Catherine's Learning Journal

Lessons from an afternoon at the ballet

Ballet shoes

A friend and I have season tickets for the Pennsylvania Ballet, an extravagance that we dearly enjoy. We’ve also been attending the “Prelude” program, where a member of the company gives a brief talk and Q&A just prior to the performance. This past Sunday, we were thrilled that our speaker was Matthew Neenan, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence, whose new piece, Archiva, was part of the program. It was fascinating to hear him talk about his creative process. About halfway through the Prelude, I started taking notes, because it struck me that so much of what he was saying applies to the work we do in supporting learning.

One choreographer’s process

Mr. Neenan talked about having a repertoire of classical movements and steps from which to draw, but then adding his own twists to these. It’s important to have that common language as part of your foundation, he explained; everyone knows what you are talking about and how to execute those movements. But then he went on to comment that he enjoys breaking the rules, making a thing of beauty out of movements that ballet masters would tell you are wrong and ugly.

The inspiration for the piece being performed that afternoon was an idea he’d had in the back of his mind for years – to use the entire stage of the Academy of Music as a backdrop – including the brick back wall, big steel doors and undisguised stage wings. It’s a fantastic space, huge, with a lot of character. He said that although he always thought that could be fun, he couldn’t do it just because of that – he needed a reason for that particular staging to make sense.

He also wanted to use this commission as an opportunity to specifically choreograph for Amy Aldridge, one of the principal dancers. They worked together on ideas and laid foundations that Neenan could build from to stage an entire ballet piece. The ballet was put together through several collaborations – with Amy Aldridge, other experienced dancers, the composer (Neenan had been looking for a chance to work with composer Troy Herion as well), and the costume designer (an excuse to repurpose costumes from the Pennsylvania Ballet’s many seasons of shows). What came together was a dream-like sequence that called to mind an experienced dancer reflecting back on her roles and partners – and a great excuse to use the open stage as set, to showcase the more experienced dancers, to choreograph in silence and then ask the composer to craft music for the dance, and to make some inspired wardrobe choices.

The design and facilitation ballet

Listening to Mr. Neenan speak, I saw so many parallels to our work in designing and facilitating learning. We, too, can draw from a repertoire of specific activities, but we often have the most success when we give those a little twist or break away completely and invent something new that is risky but oddly beautiful. We build a program from arranging a flow of traditional techniques and new ideas that seem just perfect for our purposes. We, too, sometimes discover an approach or tool that we are just itching to use, but we have to wait for the right purpose to come along so that it can be used in a way to take advantage of its characteristics and affordances. Our collaborations are something of a ballet as well. We may design for the particular strengths and needs of a learner group, but we stand ready to adjust to their suggestions and to incorporate emerging ideas as we work together.

Of course, at some point, the choreography is set and the dancers commit the movement to memory so they can perform it effortlessly. This, perhaps, is where the analogy breaks down.

In our world, we aren’t working with the same dancers every day – we can’t assume that the steps we’ve choreographed will work for every troupe of learners we have together in a class. If we try to force the same activities on a different group, we may not get the same results. We need to allow for continued collaboration, emergence, and improvisation every time we repeat a course for a new cadre of students.

I think this is where we need to be able to rely on the foundational repertoire of learning activities that can be counted on to achieve set purposes. We have to know which rules can be broken and how to make slight adjustments that work better for the learners in the room. We need to have new techniques ready for just the right moment. We need to focus on purpose and facilitate to that end. This kind of in-the-moment choreographic flexibility is one of the deep skills demonstrated by great teachers.

Postlude

I always thought that a choreographer mapped out steps in an empty studio in front of a mirror, letting the music, the mood, and the muse dictate the flow of movement. And it may be that way for some pieces. But it was enlightening to hear about a more inspired and collaborative approach, one that allows for emergence and improvisation. Mr. Neenan’s talk got me thinking about how important it is for me to get out of my office (and out of my own head) while designing, and how critical it is to continue to be responsive to the mood and the muse as a course plays out.

My thanks to Matthew Neenan for prompting these reflections, and for the many times I have been awed by his choreography for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

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