The Art of Pure Movement
Dancer/Choreographer Rebecca Stenn Teaches NYC High School Students How to Move
It’s an early morning in mid-July. I am riding the subway to work, thinking about the body language of the other riders on the train. I watch as a few passengers slump and round their shoulders forward. Others sit upright, almost at attention. And still others stare out blankly into space. I take particular note of these movements because I have asked my students in the Lincoln Center Open Stages program to do the same as a homework assignment for the Movement for Actors course I teach each July. As I continue watching people fidget or hold bags tightly on their laps, I see one of my students sitting a few seats away from me. She, too, is intently watching. Later in class when I ask them to perform their subway movement studies, she does a movement study of me.
The Open Stages Program is for New York City public high school students ages 14 to 21, and while they come from all over the five boroughs, I learn quite quickly that they also come from all over the world. For instance, the first day of the 2003 two-week summer intensive the other teachers and I realized that for 17 out of the 21 students in that year’s program, English was a second language. Acting teacher Oni Faida Lampley decided to work with the varied languages, promptly devising a "Tower of Babel" exercise in which each student spoke his or her native language in an attempt to communicate with others. It was not only a great icebreaker but also a way for unlikely alliances to be forged. In my movement classes, for instance, Min from Burma and Kreshnik from Kosovo rarely worked with anyone else. Kaba of Niger sidled up to Jessica, whose mother is Russian-born but who was reared in Colombia. Monica, Daisy and Jennifer—all Hispanic—worked well with Adara, an Italian American from Bensonhurst. Despite cultural and language differences, these classes and pairings once again confirmed my belief in the power of pure movement as both an alternative form of communication and a community-builder.
Open Stages, a four-year-old program, begins each morning with my movement class. The class is not so much a dance class as it is a way to learn how to access creativity through movement and, most important, how to become comfortable within the body. We start by standing quietly. I ask the students to "check in" with themselves and stand with their eyes closed for a full ten minutes—the first time many of them have ever done this. By checking in I mean connecting with the body. I ask the students to send their thoughts to their feet, to connect with the earth, to balance the weight of the body so that it is evenly distributed along the floor, to be soft in the knees. We travel up the body using my words, their thoughts.
I also ask for silence so that the students can learn and listen to the quiet. I survey the class. Who is standing up straight? Who is slouching? Who has a look of determination etched on his or her face? Who is drooping, turned in, lacking confidence? Their moods are manifested physically, and from each student’s stance and breath I quickly come to understand their emotions.
Some mornings, I give the students an abbreviated yoga class. When they first learned the animal poses (downward dog, cobra) their expressions were priceless and amusing. But soon, the grins were replaced by an openness spurred on by deep breathing and a willingness to apply themselves fully to the movement. Though they initially groaned through the sun salutation, by the end of the program they were asking me to start the day with yoga.
Despite the fact that most of the students come to class with a fair amount of teenage attitude, some glittering discoveries and personal breakthroughs are made. For instance, one student who was rather shy and quiet ended up directing the movement study I assigned for homework. She performed with a confidence unimaginable at the beginning of our class sessions. Another student whose shoulders were rounded forward with shyness stood a good inch taller by the end of the program.
Other discoveries are equally exhilarating. One day, I brought in a book of Matisse and Picasso prints, asking students to create a movement study based on a painting of his or her choice. Samantha, a student who had started the program with a good dose of skepticism, chose a Picasso—a bleak, abstract painting of a man standing at a window playing the violin. As she developed her character and her study, she began to shed her skepticism. The work she produced was beautiful and real. After her performance, I asked her why this study had been so successful. "I just got him," she said, referring to the man in Picasso’s painting. I like to think that by "I just got him," she meant that she perhaps had found a way—through movement—to express some of her own loneliness and frustration.
The rest of a typical Open Stages day continues with acting and playwriting classes, lunch, and a discussion session in which professionals from performing arts fields—costume designer, arts administrator, director—come to talk with the students.
And while a career in the performing arts may not be particularly what these students’ parents hope for, during our "sharing" day at the end of the two weeks, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles sat with expressions of pride as they watched the performance and proceedings. Who knows, maybe one of these students will be on Broadway after all.
Rebecca Stenn is a dancer, choreographer, and the artistic director of Rebecca Stenn: PerksDanceMusicTheatre. Her company, part of the Joyce's 2003 Altogether Different Festival, will perform in the Family Matters series at Dance Theater Workshop on September 18. Open Stages is a program of Lincoln Center Theater. For more information, please visit www.lct.org. To learn more about Rebecca Stenn and her company, visit www.perksdancemusictheatre.com.