By Walter Rutledge
Hearts Of Men, the multi-generational dance workshop, held their summer intensive August 29th through September 11th, 2016 on the campus of Montclair State University. The two-week workshop provides dance classes, and performance opportunities to male dancers ages 14 and older. This session 12 choreographers set works on over seventy-five dancers of varied technical levels. The choreographers included Germaul Barnes, Julian Barnett, Brian Harian Brooks, Clifton Brown, Christian von Howard, Nathaniel Hunt, Roderick Jackson, Amy Jordan, Edwin Rodriguez, Artie Smith, Hearts Of Men founder Earl Mosley, and yours truly Walter Rutledge.
Although the workshop culminates with a choreographic showcase it is not about the dance makers. The performance is another learning tool designed to allow the dancers (neophyte to professional) to test and/or hone their craft. Ten young men ranging in age from 15 to 23 were assigned to work on my choreography.
This was my third time working with Hearts Of Men. Loretta Abbott and I performed a comedic duet entitled Sentimental Reasons in the 2015 summer session; and reprised the work for the January session (Shirley Black Brown graciously stepped in when Loretta was taken ill). But the 2016 summer season is the first time I worked directly with the dancers in the program.
Early in my choreographic career Bessie Schonberg advised me, “Don’t give them what you want. Give them what they need.” With that always in mind creating a dance theatre work- a dance narrative became our task for this session.
In recent years the dance narrative genre has fallen out of fashion for many reasons. Story ballets are expensive to mount requiring elaborate sets, ornate costumes, and a large corps de ballet. These dances require the choreographer be both dance maker and director, proficient in creating thematic material and character development. In addition performers must understand the power of nuance and acquire a discerning eye for detail that reaches beyond an extension or technical feat.
Many mature performers and balletomanes often remark about the technical virtuosity and impressive physicality of today’s performers. Unfortunately the kinesthetic onslaught often leaves these audience members exhausted for the performers. More awed by the near aerobic pace they often remarking, “How do they remember all those steps.” Before joyously reminiscing about Jose Limon curling three fingers and personally touching them as they sat in the back of the fourth balcony.
Motherless Child tells the story of young enslaved men who long for the love and affection taken from them. A realization quickly set in that the enslaved Africans were the same age as my cast of young dancers. Looking into their faces (each filled with a lifetime of possibilities) I saw our ancestors whose possibilities had been stolen.
Channeling one of my mentors Nikita Talin (who would often quoted Nijinsky, “Act first, then dance”) our task was two-fold to convey sadness and loss and to extract that same emotion from the audience. Moving people to tears requires the use of universal themes and visual images given to the audience in stages, thereby lulling them into an emotional release. When executed successfully the visceral yet humanistic nature of the images and the scenario transcend language and culture.
Since the work was going to be performed bare-chested we worked without shirts from the first rehearsal. This made them cognizant of the plastique (sculptural elements) of the movement from the beginning. We set the work in Horton Technique, but also emphasized the importance of stillness and the power of just walking in character. “Your back talks”, was a common reminder as the dancers perfected movement executed facing upstage.
To reinforce the individual and personal nature of character development images from Renaissance art were introduced. For the group dynamic Raphael’s School Of Athens demonstrated the concept of individuality contributing to the total compositional structure, while Michelangelo’s Pieta helped create the fragile imagery in the death scene. The art also allowed us to discuss the visual focal point and how the choreographer directs the audience to follow the action.
The most important word became intent- simply why. Why are you moving? Why are you reacting? By defining the intent we produced Euclidean economy and focus, streamlining both movement and message.
By our last rehearsal it was time to let the choreography go. In other words the work no longer artistically belong to me exclusively. Through their diligence and hard work the dancers had earned artistic ownership, and I had to step back and trust them.
The performances took place on September 10th and 11th in Montclair State University’s Memorial Auditorium. Fourteen short predominately ensemble works ranging from upbeat pure movement works to abstract narrative to dance theatre were presented to an enthusiastic audience of family and friends. I usually don’t sit in the audience when my work is performed, but this time I needed to feel the energy.
The music started in the darkness, slowly light began to illuminate the dancers. From the first steps to the final fade to black the dancers moved with intent and commitment, touching the audience and accomplishing their task. Finally during the informal part of the bow you could see and feel their joy- it was both gratifying and humbling.
If the classroom is where you develop your craft, then the stage is where you perfect it. Hearts Of Men continues the time-honored tradition of training, performing and mentorship. To learn more about Hearts Of Men and the other year round programs and services offered by the Earl Mosley Institute For The Arts visit emiadance.org.
In Photo: 1) cast 2) Loretta Abbott and Walter Rutledge 3) cast 4) School Of Athens 5) Pieta 6) cast
Photographs by: 1,3,6 Miskos Production- Milan Misko videographer 2) Howard Hemp 4) Raphael 5) Michelangelo
Video by: Miskos Production- Milan Misko videographer