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Open University Dance Group Summer School

by David Mead and Lynn Tytherleigh

August 27 - 30, 2004 -- Open University, Milton Keynes, England

The late August bank (public) holiday weekend saw the thirteenth year of the ever-popular Summer School. This year it ran from Friday to Tuesday and saw the Group bringing back two popular teachers from previous years alongside some new faces. Some years there is a theme that links all five days but this year the organisers tried to make each day different and succeeded admirably. As ever, participants could reserve their place for as few or as many days as they wished.

Friday: Claire Russ

The teacher for the opening day was Claire Russ, artistic director of the Claire Russ Ensemble. After a fast paced technique class Claire moved on to a "written on the body" workshop in which the body and its relationship to language was explored. This began very simply with the participants working in pairs and taking it in turns to touch different parts of their partner’s body, encouraging them to feel warmth. This moved on so that the hand was then placed close to the partner’s body, the partner moving that part of their body towards it as if there was some sort of magnetic attraction. The single hand was then replaced by both hands cupped in a sort of lens shape and used like a camera. By constantly swapping roles an improvised duet developed. The duets then became trios with the third person holding a real video camera and encouraged to get involved, filming the whole thing from ‘inside’ the dance.

Now everyone got to ‘write on the body’. Everyone chose a short phrase, either selected from books or one they had made up. They were written on masking tape and then stuck on our bodies. Everyone had been asked to wear clothes as tight fitting as they were comfortable with for just this purpose. Everyone then improvised, being aware of their phrase, the individual words it contained and the part of the body that was being focused on. From this everyone developed their own set phrase which was videoed, everyone getting the chance to also be creative with the camera and to only slowly reveal the written words. Finally all the phrases were joined and a group piece created which was again filmed.

The resulting videos were very good and showed how effective close up camera work can be as a tool in dance and dance film-making.

Saturday: Kenneth Tharp

Kenneth’s class drew on his Cunningham and Graham background. I enjoyed his movement quality immensely and his adage was particularly enjoyable with its musicality and emphasis on different dynamics but for me the class was a little too slow.

His creative sessions set out to show how the simplest of starting points can be used to make very effective choreography. He gave everyone an ‘action word’, for example ‘slide’, ‘fall’, ‘trip’, or ‘run’ and asked us to create a movement that their word suggested. In groups of four these movements were then put together with different dynamics to create a short phrase, then further extended by repeating certain movements or putting in pauses. Finally each group of four worked with another to create a short choreography while keeping only to their own phrase. The idea was that it worked like a conversation. Group A danced until they came to what Kenneth called a ‘point of arrival’ (i.e. the clear completion of a movement in their phrase) when group B took over until they too reached such a point, when A restarted and so on. The resultant works were all danced in silence so each group had to develop a keen sense of their partner group’s movement and timing.

This all not only proved Kenneth’s point about how choreography can grow from a simple idea but also how two dance phrases, performed alongside each other, can be surprisingly effective. It also rather proved that sometimes you can ‘over think’ choreography. There is often a tendency to try and think through how everything fits together before dancing a step rather than ‘just doing it’. There is little to be lost from such experimentation, after all it only takes a few minutes, and more often than not it works.

Sunday: Claire Russ

Unfortunately Yael Flexer had to withdraw at the last minute so Claire returned for a second day. Her class was similar to Fridays and included what was really a quite simply small jumps phrase that went around the room but could I get my head round it? No! For the workshop she used a concept called Physical Intelligence - Accelerated Learning Approach. This forms the basis of Companies-in-Motion a development between Claire and business consultant Andrea Bugari. It is a method of facilitating creativity, innovation, team communication and leadership development between business people by using movement and improvisation in structured workshops to make links between physical and intellectual activity, stimulate better thinking, and improve all round awareness.

We began by walking round the space, everyone doing their own movement but then slowly we could pick up on what others were doing, walk alongside them, maybe walk very close to them, and so start to work together. We then divided into one large and one small group. The idea was that the person at the front of the group led the movement but clearly as direction changed, so did the person so the front and thus so did the leader. We also had the choice of deliberately deciding not to lead. Towards the end people started swapping groups and we also introduced an element of anarchy whereby we could deliberately attempt to wreck what a group was doing. In the following discussion it was clear that some people were much happier leading than others, just as in business or real life but that the others became used to leading with practice. People also swapped experiences about which size group they found easiest to work with - there was no consensus!

We then moved on to more contact work in pairs. Through improvisation each pair slowly developed a choreographed duet. My partner and I tried to do this by letting the movement develop naturally and by trying not to think about what we should do next. Sometimes not as easy as it sounds. It’s that old ‘just do it’ thing again! These were then performed to music but the catch was that the music was selected by one of the observers and that the dancers were not told what it was going to be - a touch of Cunningham maybe. Again, it was amazing how appropriate some of the music seemed and how people subconsciously changed their dynamic to fit what was playing.

Monday: James Hewison

James is a regular and extremely popular teacher at one-off workshops held by the Group so it was no surprise that this was one of the fully booked days. As ever he got the day off with one of his superb lively and energetic release based classes. He is known for his long flowing exercises with lots of changes of direction and use of the floor. In fact I hate to use the term ‘exercises’ because you feel you are really dancing almost from the very start of class rather than ‘just’ warming up.

The remainder of the day featured the exploration of objects through improvisation leading to a final sharing of work created. After a short session using two balls in a sort of game we began an improvisation using the objects everyone had brought along at James’ request. These ranged from plates, through toys, puppets, even a can of baked beans! Through experimentation we discovered how they could be used to facilitate the movement itself or simply provide the landscape for the dance. Eventually we split into three groups and shared the objects, each group making their own dance work using what they had. The results were very inventive and included a crazy tea party and a sort of comic martial arts meets teatime dance.

That’s a really short description and barely does justice to what was a real ‘fun’ day thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Tuesday: Sarah Whatley

Sarah’s day began with a very good, lively, release-based technique class with some beautiful sequences. In fact it was so good that the class asked to spend more time on some of them so they could ‘really dance them’.

The pre-lunch session began with some large group improvisations. This was followed by improvised duets that began as solos, each dancer starting with their eyes closed.

After lunch the participants all learned another great sequence, to be used as the ‘point of departure’ (i.e. the basis) for creating some solos, the dancers responding to words given by some of those observing as the learned sequence was practised in unison. Finally it was all brought together as, in two large groups, all the material learned and created was made into a piece. The two groups performed these seamlessly one after the other adding the learned sequence in unison as a finale - all together a twelve minute piece which my correspondent "felt we really danced as an ensemble".

Final Thoughts

And so the 2004 Summer School drew to a close. All the participants seemed to really enjoy each day. There was a wide mix of age, experience and ability but everyone worked together harmoniously. There are so many dance summer schools for young people but so few for adults. The Open Dance Group shows year after year that anyone can dance, anyone can be creative - this is not just a young person thing!

2005

Yes, there will be a Summer School over the same weekend in 2005, Thursday to Monday. The plans are already being put together. While I can’t say who the teachers will be as yet, following some suggestions from this year’s participants the Group are looking at asking one of the teachers to teach for two consecutive days thus allowing for greater development of a choreographic or creative idea. There will still be three other days with different teachers for those who love the thrill of variety.

Regular Weekly Classes

In the meantime, if you are based in or around Milton Keynes the Open Dance Group has a regular open class from 6.00 to 7.30pm on Tuesdays term time in the Lecture Theatre at the Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes. Classes suit all levels of experience of contemporary dance and are open to all dance enthusiasts aged 16 and over. Newcomers very welcome.

For further details go to http://www.mkweb.co.uk/coin/home.asp?ID=2130 or call Karen Hedges on 01908 667548.


Edited by Lori Ibay.

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