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Cheree R. Knight
“Their hair, pomaded, faces jaded bones protruding, hip-wise, The models strutted, backed and butted, Then stuck their mouths out lip-wise.”1
There is a reason for why she speaks so satirically of the industry and its women. She finds that some of the black women in her community are too preoccupied with their attempts to imitate the models, thereby giving in to society’s ideal of feminine beauty/standards. She refers to this group of individuals as the “Black Bourgeois” and concludes her commentary by reminding them that she knows what they are really about. . . .
“‘Indeed’ they swear, ‘that’s what I’ll wear
When I go country-clubbing’
I’d remind them please, look at those knees
you got a Miss Ann’s scrubbing.”2
Each student should be able to pick up a certain tone of voice from the poem and, from their interpretation, create a sequence of movement with the same tone of voice coming through in their movements. The students should all recite the poem aloud, each using only their voices for expression and keeping the body mannerisms to a minimum. Then the students should form small groups and begin creating dance movements. Each group will present its choreography for the poem.
After allowing students to work through and present their choreography, make notes of the various perceptions. The teacher should then read the poem aloud once more and show his/her movement for the student feedback. It is in the feedback session that the teacher should make clear the sarcastic yet humorous tone of the poem and the importance of the dance movements choreographed to mimic this tone. With this, the teacher may now wish to begin experimenting with the students on the comical side of the dance arts. Remember, ballet began with court jesters performing comical mimes for the majesty.
The second poem is “Caged Bird”. This piece of work by Ms. Angelou is very dear to me because my mother would read it to me when I was a little girl. It was one of my favorite poems then, and it remains one of my favorites now. In “Caged Bird”, Ms. Angelou tells a short story of sorts about two kinds of birds—one “free,” and the other “caged”—and the differences in how they behave, think, and sing. . . . “A free bird leaps . . . . and dares to claim the sky”, but the caged bird “stalks down his narrow cage . . . . for the caged bird sings of freedom.”3 The poem in its entirety is definitely one of the most beautifully potent literary works that has ever been written. I must admit—with a smile, that this is of course my very biased opinion.
Here, students should form two groups—one representing the “free bird”, the other the “caged bird”. Students should be instructed to decide on a form of musical accompaniment and to choose a specific color to represent each group. Students will choreograph movements to be presented in the following class session. It is in this following session that students will present choreography for “Caged Bird” with chosen musical accompaniment and colors (for costume/dancewear) representing the “free bird” and the “caged bird”.
Use this exercise to prepare students for lyrical dance. Familiarize students with dances based on themes; ie. “Swan Lake”, “West Side Story”, etc. The musical accompaniment and color selections chosen by the students’ groups may differ from that of the teacher, therefore, the teacher should share his/her selections and movement interpretations for the following class session(s). The teacher may wish to use the poem strictly as a student project. Either way, you may find this to be more than a two-day assignment. “Caged Bird” is the type of poem on which a small ballet can be choreographed. The teacher should expand on the exercises done in class when considering the mood and movements for the dance. The teacher may have already created variations for the poem and may wish to teach the students his/her version, although at some point in time, the teacher may find it a satisfactory experience to use some of the students’ ideas for performance. This allows the students to grow and gain confidence in their performance skills. The actual ballet does not have to carry the title of the poem, but it should be noted that you are using this poem as the inspiration for your ballet.
A. Re-staging Ballets
There is a large array of dance pieces on film which may be used for the purposes of re-staging; ie. “Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello”, “West Side Story”, “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “The Nutcracker”, “Firebird”, “Swan Lake”, etc. I have provided a film/video bibliography at the end of the unit which teachers may find helpful. I recommend that re-staging be done by teachers with students of advanced technique/discipline.
B. Creating Original Works
The traditional fairytale ballets which have been staged and performed for years, some dating back to the 1800’s, may be used as inspirations for new works. It is interesting to see up-dated versions in order to understand and appreciate where the dance has come from as well as the direction in which it is going. As cinema is used as a medium to re-establish the older cinematic works, so should dance be for the traditional tales.
In this part of the lesson, the comedy/tragedy aspect can really be tested and played with through projects and/or sessions, and dance production works. Consider approaching dance from this point of view. Students may be surprised to find themselves viewing Alfred Hitchcock films for classwork and/or homework for the purposes of creating dance pieces.
Even the prospect of studying characters from Hitchcock films inorder to portray them in a dance production, based on or inspired by Hitchcock mysteries. Something to the effect of “A Hitchcock Mystery Concert”. Teachers, you can take this project anywhere you like. This lesson is about fun . . . . challenge . . . . and more fun!
Students should first view Shakespearean literature and film with which they are already familiar. Some of the works by Shakespeare that are introduced and/or studied in English/lit. classes most often are: “Romeo and Juliet”, “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”, and “Hamlet”. Students should discuss the dilemnas within the chosen literature/film (guidance from the teacher will be needed therefore the entire class should participate in the discussion as an unit, as opposed to breaking up into smaller/separate groups). once all of the students are comfortable with their understanding of the dilemna and the roles of the various characters, the teacher may wish to form groups of families and/or characters.
Once the students have chosen a Shakespearean work with which they are familiar, the teacher should make note of how the students grasp the basis of the literature/film (you may wish to use both) and its characters. But as opposed to using one of the most familiar works, the teacher should introduce the students to “Henry VI” or “Much Ado About Nothing” for prospective dance selections. For instance, “Much Ado About Nothing” has many aspects that would inspire both the comical and dramatic sides of movement. The students could relate to the themes of the soldiers coming home from war and the courting scenes that lead to the impending marriage ceremony. All the while, there are the deceitful characters who wish to case chaos for the main characters and disrupt the marriage, thereby threatening to destroy the lives (literally) of the parties involved, and so on. The teacher would no doubt find that this selection would capture the students interest. The play and film are wonderful and are a must-read and must-see.
The students may find working on choreography for Hitchcock films to be a great deal of fun. As the saying goes, “everyone enjoys a little mystery”, or something like that! Take a film like Notorious, where there is a spy theme, a romance between the male and female leads (played by Carey Grant and Ingrid Bergman), and the party scene—which would make a lovely dance segment. To see choreography for both William Shakespeare and Alfred Hitchcock’s works performed by dancers of varying ethnic persuasions would be a lovely sight.
The teacher and students should read the autobiography and view the film for The Josephine Baker Story. Ms. Baker was a black dancer, more famous abroad (especially in France) than in the United States, who struggled constantly for her status as an artist. She is mostly remembered as an exotic dancer (in that she was considered uniquely different for her times), but in truth, her life was not only that of a dancer but of a true humanitarian. Ms. Baker’s adoption of more than ten children of different nationalities made as many news headlines as her dance performances, as did the fact that she left this world as poor (monetarily) as she had entered it. Her life story is truly an inspirational one which the students are sure to appreciate.
The teacher should select that student/dancer who can truly bring to life the character of Ms. Joesphine Baker. Because you are dealing with the life of a real woman, the role should be danced with a sense of accuracy. The teacher and student should stay true to the details, as should all of the supporting dancers’ characters. The teacher may find that more than one student is capable of dancing the lead and therefore, should introduce exchanging soloists for performances and have dancers understudy one another. Understudying dance roles is important with any group because there is no guarantee that a particular dancer will be available for every performance.
The teacher may find it necessary to cast extras (nondancers) when choreographing a dance for an epic picture, such as Cry Freedom, which deals with the struggle of the South Africans’ fight against apartheid and victimization at the hands of the established militia. The film is very powerful, as is the subject matter. Art teachers/students tend to work well together and collaboration between the various art departments would be a definite plus for the success of this production. Every teacher and student involved in the collaboration should view the film and discuss it in their separate classes and again as a team unit. The dance teacher should arrange for the dance students to team with theater students in groups of ten to twelve (with each number from each department being equal). Each group of students will aid one another with certain skills. For example, the drama students in a group may need to show how they would deliver a particular scene, and vice-versa, the dance students will guide the students who are to be extras on how to handle movement in a set pattern; though the extras may not be “dancing”, they will have to move on stage in a choreographed pattern.
The students will need close supervision/guidance in the beginning, so the teacher may find it necessary to ask assistance of another dance teacher and one or two theater teachers. The dance teacher should also discuss the possibility of the instrumental and vocal music departments’ participation with the teachers of those two areas. The soundtrack for Cry Freedom is excellent and would provide the music departments with an exciting and challenging project. The same holds true for the dance teacher when looking into the prospect of using the visual arts department for stage setting and props. Most arts high schools have more than two teachers per department, therefore, the dance teacher should anticipate requesting only one teacher from theater to guide the drama factor, one instrumental and chorus teacher for the music factor, so on and so forth.
Teachers and students will have an opportunity to note students’ progress at different intervals throughout the year, or at the completion of the academic/arts school year—both as individuals and as a student ensemble. They will be given the opportunity to voice constructive criticism and/or observations of classes, workshops, and performances. Teacher may wish to present class documentation to school administration for purposes of touring lectures and/or demonstrations. The teacher should create a class or school dance department vault for keep-sake, as well as for sharing with the next “generation” of students of the dance arts.
With the six variations for possible lesson plans concluded, I would like to share with you one of the production goals I have set for my students for the 1995-1996 school term. I am an avid reader and have often considered the challenge of developing an author’s literary work(s) into a dance series or ballet. Well, I’ve decided that I will do my first full ballet based on Sula by Toni Morrison, using the students I teach at the Coop. as well as a few professional dancers. The ballet will not be a complete and literal adaptation of Sula, but will be inspired by the story with emphasis on the main characters and events I feel I can work with to create this ballet. Another dance teacher might choose the story of Sula and create a ballet with a totally different perspective. It is my hope that the ballet will move the audience(s) to read the book. I have read that there will possibly be a movie made for Ms. Morrison’s work within the next year or so. I doubt that the movie will be in the theater this year when I begin the ballet, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing how the literature will come across on film. When the movie hits theaters, I will view it myself and again with my students, hopefully the same dancers with which I am creating the ballet. Nevertheless, I am providing the list of characters (and summaries) for whom I am going to choreograph variations. Proceeding this will be my prelude segments to the ballet and the beginning of Act I.
I have also chosen a few poems by the ever-so-talented poet/author, Ms. Maya Angelou. The poems will be used for voice-over purposes in certain scenes. I am making note of this now so that you are aware when you come across one of the poems, that there is an unseen person’s voice heard reciting the poem while a character acts out or dances his/her role on stage. I will also be using a narrator in the form of a folks woman of the Bottom (the place in Medallion, Ohio where the story takes place), who will deliver the opening narration for Sula to the audience. I’ve not yet decided whether or not the narrator will be visible the audience or just heard during Act I.
Stage setting and lighting makes all the difference for any stage production. There are independent technicians and set designers as well as those who work for the hall, theater, or auditorium which you are renting. Because this ballet is a special project for me, I will be seeking the services of both an independent technician and set designer to head the staging responsibilities and give me their professional advice on which of my specifications are possible, etc. I will also include some of the technical ideas I am considering for the prelude segments and the beginning of Act I. The complete ballet will consist of three to four acts. The musical accompaniment for the prelude dances will be by the phenomenal singer, Ms. Nina Simone. I was careful to select the pieces of her works which I feel encompass the aura of the main characters for whom I am choreographing the ballet.
Annotative list of characters (of focus)
Eva Peace—mother of Hannah and grandmother of Sula.
Hannah Peace—The eldest daughter of Eva and Sula’s mother who is constantly in need of a man’s attention.
Shadrack—a war veteran and the “crazy” drunkard of the Bottom who founded the National Suicide Day.
Helene Wright—an uppity woman from New Orleans with bad memories of southern oppression, the mother of Nei.
(young) Sula—a girl uncertain of her mother’s love, a loner on a mysterious quest.
(young) Nei—Helene’s only child who is a loner and becomes the sole friend of Sula.
the Deweys—three orphaned boys taken in by Ms. Eva and given the same name, thereby adopting the same personae even though the boys look completely different.
Tar Baby—once handsome, fair-skinned (almost white) drunk who boards at the home of Ms. Eva and is the first to join Shadrack on Suicide Day.
“Ajax” (A. Jacks)—”twenty-year-old pool haunt of sinister beauty” who teaches (adult) Sula about passion and possession.
Jude Green—husband of Nei who abandons her and the children following his affair with Sula.
(adult) Nei—still Sula’s lone friend who in the end concludes that she does not regret her friendship with the Bottom’s most peculiar woman.
(adult) Sula—a woman who developed her own definition of love and life, who lived by her own rules; and whose death brought relief to the woman of the Bottom.
Brief summaries of major characters,:
A World War I veteran, who after being discharged from a veteran’s psychiatric hospital, returns to the Bottom in 1919. The town folk regarded him as a crazy drunk with wild eyes and long, matted hair. Shadrack began National Suicide Day on January 3, 1920. He would walk through the Bottom every third day of each new year with his cowbell and hangman’s rope and his message for the people—”kill themselves or each other”.4
The daughter of a Creole whore who was raised by her strict grandmother, Cecile, in New Orleans. When Cecile’s greatnephew, Wiley Wright (from a place called the Bottom) proposed marriage on a visit with his great-aunt, Helene saw this as an opportunity to escape and free herself from the fear of her mother’s “wild blood”. After nine years of marriage and life in the Bottom, she gave birth to her only child—a daughter whom she named Nel. Helene was considered a respectable, church-going woman in the Bottom.
A lonely child raised by her mother with a very stern hand. Her every move was monitored and her imagination dimmed by a mother who controlled both her and her father with a polite manipulation. While studying her face in the mirror one night she decided, “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me . . . . Oh, Jesus, make me wonderful.”5
Ms. Eva Peace:
The wise one-legged matron of the Bottom. The town folk never asked her directly how she lost her leg, but there were rumors that she’d stuck it under a train for a pay-off, or, that she’d sold it for $10,000 to a hospital. The folks of the Bottom always had something to gossip about when it came to Ms. Eva and the Peace Family—like the night when, after many efforts to save Plum from the grips of drug addiction, Eva Peace burned her only son to death while he slept.
Unlike her mother who was quick to set men in their place, Hannah was always willing to please men and made them feel as though their appeasement was the only thing that mattered. She would give in to any man whether married or not, and yet the men never talked ill of her. . . .” She was unquestionably a kind and generous woman and that, coupled with her extraordinary beauty and funky elegance of manner, made them defend her and protect her from any vitriol that newcomers or their wives might spill.”6 The “good” women, on the other hand, were bewildered and would comment, “One thing I can’t stand is a nasty woman.”7
The only child of Hannah, raised in a household in constant disarray with people coming in and out at all times and things scattered about. She’d spend much of her youth day-dreaming and in need of a confidant.
Toni Morrison gives such detail and care to all of her characters in Sula, yet the strongest focus and the basis of the story is the friendship between the characters of Sula and Nel, which spanned eighteen years. Ms. Morrison writes of the friendship—”Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he was not), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”8 They were both thin twelve-year-olds in 1922 when they befriended one another. The friendship was a potent one, with Nel being the strong yet dependent character/friend while Sula was the moody independent.
Music selections for Prelude segments
“Strange fruit”; “Black is the colour of my true love’s hair”;
“Don’t explain”; “Tell me more and more and then some”;
“I put a spell on you”; “Chilly winds don’t blow”;
“Mood indigo”; and “Feeling good”
“Strange fruit” will be performed by the characters of Ms. Eva Peace, Hannah Peace, Shadrack, Helene Wright, Ajax, Nel, and Sula (each dancer spotlighted). “Black is the clour of my true lovels hair” will be a reminiscence piece danced by a male and female representing the young Eva Peace with her ex-husband (and father of her children), Boy Boy. “Don’t explain” will be danced by the Hannah Peace character. “Tell me more and more and then some” will be danced by the (adult) Sula. “I put a spell on you” will be danced by the (adult) Sula and Ajax characters. “Chilly winds don’t blow” will be danced by the character of Helene Wright. “Mood indigo” will feature the characters of Shadrack, Hannah, Helene, Nel, and Sula. The character of Ajax will end the prelude segment with “Feeling good”.
Technical cues/notes: stage is dark with “high” spotlight and purple scrim (a cotton or linen fabric used as a set backdrop for stage) for lst dance; stage lights are deep amber with green scrim for 2nd dance; lights are blue with yellow scrim for 3rd dance; lights are blue/red and deep yellow with deep blue scrim for 4th dance; lights are red with bright wing (side) lights and a deep green/jade scrim, also using dry ice machine to create smoke effect for 5th dance; lights are green and amber with deep red scrim for 6th dance; all stage lights are “up” with deep blue scrim for 7th dance; finally, for 8th dance, stage lights are “down” (out) and dancer(s) is spotlighted then all stage lights go “up” with deep purple scrim.
Time factor: 25 minutes.
The narrator will either appear on stage or just the voice will be heard, following the prelude segment, with the opening narration:
“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.”9
The scene on stage for the opening narrative silhouettes the full cast of dancers portraying the inhabitants for this once existent neighborhood called the Bottom. There are children playing, elder folks joking and cooking, women gossiping while cleaning, a group of men hanging out, and a congregation of churchgoers chatting all in different areas of the stage. This will be a busy scene and will provide the audience with visual imagery with which to relate to the narrative—but not so much that they do not hear the words of the narrator. The only sounds that are audible are the children’s giggles, the women’s various remarks, the men’s laughter, and the congregation’s exclamations of ‘Praise the Lord’, and the like; all of this underneath the music for narration and the narrator’s voice. The scene fades out as the narration ends and the character of Shadrack appears alone on stage. He begins his sol to the poem (delivered with musical accompaniment), “We Saw Beyond Our Seeming”.
The poem begins—”We saw beyond our seeming. . . . . . These days of bloodied screaming”, and ends with the sentiment “And now of souls lie broken. . . . . . Dry tablets without token.”11
From here, the ballet for Sula will be on its way. I pray for a successful production! It was my intention in writing this curriculum unit, to share with other dance teachers ideas for lesson plans, activities, and goals with which to excite, encourage, and grab the interest of the teachers and their students. It is my hope that I have done so.
Materials (for classroom use)
for dance composition: writing utensils; binded notebooks (for journals); spiral note pad (for notes and written homework); tape recorder; VCR
for dance movement / choreography: tape recorder; ballet barre(s); portable mirror(s)—if possible; dance wear (teacher’s specifications); costume closet; camera(s) / video equipment (if applicable)
Breitman, George; Porter, Herman; Smith, Baxter. The Assassition of Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder Press, Inc., 1976. It is a must-read for anyone considering choreographing a piece based on the life of Malcolm X.
Brofsky, Howard; Bamberger, Jeanne Shapiro. The Art of Listening: Developing Musical Perception. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1969. For the teacher interested in the fundamentals of harmony and rhythm, provides excellent chronology.
Cohan, Robert. The Dance Workshop. London, Gaia Books Ltd., 1986. Useful book for dance exercises and combination examples.
Dart, Thurston. The Interpretation of Music. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1963. Provides detailed literature and illustrations for those teachers interested in music compositions.
Esquirel, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. New York: Bantom Doubleday Dell Publishing Grouo, Inc. (English translation), 1992. For those teachers who are considering creating ballets, this is an excellent choice.
Haley, Alex. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. United States: Ballantine Books, 1964-165. This book is the result of the collaboration of Malcolm X and Mr. Haley, for teachers considering an autobiographical tribute through dance.
Jacob, Ellen. Dancing. New York: Variety Arts, 1981,1993. Wonderful edition which is ideal for classroom use.
Jamison, Judith. Dancing Spirit. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Enjoyable reading for dance teachers, students, and novices.
Martins, John. To Dance. United States: Ganis and Harris, 1963,1970. Great account of the dancer’s discipline, maintenance, and routines.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973. Without a doubt, powerful reading and imagery; excellent selections for creating a ballet production.
Note: This is also the author’s bibliography.
2. Dancing by Ellen Jacob
3. Dancing Spirit by Judith Jamison
4. To Dance by John Martins
Note: Teachers must decide on additional literature for students according to the lessons/activities teachers select.
39/The Thirty-Nine Steps—1935—Hitchcock, Alfred
42nd Street—1933—Bacon, Lloyd
Age of Innocence, The—1993—Scorcese, Martin
Ailey, Alvin (Evening w/ Amer. Dance Theatre)—1986—Grim, Thomas
All That Jazz—1979—Fosse, Bob
Cotton Club, The—1984—Coppolla, Francis Ford
Cry Freedom—1987—Attenborough, Richard
Hamlet (BBC)—1980—(Great Britain)
Hamlet (Zeffirelli)—1991—Zeffirelli, Franco
Henry V (BBC)—1980—Giles, David
Josephine Baker Story, The—1991—Gibson, Brian
Malcolm X—1992—Lee, Spike
Phantom of the Opera, The—1925—Julian, Rupert
Romeo and Juliet (Thames Television)—1988—Kemp-Welch, Joan
Study in Choreography. . .—1945—Deren,Maya Camera w/ Deren Exp. Films
West Side Story—1961—Wise, Robert/Robbins, Jerome
Wiz, The—1978—Lumet, Sidney
Contents of 1995 Volume II | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute