January 30, 2003
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Mills Lawn first-grade students Rachele Orme, left, and Lindsey Ward warming up earlier this month for dance class with resident dancer Margot Greenlee.

Artists-in-residence at Mills Lawn—
Explore under the surface

Dorothy Poortinga’s second graders know what they are getting from dancing with Margot Greenlee, one of the resident artists at Mills Lawn School this month.

Emma Peifer likes it because she gets to have someone copy her in the mirroring exercise.

Aidan Ceney never knew he could spin so well.

Cheyenne Stilabower learned through trusting her body in dance that she didn’t have to be afraid of sledding down the Gaunt Park hill anymore. “You just close your eyes and do it!” she said.

The process of learning trust and expression through dance and theater may not always be obvious in the performance. Greenlee, from the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and artists-in-residence Jeff Hooper and Hal Walker, from Mad River Theater Works, have spent three weeks finding experiential ways for students in kindergarten through grade four to develop an intimacy with the theme of diversity as part of the school’s “Looking In, Looking Out” project.

The students performed “Underneath the Surface” last Friday at Fairborn High School. The performance offered a view of the greater process the students went through together to get there.

Greenlee began a Tuesday morning dance class with a question: “What accumulated two inches this morning?”

“Snow!” several second graders yelled out.

The question opened the brainstorming discussion about the different ways people around the world predict the weather, what kinds of things happen when it snows and what happens after it snows that connects everyone around the world.

The students came up with movements to express a snowy blizzard by whisking around the room, arms sailing above their heads. Then they practiced sliding their feet along the floor as though they were skating on ice. Next they imitated the snow melting and evaporating by swishing around like the wind and drawing their fingers up from the floor like water molecules going up into the air.

In 15 minutes the students had choreographed a stylish dance with a beginning, a middle and an end, smiling right through the angst and grit of creating a work of art. The dance may or may not enter into the performance, but it will live in the memory of the body as a step toward better artistic expression.

“The idea is that we’ll make four times as much as we’ll use,” Greenlee said. “You try to be ready for the changes that come and help make those changes.”

Spontaneity and improvisation are like second nature to artists in the theater. But theater residents Hooper and Walker take a different approach to getting students to express themselves and their stories.

“I tend to be more story oriented, and Margot is more physical property oriented,” Hooper said.

The stories the third- and fourth-grade students adapted to the stage were taken from interviews they did with community reading tutors. The students created several unscripted playlets based on the experiences of their elders. Hooper wanted to focus on getting students to understand the character and the emotion they were trying to portray rather than having them memorize a script.

“This is a great age to work with because they’re old enough to grasp the idea of imagining the circumstances they’ll be in on stage,” Hooper said. “But they’re not so old that they have a lot of inhibitions, and they’re not afraid to be silly and get out there and try new things.”

On Tuesday the third graders were trying to stay in their characters as they rehearsed the scenarios they had created. Walker told them that even if their words changed a little each time they rehearsed it, their enthusiasm and stress on particular emotions were the important things to focus on.

The theater team also found that the learning process wouldn’t necessarily parallel the performance at the end of the program.

“The challenge is finding the balance between product and process,” Walker said.

The experience of a performance has value in and of itself, but the road to get there could be more lasting.

“Sometimes I look at these kids and think, how powerful are you going to be as an adult,” Greenlee said. “These kids will be inventive thinkers and strong arts advocates.”


—Lauren Heaton