Alyssa Mitchel

The Classroom, September 7th

Alyssa Mitchel’s The Classroom is an hour-long dance that centers on Mitchell’s past frustrations as a student, her work as math skills tutor, and 26 interviews with teachers and students at 5 different schools in the San Francisco Bay area. I attended the world premiere on Saturday, September 7th at the ODC Dance Commons. In development for 18 months, The Classroom reflects the ways in which personal experiences often translate into research questions that can drive creative processes. While the piece included audio recordings from Mitchel’s interviews as well as recorded essays from students at the Urban School of SF, dance seemed to be the primary vehicle by which Mitchel sought to engage with issues of frustration, questions of intelligence, struggles with learning disabilities, and more.

Mitchel’s commitment to her project is undeniable and the messages clear. The dancing by Jessica Bozzo, Jessica DeFranco, Sierra Heller, Franke Lee III, Nicole Maimon, Tayler Kinner, and Katherine Newmann was equally committed. They danced 9 different sections in various formats demonstrating their emotional range and technical precision. Most of these sections directly corresponded to Mitchel’s research. “Frustration” and “Defining Intelligence,” for example, both relied on audio from interviews with students and teachers. I had the pleasure of responding to these sections as part of the ODC Pilot Program (#70 and #71 respectively). In the current production, these two sections were altered slightly, the difference slight, but noticeable. Previously, both sections included video. This time, audio excerpts replaced the video in “Frustration” and only music accompanied “Defining Intelligence.” This change amplified the visual field of the dance and directed the audience toward the movements and dancers, creating more space to observe the kinetic relation between words and bodies.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

The inclusion of spoken word – live, audio, video – is not new in dance. Neither is research-based dance making. I admit this is an overly broad category. For example, Bay Area Artists such as Hope Mohr Dance, Keith Hennesy, Joe Goode, others often use words in their dance and performance works. So as I sat watching I kept thinking about the relationship between the audio recordings and the dancing. Why bring dance to these interviews? What (and how) does Mitchel’s choreography add to the concepts, questions, and reflections articulated by the audio recordings?

The first section, “Frustration,” as I noted in a previous response, “embodied and expressed the myriad ways frustration manifests – as small fits, exhaustion, isolation. The dance also served as a reminder that we are not alone, especially when it comes to learning and the structures that constrain that process.” The movements in this section amplified rather than duplicated the content of the interviews. For example, one dancer slowly moved backwards on their hands and feet – crawling – while the other dancers moved more freely, which highlighted the different paces at which people learn. This nuance, however, wasn’t always the case in other sections. 

In The Classroom, Mitchell included 4 sections titled after 4 students from the Urban School of San Francisco – Maia, Ben, Eloise, and Alexa. Each of these sections included recordings of those students talking about their experiences in school; they seemed to be reading essays that they wrote. The third one, “Eloise’s Reflection” really hit me as a teacher – the words overtook the stage and I didn’t notice much of the dancing. “Alexa’s Reflection,” 7th on the program, seemed to work better. Maybe because the spoken essay was more emotive and lively. Maybe because the choreography embodied more subtlety. This is the challenge when choreographing with spoken word  – not to be too literal or too abstract. The last piece on the program, “Recess,” while fun and playful didn’t bring us back to the dance’s messages about learning. Why end here? How does the concept or activity of recess offer us a conclusion? How does it send us out of the theater?

 

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

I want to close with a final reflection on audience. As a teacher and parent, I can relate to a lot of the content in The Classroom, but I’m not sure this dance was choreographed for me. Where does this dance belong? Who does it belong to? Mitchel already has an answer: “I think it would be cool to show this work in schools.” I don’t disagree and I hope that happens. The Classroom has a message that still seeks an audience. That audience, I have no doubt, is eager and waiting.

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The Classroom, ODC Dance Commons September 2019. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

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December 2nd, Pilot 70 – “Merging”

Choreography by Alyssa Mitchel, Charlotte Carmichael, Marlene Garcia, Nadhi Thekkek, Molly Matutat, and Tanya Chianese

I was invited by Alyssa Mitchel to write a response to Pilot 70 – Merging and happy for the opportunity. I’ve written responses to Pilot 65 and 67 programs and generally found them to be fun evenings of dance making. The ODC Pilot Program provides a performance venue and framework for emerging artists and is supporting its 70th cohort. Each choreographer is mentored by a professional choreographer and ODC staff in their artistic work, production, and promotion. The selected choreographers self-produce and promote their work collectively, which is not an easy task. 

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Defining Intelligence, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Defining Intelligence by Alyssa Mitchel explored the meaning and nature of intelligence by incorporating video interviews with students and teachers. The inclusion of school desks, rulers, and other classroom references highlighted that institutions of learning still underpin how (and where) we cultivate intelligence. This piece had a lot going on, and it seemed to move fast. I wasn’t sure the videos were even needed as the choreographic movements clearly worked through some of the questions we have about the relationship between intelligence and learning. The end of the dance aptly captured the idea that intelligence is an ongoing process and place of wonder and perhaps a kind of play.

multiple ways to feel invincible by Charlotte Carmichael, a solo performed by Rachel Geller, set a different tone following Defining Intelligence. It was slower and almost melancholic. The music, “Picture your favorite place” by Neterfriends, gave the dance a spacious quality that was amplified by deep plies and large forth positions – as if Geller was gearing up or waiting for something. Maybe she was trying to figure out where to go. Maybe she was gathering strength for some feat. There were glimmers of invincibility especially at the end when Geller’s expression broke into a smile, suggesting that she had figured something out that the rest of us hadn’t. In this way, invincibility might have something to do with persistence and resilience.

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multiple ways to feel invincible, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Fuerza by Marlene Garcia offered a dark landscape. The trio of dancers moved in and out of synchronicity. They started the dance together, in a small circle facing inward. I was drawn to this quality the most.  The dancers moved seamlessly between individual and collective moments. The repeated twitching movement suggested an unease or distortion that made the darkened aesthetic even more so. Fuerza is Spanish for force and I wasn’t quite sure how (or if) Garcia was speaking to or with this concept. I couldn’t quite make out the words of “oh ahh Hum” by Jane Winter (designed by Jonathan Crawford), but thought I heard the word “home.” I kept trying to figure out the connection between it and the dancing. The piece ended as it began with the dancers in a tight circle and instead of facing inward, they faced outward as if they gained a new perspective or way of seeing.

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Fuerza, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Reminisce by Nadhi Thekkek, was part of a larger work, Broken Seeds Still Grow, a mixed media dance production. Thekkek notes: “This work is inspired by witness statements describing the events before, during and after the 1947 Partition of British India.” I was inspired by the possibility of a dance actively engaging with a complex (and troubling) historical moment and its impact on people. The aesthetic and movement vocabulary was fitting and embodied the multifarious drama, particularly in gazes passed between the dancers. The end, focused on the question of how to forgive hate, seemed particularly relevant to the current political climate. Reminisce did feel like a fragment of something larger, but it felt committed and made me curious about the whole work and how one uses dance to deal with the suffering of the past. 

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Reminisce, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Residue by Molly Matutat, was another trio of 3 dancers that started with one dancer in a spotlight center stage that eventually opened up to the full stage with all dancers sharing the space. This was another dark landscape – costumes, lighting, and mood. The crackling-static like sound amplified an other-worldly tone. The choreography included exhausting repetitive movement; the dancers at times ended up on the floor. They never wavered energetically and the pace of the dancing was persistent. I kept wondering what the dancers were searching for, what did they want or need? There wasn’t much resolution at the end, but maybe that was part of the dance’s message. What is left behind? How can we make sense of what we can’t quite grasp? Such questions resonate with 21st Century living.

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Residue, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

Daybreak by Tanya Chianese, was the last piece on the program and brought light (literally and figuratively) to the end of the evening. Inspired by the rising sun, Daybreak offered a vibrant dance filled with chorus-like movement and breathing. The seven dancers spent most of their time dancing together, repeating choreography and gestures that at times seemed a little frantic and at others more grounded. While there was a lovely duet it was the collective movements that really stood out to me. And I kept wanting the dancers to slow down so I could focus on the energy between their movements and how they breathed through them. Even so, the light was palpable and the communal aspect of the dance resonated. This piece was well placed on the program given the darker shades of content in the previous pieces by Matautat, Thekkek, and Garcia.

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Daybreak, ODC Dance Commons December 2018. Photo Credit: Kyle Adler

“Merging,” the title for Pilot 70, is a verb that means to immerse, to plunge, to be absorbed and disappear, to combine, to be amalgamated (from the Oxford English Dictionary). The six works (all female choreographers by the way) did not directly engage with these definitions of merging, but they did explore concepts, experiences, and voices in ways that suggest a kind of bringing together. Whether it was a collective questioning about intelligence, hate, or dreams or repeating of shared movement, the dances by Mitchel, Charmichael, Garcia, Thekkek, Matutat, and Chianese were engaged with their content and danced with commitment. I went home glad to have seen six women choreographers and hopeful for the future of dance in the Bay Area.