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.
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?
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.