In conjunction with the 39th Spoleto Festival USA, three performing companies held master classes for people in Charleston interested in getting up close and personal with some of the world’s finest dancers and acrobats.
For $20, you could get a crash course in the art and style of Trisha Brown Dance Company, Casus Circus and Shen Wei Dance Arts. I signed up. And on the last Saturday of the festival, I joined first the Shen Wei class at the College of Charleston’s CATO Center for the Arts, and then the Casus Circus workout at Memminger Auditorium.
Led by rehearsal director Kate Jewett, the two-hour workshop showed 13 participating dancers the basics of the company’s rehearsals.
We warmed up for 20 minutes with self-massage of limbs, core and face. This helped loosen the tension in our joints, making it easier to go through the very fluid motions the Shen Wei technique calls for, according to Jewett.
One technique involved shifting our weight. Instructing us to focus on how we use our energy, Jewett taught us to leverage momentum, instead of forcing movement. With a few specific motions, one could turn freely, but in a way that forced dancers to be aware of how their bodies move.
“Just thinking about how you use your energy and not overpowering the movements was so interesting,” said Maggie Bailey, a member of the local Annex Dance company.
Bailey said that the center-shifting exercise was her favorite part of the two hours because it showed how much your body can do if you allow it to flow.
In the second portion of the class, Jewett gave us a quick breakdown on the company’s foot movement, which comes from Wei’s background in classical Chinese opera. Accentuating every muscle in our foot, Jewett taught us how to roll through the balls of our feet, transferring weight from toes to heels in painfully slow steps, then in swifter steps. It caused us to pay close attention to the details of our movements, whether slow or fast.
Finally, we combined the techniques we learned and used them when Jewett taught us her solo in the piece “[Untitled #12-2],” performed by the company this year at the festival. The solo, another extremely slow piece, required us to direct our attention to where we placed our feet, arms and body weight, because one wrong adjustment could cause our body to move the opposite way.
“It gave me a new appreciation for the piece,” said Cathy Cabaniss, another Annex dancer. “The amount of concentration it takes to move that slowly is amazing.”
After the Shen Wei workshop, it was off to the 1 p.m. Casus Circus master class, which taught a group of eight the basics of acrobatic tricks seen in the show.
Led by performers Natano Fa’anana and Jesse Huygh, the class gave the participants a chance to be in their own circus. Organizing the group into four pairs, Fa’anana and Huygh taught a number of safe flyer/base tricks that could be easily executed. Because I arrived a little late, I was paired with the 6-foot, 175-pound Clayton Woodson, of Charleston’s Aerial Fit. (I am 10 inches shorter and 45 pounds lighter.)
First, the bigger partners tossed their smaller collaborators about. The person thrown had to learn to stay still and center her weight. Then we were lifted by our feet, concentrating on balance. These two exercises were the easiest of the class.
Once we got more comfortable with our partners, we stood on one another’s upper backs, lower backs, thighs and hips. Standing on Woodson, I moved with some ease, hopping up and occasionally shifting my weight to make the exercise more comfortable for us. Co-founder of a gym that specializes in this kind of activity, Woodson knew what he was doing.
When it came time to switch positions and move from being the flyer to the base, the class quickly turned from fun to intense. Before I knew it, I was breaking a sweat trying to balance a 175-pound man on my upper thighs while squatting and trying not to fall over. I even had to hold Fa’anana on my back at one point, because the height-weight ratio of my partner and I was too large (Fa’anana is a little shorter than Woodson, so it was a little easier). Still it was a challenge.
Then the participants got together for one last activity. Starting from a corner of the stage, we were to get two flyers around the perimeter of the space without having them touch the ground, and to do so without speaking. I was one of the chosen, nonspeaking flyers. I had to step on necks, backs, shoulders and hands, all before falling half way across to my destination and being replaced with another participant.
Trusting these people whom I had never met before with my safety was nervewracking, but the others seemed to enjoy it.
“We were building blocks,” said Morgan Bennett, a College of Charleston student. “We had to go with what felt right. I liked the idea of playing with weight sharing and trying to move in the space.”
Both classes were fun and interesting. The Shen Wei workshop with Jewett was more meditative, while the Casus Circus with Fa’anana and Huygh was more entertaining and required intense focus on one’s partner. I got through both classes with no injuries, just sore thighs and hip joints.
After seeing both shows, I know that what we learned was merely the briefest of introductions to what these remarkable performers do on a daily basis.
Love Lee is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.