by Merritt Martin
When performers walk onto the stage, they’ve spent countless hours rehearsing, investing themselves into a character, marking the steps and envisioning the scenes. But there’s no dress rehearsal for the dramatic pivot SMU Meadows dance and theatre faculty and students are making to complete their spring semesters in the time of COVID-19.
The study of movement and how it presents from the body is intrinsic to dance, of course, but it also plays a huge role in theatre. So, how do the limitations presented by shelter-in-place orders affect the classes of modern dance professor Myra Woodruff and acting professor Blake Hackler? It’s a virtual one-eighty.
While both drive to instill passion and dedication in their students for each of their practices, Woodruff and Hackler have been forced to modify their expectations of what one-on-one and group work looks like. And they’ve been forced to modify curriculum.
With a freshman class called Embodied Practice as the perfect example, Hackler says he’s had to question his own notions about what is operable online. “Within about three days, we were told that our entire curriculum had to be revamped for online use—and that’s going to be hard for anyone,” he says. “Academically, if it’s a lecture-based course and a reading-based course, there’s a fairly easy switch over to an online platform. But if you’re in the arts … there has to be a giant shift in what we’re going to offer online.”
Hackler explains, with both a passion and introspection that exposes his devotion to teaching, the considerations he has for students: making content accessible and deliverable for students in different time zones, morphing graduate classes from scene studies to playwriting intensives, scheduling classes that are encouraged but not required – because he can’t possibly know what a student is going through at this time.
“This is a very difficult moment for us because many people are weighed down emotionally, physically, mentally, psychically, energetically,” he says. “And it comes in waves. One moment, someone will feel fine; the next moment, they feel overwhelmed. And so I treat my students during this time as I would like to be treated: with an incredible amount of kindness, and an incredible amount of empathy.”
In the dance department, the switch to virtual study has also been challenging, logistically and with an eye on the students. “Our dance chair, Christopher Dolder, pulled all the dance faculty in to discuss ways we could take our courses online,” Woodruff says. “Our Meadows IT gurus, Mousumi Tanha and Jason Warner, developed training sessions to help all of us receive the how-to information needed to put our courses online. It was a heroic effort and made a big difference.” In the way characteristic of a company dancer, she is quick to voice her gratitude and respect for her talented colleagues, from the technical to the musical.
But Woodruff doesn’t gloss over the concerns of students, noting many were anxious about the health of loved ones, how and when to return home, what would become of graduation and how their dance technique classes could cover the movement material they were accustomed to when moved to Zoom.
New surroundings required a new choreography for teaching. “I was very concerned with providing students with the quality classes they deserved,” Woodruff says. She teaches upper level modern dance classes in Martha Graham technique, and many of her students are juniors and seniors in the program. “They are very talented and have a high level of development in this movement form. To me it was important to have live music and to teach with the same high standards and rigor used previously in the dance studio.”
Through the limitations, Woodruff and her dancers learned how best to tackle a full-body experience virtually. “It was interesting the way it unfolded,” she explains, her creative enthusiasm showing itself. “Each student in the class had varying degrees of space to work within. Overall it was limited. Some had more privacy than others and many had pets interested in sharing the experience. Animals are excited by movement, so you can just imagine the duets performed impromptu!” And Woodruff has had the help of staff musicians Ed Smith and Jamal Mohamed in providing the live music for each class.
Both Woodruff and Hackler have noted the importance of attention to self during this unusual semester, but in different ways.
Because the body is the tool and requires physical strength for dance, Woodruff focuses more on an opportunity to examine the self, in terms of habits and tendencies that encourage or undermine growth and skill development, to ultimately make the students stronger dancers.
“The isolation that is created by this situation provides an opportunity to examine things in the individual dancer to enhance self-awareness,” she says, citing issues such as getting easily distracted, internalizing and not mimicking combinations, sabotaging with negativity and improving readiness to be a working professional.
“Excuses we give ourselves translate to missed opportunities for growth and development. One must cultivate needed knowledge that professionals use to define and illuminate a choreographer’s voice within a work,” she tells her students. “Throw away what holds you back. Instead, say, ‘What can I bring to this experience?’ Your habit defines you. Hear your own voice. Have an opinion about what you are doing. Your career will be made up of what you can do on the spot. Be in the moment.”
Hackler also promotes the hearing of one’s own voice, but more as barometer of what students are capable of and emotionally prepared to do in this time. While he doesn’t deny that he can help them learn about bodies, movement and acting to build a “scaffold for when we’re back in the classroom,” Hackler, who also teaches in Yale University’s Summer Conservatory, is more concerned with supporting students in being deeply flexible in the face of the unknown, to be able to expand their sense of self and sense of empathy toward others. The relationship between people—the give and take—after all, is at the heart of acting. Part of that he aims to do by example through his adjustments in teaching.
The Viewpoints method of movement training for actors that is normally done in person, Hackler now transitions to video sessions. He posts them so students can engage and return self-tapes of their work. Two classes a week are optional and involve physicality, investigating time and space, but with everyone in their own spaces. The classes are an hour, because Hackler feels that’s the saturation point on Zoom. “I think learning online this way and marshaling our concentration to stare at a screen where we are disembodied, but our visual sense is tricking us that we are in the room with people, is incredibly exhausting,” he explains. So he is mindful of that exhaustion for his students, who in some cases are also taking care of siblings or elders now that they are home.
Woodruff, on the other hand, has found Zoom classes to work well for dancers needing the sense of company and critique lost along with their studio space— “dance companies” by definition thrive on this interaction.
“The Zoom format allows the host or teacher to work one-on-one with a dancer while the other students watch and see the result of the change in form.
This manner of giving directives creates an opportunity for the dancers to see each other’s growth, which in turn gives the community feeling that I think is important to the students,” she says. The dancers are supportive of one another and she—her experience as a former company dancer and faculty member at Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance shining through—encourages that to be taken out into the dance world. She also feels that it is another example of priming the professional form, and perhaps offers an opportunity for grounding.
“Movement is stripped down to its essence and springs from the center. This is where lived experience emanates from,” Woodruff tells her class, practically projecting a studio into existence. “Declare your center into space. Recognize the act of doing gives you stability.”
“All year long we’ve worked to expand the sense of their body, to expand their sense of self, and now sitting in front of a computer four, five, six, seven hours a day, their sense of self and their sense of their body is deeply contracting,” Hackler laments. “So when I meet with them, I work to open back up that sense of their body, that sense of possibility in space.”
Stability. Possibility. And, perhaps most important, acknowledgment. “We’re not ‘working from home,’ we’re sheltered in place during a pandemic,” Hackler says, reinforcing the notion that the idea anyone—student or instructor—is “just” working from a different space is ludicrous.
And yet, despite the challenges set in front of anyone at SMU Meadows or otherwise, this cast of faculty and students are absolutely working together to get through this. By way of virtual auditions, self-production, house-bound choreography and an incredible amount of soul-searching and soul-stretching. It’s unprecedented. The effort is priceless. And the result is something that rises beyond the stage, box office or grade points.