came earlier in the week, after we had finished one of the technique classes. The students had just gone outside for recess. I packed up my dance bag, and was about to leave the gym, when I looked out the door. There, standing alone near the garbage pails was a ten-year-old boy -- one of the students in my class. He glanced around furtively, and when he was certain no one else was looking, he started to move - practicing the dance combination he had just learned in class.
© 1998 Felice Lesser All Rights Reserved
TO SLEEP, PERCHANCE TO DREAM
by Felice Lesser
Most of the people in my audience were fast asleep. In my defense I must say it had nothing to do with my delivery or the subject about which I was speaking. My audience consisted, for the most part, of elderly homeless people who had been out on the frigid New York streets all night. They had found their way to my presentation on the ballet, not to hear me talk about Swan Lake, but to take a nap in a comfortable chair in a warm room.
I had arrived at the senior center a few months earlier, when I needed to film elderly people for a "video backdrop" for one of my dance works. The facility had large picture windows through which one could see rows of long school-cafeteria-style tables where people ate and socialized. What intrigued me was how the traffic’s reflection played on the windows -- so that buses and taxis moved across the faces of the people inside. The images brought to mind the feeling of life passing one by. So I asked for permission to film there in exchange for presenting a free series of lecture-demonstrations on dance. The first part of the project went very well. I shot the video, using the people there -- vibrant, energetic seniors who were eager to participate. As I filmed they’d tell me stories about their lives -- tales of riding on long-gone NYC trolley cars, and pointing out locations of buildings from their pasts that no longer stood.
Then the winter came, and the lecture-demonstrations began. But I never counted on the new reality that emerged. The cold had set in, and the seniors I had filmed were nowhere to be seen, as an entirely different clientele took over the large multi-purpose room -- the elderly homeless. They slept in the comfortable chairs in front of the large-screen television where my lecture-demonstrations were to be held. I certainly couldn’t -- and wouldn’t -- ask anyone to move -- especially someone who had been out on the streets all night. So I gave my lecture in front of people who simply ignored me. Actually they didn’t ignore me. Fast asleep, they didn’t even know I was there. I talked about maidens turned into swans and wicked sorcerers -- which seemed so ludicrous as I stood before those who didn’t have places to live, or food to eat. And there weren’t going to be any princes rescuing them unless our country suddenly did an about face, which wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Most were in poor health, and their crutches and canes rested against their chairs as they slept. How had they come to be here? Where were their families? Is this what happens to you when you grow old, alone and poor in America? I wondered if any of them had at some earlier, better, point in their lives even seen a ballet? Or had their lives always been so centered on trying to stay alive, that they never had the luxury of feeding their spirits as well as their bodies. For basic needs must be met before one can nourish one’s soul. Who could even care about beauty in such a harsh, cruel environment?
Surviving in the bitter cold night after night, they were at least taking advantage of this one place where they could find a free meal and sleep in the warmth for a few hours. I stood there, not knowing quite how to proceed, trying to ignore the deep coughs that would occasionally wake one of them, providing a strange counterpoint to Tchaikovsky’s melodic score. I remember a man suddenly waking and seeing me there in front of him. He caught my eye and nodded repeatedly, as if he were pretending to listen to what I was saying. There was fear and humiliation in his eyes. It occurred to me that he might be afraid that if he didn’t respond appropriately someone might ask him to leave. Being turned away must have been a daily occurrence in his life.
I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? If I stop talking, I can let them sleep in peace.” But there were a few others present, who weren’t homeless, and who had ventured out in the cold for the cultural enrichment. Scanning the faces, I’d catch those sparks of recognition and enjoyment in eyes that were bright and interested. For this handful I could do what I usually did in educational events -- explore the works in depth, show the stellar videotaped performances, and bring pleasure into their day. One man nodded in agreement as I’d say something. Then he'd move in time to the music when I stepped back and let the dance speak for itself. His eyes, unlike those of the other man, didn’t contain the element of fear. There were questions -- “Which company performed this ballet?” “Where can I find the video?” -- mundane questions a speaker would ordinarily be asked during a dance lecture. But here in this setting, these ordinary questions seemed surreal, as if they were occurring in the middle of a nightmare. For it would have been more real to have a dream in which you’re trying to give a lecture to a room filled with sleeping homeless people, than to see it unfold as reality before your eyes.
You usually leave outreach events with an adrenaline rush as if you’ve just performed. By introducing people to the arts, you enrich their lives, and therefore, your own. That day, I just felt depressed, knowing there are still people in our country who can’t begin to deal with art, because they don’t have even the basic necessities of life. In this land of plenty, why should anyone lack food, shelter, or clothing? I went home to my warm apartment and my warm bed, knowing that if I saw homeless people asleep during my lecture, this time it would only be a dream. I wondered what those people who had slept through my lecture would be doing while I slept.
© Felice Lesser 2011 All Rights Reserved
FLDT Educational Programs
UCONN/Stamford "Dance Appreciation" Course
(Drama 1811) 3 credits
Our first dance composition class.
Guest artist, Nicole Anziani, teaches a class on Latin dance.
And FLDT's Kristin Licata teaches one on Horton technique.
Members of the class celebrate following the presentation of their movement projects.
Students work on improvisation exercises with guest artist, FLDT member, Kristin Licata.
Students work on Choreography Projects.
Guest Artists Cheryl Halliburton and John Ward (drummer) teach an African Dance Class.
Dancers Lloyd Knight and Kristin Licata travel to UCONN for a session on the lives of professional dancers.
Students in Felice Lesser's "Dance Appreciation" Course at UCONN/Stamford Campus work on an experimental dance video.
UCONN/Stamford's UPALS PROGRAM
UPALS was a program for local Connecticut teenagers, who were the first in their families to attend college. The program, designed by Dr. Michael Ego, ran for eight years, and FLDT was a part of it since its beginning. UPALS gave Junior and Senior High School students the opportunity to attend special classes at UCONN for a few weeks each summer, studying with the professors there. Students returned year after year, until they graduated from High School. Felice Lesser taught her "Dance Sampler" program there since 2007, presenting students with an introduction to different dance techniques (ballet, modern dance, jazz, tap, folk dance).
In 2012 she was invited to expand the program for an additional week to allow students who had been in UPALS previously to study dance with her again. This extra week focused on choreography. Returning dance students were offered an opportunity to study Dance Composition -- first learning the fundamentals, then choreographing their own dance studies, and finally collaborating on a narrative work (with their choice of plot), jointly choreographed by all the members of the class.
It was an interesting experiment in cooperation, as students drew lots for roles as dancers, then shared the design and shaping of the piece as choreographers. But Lesser found the best part to be a critical lesson in problem solving. "Students saw first-hand, on the very last day, how choreographers cope and deal with seemingly insurmountable obstacles -- when two members of the cast were suddenly out sick, and the others were forced to quickly restructure the entire dance without sacrificing quality, an hour before their performance started. That was a crucial and valuable lesson I think I'll intentionally build into the program next year. Teaching this class I realized, yet again, how important it is for students to study dance (and the arts in general) in school, for the lessons learned (adapting here to change and unexpected circumstances, to cite just one example) are essential to living life. The creativity needed to look for other ways if a first attempt fails, or to roll with the punches, or to take notice of serendipitous accidents (remember Balanchine with the dancer who fell in Serenade?), will also help students deal with whatever comes up in other careers (i.e. medical breakthroughs, new inventions...). So help us get dance and art back into our schools where it belongs!"
Students take turns as the choreographer in a group dance composition project.
Students learn folk dances to begin the week. This allows them to see how basic human movements (walks, runs, jumps, etc.) become the foundation for dance.
Students stand in first position at the barre in their first ballet class.
Students study asymmetrical movements in a choreography class.
WEEK ONE: Dance Sampler
This year we discovered that some of UCONN's hallways were lined with metal support barres. (And they happened to be just the right height for our ballet classes!)
Modern dance class in the auditorium, where we were also able to watch dance films.
Students in the 2012 UPALS Dance Program, Week 1.
WEEK TWO: Dance Composition
Following a warm up and review of dance technique (practicing grand jétés and sautés)...
Students moved on to choreography... where they jointly created a group dance. After studying the basic elements of dance composition, they chose to compose a narrative dance, drawing lots for roles, and collaborating on the choreography.
Felice Lesser (3rd from right) with her dance students.
(Above) UPALS students in a modern dance class.
(Above): UPALS students work on dance composition assignments.
Above: Students study different "levels" in a choreography class.
Above: Students perform their dance composition study at an assembly.
Below: Dance Students in UPALS 2010
Below: UPALS 2009 -- Felice Lesser (back row, 2nd from right) with her dance students
Below: UPALS 2007 -- Felice Lesser's Dance Class
ARTS IN EDUCATION PROGRAMS (States of Idaho & Nevada)
Felice Lesser is on the Artist Rosters for the States of Idaho and Nevada, and she presents residencies in schools there. These residencies feature our programs "Dancing on the Keyboard," "Dance Sampler," "Performance Project for Students," & "Dance Around the World." In conjunction with these residencies various outreach events are scheduled such as our popular folk dance evenings (seen in photos below), which bring parents and members of the community into our work. (Dalton Elementary School, Coeur d'Alene, ID)
NORWALK COMMUNITY COLLEGE, Norwalk, Connecticut
"The Creative Voice" is a course at Norwalk Community College that deals with various art forms (music, literature, fine art, film, theater, and dance) seen from the creator's perspective. Felice Lesser has been invited to NCC for many years to teach classes on dance and choreography for Professors Carol Solon, Janie Burkhardt and Hannah Moeckel-Rieke's sections of the course. Below students work on dance composition exercises in Dr. Solon's class (11/10/09), Prof. Burkhardt's class (02/25/10, 03/05/12) and Prof. Moeckel-Rieke's class (10/19/11, 10/25/12, 10/28/13).
Our company feels that everyone should have access to the arts, and we offer free classes, programs, workshops and other activities to underserved populations that would benefit from such activities. In the past these have included Seniors, the economically disadvantaged, "battered" women, runaway and at risk teens & young adults, and people living with AIDS.
Because in the interest of safety, privacy is of the utmost importance to some of our outreach groups, we are only including one photo here -- of our 2000 project with Project FIND (a group for Seniors) in which the participants became an integral part of our onstage work, NEW YORK, NY, via video that was projected behind the live dancers.
If you are involved with an appropriate organization that could benefit from our free outreach activities, please send us an email through our CONTACT page.