Mark Morris Dance Group - Contemporary training techniques

Duration: 30:23

Gather insights into the contemporary training techniques used by the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Teaching artists: Leslie Garrison and Billy Smith
Student dancers: NSW Public Schools Dance Ensembles, Northern Beaches Secondary College, Mackellar Girls Campus and Westfield Sports High School

MMDG 1 Contemporary training techniques (DOCX 115.35 KB)

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Transcript – Mark Morris Dance Group - Contemporary training techniques

[general chatter]

[piano music playing]

MANAGER: Really happy to have you here in the Opera House. You are our guests and I'm going to hand you over to these amazing dancers. I mean, you get to meet them today. If you have a question, probably someone else has the question as well. So don't feel shy.

And then you get to see the show tonight. So you get to go on the full journey and see how these guys have made a show and created a show and executed it. So over to you guys have a great day.


BILLY SMITH: Thank you.

[piano playing 'Saving All My Love for You']

LESLEY GARRISON: I'm Lesley Garrison. I grew up in Belleville, Illinois. I started dancing with the Mark Morris Dance Group full-time 4 years ago, but I did a lot of supplemental work. So I've been doing Mark's work for a really long time, but in the company full-time for 4 years.

You never really know who's going to show up in class, what their level is, how they're going to respond to you. You have to always be able to adjust. I guess my biggest goal is to try to give everything-- as much of what I've learned as a performer.

So we're just going to go through sort of a basic modern class. This would be something that we would possibly do to get ready for our performance day. We usually train in ballet every day. But we also study contemporary and modern dance. So we're going to do some modern.

So we're going to start on the floor, feet together, knees falling comfortably apart. You want to make sure you're sitting up straight. You don't want a curve in the lower back. So right away, find, lengthen your spine, and this is your neutral home-base position.

So we're going to take our arm up and over to the right, 1, soften, forward, and rolling, 2, switching that arm, 3, keeping the pelvis on the floor, curve to the other side. And over and round, and opening, and elbow to hip from here. We close the knees together, scoop the arms, curve and twist, curve.

So we're threading the arm between our hand and our hip. And then we reach out high on the diagonal, again, carve and reach, and carve. This time, we open the leg. Our torso stays low. We swipe forward, and then we roll up to the vertical to go to the other side.

Over and rounding the spine, switching the arm, opening that shoulder up, curve. And over, good. Curving the back, sweeping the arm, and elbow to hip, knee to knee, and reach. Knee to knee, and reach.

Third time, torso stays down, open the knee. This time, we roll all the way. We come to the centre, we roll all the way to the floor on your back. From here, we're just going to do some leg swings.

You might want to sit up for a second to see this. Coming to this neutral position, each time-- hips, knees, ankles. Our knees fall to the right first, 1, and 2. Just 4 of these. Simple, 3. And 4, keeping your foot connected to the ground, heavy knees as your legs falls to the side.

Then our arm comes up and over, we curl into a ball. We expand, lengthening the back of your body, curl into a ball. And then opening up to that neutral position to go to the other side, and centre.

And we do 3, to neutral. Do you see how my feet are staying in contact with the floor? Arm comes up and around as I engage my abdomen to curve into a ball, lengthening, bouncing on your side, like a big bow, curve to a ball, open up.

Then we'll do that whole thing again. 4 legs swings on your back. Ball X, ball open. 4 leg swings on your back. Does that make sense?


LESLEY GARRISON: So we're just going to take our torso up and over to the right. We curve, 1, keep the legs straight. Over, 2. Other side, 3. And 4. 2 counts to the right. Plie this time, soften through the centre, roll up.

So that's just the small curve of the upper back. So we do one whole circle with the leg straight. Right? Opening up the shoulder, 2 counts to go to the right. And then a very small plie, you just drop to the centre. So it's very small upper back. And then lengthen.

As soon as you get here, you're going to roll all the way down, 1, 2, 3, 4, plie for 2, and straighten. For 2, plie, walk out to a plank, 3, 4. Here you want to feel really strong rooted into the palms of your hands. Plie, walk back.

We're just going to slit at the hips. So we want to stay parallel to the floor as we push back, 7. Heels into the ground, lengthen the legs, 8. Plie, 1. Up, 2. This is another high curve. Arms are drooping over something, a very small plie in the legs.

Gather, 3, palms together, reach the fingertips away from the bottom of the spine, all the way up. And then drop one side of your body. As you lengthen the other side up, 6, 7, 8. And then this is just drop to go 1, 2 and 3, 4, 2 counts, to the left, plie centre rolling up.

Right away, roll down. 2, 3, 4, plie. For 2, using all of the time. Plie, walk out to a plank, 3, 4, plie, walk back. 6, heels on the ground, straighten, 8, another plie. Bend, and up. And reach away and fall, fall, fall, 8, end.

So what I'm noticing right away, we've already started with all these side curves. We really want on the side curve to actually move our torso to the side. What I was seeing a little bit was sort of curling in on top of your central axis. So rather than doing that, we want to think of lifting up and moving, actually moving our torso away from our pelvis. So we're actually going somewhere. That's good, come back.

All right, so that was better with the curving to the side. I really saw a difference. Rather than doing something underneath yourself, really take control of the action, really do the action, really move side if it's a side move.

It's easy to fake a lot of things. Right? It's easy to fake a fall. It's easy to fake moving to the side. It's harder and way more exciting to actually do the thing that's asked of you. Right? So keep that in mind.

So you want to grow into it. So you can think about a huge geyser or a puff of air. So you want to give yourself these qualitative things to make it more exciting for you to execute, and definitely more exciting for people who are watching you.

This already is a dance.

[piano playing]

Right? As soon as we step on the floor, it's already a dance. Okay?

BILLY SMITH: 1, 2, 3.

I'm Billy Smith. I've been dancing with Mark Morris for 5 years. I'm originally from Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the States. I started dancing when I was 7 years old.

And my dad actually put me into dance classes because I was a baseball player and he thought it would help me get better at baseball, because he heard football players were taking ballet, and things like that. So he thought it would help me in my baseball training. But I loved dance so much that I stopped playing baseball and continued dancing.

Both things are generous. You have to give all of yourself as a performer to the audience. You have to give all of yourself as a teacher to the students. Knowing how to physically connect with an actual person and have a genuine interaction with them is probably what our company is all about.


BILLY SMITH: When it comes down to it.


BILLY SMITH: So in second position, we're going to curve right, 2, 3, centre. And a left and up, plie. And stretch, plie, and stretch, plie. Lift the heels, and down. And up, turn parallel forward. 6, come up, turn out. 8, really use the rotators there.

1, and 2. Turn, 3. 4, plie. 2, centre. 2, left for 2. Up for 2.

From here, you're going to circle the left hand around. And you actually want to try to fall back. So you're going behind your pelvis as you come around and forward. And that's the whole thing. And then we'll go to the left. So let's mark the left.

(singing) Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, and a demi. Up and a demi. Up, plie, lift the heels. Down and up, stretch forward. 6, 7, turn out, 8. And a 1, 2, 3, 4, plie for 2. centre for 2. Right for 2. And stretch for 2. And around, going behind you, 7, 8.

Does this sequence make sense?


BILLY SMITH: Yes? Just a few things. Like Lesley was saying before, you really want to travel out this way and fan your top ribs up to the ceiling. In here, this isn't a pike. You should actually be long in your hips and your pelvis. And this is just a small curve forward. And same thing to the other side, really fan your ribs up.

And then stay square here. And you don't want to change levels when you lift your heels. You want to stay on the same level. So really engage your hamstrings there.

And this turns parallel. And then here you really want to get long in your pelvis here-- boom. So we set that. And then for here, I want you to move through the whole phrase of the music. So move for 2, and twist for 2. So were not hitting these positions, so note that Lesley just gave. So we move for 2, then twist for 2. So you're really filling out the whole phrase.

Great, let's go on to tondues. So from first, we're going to do tondue, plie, flex, plie, tondue, pas de cheval. Then to the side, up, pas de cheval. Then to the back, ba, ba, pas de cheval.

From here, we're going to twist our ribs, and you're going to look all the way back to the scrim back there. And you're going to keep your neck long. So don't collapse like this. You're going to keep your neck long. And look directly backwards. And then we twist to the other side, same thing. And then once more, and then again, 4 times. Bom.

So let's just go over that again.

(singing) Bum, bum, ba, dum, bum, ba, bum, ba da dum, bum ba, dum, bum, ba, bum, bum, ba, bum, ba da dum, bum, bum, bum, ba, dum, bum, ba, bum, ba da dum.

Twisting back, and back, and back, back. From here, we're going to just trot-- front, and side, and back, to in the centre, and side, and front. From here, you're going to shift right and grab the air 4 times, 3, 4. After the forth one, you're going to walk a circle, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, to go left.

So after these 4 grabs, I want you to walk a circle. But I want you to see everything on the horizon as you're walking around. So don't spot where you're going. Just look at everything in the room as you walk.

LESLEY GARRISON: It's harder than you would imagine.

BILLY SMITH: Yeah. So nice, strong focus, seeing everything as you walk around. Remember, don't crane your neck, keep it nice and long.

LESLEY GARRISON: I'm seeing front, side. Back actually looks exactly as the neutral one. Right? So I really want to see-- you're shifting, you're stepping forward with your leg, but you're also-- you're bringing your torso with you. You're actually moving in space. So you go forward, you bring your torso to the side, you go back, shift, shift. And then you go back again. Side, front, shift, shift.

We're going to just try that. Right side, front side back, back side front, and then the left side front, side back. Really pushing off your foot, really moving somewhere. We're in the Sydney Opera House, so move, travel. Right? Scoot down a little bit, actually.

So you get the point. Right? Move, move, move, move, move. Don't indicate it, actually do it. It'll change your dancing. Okay?

[piano playing 'Saving All My Love for You']

I find myself having to give a lot of encouragement to focus and to keep track of things that are said. What tends to happen is that you introduce a concept or an idea and they go, 'Okay', and they do it once. And then you move on and it never happens again.

So especially with this age group, I find there's a lot of reminding. That's why today I was talking a lot to them about how can you figure out how to give yourself these reminders, because then it will just make progressing and keeping track of things and actually being able to move forward way, way easier.

Maybe things are new, it's a scary environment, they're thinking really hard. It's really hard in this kind of situation, especially at that age to feel relaxed. So maybe they're nervous.

BILLY SMITH: Dancers that age are always so eager, too. And it's very hard for them to focus with all of that energy. So it's nice to get them to calm down and really focus.

LESLEY GARRISON: Yeah, and I also think, with this age group, it's really good to simplify things because I find they want to kind of just explode and let themselves just completely release. And I find it a little harder to keep things contained and actually have control and know exactly where you are moving in space, being specific, which is something that we do as a company a lot.

BILLY SMITH: It's better to have to rein someone in than tell them to give you more and more. So--


BILLY SMITH: Right, we're going to do a little degage now. So from first again, we're going to do 7 degages to the side, with the arm slowly port de bras-ing this way. And on 8, you're going to do a passe, so it looks like this. A 1, a 2, a 3, a 4, a 5, 6, passe, then left. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, passe.

We're going to do right again, but just 4. 1, with the arm coming through the centre, then left, 2, 3. From here, you're going to stay in the centre. Everyone, just do this and keep your pelvis. So we're not shifting side to side like this. It's really just centre, like boom.

Your pelvis doesn't move at all. So just to the left, we're going to go 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, 6, 7. So it's just the same arms here, here, then 3, here.

So let's do left. A 1, a 2, a 3, a 4, 5, 6, ba. A 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. A, a 1, 2. A, a 1, 2. A, a 1, kick, 1, kick, and 1, 2, 3, bom. So every time you do these kicks, you're looking out on the diagonal very strongly with a nice long neck.

So the accent for that is, bum, kick, ba, kick, and out, out, out. It can really be like a flick, too. So it doesn't go out and stay. It's just like ba, ba, ba, like that.

LESLEY GARRISON: On the right side, do you flick the right foot first?

BILLY SMITH: Yes, yeah. So if you're going right, you flick right foot first. Left, left.


BILLY SMITH: The most important thing about this, I think, is you're doing something difficult with your legs. But you want this arm to stay nice and smooth the whole time. It makes one long, smooth circle. So instead of clicking positionally like this, like what your leg is doing, try, when we do it this next time, to have one smooth upper body motion as your leg is doing this out and in.

So I'm seeing a little bit of this hip dance. So try to keep your hips level the whole time. So they shouldn't hike up and down. They should just bounce. The legs should just bounce in and out. Good.

The arms are a little slow. So it should go, (singing) ba dum, ba dum, and ba, ba, ba, bom. So it hits on the count, so not after. So this is a nice and smooth motion. But then when we get to the kicks, it needs to arrive on time. Let's try it again.

LESLEY GARRISON: When the movement requires more coordination, we tend to lose track of being contained. So what I'm noticing is that there is an opening of the rib cage. And you really want to think about being 3-dimensional.

So what happens a lot in dance is that we dance mostly with the front part of our body. And we forget about the back part of our body. So if you think about our rib cage, it's huge, it's 3-dimensional. It has a front, a back, and sides. And everything in between that.

So when we're dancing, at any point, actually, it might be good for you guys to check in with that. I'm doing a degage and I'm only filling up the front part of myself. So now I'm doing a degage, now I'm going to think about filling up the back part of myself. I'm doing a degage, now I'm going to think about filling up my sides.

So you're a 3-dimensional thing. So think about filling up every single part of that. It'll help you balance. It'll help you do everything.

BILLY SMITH: And your lungs are behind you. Some part of your lungs are behind you. So think about that when you breathe. That actually expands behind you, too, not only in the front.

LESLEY GARRISON: And this is for everyone, too, but really look out your face and use your eyes and use your focus. That's a big part of what our company does, is we dance with each other as a group on stage. And there is nothing better than that.

So rather, like I was saying earlier, than indicating-- rather than indicating where you're looking with maybe your eyes, looking down, actually look down if that's what you want to do. Actually look up, use your head and look out your face. And that will also help you achieve more as a dancer, too.

[piano playing 'Saving All My Love for You']

So the piece of rep that we taught today in class is from a dance called 'Acis and Galatea'. And this dance is to music by Handel, and it was rearranged by Mozart. And it's basically a love story of a sea nymph falling in love with-- it's not a sea nymph-- I always forget.

BILLY SMITH: A water nymph.

LESLEY GARRISON: A water nymph-- a water fairy, she has clairvoyant powers, falling in love with a shepherd. And then there's a cyclops, an evil cyclops who also falls in love with Galatea and is fighting for her love and ends up killing Acis with a big rock. He throws a rock, kills Acis, Acis dies.

But Galatea has these magical powers. So she turns him into a river that she bathes in eternally. So it's a very--

BILLY SMITH: It's beautiful.

LESLEY GARRISON: You know what, I always say, 'Oh, your typical love story.' You know-- [laughs]

BILLY SMITH: And what we taught them is actually the finale. So it's after she has transformed Acis into this river that she's bathing in. And it's a celebration, is what we taught them. So it's very joyous. And I think they enjoyed doing it. So it was fun for me to see them have a good time.

So let's really concentrate on being musical with this. So every step has a count and a rhythm to it. So let's really focus on that. We're going to step to the left and circle the arm around like this.

(singing) Bum, bum, bum, ba dum, bum, bum. So again, that's 1, 2, 3, ba dum, bum, bum. Other way, bum, bum, bum, ba dum, bum, bum, step left, switch, switch. Ready, 2, 3, da dum, bum, ba, bum, ba da dum, bum, ba, ba dum, bum.

Good, so this really does lean to the right. And your head is not cocked like this. It's in line with your spine. From here, you're going to step forward and do a little jump like this-- ba. So it's in this line of direction. So it never strays from that line.

So we just did our turn. And everything is in this line. Right? So we're facing down and then we flip up. Right, good. So this back leg shouldn't fly out to the side. It should go straight downstage.

And these arms just--

LESLEY GARRISON: Right arm high. Yep.

BILLY SMITH: And then we flip to the front. And we're doing this motion like this-- ba, ba ba, like that.

LESLEY GARRISON: From your eyes.

BILLY SMITH: And that's actually, in the-- the words are 'appears'. So you're making something appear, you're seeing something. Let's go back to the beginning. And I'll actually sing the words this time, so it makes more sense.


BILLY SMITH: Ready, 2, 3, (singing) Galatea, dry thy tears. Acis now a god appears.

From here, you're going to step on to-- Its bent leg, right?

LESLEY GARRISON: Yep, 4 seconds.

BILLY SMITH: And you're going to open your arm like this.

LESLEY GARRISON: It's like you're pushing curtains away.

BILLY SMITH: Yeah. You're parting the curtain. And this is a 4-star bent leg, and it's in arabesque. And then you run a circle. And the arm slowly drops. Then you do the other side, ba, parting the curtain around.

So that's each 4. So let's do that one more time. It goes 1, 2, 3, 4. And a 1, 2, 3, 4. From here, you go back for 3. 1, 2, 3, then 2. 1, 2, 2, 3, to start over.

(singing) Galatea, dry thy tears. Same thing. Acis now a god appears.

From here, you're going to make a snapping sound, and you're going to jump. Ba, good. And you're going to rear back. Whoa. Just let the arms drop, fall back. So you really want to go behind your pelvis, great. [laughs]

So, back. And then from here, your head is going to swing around this way, whoa, to the ground. You're going to reach upstage, and then you're going to make 3 circles. It's a crown on your head, 1, 2, 3. From here, you're going to switch and present up. It's like a mermaid, good.

And you can relax. Do you see how Lesley's got her palm up like that? You can relax the wrist a little bit, good. You're going to flick your arms one at a time. And then the left one comes forward as you get up. And you just stand up.

So you're here, and you flick your arms one at a time. Bum, the left one comes forward as you stand up.

LESLEY GARRISON: And you can really push off the right hand to come up. It goes right, left, left, up. So really think about taking your pelvis in the direction of a circle, along a circle. 1, 2, 3, and back.

So what tends to happen is we make the first part of the arc, and then we just travel straight back. We forget about the second part of the circle. So give each part of the circle equal weight. Okay? Here we go.

[music - Frederick Handel, 'Acis and Galatea]

(singing) Galatea, dry thy tears. Acis now a god appears. Galatea, dry thy tears. Acis now a god appears. See how he rears him from his bed. See the wreath that binds his head.

All right, well done. A few things-- we didn't really specify this. But you're circling your head here. But you're also doing a little bit of a head circle in the other direction. That's really weird and funky. You go here. Right? So your head is moving in the opposite direction. Yeah, good, that was great.

So as I was saying, with the first circle, same thing goes for the pushes. So what I'm seeing a little bit is you're kind of pushing side. You don't want to forget about this first part of the arc, the curve. Right? So you're really starting the curve here and then running all the way around. You don't want to forget that part, the front part.

You're scanning here. And then this is actually a little slap. So you bend your elbow and actually it's like you're slapping something away. Right? Good.

BILLY SMITH: And don't look at your hand. Look past your hand. Right? So you're opening the curtain, but you're looking out, past the curtain.

LESLEY GARRISON: Yeah, let's try it again.

[music - Frederick Handel, 'Acis and Galatea]

(singing) Galatea, dry thy tears. Acis now a god appears.

BILLY SMITH: Good, reach out. And a 1.

(singing) Galatea, dry thy tears. Acis now a god appears.

BILLY SMITH: Big jump here.

(singing) See how he rears him from his bed. See how he--

BILLY SMITH: 1, 2, 3, up.

[piano playing 'Saving All My Love for You']

LESLEY GARRISON: So we talked a bit today about focus and opening your eyes and seeing where you are in space and noticing where you are. Here we are in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and this is a very magical special place for not only them, but also for us.

So how can this space inspire you? How can being in the room with everyone who's in the room today inspire you? It's easy to internalise everything and be in your own head, especially if you're working hard and you're very focused.

So encouraging everyone to open up and see who they're dancing with and see the space that we're in and experience that all together, I would be happy if they went away with a little bit of that.

[piano playing 'Saving All My Love for You']

End of transcript