Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pep Talk for the Teachers

Welcome to the crunch time.  

If you are like me, you too might be wondering: How am I going to finish this semester?   

This happens to me most every semester. I start off strong, hopeful, excited (possibly deluded), and about 5 weeks from the end, I start to wonder what have I done? I am tired, overwhelmed and worried that time is running out.  Plus, my students are tired, overwhelmed and worried that time is running out.  A clear recipe for disaster.

I started explaining to my students the nature of an instructor's thinking process.

Optimistic Teacher experience:
Weeks 1-4  The teacher is filled with hope. She feels patient when students stumble because it is the beginning of the semester and they are "still learning the ropes," and everyone needs a break now and again when they are learning.

Week 5-9 The teacher is in the meat of the content, tons of information is coming out and the students are still grasping at straws trying to figure out what is expected of them.  Patience it still present because the students still have a chance to catch up!

Week 10-13 The teacher is feeling the pressure. The students need to learn this! Time is running out!  Patience is running thin.  The students should know better at this point.  

Week 14-18 The teacher is disappointed.  The students are making the same mistakes and the teacher’s patience has run out. Have they learned anything?  There is no more time to save this ship. Despondency hits.

Combine that with the Struggling Student experience:

Week 1-4 The student is filled with hope, ready for a fresh start.  The teacher is so nice and so patient.  I can do this!

Week 5-9  The student is settling in, but this is way more work than expected. But, it's still the beginning of the semester! What?!?  Time for midterms?!? We just started school! I haven’t studied. But, it is ok, I can make it up.

Week 10-13 The student is tired. The student has a hard time focusing because they caught a cold, and they have so much to do, they don’t know where to start.  Mountains of homework have piled up and the teacher is so demanding! She has no patience anymore! I am stuck!

Week 14-18 The student notices just how far behind they have gotten.  This is serious! They go to the teacher in hopes of figuring out how to put a semester’s worth of learning into 4 weeks.  She explains that is not how it works, and: no, she will not give you the notes from the lectures.  Student: I am screwed. The world is against me.

Somehow, I think I can change the nature of the student/teacher experience. But, I am realizing that maybe that is simply the inherent nature of the student teacher experience. 
But, the reality is that for every difficult student there are actually 10 lovely students who have learned so much!  Just this week I received this note from a Modern I student’s journal entry:

“Taking a dance class has completely changed my views on the activity of dancing, as a whole. "

However, we as humans are biologically build to remember and focus on the challenges. It is part of our survival biology. So, it is easy to forget the success of the many, when faced with the struggle of a few.  It is particularly hard for me to accept that students have the right to fail. I want them to succeed so badly that I forget that I actually have NO control over their choice making.  Those who want to learn will, and those who haven’t put in the effort will not.  No amount of convincing will change it.

And, remember that we are doing something right. We do care. We have given them tools.  We have shared information.  And, some have learned lessons that have nothing to do with the content, but have everything to do with their future lives. 

To all teachers: This is YOUR pep talk.  We give pep talks all the time, but around this time, it is we who need a little uplift to keep us in good spirits. 

Learning takes time. And, a semester will never be enough time to learn it all.  And, that is ok.  Students will struggle because humans will struggle. My Zen teacher reminded me today that “We are all ordinary.”  No one is better or worse. No one is closer to enlightenment than another.  We are all simply ordinary.  We learn the lessons as they come to us and as we need to learn them. Students and teachers: we are all learning life. 

As instructors we get to be reminded of this every semester. 

Learn and let learn.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Time: Your Most Valuable Currency

I have recently become extremely interested in how we document all that we do. 

I am fascinated with our current cultural practices with social media in which we continually post pictures of our experiences, achievement, and questions. And, I have noticed a new practice for the way I post.  I ask myself: what do I value and how is my post supporting the things I value?  

For instance, I recently attended a beautiful dance concert in at ARC Pasadena. It was important to me to come home and immediately write up my review.  Even though I wasn't feeling particularly prolific at the time, I wanted to demonstrate just how valuable I felt the experience was by using my time and skill to support it.  The blog post offered the community two things: the face value of the performance review as documentation, and, on a more general level, proof that this event was worth writing about. In other words, it was worth my time.  By giving my time and attention to the art (in the form of a review), I was modeling how dance is worth putting in the extra time.

As tempting as it is in the blogging world, I try not to use my reviews to elevate myself or my opinions. Instead, I am concerned with the documentation of current dance practices in LA (and beyond) and how written reports and reviews support current dance artists.  Speaking as an artist, I can share that the post show stream of "Great job!", "Fun show," and similar comments of Twitter or Facebook feel good. They feel good because it is feedback that someone took the time to give.  But, they do not offer the much needed reflection dance deserves.  In fact, much of a dance performance's value could come from the discussion and sensations afterward. If we only experience dance for two hours and then leave the theater without a second thought, have we really gotten all we can out of the art form? 

When we see a movie, we often deepen our experience when we then discuss it with our friends afterward, or read reviews of it by trusted sources, or watch the feature commentary by the director and actors.  In other words, our post-show time is importantIt gives value to the art experience.  And, this is what I am coming to realize is lacking in the dance world.  We see a show and often we don't have post show experiences that take us deeper into the art work.  Just as sport show commentators break down all the plays to better understand the twists and turns in a game, dance critics should be breaking down a dance work to identify its inner workings, strengths and weaknesses, innovations and traditions.  This can afford those interested but unfamiliar with dance an inside look to the dance experience, while challenging veteran dance patrons to pin point the value of what they love so much. 

As I wrote my recent review, I was concerned with three things. 
     1. How can I deepen the experience for someone who has seen the show?
     2. How can I document the experience for posterity?*
     3. How can I best convey the reward of the dance experience?

I gave my time, because my time is the most valuable currency I have.  It is a limited resource that I am very aware of day in and day out.  If you haven't guessed already, I am pretty busy, some might say over committed (haha!).  I don't have a lot of "free time," that time is precious to me. 

So, what is worth my time?  What is worth taking my time to document and reflect. What is worth your time?  How are you canonizing your life? One Instagram at a time? One twitter post? One Facebook update?  What is that affording you? What does documentation afford us?

Are your giving your time and attention to the things you truly love? I find that scrolling through my Vine feed (for instance) affords me little more than a distraction.  I have also noticed, my quality of life seems to go down when I get too invested in following my Facebook news feed. Not because I don't have good friends with interesting posts, but because ultimately, very little information is life changing.  And, it uses up my most valuable resource all too easily. 

I understand that you are taking your time to read this blog post.  And, I am honored by your choice.  I hope that I afford you something that you will take with you as you go along your day or week.  I hope that this read is ultimately worth your time because you either love dance, the arts or entertaining vague questions about time and value. 

There is a great book by Tim Ferris called "The 4 hour Work Week." While I am not interested in changing my life to that degree, he does bring up some important points about time management and the value of our time.  Perhaps reading that book last spring planted the seed for this blog.  But, in the end, Ferris is right about one thing.  We choose how to use our time.

So, are you using your time for the things your love? To support the things you love? To honor and deepen your understanding of yourself and the world? Or are you getting caught in the white noise of empty information?


* Side note: the definition of posterity is "for all future generations."  What are we giving our next generation?  How are we making real what we experience as life through our documentation of it?  Are we getting to the nitty-gritty of it all?  What will people know about me when they look back at my Twitter feed?  Am I giving them a complete experience of who I am? Or would entering my world be like entering a house of hoarders? 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: Pennington Dance Group presents BLOW

Last evening I attended a lovely modern dance performance at A Room to Create (ARC) in Pasadena.  This studio/performance space is owned and run by John Pennington and home to Pennington Dance Group.  The show was sold out, with patrons eagerly waiting to see if additional seating would become available.  Pennington means a lot to the LA dance community, not only because of his beautiful dance space, but because of his openhearted and supportive energy for many modern dance companies in the area.  The warmth of the audience emphasized just how beloved Pennington is.

The show opened with a reworked quintet from 2005, entitled OUT OF, choreographed by Pennington.  The five dancers dressed in all white and moved through the space in sweeping patterns that balanced an ethereal quality of beauty with a grounded earth energy. Pennington tied these dynamics together in stunning designs through space that covered the entirety of the performance space with grace and ease.  The piece also incorporated five floor length banners by artist Susan Rankaitis.  These seemingly Japanese inspired panels, set the stage for some of the more Asian stylings in Pennington's choreography.

The show continued with three pieces performed and choreographed by PDG company members.  Tomas Tsai performed his B-boy-meets-dance-theater solo, MEAN.  Li Rothermich performed with Travis Richardson in her impressive and almost acrobatic duet, ECLIPSE.  And, Michael Szanyi captured the audience with his larger than life solo, DESCENT.  This last piece was particularly interesting for its use of theatrical design.

Szanyi stood perched on a box, dressed in a deep red taffeta skirt that cascaded from his corsetted waist down to the floor where it spilled out in all directions.  Set to a piano score by Rachmaninov, Szanyi performed facing upstage the entire time, staying perched in the air as he gestured with his torso and arms in slow, sustained time, never breaking the spell of the piece.  The play of the light on his back and the fleeting glimpses of his profile added to the mystery and magic of the piece.  The moment in which he reached out with a pointed finger reminded me of Michaelanglo's  Sistine Chapel in which Adam is created by the touch of God.  This imagery added a huge layer of meaning in the work, as it immediately opened the door for questioning the nature of man, and more specifically of a gay man, as he stands larger than life, perched on a pedestal in his blood red skirt reaching for the finger of God.

After intermission, Pennington premiered his newest work, BLOW.  This piece opened with the company of eight dancers exhaling and blowing out in all manners possible: sighing, lip buzzing, shushing, whistling, coughing.  The ridiculousness of this situation added a quirky levity to the show that had not yet been incorporated and was refreshing for the audience who now had a chance to laugh.  The opening scene moved into a series of duets, in which the dancers manipulated each other with their breath, inhaling to suck them in and exhaling to send them away. Each couple was unique and playful, moving through the space in unpredictable bursts.  These duets ended with the dancers moving to the walls of the space which were covered in sound-proofing material (black egg crate foam), and against which the duets could interact by pressing and climbing the wall with the help of their partner.  This offered a rich visual experience for the audience who could look between the duets and the four different areas on the wall to choose which moment was interesting and which drew their attention.  However, it was at this point in the work that the connection to the idea of BLOW became muddy.  Nevertheless, the duets were a visual feast as the dancers related to each other with a variety of emotions including suspicion, aggression, play, and curiosity. 

As most of the dancers exited the space, two men were left to perform a duet that was sensitive, patient, and powerful.  The dancers moved through the space with speed and agility that was never forced or awkward. These dancers floated through the huge performance space, covering ground in a way that was extremely satisfying for the viewer.  The immediacy of the duet was palpable for the audience, and yet, the design and precision of the movement was never lost.  Pennington clearly has a way for creating movement that is exuberant, free and visually stimulating. 

The piece then took an unexpected turn, when out of the sensitive moment, in walked Li Chang Rothermich in high platform heels, a pencil skirt, blouse, sunglasses and red designer bag.  It was immediately evident that this woman owned the stage.  Her presence just standing on the stage and looking outward was riveting.  Her put-together affectations contrasted the somewhat disheveled young man in the suit with awkwardly short pants and sneakers who occupied the other side of the stage.  The energetic and qualitative differences between this well-kept women and gangly young man made for a strange and laughable comparison.

But, nothing compared to the next choreographic moment in which two young men dueled with leaf blowers.  Yes! My life in now complete! This outright, obvious interpretation of BLOW was nothing short of hysterical and spectacular. This quirky moment (like the opening) is where the heart of the piece really lies.  Smart and funny.

The piece closed with all eight dancers in black recreating the sensation of being blown across the stage in waves of arm gestures and running patterns that transformed the space into a kinetic playground.  The strongest moment came near the end during which the dancers lined up across the length of the performance space and moved upstage and downstage in gusts of action that reminded me of the unpredictable and immense power of the Santa Ana winds we know so well here in Los Angeles. 

Overall the evening of dance was a notable success. The audience was extremely receptive and gracious. The dancers' chemistry as a whole made clear that they enjoy performing together as a company.  Another special aspect of the performance was original music scores for the majority of the works.  Edgar Rothermich and Tom Peters each provided scores for this performance.  In addition, as a dancer watching this performance there was something extremely satisfying.  Pennington's movement looks like it feels good to dance.  The traveling through space, the smart designs in the use of gesture, and the luxurious and graciousness of the movement quality all add to the kinesthetic appeal of the performance. I know Pennington offers weekly class, and after seeing the show tonight, I am tempted to make the drive to Pasadena!