In Dance Spotlight's recently released DVD, Graham Technique Taught by Peggy Frank: An Intermediate Class
, Penny Frank, an instructor who has been teaching at the Graham School since the 1960's, teaches a class to a group of dancers in one of the school's studios. A great many elements of Ms. Frank's teaching are truly excellent, but the DVD's content could perhaps benefit from a few improvements.
One of the most lovely and compelling aspects of Ms. Frank's class is her introductory remarks about Martha Graham's collaborative work with artists outside the dance field. In her verbal lead-in to the portion of the class the movement studies comprise, Ms. Frank mentions the late Ms. Graham's working relationship with artists such as Alexander Calder. This helps provide students and viewers with a sense of historical context that I, as a dancer, find can be very inspiring. I especially like how Ms. Frank emphasized Ms. Graham's contribution not just to modern dance or even to the field of dance as a whole, but to the entire artistic landscape of Graham's era and its legacy.
I also really liked Ms. Frank's brief discussion about the ideological reasons Graham classes traditionally begin with floor work. Her description of the reasons for calling the building blocks of class "movement studies" rather than "exercises" was evocative, not harsh or scolding. It is remarks like these that can help students to really dance through the movement studies, rather than feeling they are merely exercises and imbuing them with correspondingly flat performance quality. Had I been in Ms. Frank's class, I would have felt inspired to bring real performance quality into every study and combination.
Throughout the class, Ms. Frank does an excellent job of explaining the conceptual and historical origin of different parts of class. This would be a welcome addition to any technique class, but I think it is an especially important and wonderful element to bring into a class in the technique of a deceased choreographer. She always gives just enough historical context to be useful, meaningful, and motivating—to make each movement study feel like a special gift from Ms. Graham to all of us—but never so much as to overwhelm, bore, or distract.
Once Ms. Frank begins to teach the movement studies that make up the instructional core of the class, the directness of her instructions and prompts bring a magnificently helpful clarity to the material. Her description of the intake and outtake of breath as the precursors of contraction and release is very conceptually helpful and important. Her comment "look relaxed, but don't relax" is terrific, as is her incisive elucidation that a release is not a relaxation or a collapse. She explained well and clearly that contraction and release are states analogous to an opening and a closing, not to an engagement and a collapse. She thus very skillfully handled a topic that is both a source of confusion to many beginner Graham students and something that Graham students and performers at all levels can benefit from continually keeping in mind.
Students of Graham can often experience confusion about where a movement—such as a spiral—originates in the body, and a special skill of Ms. Frank's is the clear description of in which part or parts of the body each movement impulse begins and the sequence of areas of the body through which the motion continues. Her comments in this regard seemed to really help her students mentally orient themselves inside the movement studies. She gives students a manageable number of things to keep in mind during each movement study. She is very clear in her explanation of what should happen on each count, which I think can help students find specificity, clarity, and kinesthetic organization in their dancing. Also terrific is Ms. Frank's reminders to remove tension from certain parts of the body and to continue breathing. Her teaching is very beneficial to helping students organize their alignment correctly from the inside out. Ms. Frank is excellent, too, at explaining what elements of the movement studies feel different to the dancer than they might look to an outside observer (for example, by mentioning when a leg might appear to an audience member to be directly to a dancer's side but should in actuality be slightly in front of a true arabesque line). I can see how Ms. Frank's students are truly learning information, rather than just being "drilled" or expected to find their way to correctness through sheer repetition. Ms. Frank also says nothing extraneous or gratuitous; all of her comments are immediately applicable. There is nothing unnecessary in or cluttered about her verbal cuing.
Ms. Frank excels at teaching her students how to find musicality (though she never uses the word "musicality" itself), and in this I think she is a master of one of dance teaching's toughest, trickiest minefields. Ms. Frank's discussion after the first few movement studies about the similarities between movement studies and musical studies, in which she points out that both kinds of studies have themes and variations, is inspiring. Her discussion of how the dancer can use class accompaniment to source and guide his or her movement is both encouraging and practically helpful. Also lovely and enriching is Ms. Frank's discussion of the metaphorical role that falls play in a Graham class. Her description of this is beautiful and almost spiritual.
Ms. Frank's class has a very thoughtful, intentional arc. In sum, Ms. Frank excels at both instructing in a heartening, inspiring way and at concretely describing the building blocks of Graham movement in a way that is practically, immediately useful. Many teachers are truly excellent at only reaching their students' spirits or improving the technical aspects of their dancing; however, Ms. Frank excels at both. I can absolutely see why she is a master teacher of the Graham technique.
In spite of the laudable strengths of Ms. Frank's class, there is nevertheless some room for improvement in content of the DVD. It would have been very helpful to have the chance to see Ms. Frank demonstrating how best to give individual corrections to dancers who falter or appear confused. One of the ways in which this DVD might be used is as an instructional tool for teachers who seek to improve their Graham instruction abilities. Since giving individual corrections is truly at the heart of what makes a quality teacher and of why students must learn technique in class from a live teacher if they seek to become masterful dancers, I think it is a real oversight that we never get to witness Ms. Frank giving corrections to individual students on the DVD. I also think Ms. Frank missed an opportunity to explain or demonstrate the ways in which students can be integral to one another's learning (for example, she could have shown students correcting each other with her help or asked the class a question that students might have answered aloud). I also wish Ms. Frank had spoken more about where the gaze should be during different parts of the movement studies, since this is sometimes the critical piece of information that can make a movement study really "come together" for a particular student. At least some of these shortfalls are likely flaws, however, in the DVD's composition, rather than in Ms. Frank's teaching per se.
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