More than a Performance, Preparing Dancers for Life On and Off the Stage

We sat down to talk with our Artistic Director Darion Smith, whose newest work for student dancers, Leaving Now for Later, is coming to the stage April 5, 2019. Darion shares his thoughts on dance education and choreography in the higher education setting.

Life Lessons for Students Learning Choreography

For dancers, learning choreography by also participating in its creation provides a rich opportunity to build and practice skills that are necessary for success in life on and off the stage.

Within the process of choreography and performance invaluable moments arise where thought processes are being constantly challenged and you are being called upon to make decisions.

From rehearsal video for Smith’s  Leaving Now for Later

From rehearsal video for Smith’s Leaving Now for Later

Building Problem Solving Skills through Movement

Learning choreography is, basically, a problem solving obstacle course. Each time you work through new choreography, you create new tools, or fortify the tools you already possess. This is not just for the dancer, it is also the case for the choreographer.

The choreographer presents a problem and, together, the choreographer and dancer(s) work collaboratively to create solutions. There are parallel creative processes in other fields, including the sciences, math, music, and engineering. 

Artistic Development

For Smith, he feels he becomes more of an artist than an educator when immersed in a creative endeavor like this one. In the moment, he is not expressly trying to “educate.” Rather, he is aiming to solve a problem. In the development of a new work like this one, that problem, and its path to resolution, can be intense.

From rehearsal video for Smith’s  Leaving Now for Later

From rehearsal video for Smith’s Leaving Now for Later

However as an educator, and because of his experiences, he is able to see things throughout the process that the young dancers cannot. As a result. Smith is teaching them to learn by taking risks, making mistakes, and anticipating problems and solutions in a way that better prepares them for the role at hand, and the roles to come.

In this sense, he is teaching students in a powerful and practical way. Rather than educating them for the sake of educating them in a general sense, he is working with them to build the practical skills that make them stronger, more confident problem solvers and creative thinkers, in addition to stronger and more confident dancers.

Attend the Premiere

All of this hard work in the studio will culminate in a premiere performance April 5th - April 7th at the Smith Theatre, located in the Horowitz Center, on the Howard Community College campus, in Columbia, Maryland.

Involuntary Movements

By Darion Smith

My new choreography, Involuntary Movements was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World And Me, my own experiences as an African American (biracial), and African American History. 

I was able to create a landscape (set) with props, text, soundscape, and music that incorporated and carried the inspired content of the work and allowed me to live inside of the work as I was performing it.

For me, the experience was transformative in the generative rehearsal phase of the process and then later, that experience was magnified even further when I shared Involuntary Movements in front of an audience. I had dug deep into my own feelings about race, being biracial, African American and half British (white) brought me into a lot of self conflict, if you have read Ta Nehisi Coates' book, you will understand my position even more.

Once again I found myself in the heavy presence of identity, only this time it was less ambiguous and tread the tense line of the social constructs of race in the United States in 2017.  

Involuntary Movements explores the physical and emotional reactions to racism and injustice towards the African American population through my own experiences. 

The new dance premiered at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.  

All photos of Involuntary Movements are by Megan Morse of the University of Oregon Journalism School.

Hacking Perception and Identity through Dance

Recently my research has been focused on developing new ways to experience identity. I've been conducting experiments for building choreographic structure and content in relation to aspects of experiencing identity.

The results from this research can be seen in the work that follows. But if you want to be thorough you'll have to go back to last year during Spring Dance Loft, when Dan Daly and I performed 1 up 2 down.

In this work, Dan and I wore black spandex body suits that made it hard to tell who was who but it also created a foreign character whose identity was simplified into one surface (spandex).

It would be an understatement to say that these two characters were devoid of facial expressions. Their physical features such as hair, eyes, nose, ears were blended together by the spandex and this made the experience of perceiving them much less about who they were based on their looks.  Rather, perceiving their characters became based on what those characters were doing.

This experience inspired me to ponder how identity influences perception. I believe that one's perception can be hacked, leaving the immediate action of the object more revealed and less complex, this in turn gives way for a broader range of interpretations by the viewer.

My most recent work reflects this realization in a variety of ways.  Stay tuned to the blog for more on that.

Shining Light on the Creative Process from Concept to Performance

Janusphere is back in Oregon after a successful studio performance of AMP at On the Boards in Seattle.  We are sitting down with Artistic Director and choreographer Darion Smith to talk about the creative process and how preparation and performance contribute uniquely to the development of new works for contemporary dance.

How does the creative process differ during the preparation process (workshopping, choreographing) and the performance process (dress rehearsals, performances)?

Depending on the project, they are all different, I usually try to stay flexible all the way through the development of the work, even throughout the performance run.

creative process interview with choreographer darion smith

Flexibility is important, especially in the beginning phases when I am researching movement ideas to carry the inspiration behind the work. The central idea or theme needs to be present at this phase, otherwise the process of creating can turn into a runaway train, which might not be a bad thing because you might stumble across new ideas that don't manifest in a process confined to a time limit, but it is certainly a challenge.

If I see that an idea is not working I try to improve it. The big difference is what kind of changes you can make depending on whether you're just getting into the studio, somewhere in the middle of the creative process, or seeing the first stage rehearsal with lights, costumes, and the premiere is tomorrow.

I've made changes to work in the middle of the performance run before and it's nice to have that option. If I had to say where we spend the most energy it's definitely in the creation process, going forwards and backwards over choreography and ideas with the dancers. That can be physically and mentally exhausting but it is so much of what drives the creative process. 

When the idea is unearthed, shaped, and ready to be polished for a performance the process does usually change quite a bit, for me. How is this going to be perceived becomes a big question. At this stage my aim is not to communicate something unintentional to the audience. I share the piece with people to find out if my idea is making the impact I am after and to evolve the piece further.

studio theater janusphere dance company

Does the performance itself provide insight into your choreography and how it - and the works themselves - change over time?

Being a form of conclusion out of an artistic endeavor, a performance definitely sheds light on how clear my idea has been shaped into a physical form. When I go back and look at something I did five years ago I can see that, yes, there are definitely patterns to my work and also an evolution that is unfolding. 

After presenting AMP at On the Boards, do you know things about the work or have ideas about the work that you could not have or would not have had without the experience of performing it live?

Of course, after every performance there is some level of reflection, whether you receive feedback from an audience or not. It is also very different to rehearse something to the fullest (performance level) in the studio compared to performing it in front of a live audience.

At OTB's Open Studio performance a major element in presentation was the low-tech production aspect. So there are no light cues.  Instead each artist comes into the theater and operates the sound system independently without the use of theatrical lighting.  This helps keep us in touch with the piece and teaches us about how to continue to evolve it - and to create.

Spotlight in the Sphere: Steven Jasso Talks On the Boards Festival with Janusphere Dance Company

Janusphere Dance Company dancer Steven Jasso joined Janusphere Dance Company at the On the Boards Festival in Seattle, Washington June 17 - 19, performing in our world premiere of Object.
We sat down with Steven after we returned from On the Boards to talk about the Festival experience.

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