How do you teach contemporary dance to elementary-age students? Using the exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time as a springboard, the Walker’s Hands-on Learning Facilitator, Ilene Krug-Mojsilov, gives it a whirl.
“Dance is more a part of our experience than we realize.”
Some of us may remember square dancing in PE class, or taking tap or ballet classes after school. As that brand of dance education was becoming common in the latter half of the 20th century, Minneapolis dance enthusiasts were also being introduced to the innovative choreographer Merce Cunningham’s experimentation with movement, décor, and sound. Over the years the Walker Art Center has showcased Cunningham and composer John Cage’s interdisciplinary practice, which challenged the traditions of these forms.
The exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time (MC:CT), on view through July 30, 2017, presents the arc of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s risk-taking and influence for over four decades. Thinking through the ways to approach this exhibition with students was interesting for us here in the Walker’s Education Department in part because it suggested the possibility of a new way to teach dance, using a performance-based improvisation workshop in the spirit of Cunningham.
Usually, the Star Tribune Foundation Art Lab—the place where students engage in art-making activities—is geared towards hands-on projects, but the Merce Cunningham exhibition asked for something somewhat different in its bringing together of dance, visual art, sound, and performance. We embraced the exhibition as an opportunity to do something fresh in the Art Lab.
We arrived at the Art Lab experience for elementary students after much back-and-forth. The result is a workshop entitled On Your Mark. The objective of On Your Mark is to expose students to Merce Cunningham’s dance process, highlighting movement, set designs, and time or duration. It probes everyday movement in particular, asking what it might have to do with contemporary dance. In addition, it provides insights into the specific roles of performers and audience members during a performance. To set the scene for this interactive activity, the Art Lab is transformed into a performance space with audience seating. Kindergarten and first graders spend 45 minutes in the Art Lab, and second to fifth graders stay for an hour. The outcome of On Your Mark is an improvised two-minute dance performance titled 24 Hours.
How Does It All Work?
The whole class warms up with two timed movement exercises on the “stage,” which is a designated floor space in the Art Lab. First, they split into two groups, paying attention to the center line that serves as a divider between them. Next, a simple prompt, such as hopping, doing jumping jacks, or walking, starts a 30- to 45-second practice of that activity. The second exercise uses mirroring, asking a student to spot a partner across the room and synchronize their simple movements to each other.
After this introduction, students refer to a color dot received upon entering the Art Lab, and split into four groups of 5–7 students based on those colors. The colors correspond to a time of day or night as well as related geometric shapes installed on the floor. There’s a yellow parallelogram for morning, green triangle for afternoon, red circle evening, and blue square for night. In addition to cueing actions people perform during that particular time of day or night, they provide spaces for the dancers to move on stage. In dance lingo these floor tape marks are called spike marks. When combined together, actions performed on the spike marks effectively cover the whole of actions during the day and night, giving 24 Hours its title. Once students have understood the prompt, two corresponding actions are chosen. For instance, activities have included brushing teeth or eating breakfast in the morning; playing video games in the afternoon; reading in the evening; and tossing in bed at night. Students are asked to rehearse these everyday movements exploring the confines of their spike marks. They notice how individual movements involve small and/or large gestures: standing, squatting, or lying down. Each group rehearses for five minutes with an Educator or teacher for a two- minute performance.
24 Hours: The Performance
Next, one group at a time performs their rehearsed movements relating to morning, afternoon, evening, and nighttime activities. This simple choreography simulates the passage of time over 24 hours. While performers are on stage, the rest of the class actively engage with the dancers as audience members. At the end of each performance, audience members comment on types of movement they notice and how the performers interact with the shapes on the floor. Performers are asked about their experience presenting their movements simultaneously with members of their group. Slowly, body awareness comes into focus, and even young students can articulate how a crowded or empty space feels.
As the Art Lab has unfolded during the run of the exhibition, it’s become apparent that older groups can handle another layer of interaction. As a variation, I set a metronome to fast or slow rhythms affecting the performance movement. Or I passed out percussion instruments to audience members to create a rhythmic soundscape for each group’s improvisation. Both audience members and performers provided feedback on the way the dancers’ bodies responded to the soundscape.
Useful Insights Gained
Timers were employed throughout this Art Lab activity. Digital timers proved to be most effective, although sand timers visually illustrated how time unfolds. When I clocked students for the warm-up exercise, 1-½ minutes lasted forever; they were winded after 45 seconds. Seeking to make a point about a performer’s endurance, I likened this experience to an athlete’s performance during a basketball, soccer, football, or baseball game. Basically, I asked the students to empathize with a performer on stage and appreciate how much energy is required. “How does a performer maintain concentration until the end of a number?”
Another “ah-ha” moment occurred when audience members got involved musically with performers. Students animated rhythm sticks, maracas, bells, wooden crow sounders, and sandpaper block instruments spontaneously creating a soundscape. When the audience and performers engaged with one another, time collapsed, leaving the audience wanting more.
When 24 Hours finished early, improvisation continued. On these occasions, I called the morning dancers with yellow dots from all four groups to the stage. They, in turn, performed their actions simultaneously for one minute. The audience members picked out movements that repeated across the stage, discerned fast vs. slow movements, big vs. small gestures, and the way the dancers related to the spike mark shapes on the dance floor. Finally, the performers shared what it felt like to perform with more space around them.
The Art Lab activity only starts a conversation about dance and a series of questions about it: How do you watch it? What is it like to be a dancer?
Perhaps the most important insight gained was in the spirit of Merce Cunningham and John Cage: Never say no to a project. Try it out, craft it to your audience, or simply experiment.
Here are a few additional takeaways that crystalized for me:
1. The body is a tool for expression. It’s as powerful as the brush, chisel, camera, or voice.
2. Dance education is equal to visual art, music, film/video, and theater education.
3. Body awareness can be learned.
4. Improvisation uncovers new creative ideas.
5. Performing is a skill to be honed.