Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Learning to Dance, One Chunk at a Time

By DIANE SOLWAY
Published: May 27, 2007

LAST month in a studio at American Ballet Theater, Angel Corella was studying the former Ballet Theater star Gelsey Kirkland as she showed him sequences from the second act of “The Sleeping Beauty,” a new production set to have its premiere this week at the Metropolitan Opera House.

One of the world’s finest dancers, whose powerhouse technique and dramatic intensity propelled him from his native Spain to American Ballet Theater when he was still a teenager, Mr. Corella also has a rare, less visible gift: he is able to reproduce a dance simply by seeing it once — not only his part, but everybody else’s too. After observing Ms. Kirkland, he was soon following behind her, humming as he mirrored her movements. Forty minutes after they began, he had the hundreds of steps down cold.

But for Mr. Corella and the other Ballet Theater dancers, knowing the steps of a dance is just the first phase in perfecting it. They must also convey the intention and feeling of the works they perform, which, in a repertory company like theirs, run from classical to modern to brand new. During the 2006-7 season alone, the dancers have rotated regularly through 21 works by choreographers as varied as Marius Petipa, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Lar Lubovitch.

That dancers can remember such a wide range of steps, roles and styles is sometimes forgotten in the awe produced by a great performance; the seeming effortlessness of it all suggests that each phrase and combination is spontaneous and not a memorized series of steps. But in getting to that point, most dancers share a relatively similar path, first learning the choreography and then adding layers of detail and color. Finally, they absorb the work so completely that its elements literally become automatic, leaving the dancer’s brain free to focus on the moment-by-moment nuances of the performance.

Dancers call it muscle memory. And while it obviously manifests itself physically as far as dance is concerned, what actually happens, according to neuroscientists, is that the movements become thoroughly mapped in the brain, creating a shorthand between thinking and doing. We may speak of a musician’s fingers or a winemaker’s nose, yet the resulting product is all the brain’s doing, explained Daniel Glaser, a neuroscientist who works at the Wellcome Trust, a philanthropic organization devoted to health care based in London. “Of course you need a body to dance,” he said. “But as dancers transition from conscious awareness of a newly acquired routine to the automatic performance of it, the brain is not doing any less work.”

Dr. Glaser is one of a handful of neuroscientists who have studied dancers as a way to understand the body’s relationship to the brain, and vice versa, better. Because classical ballet relies on certain discrete movements that a dancer must repeat thousands of time throughout a career, the brains of dancers, it turns out, are exquisitely sensitive to seeing movements they’ve rehearsed. If they see someone performing an arabesque, for example, certain motor areas of their brains respond as if they were themselves performing the step.

But before they get anywhere near muscle memory, dancers must first, as they like to say, get the dance into their bodies. This was uppermost in the minds of Ballet Theater’s dancers last month as they prepared for the current Met season. Some were learning new roles; others were refreshing their memory of works they had already performed.

In one studio, Marcelo Gomes led David Hallberg, the company’s newest principal dancer, and his fellow principal Gillian Murphy through their opening entrance and the pas de deux from Ashton’s one-act “The Dream.” The pair were to play the regal fairies Oberon and Titania, and Mr. Gomes, who has danced only Oberon, knew both parts. As they followed behind him, sketching his moves, Mr. Gomes gave a master class in cognitive learning — or so it seemed to an outsider.

First he demonstrated each role, calling out verbal cues (“You look at the moon”), ballet positions (“Put her in fourth”) and movements (“You’re doing bourr√©es and saying ‘no’ at the same time”), and then described in more detail the impetus for the movement (“As you back up, you’re scheming, and we see it on your face”), all the while humming the Mendelssohn score and counting the beats (“One and two and three, tee-ta-tee-ta-tee”).

Within the hour they had learned most of it. The next day they rehearsed with the ballet mistress, Georgina Parkinson, adjusting movements as she called out visual images and described the intention of a particular moment. The 10-minute duet requires great stamina, and the quality of any step can vary depending on its speed and texture: fast, slow, honey or molasses.

Ms. Parkinson wanted to see more lushness and amplitude in the lovers’ sensual choreography. “You need to explode,” she told Ms. Murphy, advising her to rely more on her back muscles as she flitted her arms madly about. Mr. Hallberg, who does not have Mr. Corella’s gift of being able to learn steps from sight alone, looked on. “It’s not in my body yet,” he said. “I’m just trying to get the feeling of it.”

Where initially dancers see one move and then another, eventually they merge the steps into phrases and then into longer sequences. Brain scientists refer to this process as “chunking.” Dr. Glaser likens it to learning to tie a shoelace. First you think “left over right, right under left,” and then you make a bow. But once you’ve learned the steps, they become one seamless movement.

“What dancers are able to do, which you and I cannot,” he said, “is to take a set of those moves and turn that into one long phrase and then take a dozen of those phrases and put them into one long movement.”

Karen Bradley, a movement analyst who directs the graduate dance program at the University of Maryland, said: “No two dancers chunk the same way. Some do it rhythmically, some consider spatial configurations, some think about weight shifts, some rely on imagery, and some follow an inner monologue.”

After his third rehearsal for “The Dream” — about three hours of studio time — Mr. Hallberg could run through the pas de deux with Ms. Murphy nonstop. “This means that it’s not only in the body,” he said. “But it’s nowhere near performance value. Now you can add yourself into the performance.”

For that, the dancers rely on Ballet Theater’s coaches, many of whom have danced the works themselves and can help the dancers create a performance that resonates with an audience.

That was the lesson the ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova was trying to impart last month to Mr. Gomes and Veronika Part, the opening-night leads in the new production of “Sleeping Beauty,” staged by Ms. Kirkland; Kevin McKenzie, the company’s artistic director; and Michael Chernov, with choreography after Petipa. A former Kirov ballerina and celebrated Princess Aurora, Ms. Kolpakova, 74, frowned as she watched the pair run through their pas de deux. “It’s very nice, but where is your feeling?” she asked, and then demonstrated what she wanted. Following behind her, the younger dancers were all taut, sinewy limbs and unlined faces; it was in Ms. Kolpakova’s expressive face and articulate phrasing that the choreography came alive.

“You work your muscle memory in rehearsal so that when you get onstage it’s only your brain and your emotions working,” Mr. Corella said. “You don’t think about what the body is doing anymore. When I go into the wings, I can’t remember what I’ve done. I don’t remember if my foot was pointed.”

But not all dancers achieve this every time, he added: “They stay in the rehearsal period. You can see that they’re thinking if their leg is in the right place.”

Scientists say motor learning like Mr. Corella’s can actually be observed in the brain. To know precisely where our bodies are in space at any given moment — an ability called propioception — our brain receives signals about the length of each muscle and the angle of each joint and “does a kind of mental trigonometry,” said Prof. Patrick Haggard of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London. Professor Haggard, who has measured the brain activity of ballet dancers using brain scanners, observes that dancers “have better propioception than the rest of us.”

“Those brain signals seem to be of a particularly high quality in dancers,” he said.

For many dancers, music can be a helpful prompt for muscle memory, enabling them to recall dances they did years ago. “It all comes at once,” said Mr. Corella, describing his response to familiar music.

But music can trip up dancers too, as the ballerina Julie Kent discovered while rehearsing the new “Sleeping Beauty” with Ms. Kirkland. Ms. Kent had danced the version by Kenneth MacMillan many times, and as Ms. Kirkland demonstrated a different position of the arms, Ms. Kent tried to resist her body’s natural impulses. “Your conscious thought has to override the stored memory and say, ‘No, it’s not that, it’s this,’ ” she said.

A self-described slow learner, Ms. Kent, 38, recalled that early in her career she didn’t perform a new work because she couldn’t remember the steps. Occasionally, she still forgets them. In rehearsals with Mr. Gomes, 27, a quick study and her partner this week in “The Dream,” she acknowledged that “I drive him crazy, because sometimes I’ll just blank. But I tell him, ‘Wait until you get to my age and you have all these ballets in your head.’ ”

Frederic Franklin, 93, can attest to that. Mr. Franklin is among the last of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo stars of the 1930s and has one of the most prodigious memories in dance. After watching a rehearsal at American Ballet Theater studios last month, he jabbed his temple. “It’s all in here,” he said. Even now, he added, “when I’m watching them, I can feel my muscles doing it.”

Source: The New York Times

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