Philosophy of Creating Work and Teaching

Through dance, I seek what Isaiah Berlin refers to as an awareness of the deep currents - a comprehension of the connection between all things, an awareness of the present as well as that which transcends time and space. The paths along this quest are numerous (each culture and each time period has their own variant of the theme). To embrace all of these approaches is to embrace nothing less than our humanity, our common journey on this planet of existence. Within this essay, I briefly outline my orientation toward dance in general and my work in particular. While this involves a discussion of the past and present, it also involves a discussion of the future.

The Muse

As conceived, my work draws inspiration from numerous sources.

First, I draw from the most basic and ultimate instrument - the human body. This lies at the core of our existence and it has done so since the birth of humanity, predating even speech as a means of expression.

Second, I draw from history. I feel that it is very important to revisit the dances and dancers of the past because so many beautiful pieces have already been created and so many beautiful people have danced them. Toward this end, I have studied and danced numerous masterworks to add to my repertoire from choreographers such as Jose Limon, Donald McKayle, Eleo Pomare and I have danced in many modern dance classics during my professional dancing career like Kathrine Dunham, Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, Merce Cunningham and Dianne McIntyre and Barbara Garder. Through my work I thus attempt to not only create but preserve.

Third, drawing upon my multi-cultural background, as a choreographer, I have been always interested in how distinct cultures combine. This interest explains my fascination with specific geographic locales such as the Mediterranean, which brings together Africa, Asia and Europe (where my family comes from) and United States, which brings together individuals from all around the world. This interest explains many of the choices that I made in my professional career as a dancer when I sought to work with specific companies. For example, Dance Butter Tokyo was a dance theatre company combining Japanese Butoh with German Dance Theatre and Mark Headley fused Afro Caribbean with American Modern Dance. These were amazing personal, educational and performing experiences. This interest also explains my dance education. While deeply rooted in American Modern dance - both modern as well as older forms, I am simultaneously interested in dance traditions from around the world (e.g., Japanese Butoh Dance, Turkish Folkdance, Middle Eastern Dance and West African Dance).

Fourth, I draw upon ancient myths but also upon modern theatre traditions, cinematic techniques, poetry as well as physical and psychological theories. Such an orientation is crucial because I have always felt that one can only approach and understand the movements of the human body by evaluating it in relationship to its surroundings (e.g., sound, time, objects, other bodies, costumes, literature and so forth).

The Content

What do I attempt to communicate within my work? The general themes I explore include multiculturalism, identity (formation and transformation), globalization, migration, time and space. For example, who are we and who are they, how does where one comes from influence who they are and who they become, how does our use of time and space influence who we are and how we are perceived, and what happens to our identity as the world becomes more connected with greater numbers of individuals? I have not addressed all these issues at once. Indeed, the relative importance of the themes has varied over time. For example, when I was first as an independent choreographer in 2001, I tended to emphasize identity formation as well as time and space. As the years progressed, however, I began to emphasize multiculturalism, globalization and migration combined with the other topics. At the same time, I began to parse out space and time individually in an effort to understand how we use and are used by these elements.

The Process

My work does not just draw upon diverse art forms but it also incorporates them directly into the work itself: e.g., music, videography, film and poetry. For example, in one my most frequently shown works Echoes of Hope for Those Still on the Ground, I utilize a poem about passing through stages of life by Peter Handke - which is projected on a scrim. Within the same piece, I use music from Jurgen Kneiper as well as Sheila Chandra and very complex lighting to establish distinct looks for the various segments of the piece. Diverse objects create the final element that establishes the identity of the different sections. The multi-layered nature of the dance is an important signature of my work.

The Form

Although I have created several group works over the last five years, to date I have been largely engaged in creating solo works. There are several reasons for this. As conceived and executed, solo dance is the form of dance that is most closely related to what Modern dance was supposed to be. Essentially, Modern dance represents the voice of the individual and personal freedom. This is precisely why many of the pioneers of the field (such as Isadora Duncan and Mary Wigman) started as solo dancers. It is in solitude where one can search deeply, it is in solitude where one gets to see their vision, and it is in solitude where one develops their individual voice. In addition to this, I engaged in solo works because they were the most challenging. Within solos, one cannot use canon, spatial pattern or mirroring; indeed, within this kind of dance, one has to be present at all times, they have to fill the stage with the same energy of ten dancers, the movements need to be crystal clear and one has to create an internal as well as external story. Once these have been dealt with competently, I believe that there is nothing more rewarding for an artist.

Philosophy of Teaching

As an artist and performer, I am very passionate and always thrive for excellence. This has become infused into my approach of teaching and learning. At its root, teaching dance is an extremely intimate as well as complex art form in and of itself. It involves connecting with your student on multiple levels: intellectually, physically, spiritually and at a level beyond words and experience. Since I attempt to address all of these dimensions, my approach to teaching is multifaceted.

First, as a teacher, I play many roles. For example, in this capacity, I guide, instruct, hear, feel, intuit, dispel, correct, inspire and counsel. Most important, however, I seek to create opportunities for students to externalize and make sense of their gifts. Emile Zola once said: the artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work. Acknowledging this, I believe that the teacher helps the dance student discover her/his own strengths/difficulties and use these in a way that promotes change and development as dancers, artists, citizens and humans.

Second, although I play several roles in the classroom, I view teaching and learning as a reciprocal partnership where everyone involved enlightens others as well as gain new insights. It should be clear: I do not see my role as all-knowing and students as only-listeners. Essentially, the characteristics associated with teaching and learning parallel the dynamics intrinsic to a dance between two partners. For example, in the traditional style of teaching, one leads and the other follows. This is identified when the teacher lectures and students take notes. In contrast, my teaching style and conceptualization of learning is best thought of as an interaction between two partners. Here, each actor has their own knowledge, abilities, and artistic expression; together the pair learns from one another and becomes something new - both individually and collectively.

Finally, coming from a multi-cultural background and having studied multiple dance techniques, I can give my students a broad perspective on dance and dance technique. Some artists seem to be interested in analyzing the differences between different cultures and dance traditions. I am interested in comparing the similarities - to take threads of thought that come from different techniques and weaving them together into my own patterns. One culture's way of expressing something is as valid as anothers. I am fortunate to live in a time, when walls are literally falling down and dances from around the world are available to me - seeing their means of expression enriches my own as well as informs my students and connects them to a larger community.