Dance: finding the balance of the self within the group

I stumbled upon this video on the Internet, and I was immediately overwhelmed by it

I wrote Becky Siegel, who is the choreographer behind the project, and asked her if I could do an interview with her, and luckily she said yes.

Casper: Becky please tell us something about the path that led you to start working with people with chronic illness and/or disability.

Becky: I had a growing sense that I wanted to help people that were suffering, through dance. It was so clear to me that dance is so therapeutic. All dancers know how we enter the studio and how much better we feel when we are finished. So I thought that if dance was so helpful for people who are basically healthy, the effect on people who are struggling with serious health problems had to be tremendous. I had a student who is a physical therapist at the Navarran association for Multiple Sclerosis and I asked her if she thought that they might be interested in trying some work with dance and she thought they would be. And that was how it began.
But I think on an even deeper level I had a sense that having been able to dedicate my life [to dance] was a tremendous gift and that somehow I wanted to give that gift back.

Casper: Thanks, Becky! I guess this raises a question about dance as therapy versus dance as an art form. Do you have any points on this?

Becky: That’s something that I think about a lot. And it can be very delicate. I think it’s a question that must be addressed head on in this kind of work. I am not a dance therapist, have no training in that area. I’m a trained dancer, improviser, choreographer, and teacher and try to bring all my experience – of about 40 years – to this work that I have started doing in the past 2 years.
On the one hand it is clear that dance is always potentially therapeutic, and that even the more therapeutic practices are also very artistic, but I see very clearly that in the different facets of the work that I do sometimes it is fundamentally therapeutic, and therefore totally about process and not intended for an audience, while other groups that I work with consider themselves dancers, or come to consider themselves as dancers, and have a desire to perform.
I myself am much more interested in the process than in the “result” (i.e. a performance), but often the work is so exquisitely beautiful that I am very interested in sharing it, feel that it is worthy of being seen by an audience.
So while I feel that dance always has that element of therapeutic benefits, I don’t feel that all dance needs an audience. I think that dance that is primarily therapeutic is a private experience. In the case of my work, it is a group experience so it is shared and witnessed by the other dancers present and that is enough. On the other hand, when one sits down to see dance as an art form, ideally one is not focussing on the fact that there are dancers of different abilities but on the beautiful dancing and the great choreography. So the great challenge for creating dance that is art when there are dancers with limited movement possibilities is being able to transcend those limitations, to really push their technique, as with any dancer, and to bring the greatest compositional skills possible to the creative process. I work primarily with improvisation, so all my students are given tools for finding their own languages as well as discovering choreographic possibilities.
In my work with illness and disability I find a difference in the way I teach depending on whether it is more “therapy” or more “art.” The therapeutic focus implies that these are people who need help and are, in some ways, dependent on me and my assistants to help them have a positive dance experience. The closer that we can get to my students’ being actively engaged in the creative process the closer we are to creating dance as an art form. The more that these students are able to get beyond experiencing themselves primarily as disabled, the more they are able to get beyond the self, the more that they are able to create art.

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Casper: I would like to move on to the core of my interest in your work, namely the collective. Could you say a few words about what happens to group dynamics in your activities as a choreographer, teacher and dancer?

Becky: Being born and raised in the U.S. and having lived and worked in Spain for the past 28 years I have the opportunity to understand these two very different cultures, and their very different realities when it comes to the self and the group. The U.S. is an essentially individualistic culture while Spain is fundamentally social. Working in dance, I am very focussed on the relationship between the self and the group and place great emphasis in my training on the dancers’ being able to reach their fullest potential as individuals, attain a true consciousness of the self, and at the same time have a total awareness of the group. Attaining this balance can be very challenging: there are people who are not able to transcend the self and others who are so focussed on the group that they lose themselves, but my work deliberately addresses this question.
As a choreographer I find it most difficult to achieve this balance in the group: I have expectations that are perhaps beyond the dancers’ capabilities; the dancers are often immersed in their egos, trying to get the choreography “just right.” It can be a very long road before the dancer is able to transcend the self, get beyond their focus on their own performance and truly understand the whole.
When I myself was a young dancer I used to get terrible anxiety before performances. Then I remember the first time that I made a piece of choreography that I liked: I felt part of something larger than myself, that my performance wasn’t what mattered but rather the work itself. And I stopped getting so nervous before a performance.
In my teaching of group improvisation I feel more successful at helping dancers to reach this happy balance than when I am directing my choreography projects. We work on it everyday, starting out with individual exercises to explore each students’ possibilities. The transition to group work can be difficult, changing that focus from inward to outward without losing the self. But we all see the results when we are able to make that shift and they are very beautiful.
Curiously, the work with disability seems to make it easier to make that shift. It seems that the challenge of the difference of languages awakens the outward focus: without turning into condescension, there is an automatic empathy and excitement, equal on both sides of the mixed ability spectrum. At the same time, this challenge requires that the dancers be able to count on their own technique, so they are immediately in tune with their finest abilities. Somehow, this work brings out the best in all my students and brings them closer to this exquisite balance between the self and the group.
Another interesting thing happens in these groups: the students with more experience instinctively “teach” the less experienced ones: through their good example they instruct the newcomers in the art of choreographic improvisation (this is true regardless of whether it’s a mixed-ability group or not). Over the years I’ve loved witnessing how naturally the more experienced improvisors take on this role and essentially welcome the newer students through dance. They become teachers in a way; it’s like a passing on of knowledge from generation to generation.
As for how these group dynamics carry on into the other areas of our life, I’ve seen how my students have become dear friends, will sometimes go on vacation together, will welcome any occasion to dance together. They are my dear friends, too. And we all notice how much we need to apply the lessons that we are learning in the studio to our lives outside the studio, namely the ability to maintain that balance between the self and the other in our relationships, in our families; how to have relationships without losing ourselves.
And I’ve also seen how my students have carried on these ideas into their own teaching as they, in turn, have become teachers.

Becky Siegel has been teaching dance for more than three decades, both to professionals as well as to beginners. She was born in Denver, Colorado, but was raised in New York City where she received her dance training, studying classical Ballet and the modern techniques of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, and where she performed in the improvisational dance company of Richard Bull for several years. She has a degree in the Arts from Barnard College (Columbia University, New York) and a Masters in Performing Arts from the University Rey Juan Carlos (Madrid), where she wrote her thesis on the Sacred and the Profane in Dance. Becky has lived in Pamplona (Spain) since 1992, where she directs the companies Tempomobile – for whom she has created fourteen productions – and Kon moción, a semi-professional improvisational ensemble. In 2013 she created a dance program at the Navarran Association for Multiple Sclerosis (ADEMNA). In 2014 she created a similar one in the Navarran Association for Parkinson (ANAPAR). And in 2015 she began to collaborate with Lua, the dance group affiliated with the Association for persons with physical disability of Southern Navarra (AMIMET), teaching them modern dance technique, choreographic improvisation, and creating a collaborative improvisational project with the dancers of Kon moción.

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