In The Beginning

November 28, 2001

This summer, a handful of students attending summer intensives around the country will be sharing their experiences with
Pointe. Here, Andrea Thompson recounts her first few days at San Francisco Dance Conservatory.


“There will be an orientation meeting at 8:15am on the first day.” After that…show up for class at 9, leave at 6. That’s all we need to know as far as the schedule.


The general pattern seems to be a (three hour) ballet class every morning, followed by a chunk of hours with choreographer Alex Ketley and a chunk of hours with former LINES dancer Christian Burns. Summer Lee Rhatigan, the director of the Conservatory, teaches ballet with a commanding presence. Hers is the most challenging and inspiring class I’ve ever encountered, and even in my third time around doing the summer program it still demands just as much from me as it did on my first day two years ago, if not exponentially more. Chiharu Shibata is the other main ballet teacher for our group, and with formidable bluntness and dry wit she takes us through ballet classes that leave our inner thighs burning with effort.


Alex Ketley can oftentimes be found choreographing in a corner of the room with his headphones in while we’re taking ballet. But he’s not mundanely dreaming up sets and lighting designs, calmly coming up with spacial patterns and costume ideas. Instead he’s snarling, biting and gesturing frantically. It’s not uncommon to catch a middle finger thrown up, or a hand in the mouth, or fingers being blown away from the face. The madness Alex is scheming gleefully in the mornings will come into play later on in the day. Then there is Christian Burns, one of the most absolutely natural and skilled improvisers I’ve ever laid eyes on, let alone learned from. His gentle, encouraging tone and sense of humor allow the studio walls to fade away into an alternate dimension where judgment, both internal and external, seems to have never existed.

Without a physical schedule posted anywhere, these afternoon chunks aren’t classified as “rehearsal,” or “class.” They’re just time provided to work on improving yourself for your own benefit, and if you wind up performing the result, fantastic! If not, you have the experience of all the investigation you’ve done to provide you with new ideas and information. For instance, with Alex, we immediately begin learning a phrase. And then another. And then another. And then a permutation of the first. And then we link them all together and do them to rap music, and then to an Arvo Part mashup. The next day we add more, and review the phrases we already have. But he also has us watch a partner improvise off of the phrasework, provide feedback and watch them try it again. No word as to whether we should remember every phrase for the piece he will eventually make on us, but nonetheless right off the bat we’re asked to have a thoughtful and critical eye on each other, which I find useful as a tool for making changes in myself. What I look for in other dancers are the qualities I would like to have for myself, and pointing those out right away helps me focus my own work in the direction I find most appealing and interesting to explore. 

With Christian, we work on instantaneous interpretation and ownership of movement. He improvises, we watch, and then we interpret and piece together in groups what we remember seeing. The groups come up with phrases that are quite drastically different from each other (and probably the original choreography as well), but have similar elements of particularly memorable moments of Christian’s improvisation. It’s a challenging task to simultaneously memorize movement, physicalize the memory, and flesh out the uncertain tidbits, but great for pointing out weaknesses in any of those skills. Our time with Christian is  where we do most of our improvising, whether it be across the floor with a partner, independently in a large group, relating to a large group, or with a partner through a crowd. The different situations create unique environments, and with each environment a different sensitivity for relating to others is necessary. Another thing we do with Christian is climb on each other—a lot. My favorite of these contact improvisation exercises is one in which my eyes are closed, and I have a group of 7 or so people who are providing platforms for me to stand on, crawl under, hang on to, push off of, etc. They are in almost constant motion, so I have an ever-shifting jungle gym to play on. This one is a great ice-breaker, too—lots of “glad my butt is such a good stepping stone,” and “I was lying on your whatnow?” All in good fun though, and it’s great to be in a group of people who aren’t afraid of contact and who aren’t afraid to take chances. We have a really strong class of 27 dancers who are hard-working, interested, and daring. I can’t wait to see how far we get in six weeks.


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