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Before the Critics Have Their Say

In the nurturing environment of Fieldwork, professional choreographers can get feedback from respected veterans.


A writer confronts the blank page, a painter an empty canvas, but how does a dancer make a dance?

Usually it starts with a body, the choreographer's own, and a mirror. As it evolves, it's utterly ephemeral--there's no sketch to show, no manuscript to pass around.

Which is why L.A.'s Dance Resource Center has begun sponsoring Fieldwork, a set of carefully formulated workshops meant to create a nurturing but stringent environment in which performers can develop ideas.

Created by and named for the Field, a New York nonprofit group that helps all kinds of artists develop ideas, the workshop format requires a facilitator but also relies on other participants to guide the process. The choreography sessions require participants to bring in five minutes of movement--it may be a complete dance or just a fragment, a movement idea--for critiques. Responses are focused by the facilitator, but everyone can offer opinions.

Arianne MacBean, artistic director of the modern-dance troupe the Big Show Co., wanted to inaugurate Fieldwork in Los Angeles, based on her experiences with the method as a freelance dancer in New York. While serving on the Dance Resource Center's board last year, MacBean suggested the organization sponsor the workshops.

MacBean recruited a quartet of veteran choreographer-dancers: Victoria Marks (her most recent work premieres at Los Angeles Theater Center later this month), Dan Froot (recently seen in collaborations with David Dorfman), Douglas Nielsen, (former dancer and now a teacher at Cal State Long Beach) and 1960s improvisational guru Simone Forti.

Fourteen dancers paid a nominal fee to participate; the resulting works in progress will be performed tonight at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.

"I'm producing it and also participating," says MacBean, who moved to L.A. in 1996 to attend graduate school at CalArts "Often, as a choreographer, you never get to hear how people are reading your dance--except in the end with critics, when it's too late. It's not healthy, and it's not a good process. I think we need to show our work to each other and we need to communicate."

The Fieldwork structure is simple. Each participant dances, and then the feedback begins. The facilitator starts the critique. No references to work outside the workshop are allowed, and there is no dialogue, no side conversations or "cross-talk"--reactions are addressed only to the dancer who isn't allowed, or required, to respond.

"It's very businesslike, yet incredibly efficient and supportive," explains MacBean. When others agree with a point that's been made, "they knock on their chairs. You end up getting 14 perspectives on your piece."

During the third week of the L.A. workshop series, 10 participants performed their five minutes. The facilitator was dance teacher Nielsen, former principal dancer with Israel's Batsheva Dance Company and onetime member of New York companies headed by Pearl Lang and Gus Solomons. He began by telling the performers that "every dance should work with no props, costumes or lighting."

MacBean operated a tape deck as Mary Bender and Don Bondi performed Bender's work, which involved the use of a walker. Rebecca Keyser-Houck brought a guitarist and displayed a series of aggressive, body-slapping moves. MacBean and Robin Conrad performed next: Conrad sat on a chair while MacBean circled the floor in a work about finding one's voice.

As the performances unfolded, the other participants took notes. Respectful applause followed each piece. Trailing white scarves, Elizabeth Hoefner danced to the mournful Barber Adagio. Maria Gillespie, her feet bandaged, nevertheless moved as if electrically charged.

When the choreographers were finished, the group assembled in a circle. MacBean used a stopwatch to allocate seven minutes of discussion per work. (The time varies according to the number of participants each week.) Nielsen talked about perspective with Keyser-Houck, questioning the rear placement of the musician and Keyser-Houck's straight-ahead stance. "Why are you facing front?" he asked. "I don't always believe in the diagonal, but in this case, it might be less jarring.

"Then there is the question of center stage being a safe distance," he added, "where I watch the performance rather than enter it." Her colleagues knocked their chairs in agreement.

Nielsen moved on to notes for another choreographer, Miriam Kramer, whose ending, he thought, seemed unresolved. "When the music climaxed," he said, making a reference to choreographer Antony Tudor, "he wouldn't dance to it. There's something to be said for stillness."

Gillespie spoke up as well, praising the way Kramer had pared down the piece from a previous session.

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