Feature on A Company of Dancers: Saturday’s Guest Artists

An Interview with Paulette Brockington – A Multidisciplinary Local Dance Artist

Melissa Durante interviews Paulette Brockington
Melissa Durante

For this next post, I caught up with dancer and choreographer Paulette Brockington. Paulette is an accomplished artist who directs the Detroit-based ensemble, A Company of Dancers.

Artist Paulette Brockington
Artist Paulette Brockington

 Paulette began teaching through a position as a teaching assistant at The University of Michigan; later going on to teach at  Marygrove College, Wayne County Community College District, and several companies. She is credited with establishing and maintaining the annual American Lindy Hop Championships in addition to playing major roles in other prominent swing festivals. Diverse in her interests, Paulette is also a member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity—taking on multiple acting roles as well. Paulette began by explaining her dance career, saying:

Choreographer and Dancer Paulette Brockington
Choreographer and Dancer Paulette Brockington

“I don’t believe there was ever a time I didn’t think of myself as a dancer. Even as a child at 8 years old when I was ill and in the hospital I thought of myself as a dancer. As I grew into an adult I would watch dance numbers in musicals and thoroughly enjoy them. Maybe it was then that I decided I wanted to be a choreographer. It wasn’t until other choreographers started asking me to dance for them that I considered anything more.”

 How have your diverse artistic experiences shaped your style? 

“I think of myself more as a performing artist at this point because I am addicted to all kinds of movement- ballet, modern, contemporary, tap, ballroom. I’ve even tried breaking. I think exposure to all those styles has made me a dancer who gleans technique and aesthetics and style into a mover with a unique voice.”

What is your dance background and how did you come to focus in the area you did?

“I studied with Bella Lewitzky and many other noted masters, but I came to focus on contemporary “ballet” movement because of outside factors. Modern dance technique has really for the most part fallen out of favor into a mishmash of styles and a trend toward the avant-garde, randomness without a theme, for its own sake. I find structure in my form of ballet – which I’m sure to ballet dancers looks like crazy modern and looks like ballet to the contemporary sect.”

Ha! I like that! I’m excited to see your “brand” of contemporary ballet. I see you’re an extremely accomplished swing dancer, so I want to ask you about that. What draws you to swing specifically?

So you want to know what draws me to swing dance?? I was initially drawn to it as a contemporary choreographer wanting to infuse my choreography with some of its flavor. I stuck with it because of Frankie Maning. He mentored me, taught me. I loved his dance because I loved him.”

Tell me about your interest in other stagecraft and acting?

“People tend to pigeon hole you into one area. When I was actively auditioning I would go to a play audition and be asked if I knew there was no singing or dancing in the play. Of course I knew. I would go to a musical theater audition and be asked if i knew that there was singing and dancing in the show. And, of course, I knew. Once people have a mental picture–an image– of you it doesn’t really matter to them what you say you’re interested in doing.”

wow –That is interesting. Lastly, what current projects/classes are you currently working on? 

The Third Side, my piece that People Dancing and DiTM are presenting on Saturday August 8th, has elements of all the things that lure me to keep dancing and creating. You’ll certainly see elements of ballet, modern, social dance and pedestrian movement. One thing I learned is that you can’t be a good social dancer unless you understand relationships. I tap into that as much as I can.

After “The Third Side” premieres in Michigan, @ Thrive! –that’s THIS coming Saturday– I’ll start working on a new concept for 6-8 dancers. I’ll work on that (with a Company of Dancers)–while prepping for the American Lindy Hop Championships.

Tell me about that…

I’m presenting the Lindy Hop Championships in Detroit for the first time after a long run on the east coast. It (Lindy Hop) too, is all about relationships. And then I have swing workshops that I do from time to time. And, I currently teach ballet at studios in the metro area.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me, Paulette. Dance artists Jessica Thomas and Brandon Burton will join Paulette on stage at Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor on Saturday August 8th at 8:00 pm

Jessica G. Thomas, Dance Artist in The Third Side
Jessica G. Thomas, Dance Artist in The Third Side
brandon burton cr
Brandon Burton will join Paulette and Jessica in this timely trio.

Interview with Laura Zimmerman – Dance for the Camera Instructor


Melissa Durante asks: What will the lesson plans be like for each day of the intensive?

For the intensive, we will be focusing primarily on how composition and camera positioning can create and aid storytelling in dance film.  Each day we will focus on a different topic or theme, including framing and perspective, depth of field, camera positioning and movement, and filming on location, and the festival participants will work in small groups to create short dance films centered on the day’s topic.

For example, we will be learning about framing a shot and playing with perspective (wide shot, close-up, bird’s eye view, worm’s eye view, etc.) to create visual interest in your dance film.  After discussing how to utilize framing and perspective, we’ll look at some examples of dance films that utilize this in an effective way.  The participants will then get hands-on experience by developing and shooting a short dance film that utilizes the perspective and framing techniques they learned about.  At the end of class we’ll have a brief screening of the films they created and discuss how framing and perspective was used in effective or interesting ways.

 Melissa Durante asks: First, how did you get started in your field? What do you enjoy specifically about your work?

Laura answers: Film allows you to alter reality in ways that just aren’t physically possible in either the real world or on stage, thus the medium of film ultimately expands a choreographer’s pallet of possibilities.  You can reverse your footage so that all your dancers’ movements go backwards.  You can slow down your dancers movements or speed them up to the extreme.  You can flip them upside down.  You can focus just on the dancer’s feet.  You can dance along side a cliff face.  The possibilities are almost endless.

Melissa Durante asks: Can you discuss a little bit about the piece you are currently working on (D4C, I believe Christina mentioned)?

Laura Zimmerman teaches Dance for the Camera
Laura Zimmerman teaches Dance for the Camera

Laura answers: At the moment I’m working on two new dance films that are in different stages of production.  I’ve recently been interesting in creating work in natural environments, so both of these films were and are being filmed on location outdoors.  The first film, under the working title of Through the Woods, features five dancers running and dancing though a wooded nature area in Ann Arbor.  That film is in post-production, so I’m currently in the process of editing it before collaborating with a composer to create the musical score.  The second film, under the working title of Chaptered Migration, features a solo dancer traveling and dancing through the seasons over the course of a year.  In this film we see the stark contrast of fall colors with still, white snow, drenching rain, and bright sunshine.

To the Beat of a Different Drum…Chi & Ambyr teach Thursday 8/6

Thursday’s lunchtime workshop: Where African Drumming Meets Dance

Looking deeper at the ideas of the experience of dance for the dancer and the ways in which choreography develops organically, I reached out to two of Dance in the Mitten’s guest artists: Chi and Ambyr Amen-Ra. This couple comes from deep and traditional artistic roots—Chi taking up African drumming at the age of 2 as a part of the Ngoma Za Amen-Ra New Afrikan Cultural Theatre in Detroit, Ambyr studying dance as a child, beginning with Yanvelou dance, and later taking on a variety of disciplines and techniques. They work together to blend movement and music, a process that Ambyr explains, saying, “We don’t have to argue about tempo and which rhythms go with certain movement. Instead of focusing on basics, we can get right to creating shows that are amazing to see and hear.”

Each of the artist’s backgrounds help this collaboration thrive. As I mentioned, Chi began drumming from a very young age, rising to the rank of lead drummer. In college, Chi became involved in African Greek Life achi Amen-Ras a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, Fraternity Inc. While Chi points out that movement is inherently linked to African drumming, he notes that the connection between movement and music was strengthened by stepping, an essential part of the African Greek Life experience. Growing up so deeply rooted in a such a traditional cultural practice from a different region of the world was difficult at times, but Chi stuck with it despite the adversity he faced. He explains, “When I was younger I sometimes didn’t see the long-term benefit of sticking with a craft and lifestyle that isn’t popular. But I am forever grateful that my parents and teachers kept on me to be dedicated.” He further went on to say that “I think the biggest thing personally is that through this music I have had an opportunity to see the world and to gain a more mature and global perspective on life.”

Chi performs at these international opportunities with his wife, dancer Ambyr Amen-Ra. She was introduced to dance by her mother, and began taking Yanvelou (a Haitian folkloric dance) classes at the age of 2. The daughter of a Ambyr Amen-RaDunham technique-certified dancer, Ambyr studied Katherine Dunham style extensively—even performing with Dunham’s Children’s Workshop Company at the age of eleven. As she developed as a dancer, she explored a variety of other disciplines including Horton technique, ballet, Afro-Haitian, and Afro-Cuban styles. Childhood friends, Ambyr and Chi have explored their arts together for years, but really began collaborating a lot beginning in 2008. Ambyr says, “It makes creating easier when you have a partner who understands both music and dance the way that Chi does.” This fascinating pair will be teaching class together during the Dance in the Mitten intensive this August—be sure to check them out! Their class will be Thursday 8/6 from noon-2:05 pm at Kenville Studios of Dance & Creativity.

Register TODAY!

Melissa's headshot
Melissa’s headshot

written by Melissa Durante

Knowing the Dancer from the Dance

writing on dance
the author after dance class

By Melissa Durante

I know I spent a good deal of time in my last post arguing that what makes a dance is the intention behind it, but I think there’s even more to it than that.

Yes, there is a message for the audience, but dance seems to mirror the old adage that if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does the falling tree make a sound? Similarly, if there is a dancer performing without an audience, is it still a dance?

Of course, the answer is yes. But that brings up an ever-important aspect of the dance process which many people often overlook—the experience of movement for a performer. As Merce Cunningham eloquently summed up, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” For the dancer, it is all about the experience of the movement, the way a reach, a bend, a turn feels in their body.

Sometimes, it’s nice to slow down and appreciate the little details that make up movement. As a student in People Dancing’s SOMA dance class, I’ve been a part of classes which pause to consider elements such as posture, alignment, and extension in detail. Like an academic may analyze a passage of text, these pauses allow dancers the opportunity to break down a movement into its component parts and really understand how each step impacts our bodies. In the past several months, the class has also focused on preparing for a performance opportunity—a piece titled “Bees and Blooms”—which aptly focused on the spring pollination process and brought to light the dangers of reducing the bee population.

After weeks of turning intently to an exploration of how our bodies process movement and working through practice combinations in class together, this provided a unique opportunity; the chance for a collaborative experience. While director Christina Sears Etter provided the core structure of the piece and key combinations, dancers were given the opportunity to interpret the movement for themselves. Distinct poses and timing as well as partnering routines arose out of these experimental moments which were later fitted together and smoothed out by Christina. Overall, this process gave us the chance to explore the ins and outs of a combination—providing us with the chance to expand on the piece by complementing and contrasting earlier movement and one another. While sometimes it seems dance is all about the audience, developing this piece allowed us all the chance to really understand the movement in each of our bodies and create a piece expressive of all those involved. 

Melissa Durante dancing
Melissa Durante dancing under summer skies

Seeing Dance Through The Looking Glass

By Melissa Durante

Sometime early in my freshman year of college, I had a dance-related existentialist crisis. Sure, I’d spent a good deal of time taking jazz and tap and lyrical classes, but the ballet dancer in me was committed to structure. I was used to dance that had to look “pretty,” that had to be performed “right.” What I found when I encountered modern dance (and post-modern, and post-post modern) at the beginning of college, however, was that I really appreciated more open forms. I enjoyed the possibilities that come with improvisational dance, and came to enjoy the freedom to explore through dance. But as much as I enjoyed classes that didn’t require constantly pointed toes or even shoes at all, I found myself wondering what dance is. Without steadfast rules, how can we determine what is and what isn’t dance?

What I ended up learning from this little crisis was that what really gives color to choreography is the imagination behind it. While a dancer may dance for the way the movement feels in their body, what gives the dance power is the intention driving it. Take, for example, Martha Graham’s iconic “Lamentation.” Here, a dancer moving within a single sleeve of fabric portrays a woman’s grief. She does not come dripping in jewels and smiling, like we often expect of a dancer, but through the pained movement the anguish behind the piece is conveyed. Of course, there is a good deal of creativity propelling the ballets as well. Recently, The Royal Ballet adapted Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. A whimsical story, it takes a highly creative eye to recreate this fantastical plot within the confines of reality,  but with the help of innovative sets, out-of-the-box costumes (building characters of one, two, three dancers), and modern film technology, Lewis Carroll’s tale came to life. This creativity driving dance often takes other forms as well—leading to choreographers reimagining the traditional entirely. Take, for example, the creative mind behind the British-based New Adventures Company. Director Matthew Bourne is known for his twisted interpretations of classics; reinventing Swan Lake with a male Odile and Odette and all-male corps of swans, spinning Sleeping Beauty as a gothic ballet complete with vampires, and adapting Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands as a ballet.

Sometimes, imagination and creativity even extend beyond the bounds of the traditional stage. An emerging field, immersive theatre lets the audience roam around the set, following performers as the story plays out. Productions such as Punchdrunk’s New York production Sleep No More, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (and drawing on elements from Hitchcock), and Third Rail Productions’ And Then She Fell, which gives another interpretation of Wonderland, are current examples. Creativity and imagination don’t just fuel interesting choreography, however, but works that carry meaning. Just as Graham expressed anguish or as Bourne turned gender-conventions on their heads, dances are often created with more than a story in mind but a message or idea to convey. In my experience, that’s what really gives dance value, what makes it dance at all—the intention behind the movement and the creativity and imagination that brings those thoughts to life.

Balancing Traditions: Interdisciplinary Dance at DiTM

By Melissa Durante….


Tanya Calomeneri 1
Tanya Calomeneri 1 by Eric Koziol

With the sun finally having melted the last of Ann Arbor’s deep freeze, it seems the Dance in the Mitten Intensive is just around the corner. In preparation for the week-long festival, we caught up with Tanya Calamoneri—one of the talented artists guest-teaching during the program.

Tanya is currently a visiting professor at Colgate University and artistic director of the SoGoNo Company. Her work is artistically interdisciplinary, the effect of earlier influences that have profoundly impacted her career. She explains these influences, saying, “Dancing in the San Francisco Bay Area – first with Kim Epifano and others within the dance-theater/contact improv community, and then with my own company, violent dwarf – shaped my aesthetic immeasurably. Dancing there in the 1990s, I experienced a complete blurring of dance/theater/music/art and it was the norm to be provocative with form as well as content.” Her work is further influenced by her experiences with butoh dance, a Japanese theatre-dance form which portrays distressing images and often takes on the taboo or the absurd. Tanya happened upon butoh seemingly by accident during physical theater training with Action Theater. Following a three-month training period, the artist Shinichi Koga asked her to join his company for a tour of Germany.  She says, “I had no idea what butoh was but was quickly submerged and remained so for about 13 years.”  She’s had the opportunity to study under many notable artists in the butoh community, and this dance form continues to inform her work.

Her personal style has continued to evolve. As artistic director of SoGoNo, she brings together a variety of interdisciplinary artists, and draws on not only her butoh experiences but also physical theater, contemporary dance, and occasionally jazz or burlesque forms. She describes her aesthetic as “darkly comedic.” When asked why she dances, Tanya explains how dance provides her the chance to “grapple with my thoughts and imagination in real time.” She further explains that she dances, “because I can still surprise myself when I dance, and because it allows me to express things that language cannot.” To learn more about Tanya and her work, visit the SoGoNo website at sogono.org and dance with her this summer at the Dance in the Mitten festival!