Students study theater and dance with former clown George Whiteside
By Ken Gewertz
George Whiteside may be one of the only people in the world to hold degrees from both Harvard and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
In one of those career moves that prompt parents to yell, "For this I paid for your education?," Whiteside pocketed his bachelor's degree in Russian studies, earned in 1986, and enrolled in a graduate program that had him popping out of a Volkswagen with 11 other clowns in makeup and floppy shoes.
But there is a connection between Whiteside's undergraduate studies and the world of the bigtop, and that connection is soul.
As a Harvard student studying Russian literature, Whiteside found soul in the tortured, often bizarre literary creations of Gogol and Dostoyevsky. As a junior spending a semester in Moscow he found it in the raw immediacy of Russian theater performances. And he found it in the knockabout routines he and his colleagues performed as members of The Greatest Show on Earth.
"I think that soul is what people want in performance art, and I believe that clown-work is of the soul."
Now Whiteside is trying to bring that elusive quality of soul to another area -- dance and movement. As the Office for the Arts' 1997-98 Peter Ivers Visiting Artist, he has been working with a group of undergraduates to create a series of dance pieces that will be presented Saturday, May 2, at ARTS FIRST and on Sunday, May 10, at Agassiz Theatre. The group will also travel to Providence on Monday, May 4, to perform with a student ensemble at Brown University.
Whiteside studied ballet as a high school student, but his approach to dance now is anything but traditional, combining elements of his circus experience and training with the innovative dance ensemble Pilobolus. He is co-founder of the Boston-based Snappy Dance Theater.
"I take aspects of clowning and bring it to dance theater. It's more about telling stories than technical dance. I call it choreography of wit, invention, and improbable physicality."
Another key aspect of Whiteside's approach is improvisation. This becomes clear when you see him working with the undergraduates who make up his current ensemble. Its members started meeting last fall, bringing with them a wide variety of backgrounds in dance and theater.
For the first few months, the group did improvisation exercises, moving to a wide variety of music and responding creatively to Whiteside's suggestions.
"He would give us an idea and then have us base an improvisation on it," said freshman Jeanette Soriano. "For example, he told me, 'Do a dance based on three shapes.' "
Soriano, who has always loved to dance but had no formal training, found Whiteside's approach a little strange at first.
"It seemed like a very scattered way of doing things, but it's also fun and interesting. After a while I got pretty excited about it, and I started telling all my friends about it."
But creating a dance involves more than raw self-expression. As the students move around the practice space, discovering new ways of jumping, running, twirling, falling, and leaping, Whiteside watches carefully, constantly making judgments about what looks interesting and what does not.
Valerie Charat, a freshman who had been involved with CityStep and was looking for an improvisational dance group at Harvard, said that Whiteside has taught her and the other students a great deal about what works as theatrical expression.
"He's taught us the rules of doing improvisation," she said. "For example, you should never just drop to the floor or drape yourself on another dancer because that dead-ends the piece. You should change the level of energy from high to medium to low. You should be dynamic. You should use the music but not necessarily dance to it. That's hard for me because I have ballet training, and in ballet you learn to dance to the music."
Sophomore Jessica Kaye, who has also had dance training as well as being a competitive figure skater in high school, found the improvisational method trying at first.
"It can be frustrating because things seem so up in the air, and I'm a person who likes to know where I'm going. But it's good to learn improvisatory techniques. It's definitely a tool I want to learn more about."
Kaye hopes to use the skills she has learned from Whiteside in her own choreography work. She is a member of the student group, Choreographers Inc., and has studied with Claire Mallardi, artistic director of the Radcliffe Dance Program.
Junior Uche Amaechi, another member of Whiteside's ensemble, comes from a more varied background. Born in Nigeria, Amaechi grew up in Houston, Texas, and studied dance in high school. At Harvard Amaechi has gravitated more toward acting, appearing in a production of Titus Andronicus this year. Whiteside's approach seemed like an amalgam of the two genres.
"It's not like straight dance. It's sort of in between dance and theater. I enjoy drawing certain things from the improvisations and then shaping them."
Watching the group working, one is struck by the session's seemingly haphazard character. The pieces are untitled or referred to by apparently random names that no one can explain. No one uses classical ballet terms like plié or grand jeté. Instead, movements have names like "jumpies" or "swoops."
"Pretty much all the movements are generated through improvisation," Whiteside said, "and then I assign them a name off the top of my head. That fixes an image of what the movement is. Then we string a bunch of stuff together in no particular order and do what I call a 'blunder-through' just to see how it looks. It's all a matter of trial and error."
There is a sense of fun and frivolity, which Whiteside does nothing to suppress. But he does maintain a laser-like focus on the work at hand.
"You have to work hard in rehearsal. You have to have concentration and seriousness of purpose and be able to use time efficiently. One thing you realize when you do this work is how limited time is."
But slowly the pieces are coming together and taking on their own individual character. A sudden inspiration prompts Whiteside to combine Jeanette Soriano's improvisation with a duet called "The Nail-Biters," and somehow it works! The result seems brooding, edgy, interesting.
An ensemble piece called "Where She Landed" isn't working. A movement called the "swooper grid" seems too complicated and clumsy. Whiteside eliminates it. The dancers are relieved.
"I think the pieces are close to being done," Whiteside said. "Now we have to clean up the movements, get the blocking right, allow them to do run-throughs rather than blunder-throughs. Finally, they'll get to a point where they'll be able to dance the piece instead of just running through it."
They've been at it for two hours now, and the dancers are beginning to tire, but Whiteside is determined to work hard right up until the end. He watches carefully as they practice a particularly troublesome movement, then suggests a change to smooth it out.
"Has everyone got that? Good. Here we go then -- we're forging ahead."
Whiteside and company will perform "Out of the Marzipan," an afternoon of original dance theater works, on Sunday, May 10, at 4 p.m. at Agassiz Theatre. Tickets are available at the Sanders Theatre box office, Bostix, and at the door on the day of the performance. For more information, call 495-8676.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College