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Behind The Scenes: Workshops Connect Community With Professional Performers

Jessica Lang Dance Company YPAS
Alix Mattingly​
Jessica Lang Dance Company dancers Thomas Ragland, John Harnage and Rachel Secrest pose for a photo with dance students at the Youth Performing Arts School after one of three master classes taught by the company. The dance company is in Louisville for a residency that includes classroom instruction, a performance and working with veterans.

When Louisville audiences attend the one-night only dance programs in the Kentucky Center or at the Brown Theatre, little do they realize that this performance is only the tip of the iceberg. A driving force of the Center’s programming is what visiting artists can contribute to our community while they’re in town.

Recently, several hundred people had the opportunity to see the Jessica Lang Dance Company perform at the Brown Theatre. Several other groups in our community also had the opportunity to interact with the dancers of the company in more intimate settings.

On Thursday morning, I had the privilege to observe some of the master classes that the company was leading at the Youth Performing Arts School. This company of nine dancers split up so that there were three dancers for each class – meaning that sophomores, juniors, and seniors could all benefit from a 70-minute master class. Dance teacher David Cesler was delighted that the YPAS faculty didn’t have to choose, “as usual,” which students could attend.

The sophomore class met in a studio in the main YPAS building and, “because it’s the first class of the day” the Jessica Lang teaching artists took the group of students through a rigorous barre warm up. The teaching artists exuded a calm and gentle force with these young dancers while, at the same time, briskly creating sequences that quickly became complex and had to be learned fast and be performed up tempo. The sequences were grounded in classical ballet techniques and also incorporated modern elements.

The sophomores were absolutely focused on their preceptors, some pushing a little too hard to be perfect; a lip bitten if a step was missed, a rolled eye to see if anyone caught an error. Group notes were given quietly and factually, resulting in immediate adjustments to posture and timing. The three facilitators moved discreetly among the students, adjusting an individual arm here, setting a hip angle there, and helping with counts and attitudes throughout the studio.

I joined the class of seniors in a studio in the YPAS Annex, as they were moving into doing center work. In addition to three teaching artists, this group also had the Jessica Lang rehearsal director, Claudia MacPherson, with them. With two more years of training under their belts, this group of students was ready for the complex, modern-infused choreographic sequences that were part of this master class.

The teaching artists, again, moved fast with an expectation that the students could keep up, while also leaving space for side coaching and questions, “if you have questions, ask. We love questions.” This work more overtly balanced the structures of classical and modern movement, with the instructors pointing out when they were looking for the differences in style.

A group improvisational activity offering opportunity for creative movement lightened the mood in the studio and helped ease the students into the final activity of the class period. They were taught the opening sequence from one of the dances in the company’s repertoire, "I.n.k." There was a frisson of excitement when it became clear that here was choreography that existed as a finished dance, and these young dancers had a chance to try it.

It was clear that the teaching artists knew these movements intimately – it’s been in the repertoire since 2011 – and they taught it unit by unit, beat by beat, so that the students could find it in their own bodies. MacPherson explained that for this piece Lang collaborated with a visual artist whose work is centered on the tension between fluidity and stillness.

The commissioned score produced a burble of excitement from the students as they registered both the percussive and liquid nature of the music. And then movement was put to music. The company dancers offered generous applause to the students who performed "I.n.k.’s" opening sequence group by group. And their accomplishment was impressive, learning a complicated sequence of movement, set to equally complex music in about 15 minutes. Their faces and body energy reflected that they knew they’d nailed this sequence.

Wrapping up the session MacPherson said she hoped they’d get to see the company’s Friday evening performance. At this point, department chair Lori Ruttan acknowledged that almost all of the students would be on the YPAS stage that night. It was quickly resolved that the YPAS dance students would be invited to the company’s final dress rehearsal Friday afternoon so they would have a chance to see their teachers in performance.

In between this workshop and that dress rehearsal, Jessica Lang dancers will also be working with the Center’s Arts in Healing program, leading a workshop with veterans, and also leading Center staff in a movement workshop.

The Kentucky Center’s commitment to dance programming in recent seasons is enhanced by these “behind the scenes” workshops, bringing more dance to more sectors of our community; each outreach program is tailored to the strengths of the visiting artists and focused on groups and organizations which will benefit most from interacting with them. Listening to the students’ “It was so good!” and “Ah-MAZ-ing” comments as they streamed across campus after these sessions, it’s clear that they recognize the value of connecting with professional performers in their school studios.