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Reaching Beyond Limits
In an Israeli “dance village,” students test their boundaries and discover peace of mind. One dancer reports.
By Elena Hecht
For a tiny country, Israel spawns a whole lot of contemporary dance. Last fall, Elena Hecht, a native of NYC and Barnard College graduate, traveled halfway across the globe for a year of total immersion in movement, nature, and kibbutz culture. Here she reflects on the transformative Dance Journey experience:
There are not many places in the world where high-level dance training and nature converge. But imagine a tranquil community where students live side by side with the renowned choreographer whose work they are studying, as well as the seasoned professionals in his company. A home to studios with panoramic views of the countryside, obstructed only by an occasional gaggle of wide-eyed preschoolers catching a bit of rehearsal on their morning walk. A life where a trip to the grocery store means the chance to practice a foreign language, and where a day off might mean an excursion to the desert.
For one year I lived in this seemingly surreal world, along with a family of about 20 dancers from around the globe. The five-month MASA Dance Journey program (I stayed for two sessions) is affiliated with the internationally acclaimed Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company and strives to replicate the day-to-day feeling of being in a professional troupe. Students audition by video or in person, either at the kibbutz or at one of several international auditions. About half of the participants hail from the United States, the other half from places as diverse as South Africa and Slovenia. The program is a component of the Galilee Dance Village of Kibbutz Ga’aton, where it is housed alongside KCDC and its second company, KCDC 2.
Tucked into the avocado plantations and rolling hills of northern Israel, 20 minutes inland from the coast, the kibbutz is a dancer’s oasis. Though located in a politically tumultuous part of the world, Ga’aton is nonetheless a quiet haven, free of distractions. As Bettina Szabo, a former student originally from Uruguay, says, “You just have to care about dancing, you really don’t have to care about anything else.” Like KCDC’s schedule, each MASA day begins with a technique class, either ballet or modern. This warms you up for the day’s work—learning repertory by KCDC artistic director Rami Be’er in preparation for a final performance in the company’s theater, as well as for smaller performance opportunities that may present themselves throughout the program.
Be’er’s movement vocabulary is extreme; it demands technical fortitude and unrelenting intensity. In the second program, from February through June, we focused on Aide Mémoire, an evening-length work laden with the ghosts of the Holocaust. The piece makes use of a series of walls on which dancers climb, hang, lean, bang, push, walk, and jump, as though caught in an unremitting struggle.
From my first day on the kibbutz, repertory like Aide Mémoire challenged me to reach what Mika Webber, Dance Journey artistic director, describes as “always going above your limits, searching for more, never letting go, and never saying, ‘That’s all I can do.’ ” A former dancer with KCDC, Webber feels that in teaching the repertory, she is “trying to peel something from each student, to make them go beyond what they think is their limit.”
This past year, the focus on Be’er’s work was complemented by Graham-based classes (in addition to morning technique) and a weekly two-hour improvisation/composition class taught by KCDC member Yuko Harada. “This is the time that you can really work with yourself, and explore your body’s ability, your spiritual ability, and your emotional ability,” says Harada. “That’s also a part of dance, part of art, part of life.” Students are further encouraged to choreograph with open access to studio space and the chance to present their work in the company’s theater with full lighting and costumes. Workshops with guest artists expose students to the world of dance beyond the kibbutz. Just a few of the offerings: contact improv, tai chi, Gaga (Ohad Naharin’s improvisational technique), and repertory by contemporary choreographers like Israel’s Inbal Pinto and Sweden’s Mats Ek.
In addition to the work in the studio, the program fosters a number of distinctive Israeli experiences through its affiliation with MASA, an organization established by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government. Students study Hebrew, volunteer in the surrounding community, and take frequent organized trips around the country.
The days are chock full, starting as early as 8:30 a.m. But the rigor is balanced by a uniquely Ga’aton tranquility which infiltrates the Raya House, the former kibbutz communal dining hall which is now home to MASA’s sunny studios. Alum Ana Harmon, a former Boston Ballet trainee, thinks the calm in the studio relates to “something about seeing trees outside. Your whole life is surrounded by natural things and it just puts your head in a better place. I breathe more when I dance; my mind is freer.” Webber agrees that the peaceful atmosphere gives students space to think and grow. “It gives you a serenity that you might not have come to otherwise,” she says. “You have to become up front with yourself. It’s so cliché, but this is called a journey and it is a journey. You see people changing.”
The program, now in its second year, is constantly searching for ways to develop further. Webber hopes the student body and staff will expand, and she plans to introduce classes in theater and voice. As she says, “I think the sky is the limit.”
Break Your Bad Habits: The Pelvis
By Jen Peters
Dancers are constantly working towards finding balance and staying centered. Anatomically, these goals point to the center of gravity—the pelvis. A neutral pelvis is key for stability, but many dancers struggle with habits like tucking or swayback posture. DM turned to some experts for pelvis pointers: Kelly Kane, Pilates instructor and founder of the Kane School of Core Integration in New York City; Julie O’Connell, director of Performing Arts Rehabilitation at AthletiCo in Chicago; and Deborah Vogel, modern dance instructor and movement analyst at Oberlin College.
Habit: Pelvic instability The next time you do a tendu or dégagé, focus on your pelvis. Is it shifting as your leg moves out and in? When you bend the torso forward in a modern class, does the pelvis shift forward as well? These reactive movements can result from weak abdominals, lack of awareness, or, on a more subtle level, instability in the sacroiliac (SI) joints, where the hip bones attach to the sacrum. “When there is not stability in these joints,” Kane says, “there is great possibility for injuries like nerve-root impingements and disc herniations, resulting in a constantly painful lower back.”
Break it: Creating a mind-body connection is the first step toward breaking a chronic habit. Vogel suggests visualizing “lacing up” the low abdominals from the pubic bone to the belly button, engaging for 10–15 minutes while breathing and talking naturally. “Often an unstable pelvis comes from not understanding how to engage the deep abdominals in an active way while standing, not just while doing sit-ups,” explains Vogel.
Kane recommends simple knee folds. Begin lying on your back with feet flat on the floor, knees bent, hands resting underneath the SI joints. Engage the pelvic floor and deep abdominals (transversus abdominis), using the same “lacing up” imagery that Vogel describes. Lift one foot off the floor, keeping the knee bent and folding in at the hip socket, then lower down. Repeat 6–10 times on both sides. Work slowly, breathe deeply, and pay close attention to subtle pelvis shifts.
Habit: Postural tucking or swayback In a neutral pelvis, your pubic bone and right and left hip bones should be in the same frontal plane; when you lie down, the three bones should create a triangle parallel to the floor. Many dancers stand at the barre in a posterior pelvic tilt (tuck)—often to gain extra turnout—or an anterior pelvic tilt (swayback). But any posture outside of neutral alignment causes muscular imbalances and unhealthy joints. “Tucking requires constant glute and quadricep contractions, creating bulky muscles,” says Vogel, while swaybacked dancers are often hypermobile, with overactive spinal extensors, underactive abdominals, and shortened psoas. “Arabesques may feel easy for swaybacked dancers, but extension front is difficult,” says O’Connell.
Break it: O’Connell recommends practicing pelvic tilts while lying on your back or sitting on a stability ball. Start in your idea of neutral, move into a tuck, return to neutral, then arch into swayback. Repeat while imagining the pelvic bowl swinging, noting effects on surrounding muscles and lower vertebrae. Then work on knee folds again (see above), maintaining a neutral pelvis. In class, Kane suggests that tucked dancers work on using “less effort, to release the glutes.” Swaybacked dancers should focus on breathing into the back, allowing the ribs to relax back toward the spine. Also visualize a little weight on the tailbone to release the pelvis into neutral rather than sticking it out and back.
Habit: Rotating the pelvis “The majority of dancers don’t have an ideal body, but we constantly try to look like we do,” says Vogel. Dancers push their natural turnout to 180 degrees by sacrificing pelvic squareness. For example, to do développé à la seconde at full 180 degrees, Kane says, one must anatomically rotate the pelvis so the working hip pulls back. Instead, the leg should extend forward of the hip. When pelvic rotation occurs constantly, it may cause the knee of the standing leg to torque and the ankle to roll inward (pronate). This overstretches the ligaments and tendons of the ankle, causing knee pain and tightening the iliotibial band (IT band) on the outer thigh.
Break it: Vogel offers a simple exercise for sensing when the pelvis is rotating and when it stays square. Standing at the barre, bring the outside leg into turned-out coupé, then turn it in to parallel and back out. Repeat several times, keeping one hand on the outside hip to be sure only the femur bone is mobilizing, not the pelvis.
Jen Peters is a Pilates instructor, a dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works, and a frequent contributor to DM.
Across The Floor
Get More Gaga
No, not Lady Gaga. But if anything has rocked the dance world like the diva has rocked pop culture, it’s Gaga, the sensation-driven movement language developed by Ohad Naharin. Just a taste of this technique can leave people craving more, as they discover the pleasures of moving from the inside out (see “Float, Shake, Melt, Quake,” January 2009). And now, dancers in New York City can have as much as they want, thanks to new ongoing Gaga classes at Peridance. Five days a week, Ron Amit, former Batsheva Ensemble member, teaches at the refurbished Peridance Capezio Center near Union Square. “In order to fully experience Gaga,” the studio announced, students must commit to an initial five-class series, valid for one month. Your nondancer friends can also jump on the bandwagon, with Gaga People, a class for all levels. See www.peridance.com/gaga.cfm. —Siobhan Burke
Ralph Lemon has been named the next chair of CHIME Across Borders, a choreographic mentorship program of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. The newest of several CHIME initiatives, CHIME Across Borders appoints an annual chair—a choreographer of national or international renown—to design a year-long curriculum for dancemakers in the San Francisco Bay Area, where MJDC is based. Now in its first year, the program received $100,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue in 2011. Lemon, who takes over from inaugural chair David Gordon in January, will be in residence at the Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab for a total of four weeks throughout the year, working hands-on with mentees and leading activities for the public. The Georgia Ballet School in Marietta, GA, welcomes Theresa Lee Crawford to its faculty for the 2010–11 academic year. Crawford brings expertise in the ballet syllabus designed by her aunt, Marcia Dale Weary, founder of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, where she was an instructor from 1995 to 2007. As part of the Georgia Ballet staff, led by former Hamburg Ballet stars Gina Hyatt-Mazon and Janusz Mazon, Crawford is teaching all levels and an intensive course for 8- and 9-year-olds. Patrick Armand has joined the staff of San Francisco Ballet School as principal of the trainee program. A native of Marseille, France, Armand won the Prix de Lausanne in 1980 before going on to join Ballet Theatre Français, London Festival Ballet, and Boston Ballet. He has performed as a guest artist with international companies and was appointed teacher and ballet master at Milan’s La Scala in 2006. In July, The National Dance Institute appointed a new executive director, Kathy Landau. Formerly president of her own branding and design firm, Landau brings not only business acumen but also first-hand appreciation for National Dance Institute’s programs, as the mother of two NDI dancers. —Siobhan Burke
Photo of Dance Journey students rehearsing Rami Be'er's Aide Memoire by Alissa Shugar-Mikelberg, Courtesy KCDC.