Tuesday, February 12, 2008

seen/not seen

My appreciation for dance has been growing in the past couple years as I've been increasingly exposed to the wonderfully diverse, skilled, and artistic groups that make up the Lansing dance scene. I'll confess that I was previously oblivious to how very rich the dance world was here in Lansing. I can usually rattle off the number of theater organizations in town, but I'd struggle to do the same for local dance troupes. What I can say is we have many talented groups from ballet to jazz to modern to cultural/ethnic.

I've also appreciated how very moving many of the dance concerts are. S'moves at LCC a few weeks ago was a fascinating concert, one that provoked much thought even while it entertained. It also made dance highly accessible.

Two weekends ago, my son and I went to see the final concert of seen/not seen at Ruhala Performing Arts Center (every time we drive by there, he says, "Everything they do there is really good." That's quite the endorsement coming from a child who at eight years old turned to me at the end of a musical's intermission and said, "Is there going to be any acting during the second half? Because I would like to see some acting.").

The concert was performed by the Center's dance ensemble with several guest dancers. The dances explored the emotional life of women, ranging from tender to violent, from love to fury. While last year's concert "The Dispossessed" was one long number based on T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wastelands," this concert was in a slightly more traditional style with individual numbers alternating between ensemble pieces, solos, and duets. Through a collection of songs, a story with many chapters was told.

The week before the concert, I had the chance to sit down and talk with the Center's Artistic Director, Mark Ruhala. While the Center has three focuses: performance, education, and guest artist showcase; we were meeting to talk about the educational part and what they're currently focusing on. Much of that conversation you can read about here, though as always, there was much that couldn't fit into the column. Two of the interesting things we talked about that just didn't fit the column was the importance of training for adults and his style of relating to his students young and old.

Training for Adults

Perhaps that's a slight misnomer, for what we ended up chatting about was the role that arts can play in the lives of adults and how that role is enhanced by training. Mark described arts training for adults as something that is "a counter-balance to all of the pressures of business life, of the responsibilities that an adult has. (Business) does not facilitate spontaneous living, or imaginative, creative living." He acknowledged that while some businesses do try to develop creativity, that being involved in the arts is "a wonderful way to counteract those forces and to fre eour bodies to gain relaxation, to gain mental health, to gain physical health, and it's a wonderful way to connect with people in a non-competitive way."

It is, he explained, a way of balancing those other other good things in life such as work or competitive sports. It doesn't make one more important than the other, rather it tries to establish a healthy, holistic life.

Relating to Students

Mark also talked a great deal about how he builds trust with his students. He's a firm believer that young people should be treated with the same respect and courtesy with which you treat adults. "I relate to them as people, not as kids," he said. "I hear a lot of adults in accord with that idea, and yet when I see their actual actions and the way they work with and relate to young people, it does keep them in a submissive, less-than full-charge position."

He says that by treating his students as people, he builds trust and creates safety with them. "When you treat them as people they feel grownup, and when they feel grownup, they act grownup. That brings out a certain safety. I let all of my performers know that when they have feelings of frustration, embarrassment, shame, inadequacy--I encourage those feelings to come up. I always encourage the tears. Crying is a strength, rather than a weakness. Then we go through and talk about their feelings as their feelings inevitably erupt. Performing is a very vulnerable piece of work. (Accepting those feelings) creates certain emotional and psychological trust because they feel accepted for who they are."

While he works at treating young people as people, he does adopt slightly different styles in terms of what type of information he tries to teach based on age. For example, he said if he's teaching a five to eight year old privately in voice, he'll focus on musicality, lyrics, memorization, and rhythm. He'll focus on keeping it fun. If his student is 10 to 12 years old, he'll work a little more technically.

In fact, I was reminded a bit of the Montessori philosophy of "following the child," as he said that with the younger students his goal is to keep them interested, so he'll follow more where they want to go while with the older ones, he gives them a little more of what he knows they need to succeed in college and a career. He also said the individual's goals are paramount in the style he takes. He'll teach differently a person who is doing it purely for the enjoyment than the person who has a lot of ambition and wants to make a career of it.

It was a fascinating conversation and perhaps once I get caught up on other things, I'll return to it and share some of the things he talked about regarding art and its relation to life. We even got into quantum physics and Einstein.

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