The School of Dance Explores Wellness in a Week-long Immersion

04 April 2018 Published in News and Announcements

What does “wellness” mean to you? I imagine there are as many answers to this question as there are people on the planet. Within the School of Dance, wellness is often approached as a balance between physical, emotional, and mental health: as dancers, students are in studio courses and rehearsals for approximately 30 hours a week, and the remaining hours of their days are filled with lectures and seminars. Such a demanding schedule requires special attention to self-care and making time for rest and rejuvenation.

For these reasons among others, faculty members Molly Heller and Pam Geber-Handman designed a week of events with attention given to how students can cultivate healing practices and pursue sustainable careers. The five days of classes and conversations with special guests who are experts in dance and wellness- Michelle Boulé, Debra Clydesdale, and Jesse Zaritt- were extraordinary. Instead of quick-fix or one-size-fits-all “remedies,” each guest spoke to the importance of nurturing an individual’s distinct needs. It was a week that was inspiringand informative, and quite different from how “wellness” is portrayed in mainstream media.

As I write this, I’m on a plane and just noticed an article in my in-flight magazine called “Wellness from Within.” It begins, “Self-care is all the rage. It’s the subject of countless instructional articles, Tumblr blogs, Pinterest boards and Instagram hashtags…” What made the Wellness Immersion at the School of Dance distinct was that it took a far more rigorous and inquisitive approach.

From January 22nd to 26th, classes, panels, and performances stretched from early morning to early evening. Since each of these practitioners brought a wealth of knowledge to the University of Utah, students in my ballet history, theory, and criticism classes prepared for their visits by reading articles about their work. During the morning hours of the Immersion, Michelle Boulé and Jesse Zaritt taught classes for the modern dance students, and in the afternoons on the 23rd and 24th both the ballet and modern programs joined together to listen to the experts and participate in discussions.

Boulé is is a choreographer, performer, teacher and Certified BodyTalk Practitioner based in New York. She received widespread acclaim for her collaborations with Miguel Gutierrez, including a 2010 New York Dance and Performance Award “Bessie” for her performance as James Dean and collaboration in the creation of “Last Meadow,” and a 2015 “Bessie” nomination for her body of work with Gutierrez.

Debra Clydesdale (LAC DNBAO SEP CMT CDS) is based in Los Angeles and has been helping patients for over 20 years. She combines Somatic Experiencing and Somatic Experiencing touch work with Acupuncture Oriental Medicine, Postural Rejuvenation (Hellerwork) and Nutrition. Her specialties include helping patients with pain management, chronic fatigue, digestive disorders including bloating, sensitivities, IBS and Chron's disease, eating disorders especially bulemia binge eating, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Photo by Grant HalversonZaritt is a Brooklyn, NY based dance artist. From 2014 to 2016 he was the inaugural Research Fellow in the School of Dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. From 2006 to 2007, Jesse worked in Israel as the recipient of a Dorot Fellowship, which enabled him to study the relationship between political conflict and choreography. From 2001 to 2006 he was a performer with the Shen Wei Dance Arts Company and in 2008 he performed with the Inbal Pinto Dance Company. He has also performed in the work of Faye Driscoll (2010-2015) and Netta Yerushalmy (2009-2012).

As different as the guests were in terms of their education and careers, a through-line that emerged was the interrelation between wellness and identity, and more specifically, a sense of wellness is generated when we link who we are with how we present ourselves to others. In an article by Zaritt that we read and discussed in Ballet History, he asks, “What kind of radical intervention could break open a space in the social fabric that will give us back some choice, the possibility to be other than who we have been conditioned to be?”

This kind of insightful question was posed by each of the guests as they spoke about their careers. For instance, Boulé noted how her dance training interfered, at times, with an ability to form a sense of self that is separate from others’ validation or affirmation.

If a goal of the Immersion was to enrich student and faculty learning, then it definitely succeeded: feedback from students has been extraordinary, and many faculty members noted how transformative these days were. Undergraduates in the Ballet Program who attended events and who read articles by Boulé and Zaritt said that they learned a great deal from the speakers’ reflections. Several students discussed insights from a panel with the three guests that I moderated on Tuesday the 25th: one student recalled how Boulé emphasized the process of performing as “getting out of the way,” as in performing requires that I “fully digest the role…you take the role and hone it and shape it and then get out of the way so it can happen.” Zaritt added to this idea by saying, “The hardest thing about dance is that you’re not acting, you’re actually doing the thing.”

Zaritt continued with a comparison between dance training and science fiction: he said, “There’s something science fictive about being a dancer. We imagine the impossible and then we do it…. We are constantly changing both physically and mentally. Dancers accelerate and multiply change by pushing our bodies to their limits and taking on many roles.”

Another student noted how there’s a strong commitment to dancing for themselves in Boulé and Zaritt’s work, and this preserves a balance of their own mental and physical well­being, instead of dancing for the approval of others. In other words, the purpose of their performances is not to offer audiences an escape from reality, but instead, to offer a magnification of their respective realities. Self-reflexivity was an essential element in articles by Boulé and Zaritt that students read prior to the Immersion. A through-line of their writing was: in order to understand what is going on in the body, and in relation to the body, the mind must be free and open. Creativity and exploration come from a healthy, nourished mind and body.

Screen Shot 2018 03 28 at 3.48.05 PM1Another student made connections between Boulé’s discussion of seeking approval and her own studies of child development: in an interview published in 2013, Boulé notes how bodies and minds are magnets to praise, particularly in the dance studio, and a student found this particularly relevant growing up as a ballet dancer. Responses to someone using any kind of word articulating something “good” becomes a way of manipulating and a source of power. In educational psychology, this is known as operant conditioning, which corresponds to the theory of Behaviorism. Within this psychological method, there’s a theory called the Social Cognitive approach that applies here. With the emphasis on self-viewing, a dance teacher’s types of reinforcement in the studio can lead to either positive states of mind and well-being, or can cause detrimental psychological health problems.

Another student reflected on the same passage: “a point of interest for me in the discussion was Boulé’s discovery of the professor doing research on ways of saying ‘good’ to someone.” Boulé writes about “how seeking approval can be related to power.” To this the student added “I do not normally think about my desire for approval as giving the other person a form of power, but it is so incredibly true. How would I approach my life differently and consider other people if I were not so often striving for their approval?”

On Friday both Boulé and Zarritt performed solos, excerpts of recent projects they created, on the stage of the Marriott Center for Dance, and both solos were extraordinary. In Boule’s words, “The Monomyth” from 2017, “illuminates the emotional and choreographic transformation of the feminine/feminist hero.” Its stark, understated power juxtaposed the excess and theatricality of Zaritt’s “send off.” Zaritt’s solo presented a retelling of a Biblical story––God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac––from Genesis, sometimes referred to as The Binding of Isaac. Zaritt’s version uses text from Queen of a Bathtub, a controversial work by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin. In his solo, Zaritt appears covered in flowers, almost bound by the flowers, that gradually fall and scatter across the stage as he moves. Initially he appears to be a figure created by Nick Cave, an imaginative sculptor known for his soundsuits that amplify and transform human figures.

As his solo progresses, Zaritt plays with the juxtaposition of images and text, and of severity and absurdity. Through Levin’s words, Isaac seems to plead with his father Abraham to hurry up and get the sacrifice done. In a strange way, this use of humor mitigates the gravity and adds a sense of dissensus. Instead of formal and serene, the solo is discombobulating and gripping. Zaritt’s work reminds me of theories of Mikhail Bhaktin.

Bhaktin defines the concept of “polyphony” as the presence “of the coexistence of a plurality of voices and sounds that can also be understood in a text or in an extra textual situation. The vitality of polyphony as a phenomenon is that the voices do not fuse into a single consciousness or drone but exist on different registers generating a dynamism among themselves. It is not merely a heterogeneity but some other angle at which voices are juxtaposed and counter-posed which generates something beyond themselves.”

Zaritt’s work also generated ideas about another concept that Bhaktin defines, carnival, which is a “unique sense of time and space” that heightens a sense of collectivity: “It is at this point that, through costume and mask, an individual exchanges bodies and is renewed. At the same time there arises a heightened awareness of one’s sensual, material, bodily unity and community.” Zaritt’s work similarly occupied multiple registers: visual, physical, kinetic, kinesthetic, symbolic, auditory, and metaphoric. It was a resonant testament to his statement that our identities are additive rather than reductive.

Reflecting on the week of events and discussions, Molly Heller said, “I was excited to bring these three practitioners together and have wanted to create a platform to do so for many years. Jesse has been a dear friend and colleague for years, and Michelle and I have many mutual friends, so it was exciting to work alongside her at the U. I knew of Debra’s work through my research into Somatic Experiencing and it was exciting to have her present the first live lecture of this kind in a university setting. It was also rewarding to collaborate further with Pam, who I admire and respect for her work with health and well being. We are happy with the feedback we continue to hear from students and faculty - that the information and discussions still resonate and have created even more dialogue around wellness. Students are now asking for ongoing immersions like this one.”

By School of Dance Assistant Professor Kate Mattingly

Photos Courtesy of & (Photo Credit: Ian Douglas)