November 2012 | EditorSpeak

Unmastered Classes

So here is a riddle: when is a master class not a master class?

I wish there were a cute or clever answer to that, like, “When it’s ajar.” (Come on, you know that one: “When is a door not a door?”) Unfortunately, the answer that fits best is “when it’s not taught by a master teacher,” which is less a witty puzzler and more a humorless statement about the current state of dance education.

In the age-old definition, master classes differed from regular classes by the in-depth nature of the instruction. Developed in the classical music world but applicable to all the arts, master classes were rare opportunities for upper-intermediate and advanced students to hone particulars of their craft with an instructor who had reached the pinnacle of an artistic field and could share insights that reached beyond the students’ regular lessons. The key, presumably, was that the teacher was a master.

Today in dance, the teacher is more likely a celebrity.

Now don’t get me wrong. This column isn’t a condemnation of the myriad of young dancers with marketable names flooding the faculty lists at workshops and conventions. Making a living at dance is hard enough, and if this generation of up-and-comers has figured out a way to pay the rent, more power to them. But many of the hot names have very thin resumes. Many have barely stepped out of the classroom themselves, but because they have that all-important name recognition from a movie appearance or TV show, they’re in demand.

Media-saturated studio dancers are flocking to take class with their “favorite” dancer—who, believe it or not, can be as young as 9—and heading home happy with four counts of 8 and a meet-and-greet photo they can splash all over Facebook.

It’s all a lot of fun, but I wonder—in this rush to gush, what of the steadfast artists who have dedicated their lives to the study of dance but never appeared in a music video? Will these masters continue to find their way to the front of the class? And once there, will students with stars in their eyes be able to see them clearly? —Karen White, Associate Editor


New Dance Therapy

Philosopher and author Alain de Botton and some associates have come up with a program that offers what they call bibliotherapy. It works like this: people who are struggling or who would like to make changes in their lives consult with a bibliotherapist, much as one consults a psychotherapist. One of three bibliotherapists (currently one author, one artist, and a bookstore owner) then puts together a list of books that might help that person lift his spirits, solve a problem, look at things differently, strategize, or become energized. While not trained therapists, all three have an extensive knowledge of books and literature.

I immediately thought about the multitude of dances that might serve a similar function—ballets that inspire, modern dance pieces that enlighten, tap numbers that overjoy, dance theater that helps untangle a knotty philosophical problem.

If a patient on my sofa were feeling fearful or timid, I would recommend Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, the perfect modern dance piece to remind her of the joys of spontaneity and the pleasure of trust—think of the fifth movement, with the women flying through the air, fearless and exuberant, confident that their partners will catch them. For someone who suffers from boredom and cynicism, or is feeling a little underwhelmed by human nature as he observes it, I’d prescribe Pina Bausch. Almost any one of her works can underscore the complexity and fragility—but also the enormous strength and beauty—of the human animal. There is much to be learned about social theory in the works of Anna Sokolow. And for a lesson in the mathematics of rhythm, take two doses of Gregory Hines.

While there is no scientific basis in this form of therapy, most of us have had life-changing experiences with books or dance, or both. Next time you despair that politics, the economy, war, or poverty has rendered the modern world bereft of all that is good, sit down and watch Balanchine’s Serenade. I’m convinced that nothing on earth could better right anything that ails the spirit. —Lisa Okuhn, Associate Editor