I began my professional dance career in 1981. Since I started dancing in college, in 1977, I didn’t have a specific goal as to where I wanted to end up. All I knew is that I wanted to dance, and needed to dance. I auditioned for everybody, and everything. I danced in clubs, and with small modern dance companies, and jazz dance companies, and contemporary ballet companies. I danced in music videos, and industrials. I danced in off-Broadway shows, and toured in musical theater touring companies.
My career took me around the world working with great choreographers and performers. Cab Calloway, Talley Beatty, Murray Louis, Alwin Nikolais, Donald Byrd, Jose Limon, Joyce Trisler, Paradigm Dance, just to dust the surface. I’m proud of my career. I had the time of my life doing what made me happy every day while making a living, and seeing the world.
In 1998 at 40 years old, I retired from full time dancing. I went on to teach in Universities around the metropolitan area. I think I’ve put in at least a year in every college and university that had a dance department. The farther I was away from dance as a dancer, the more I could study the challenges of what we do. I never felt the challenges when I was in it, but I could surely see the young dancers of today being challenged by something every day. As a teacher, I wondered how I could help the young dancer achieve the kind of successes I was able to achieve.
In 2011, I became the Director of the Jazz and Contemporary Program at the Joffrey Ballet School. To get the job, I had to design my plan for the future of this new program. It was like going to grad school all over again. A thesis presentation with stakes higher than the end grade. In my research, I looked for a definition of Contemporary Dance, and found this:
Contemporary dance is a genre of concert dance that employs compositional philosophy, rather than choreography, to guide unchoreographed movement. It uses dance techniques and methods found in ballet, modern dance and postmodern dance, and it also draws from other philosophies of movement that are outside the realm of classical dance technique.
Could anything be more vague or non-specific? It was then that I decided to make the mission of my new program not only one of defining contemporary dance, but one of developing methods of pedagogy and dance curriculum that define the 21st century dancer.
In this new era of dance and poor economy, the 21st century dancer has to be well- versed in many techniques and styles to stay marketable and relevant in the dance market. They can’t be so specific that they don’t work. “I’m a ballet dancer,” or “I’m a modern dancer,” just won’t get the young dancer very far in today’s dance market. Being that versatile dancer who can bounce from technique to technique, and style to style with specificity and artistry is the dancer that will work consistently, finding the joy that dancing provides, and the bank account that consists of a checking account, and a savings account. My Jazz and Contemporary Program is building that dancer.
The J&C, which is what my program is affectionately called, consists of Ballet, Modern, Contemporary, Jazz, Street Jazz, Theater Dance, Improvisation, Hip Hop, Dance History, Anatomy, Music, Health and Nutrition, and Critical Analysis. Classes are five days a week with a mixture of 4 of the above classes per day. I hire the best dance educators New York City has to offer to work with my dancers. All of my faculty have had full and successful careers in dance, and many of them are still working performers and choreographers. The knowledge the dancers obtain in their classes goes far beyond learning technique and styles, they learn about theater etiquette, professionalism, work ethic, and respect for the craft of dance and all those who work in the business.
I have made all the non-dance courses interactive. The dancers don’t sit in a classroom being lectured to – they become a part of the learning process. The Millennial student has a different relationship with information and learning than previous generations, and 21st century pedagogy has to change with the times. Today’s teacher has to become as interactive as computers have become for our students. With each of my non-dance courses, I have asked the teachers to step out of their comfort zones to create new ways of reaching the young dancer to keep them engaged and inspired.
An example of what I mean about “interactive”: For my Dance History course, taught by Lena Lauer, the first semester concentrates on dance from the beginning to now. In the dancer’s research and study, they create blogs, produce videos about the subject matter, and conduct live tweets educating other young students who have an interest in dance and the Joffrey Ballet School. In the second semester, the dancers begin their own investigation into how to define 21st century “contemporary” dance. In this critical analysis course structure, the dancers go off site and into the rehearsals of contemporary companies to view first hand the process and creation of what is considered contemporary dance. Once back in the classroom, there is an open discussion about their observations and conclusions.
According to John Seely Brown, author of “Learning in a Digital Age,” students born between 1980 and 2000 share the following traits: 1) They like to be in control 2) They like choice 3) They are group-oriented 4) They are inclusive 5) They are practiced users of digital technology 6) They think differently 7) They are more likely to take risks 8) They value time off because they view life as uncertain. I’ve made it a point to stay cognizant of, and practice the above traits in creating my curriculum in the J&C. My students absolutely love being a part of the learning process when they feel as though they are an owner of the material, and not just a visitor in the conversation. We have created a family environment that is competitive, yet respectful and loving. The only thing I haven’t succumbed to is the “time off” bit. They dance as if it’s the last day on earth 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.
What’s really wonderful about this job for me, and subsequently for my J&C dancers, is that I get to work with the hundreds of talented dancer/choreographer/actor/singers that I’ve known, and have had the pleasure of working with over the decades I’ve been active in this business. I produce two main stage productions a year in the J&C year-round program. The element of risk-taking as a producer, and for my dancers is in the collaborations I choose for each production. We’ve twice collaborated with the Joffrey Ballet School Concert Group, directed by Davis Robertson. The Concert Group dancers are primarily classically trained dancers, whereas my dancers are from the Jazz and Contemporary ilk. We’ve been lucky to blend casts with choreographers, Donald Byrd, Chet Walker, Karole Armitage, Davis Robertson, Gary Chryst, and Brian McSween with extraordinary success. Following is an expert from the review of the show written by Dance Teacher Magazine critic, Rachel Rizzuto:
“Most of these dancers were in multiple pieces, and I was just as impressed by their stamina as I was by their dancing. This was not a program designed to start huge and finish small—some of the more difficult pieces were in the second half of theprogram. But these dancers, though young, are true professionals. Energy ruled the day.”
We’ve also collaborated with Louis Vuitton, Parsons School of Design, and the Jazz and Contemporary department at the New School to create a Fashion, Music, and Dance extravaganza. It was an extraordinary challenge to coordinate choreographers, dancers, fashion designers, musicians, and the administrative staffs of the aforementioned, but we did it. The theme of the show was “Life is a Journey.” We all came out of this journey, better artists. It was a full learning experience for everyone involved, and not to mention, it was a success.
This past May, I produced a work for my 75 J&C dancers. In my trend to define contemporary dance, I decided to ask two choreographers from different dance genres to collaborate and make a one-act group work. I choose Kevin Wynn (contemporary choreographer), and Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie (urban dance expert) to create the work. They had never met before I introduced them. I had them over to my house one evening, and made sure there was enough booze to pitch my idea. After nervous laughter, consternation, and careful consideration, they agreed. That’s when I drank up.
The work was entitled, Convergence: an urban contemporary fusion. For two months I chewed all my nails off, and went grey, then bald, while the show was in production. It was a logistical nightmare working with Kevin and Ephrat’s busy schedules, and finding enough space for 75 dancers to rehearse, and finding the right space for such an event, but in the end it was unique perfection. The show was 50 minutes of powerful theater, dance, and 21st century contemporary/urban heaven. The dancers were truly a part of the creation of the work. Every one of them owned their commitment of the creation and artistry in text and movement. What an amazing process it was for all the artists.
My program also encourages the dancers to find their own voices as creative young artists. My Composition/Improvisation staff is outstanding and intellectually brilliant. Marijke Eliasberg, Ariel Asch, and Alexis Convento lead the dancers toward finding their creative choreographic selves. In the first semester the dancers begin working on developing their unique movement styles. The dancers self-produce their own studio showing. Before the work is presented in front of an audience, I ask a panel of established New York City choreographers to give the dancers a critique of their works. This past year I invited Lane Gifford, Colleen Thomas, and Tiffany Rea-Fisher to serve on the panel. The dancers were extremely grateful for the valuable information that came from the hard-working choreographers.
I believe that the definition of contemporary dance is in how we raise the level of artistry and creation in our 21st century dancers. It is in how we evoke their imaginations, and in how we help them use their inherent new age skills to shape the vision of dance in this new era of dance and creation. I’ve learned that teaching my subject matter is not enough. I must be prepared to teach my students how to learn, how to do, how to work together, and how to be. In teaching the Millennial student, we must be entirely focused on the student, and their learning. The student must be completely involved in all aspects of the teaching process. We must create a teaching environment wherein our students can feel safe to fail, reflect, collaborate, give and receive feedback, and discuss any and all that comes to mind.
The goals and outcomes for my Joffrey Ballet School Jazz and Contemporary Program are clear. My faculty, and myself, have to be willing to listen and learn as fast, and stay as focused as our students. We have to be willing to fail and regroup as our students fail and regroup. The Millennial student wants to learn, and it’s up to us 21st century teachers to make sure their desires are satisfied, and on both of our terms. The times may have changed, but our end game has remained the same. As much as the cyber era has changed the educational playground in the 21st century, we still have to teach with conviction and potency. This means that we must all beon that same learning curve – the learning curve that follows the path and paradigm called the 21st century. In essence, we too, are the 21st century student.
The Joffrey Ballet School transforms passionate dance students into versatile, individualistic artists able to collaborate and evolve fluidly in a fast-changing society. — Robert JoffreyLove you all, Michael Blake Artistic Director of the Joffrey J&C Program