Teaching and Choreographing: Mutually Beneficial Acts

By Patricia Reedy


By Patricia Reedy in conversation with Deborah Karp

ON A RECENT SUNNY AFTERNOON, Deborah Karp and I left our desks at Luna Dance Institute to share a cup of tea and conversation at a local coffee shop. We spoke of how our lives as choreographers and teachers are similar and different, and we talked about the future of dance. As Luna’s Director of Teaching and Learning, the role dance education plays in sustaining, evolving and maybe even elevating the field of dance is as interesting to me as bringing dance to underserved children. Our conversation rambled and intersected through our shared passion of educating children and families to the art and craft of choreography. The conversation continues with these reflections on how teaching artists might begin to see their teaching selves and art-making selves as part of one whole artistic craft.

Deborah Karp: As a choreographer and as a teacher of creative dance and composition, I find myself ruminating: how does my own practice dictate what and how I teach? Inversely, how does what transpires while I’m teaching influence my choreographic decision-making? From the impressionable age of 22 I’ve been fortunate to be encouraged to notice the confluence of these practices. Inherent in this encouragement was the idea that, in fact, they should influence each other; that one’s teaching will be its most rigorous when informed by one’s choreographic inquiries, and that the most relevant dances have embedded within them the fabric of mutual learning and discovery.

Patricia Reedy: I’m particularly interested in your project Perform: Education. The fact that you and your colleagues are sharing reflections on teaching and composing and how they intersect is exciting and generative.

DK: As both personal action research and a desire to ignite public dialogue among Bay Area artists/educators, this evening of live performance and critical discussion examined these questions about the relationship of art-making to art-teaching. Perform: Education featured the work of The Thick Rich Ones, Cherie Hill IrieDance, my company Deborah Karp Dance Projects, three Bay Area companies directed by artists who are also teachers at Luna, and musician Aram Shelton. The evening included a post-show discussion facilitated by artist/ scholar Megan Nicely.

PR: As you prepared for this event, what bubbled to the surface about your own artistic process and teaching practice?

DK: With some pieces and with certain classes, the answers to my questions seem obvious and sometimes more obscure. I often wonder for myself if there is any connection at all, and, if there is, would it be recognizable to someone outside of myself? I consider: well, maybe if I taught regular technique classes to professional dancers who also danced in my work, the answers might be more apparent. But, because the populations I teach and I create dances with are disparate, the questions remain.

Patricia, how has your choreographic sense changed after 23 years of directing and teaching at Luna?

PR: Choreography, like any creative act, involves discovery, problem-posing and problem-solving, shaping and refining. While I am no longer as active in my choreographic practice, by instinct, I am a shaper—and I get to do that in every aspect of my teaching, program development and evaluation design here at Luna. Yet, as we teach through our class structure and teach that structure to others, I have come to appreciate the power of the discovery process. To be in the moment, trusting that kinesthetic intuition—knowing something is there but not yet attached to it is so liberating. If I could do it over, I would definitely embed much more time for exploration—for just playing with a simple notion, modifying it, horsing around. I would apply to my artistic practice what I do in teaching—I would have played more.

DK: I love play and I find that exploration is integral to my process as a choreographer. Before this project I had the pleasure of developing a work over the course of a year. That luxury of time left the container open and we did a lot of experimentation. Some of that material made it into the final piece and some didn’t but its footprint was palpable. It would be so nice if this kind of spacious time could be a part of every creation and rehearsal process.

PR: I often hear that people feel they have to choose; that there isn’t enough time to work and be a real artist. Yet, I am inspired by your generation—you seem to embrace multiple identities. How do you reconcile your various obligations?

DK: This is a daily reconciliation. There are some days when my teacher identity definitely feels more present. There are times in rehearsal when I am wrapped up only in what’s happening in the moment. The multiple identities is expected of dancers these days, it’s a given. We expect that we will be dancers and teachers, and Pilates and yoga instructors, and part-time administrators at arts non-profits, and other things, too.

PR: At Luna, all teachers also administer the programs that we teach in. For you, that has meant a number of things including coordinating the logistics of our MPACT (Moving Parents and Children Together) program and our contract at Grass Valley Elementary. How do you see these aspects of your job affecting your teaching and your dance-making? Is there capacity for inspiration there?

DK: It’s kind of like self-producing a show; I don’t just waltz onto the stage and have all the production details taken care of. If I don’t make a postcard and send out a press release then no one will. Did I remember to get ice for the reception? What day must the invoices be submitted to the school district in order to receive payment on our contracts? It’s a lot of details to keep track of, in roles as self-producing dance artist and program administrator, but the gift in both realms is I get to see the whole picture!

This is where I think the revolution and vitality of improvisation and creative dance training comes in: a dancer, even one trained in the hierarchy of the “copy me and do as I say” teaching model can develop her own voice, be it through seeing a seed of inspiration to fully produced evening or a glimmer of a teaching program to full implementation.

I remember a moment from one of our staff meetings, probably a year ago or more. We were talking about mundane stuff, scheduling classes, I believe. As a staff, we were discussing the pros and cons of changing the day, the time, and age range of a certain class to determine if it would be a better fit for various reasons. And I remember you saying, “Let’s not change everything at once, because then it’s hard to tell what is working well and what isn’t.” And, I thought to myself, that’s Patricia the choreographer! Looking at a dance, or a dance class, knowing there is something that needs adjusting, looking closely, but not changing every single thing, examining the details, in order to see what needs to be tweaked to let the “ness” of the dance come out.

Deborah Karp is a dance teaching artist and program coordinator at Luna and the Director of Deborah Karp Dance Projects. Both women enjoy creating, teaching, talking about and writing about dance.

This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.