Archive for the ‘dance’ Tag

Commonalities across boundaries

The two young women move swiftly and gracefully to the front of the stage, arms outstretched. In the centre of the stage a young man holds a stylized pose. He is supposed to hold a deep knee bend but it is his first time in this role, and the group’s esteemed director kindly, affectionately tells him he can use a chair for this first day. (Observation journal)

I spent the weekend with students from three Sri Lankan state universities – Eastern, Jaffna, and Peradeniya – as they prepare a performance act for the forthcoming Galle Music Festival. They are working under the direction of Dr Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan, and faculty members from their respective Performing Arts departments. The focus is on traditional music and dance, but Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic population means that these traditions vary widely across the island. What’s more, with the three universities based in geographically distant and somewhat war-isolated areas (one in the North, one in the East – both areas were epicenters of the civil war that ended in 2009 – and one in the central, mountainous region), opportunities for cross-campus exchanges and collaborations are not in the usual course of student life.


What’s been fascinating to observe this weekend are the points of commonality – social, cultural, and aesthetic – and how these are found and navigated.

The first point of commonality is the students’ shared love of music and dance, and Sri Lanka’s traditional folk forms in particular. If they weren’t interested in these, they wouldn’t be here, because the Galle Music Festival is primarily a festival of folk and traditional arts. (There’s a bit of fusion and rap going on to – but folk traditions are the foundation). The students from Jaffna and Eastern Universities are enrolled in Performing Arts degrees; the students from Peradeniya are members of the ‘Music Society’, a university-wide, student club for those with an interesting in performing music together.


Another commonality is their age and stage in life – they are all university students, young people coming of age in a digital era with phones, photos, selfies and Facebook making up some of the artefacts and shareable commodities of their modern lives.

Finding a common language is more problematic. All of the students are being educated in Sinhala or Tamil at university. Some students can speak both Sinhala and English; some speak Tamil and English. A smaller number speak both Sinhala and Tamil (although most of this generation are across the basics of both languages, they tell me). Therefore, conversations happen in second or third languages, or with the help of mime and gesture and a lot of good-natured laughter.

Each of the groups was asked to prepare a musical number to contribute to the workshop. Some had prepared songs with instrumental accompaniment, others had songs only, others had dances.


In the full workshop with Dr Sri Ranganathan, they each first presented the music they’d prepared. Dr Sri Ranganathan made notes, and then proposed a form that would flow from one song or dance to the next. As they worked through this proposed form, students were roped into different roles. Four girls from Eastern University who’d come along to the workshop as singers found themselves dancing alongside the dancers from Jaffna University, who instructed them in the steps. In the very vigorous and rousing ‘Kavedi’, all of the boys had to dance, with very physical choreography requiring lots of jumps and deep knee bends, and Cossack-style kicks while crouching low to the ground. Impressive – and demanding!

The students stayed in Colombo overnight, so I asked one of the Peradeniya students to keep an observation log of the interactions for me, as I’m interested in the ways that music collaborations can foster more positive intergroup group bonds and relations. She reported back to me the next day that in addition to lots of conversations in different languages, a highlight of the evening was an impromptu jam session, lasting into the wee small hours, when the instruments came out and everyone sang each other’s songs, played each other’s instruments, and generally just hung out and immersed in music the way music-loving young people do everywhere.


The collaborations are one of the new programming strands in this year’s Galle Music Festival. Next week there will be workshops for the collaboration between two all-female drumming groups, one from the North, in the Kilinochchi area, and the other from the Academy of Music and Dance in Colombo. They will be joined by Sri Lanka’s premier women’s vocal ensemble – and possibly by me on clarinet, because the piece that is planned needs a Western melody instrument. It’s a bit of a departure from research observations, but what I love about my work is the constant interplay between music, ideas, collaborations, and intercultural learning. Whether I’m watching, writing or playing, that intersection is where the magic lies.

Dancing the Alphabet

I’ve been doing a lot of alphabet dancing lately, using a project model I first developed in 2001. The project revival has been instigated by a video project to film and record resource material for teachers and students to create their own Alphabet Dances. Then again, good projects never really get tired!

The Alphabet Dance is definitely one of my most enduring and popular projects. I first created an Alphabet Dance in 2001 as part of the Lingua Franca project at Western English Language School. I was inspired by the Leigh Warren Dancers (professional contemporary dance company from South Australia) and their show Quick Brown Fox, which was derived from an ‘alphabet’ of dance moves and sequences.  In my Alphabet Dance project, participants create 26 short dance moves (from any style of dance they like), one for each letter of the English alphabet, then use that alphabet of moves to spell words, sentences and phrases, and create dance sequences.

I wrote a detailed teaching resource on the Alphabet Dance for the Song Room in 2009, and ran a training session for artists at that time; and my blog posts (here is one) on the topic in 2007 were the recipients of my first-ever pingbacks!

This term, in order to have some children’s creations included in the video, I asked the Upper Primary students at CELS to create their own alphabet of moves. They did their film shoot at school yesterday morning. Here is my own quick grab of their work.


At St John’s Primary School, Clifton Hill, the grade 3/4s and I created a number of short pieces about the human body. In addition to a poppy little song and a hocket of “bodily function noises” (imagine, if you will), we created a body percussion dance routine and decided to perform it as a Flashmob at lunchtime on my last day.

The plan was: I would wander out into the playground about ten minutes before the bell rang. They would all be looking out for me. I’d raise my arm to wave to them (as you do), but really I’d be doing a 5-4-3-2-1 countdown with my fingers. This would be the cue for us to start our dance, a formation magically emerging from the hordes of playing children. The music teacher was on yard duty so would join in the performance with us.

Unfortunately, I can’t share the video of the event with you – it was too tricky to film it without showing any children’s faces (and we don’t have permission to publish such materials). But they loved it, loved the idea of making a flashmob, loved breaking into dance in the middle of the playground at lunchtime, wanted to do it many times over. A few others tried to join in too (an indicator of a good flashmob, we decided).

Thanks to all the teachers at St John’s Primary Clifton Hill for making me so welcome during my residency. Thanks to all the gorgeous children, and thanks especially to Mary-Anne who invited me to work with her students over these last three weeks.

Boys and dancing

Last week at the Language School, one of the girls in Upper Primary was adamant that what our class composition really needed was dancing. She was enthusiastic, a couple of her girlfriends were enthusiastic, but others in the class were just as adamant in their refusal.

However, we needed to work in the room all together, and I knew that if I set the three girls dancing at one end of the room, and the rest of the class working with instruments or singing at the other end, it would be too distracting and no-one would get any work completed. “Let’s divide into two groups and we’ll all work on the dance together,” I suggested. There were four phrases of lyrics that the dance would accompany. Each group would devise moves for two of the lines, then we would combine.

What I discovered in this process was that, despite the initial reluctance that most of the boys had shown, several of them (two of the newest boys – from Iraq and Sudan, and two of the Chinese boys) were in fact very happy to be dancing. We devised a heel-thumping, air-punching, hand-clapping accompaniment and they were completely committed to each and every move.

That early lack of enthusiasm was perhaps about keeping with the peer group – especially for the newest boys. They may not have understood my initial question about whether they’d like to  dance or not – maybe they knew it was about dancing, but thought I might be asking them to dance a solo, or something – but they would definitely have picked up on the way the majority Chinese boys in the class were laughing and pushing each other and hiding behind each other by way of demonstrating their reluctance.

Now that we have a dance in the middle of an instrumental piece and song, we have the challenge ahead of us of working out how on earth to stage it, so that they don’t all start falling over their instruments when the get up to dance. That is next week’s challenge!

Collaboration – dance and music

A couple of weekends ago I was up in Sydney working with the Australian Chamber Orchestra [ACO] and Western Sydney Dance, and the Parramatta Youth Strings, and composer Matthew Hindson. A lot of collaborators, all contributing to a fabulous performance project developed by the ACO.

The idea was to create a new dance work, using music composed especially for it. But this was not to be a typical composer commission – Vicki, Education Manager at the ACO and the brains behind the project, wanted the players in the Parramatta Youth Strings (who would perform the work for the dancers alongside members of the ACO) to compose the music themselves.

There is huge value in young players composing the music that they will perform. If you use creative process that utilises improvisation as a way of developing ideas, they will invent things that are within their capacity to play. They will also have a strong sense of ownership of the music, and connection to the work, that will provide an additional incentive to realising it to the best of their abilities.

To see the descriptions of how we got ideas rolling, developed musical material, and structured the ideas into a graphic score… read on. Continue reading

Teaching the Alphabet Dance

Today I spent the morning with a team of teaching artists for The Song Room. The Song Room will soon be publishing the resource I wrote for them last year on my Alphabet Dance project idea (which I also described in detail on this blog here, here and here, if you want to check it out) and today’s workshop was to introduce the project to the Teaching Artists, who work in schools across Victoria. The idea is that they will introduce it to the teachers in their schools, and we hope that its broad appeal will mean we start to see little waves of alphabet dances fanning out across the state.

You couldn’t ask for a better bunch of workshop participants! This group took the idea of the Alphabet Dance and made it their own. Basically, the idea is to assign a movement to each letter of the alphabet, then use these to spell words and create dances. I had  a feeling the Teaching Artists would come up with something truly original, and they didn’t disappoint.

They chose to create dances on a theme of Astronomy. We developed a chorus:

The stars [clap] and planets [clap]

Yeah, they’re really cool [clap]!

All claps on off-beats. We naturally fell into a side-step move while doing this, and a lot of vocal additions and embellishments (Ah yeah!… That’s right!… ah-huh, ah-huh…. Because the-… etc).

Then they created dances using the alphabet on the words Flash Gordon, Ziggy Stardust, and Battleship FTL-Drive. Huge commitment to every gesture. A drummer accompanying us, giving it even more momentum. It definitely showed the potential of the project idea. Thanks all, that was a great high-energy workshop!

The Alphabet Dance gets kids spelling out loud, and offers new motivations for thinking about how different words are spelt. I have found that children who are struggling with literacy get a lot of confidence and enjoyment with the Alphabet Dance – they are highly motivated to learn the different moves, and the order of the letters. There are lots of follow-on activities you can do once you have built an alphabet of moves – consider putting together flicker books that spell out words using photos of the different dance moves, for example. Of creating large-scale wall friezes of all of the ‘letters’, drawn or photographed, or sketched as stick figures (for those like me who are challenged in the visual art department).

Members of the Song Room (schools participating, or previously participating in Song Room programs who have signed up for membership) will be able to download the resource from The Song Room website when it is launched later this month.

Melbourne Festival – reviews (3)

This was probably an ambitious thread to start. From now on my comments on the shows I’ve seen will be brief.

Daniel Kitson – C90

This was a show I liked a lot. Kitson is an engaging performer, weaving stories and characters and setting the scene with skill in this one-man show about a man’s last day working in an archive of compilation tapes. The set was gorgeous – a tall set of shelves piled high with tapes, and a ladder on railings that could slide along the width of the shelving – which Kitson did with much grace.

It was a heart-warming story too. At the close of the show Kitson reappeared to invite us to come to the stage in order to inspect the set more closely. The labels on all the tapes were intriguing and beguiling – suggesting love lost, hopes for rekindling, requests for forgiveness, tributes and revenge. Apparently the show tours no more after this Melbourne season, and the set will stay here.

Jerome Bel – The Show Must Go On

My favourite show in the Festival so far! The whole night had a touch of surreality about it, and this framed the show perfectly. The audience and their reactions to this piece (which starts with a darkened stage and a guy sitting at a sound desk down the front playing individual tracks from CDs, one after the other, with gaps in between while he took out one CD and put in the next) were part of the show. Very John Cage in that respect.

Continue reading