Dallas — Arts education and wide, national support for its endeavors has taken quite a few hits over the last decade. More and more schools are moving away from an arts-focused curriculum; instead, choosing to focus on a STEM plan. While science and math are extremely important to the education of our youth, art is equally as important, opening up the cross-sections between the disciplines and activating both the right and left sides of our brains. In fact, science and math have an inherent and intermingled relationship with both visual and performing arts, in particular dance, which is geometry in motion and a physical and anatomical experiment in understanding the body.
Many choreographers cite the pivotal role science and math play in their creative processes—from inspiring the works, to how the movement is choreographed and moves through the space, and even to the use of media in their productions. One choreographer, whose work is nearing its 50th anniversary, and is known for his beautiful lines and shapes, is Lar Lubovitch. Throughout the course of his dance-making career, Lubovitch has been developing and exploring choreography that is conducive to a dancer’s physical understanding of movement. He is a master of flow, of blending formal and informal architectural structures, and attractive spatial designs. He calls it “creating inevitable action,” or an attempt to construct natural physical expression.
For the last three years, the students at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts have had the unique opportunity to study, learn, and perform works from this master of choreographic technique, thanks to a generous grant that was given to the Dance Department by the Kobes Arts Foundation. Headed up by Rodger Kobes and Michael Keller, the Foundation approached the Arts Magnet Advisory Board with the idea of a program that would fund a dance educational opportunity. Former Dance Chair, and now Executive Director of the Dallas Arts District, Lily Weiss, was given the opportunity to write two proposals for a three-year residency that would allow students the chance to delve deeper into the chosen artist’s work. The result has been a residency with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and now, the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company.
“The Kobes Grant has been influential for our students throughout these six years, as it has connected students with companies and artists that have been able to watch our students grow and mature. The visiting guests become even more invested in the lives of these students when they are able to return each year and see how they’ve grown,” says current Dance Chair Kate Walker.
“Now that we are in the sixth year,” continues Walker, “the residency has become easier logistically. The companies we are working with have developed a greater level of trust, in both us as a school, and, in what our students are capable of.”
With this iteration of the residency, the students have had the opportunity to work with renowned choreographer Kate Skarpetowska, a repetiteur for the Lars Lubovitch Dance Company. Skarpetowska was with the company from 2007 to 2014, and was hired to teach three works, or excerpts of works, to the Rep 1 Ensemble, with the purpose of educating young dancers in Lubovitch’s famous style. She chose pieces which spanned many decades of his artistic endeavors—one from the 1970s, another from the 1980s, and this one from the early 2000s.
“Many of the students have been through this process with me all three years,” Skarpetowska says, “and it’s really great to see how much they have grown and settled into Lar’s style of movement.”
An interesting result of this residency project is how the students are mining their time with the guest artists in both an educational and professional manner, allowing themselves to be open to the experience and finding ways to further their dance careers. “The way a literature student dissects master literary works, is the same way a dance student has a chance to immerse himself in important dance works,” continues Skarpetowska. “Studying technique or theory is one thing, but having something as close to a professional experience is another.”
One of the professional lessons the students had to confront early on came in the form of casting. The Dance Department—much like many high schools and even college programs across the United States – has a limited amount of men, which posed an obstacle when considering how to restage some sections of choreography. But Skarpetowska had a solution, and it involved pushing the female dancers to explore their physicality and strength and step into male parts. It did create some difficulty in learning passages which require partnering, and additionally, the adjustment period also proved challenging, as the dancers had to both pick up new material while also learning how to dance and performing differently.
“Even though these students are very fast in picking up material, it takes them just a little longer to really refine the steps they are given, which makes it for a little slower process than working with professionals. But in many ways, helping them find that refinement and accuracy is the point of the residency,” says Skarpetowska. “It’s always a challenge to explain to them how to shade things, so that they can discover ebbs and flows in the dynamics of each piece. I always use the analogy of someone speaking. When we use words we have a certain cadence and use inflection. We don’t just shout everything out, sometimes we whisper, speak urgently or slowly…it is just like that with dancing, except that in this case, we speak, or perhaps sing, with our bodies.”
The professionalism of the experience extends past the rehearsal studio as the students are able to have one-on-one, direct contact with a person actively working in their possible future career field. “Kate has been great to speak with and very candid with our students,” says Brian Devine, co-director of the Rep 1 Ensemble. “She has talked about her life as a student…her years of dancing and now as a restager…and choreographer in her own right. She has been very open and forthcoming about what this life as a dancer can hold.”
Further, for Devine and his co-director Emily Hunter, one of the greatest takeaways and most memorable experiences has been watching the dancers rise to the occasion and go beyond what perhaps they thought they were even capable of. A sentiment echoed by the students.
“The moment we finished learning the piece was the most memorable experience for me,” says Shadden Hashem, a senior, who has been a part of the residency for two years, “I felt a combination of relief, happiness, and sense of accomplishment fill the room. After all of the hard work and long hours we put into the piece, it felt extremely fulfilling when the piece was finished.”
“Being able to work with my peers on such a complicated piece…and with such an amazing artist…has been an unforgettable experience,” says Kennedy Huff, a junior, who is new to Rep 1. “My experience working with and learning Lubovitch's choreography was eye-opening, inspiring, and all around incredible. Lubovitch's choreography demanded much out of the dancer,” adds Arianna Sotero, who is also a junior and in her first year with Rep 1. “It required all of my attention, as well as my energy. It definitely pushed me to new limits. This training gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for this art form.”
For Skarpetowska, one of her most memorable moments has been watching the students grow. “There are two men who have worked with me for all three years, and it is absolutely amazing how much they have matured as dancers. How much more gravity they have discovered, and how they can carefully make informed choices when approaching material. Dancers are not just technicians regurgitating the steps back to the choreographer, they are artists who infuse these steps with their own physical sensibilities. But in order to do that, one needs to have a clear understanding of oneself as a dancer, and it’s something that comes with experience. It’s fascinating to see some of these students discover their artistic voices and tap into those parts of themselves. I can already say with a fair amount of certainty that I will be working with some of them in a professional setting soon enough!”
Possibly even performing with the Lubovitch Dance Company itself, and becoming a part of history, which is a direct result of the mission of this residency project. One of the goals has been to educate students about prominent and historical choreographers and their work, as well as to preserve these works of art. The students in Rep 1 are not only learning about dance history, they are actively participating in it. The faculty are committed to providing extraordinary opportunities for their students and with the help of the Kobes Art Foundation, and have been particularly successful with this iteration.
“In working with Lubovitch, the pieces were chosen carefully to span the length of his career,” says Walker. “We began with Marimba which was made in 1976, then to Concerto 622 from 1986, and now Dvorak Serenade from 2007. This sequence of pieces has allowed the students to see how Lar's work evolved, but also how he developed a choreographic voice. I think exposing our students, and our audiences, to a catalogue of Lubovitch pieces inherently works to preserve his choreography, and introduce a whole new generation of dancers to his work.”
But it’s not just the students in Rep 1 who are exposed to the teachings of these residency artists. Each guest teaches master classes for as many students in the department as possible, serving almost all the dance students during their time at the school. Further connections have even been made within the larger dance community, with Skarpetowska presenting a work that she created on the Bruce Wood Dance Project this month.
“I think this residency has given the students a lot of information, especially a point of reference in dance history,” concludes Skarpetowska. “In a way [this residency] is an education in how a human begin grows and develops as an artist…what inspires him, and subsequently, how the work changes from decade to decade. It’s fascinating to me and I hope [the students] will find it useful down the road as they gather more experience.”
The Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Dance Department presents An Evening of Dance, featuring an excerpt from Lars Lubovitch’s Dvorak Serenade, as well as works from Andy Noble, Weaver Rhodes, Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz, Fernando Hernandez, and Charles Anderson. November 9, 10, 11, and 17 at 7 p.m. at the Montgomery Arts Theater. Tickets available at TicketDFW.