Getting Back to Neutrality: A Conversation with Augusta Moore | By Maya Kitayama

Augusta Moore teaching class

Augusta Moore teaching class

Maya Kitayama: Tell us a little bit about your training and performance background.

Augusta Moore: I was in the San Francisco Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Chicago City Ballet under Maria Tallchief and Lupe Serrano and all these amazing people and that’s good. But I was also raised in theater school as a kid. I was in Minneapolis in the 70s and the city paid for us to get out of school at noon and go study. I would go from 1:00 to 4:30pm and study theater, including gymnastics, karate, voice and all these different things, and then at 5:00pm I would take ballet and at 7:00pm I would rehearse plays, so it was a very long day. Then I tried to go just into ballet when I was 13, which was great, but the studio burned down so I went back to theater school. I left home when I was 15 to dance professionally, which I don’t suggest. It’s a little young, but it’s all part of what forms you. Also, being so young, I got injured at 18. I quit and retrained with a physical therapist, and she gave me two books when I left her, The Anatomy Coloring Book and The Vaganova Syllabus. It definitely sent me in the direction that I am today, and then from there I went and joined companies, but I always think that the not studying long enough [affected me]. I had a lot of talent and so I was pushed out a little young. My family didn’t have much money, so I didn’t get to go study at a big school. I think that made me more injury prone, because I didn’t have that time. But that of course was what also sent me in this direction of being concerned with recovery and helping people really use themselves as well as possible so that they can survive.

MK: Could you speak about your Feldenkrais education and knowledge?

AM: I’m a Feldenkrais practitioner and I graduated with my certification about 20 years ago. Lately, I’ve been working with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, who is an amazing somatic practitioner and also a dancer. It’s great to have this new amazing teacher to work with at this point in my life, she’s in her seventies and amazingly lives in my neighborhood. She’s done some workshops for our teachers and she’s founded an astounding movement system that I’m bringing into the school. Some people think that working this way is just injury prevention, but it’s not for me at all. I think it really unleashes you as an artist to have everything available to you, so I’m really not just interested in injury prevention. It’s very hard to dance injured all the time, so to have this access to these different parts of your body, that’s an artistic experience as well as a somatic one.

MK: How does your knowledge of Feldenkrais inform your ballet classes?

AM: I almost have to say now my “somatics” because I’m using Feldenkrais with BMC (Body-Mind Centering) and I talk about chakras. I’m not proud, I’ll do anything to make people understand something. I’m not a purist that way. What’s really important is to make clear to the students what it is that I’m trying to teach them that day. The nature of people is that if you come to a class, they will often obliterate themselves to get the step or to get something. I try to give them a somatic experience before we start dancing, so I do anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes of that before the class. I have to make it really clear what it is we’re feeling, and then we start practicing a little bit. I do it first without music so they don’t have to conform to a rhythm, they can do the movement in their own personal rhythm.

MK: Do your students ever have trouble incorporating Feldenkrais in their ballet physicality?

AM: It’s very difficult, I mean some people can’t get to do it, and they’re not good students for me. I know if they’re just not [good students] if they just seem like they’re in class to grind their bodies and that’s how it’s going to be. Usually they have to get to a certain level of injury before they come back and then they’re like “oh, all right.” And I understand, I wouldn’t study this if I didn’t have to. I would rather just grind. I was a child gymnast and I loved throwing my body around, but it just doesn’t work. It works for a while, I often call it “the heartbreak of talent.” If you have a lot of talent you can get away with a lot of abusive behavior, but then it will always catch up to you. I haven’t seen anybody for whom it did not, unless they quit. So I have to make it really clear what we’re doing. I often tell my students when I’m teaching somatic classes, “you’re here to waste money and waste time, because that’s the only way.” I’m also really trying to get people to move from a point of a view of pleasure; rather than a range of movement, it’s a range of pleasure. Usually, the only way we measure if we’ve hit the limit or not is if something hurts or something snaps. I’m trying to use some other criteria, such as pleasure. I read somewhere that the body is made up of 90 or 98 percent space, and I’m trying to work in the space of things. We always feel the matter, we jam in the joints, but what if we moved in the space? Then you could save the joints. That’s something I’ve been thinking about lately in movement. To get people to do it, I have to make them understand something else first, so that they’re willing to let go of what their original idea was. That’s the trick, and I try to do it in a very fast time.

MK: Could you speak a little bit about the ballet program in general?

AM: For the adult program, I’ve come to it with this point of view, although I don’t insist that everybody see it exactly like I do. One of my students of 20 years has gone off, she’s in Russia right now studying the Vaganova technique, that is her passion, and I think it’s valuable. As adults they have their choices and people can go to who they want. However, I have to feel a sense of cohesiveness, I have to feel that they care about the body— this really matters to me. If you go to Russia they select people for being able to do this and I don’t think you should force people to do something they can’t do physically, because it literally ungrounds them. As a ballet teacher, the first thing is to do no harm. It’s good enough for doctors, I think it should be good enough for us.

MK: How is Feldenkrais incorporated into the youth teen curriculum?

AM: For the youth teen program, I bring the skeleton in at a very young age; we teach the pelvic floor to ten-year olds. I put a rubberband on either end of the sitting bones, and then another one in the pubic bone and tailbone and the knot in the middle is the perineum. I bring the skeleton and show them the stretching and then we imitate it with our hands, and then we plié from the pelvic floor. I’m just trying to get it out there, I’m trying to show them the information. If somebody’s injured, I might take them out of the class, I might put them in a lower class. I’m also trying to extract myself from some of the kids classes, I was able to this year. If I’m teaching a class full of people, it’s hard to stop and work at length if you see someone who really needs it. By not teaching, I’ve had teachers send me kids, and it’s just been great. I had a kid whose knee was killing her and she had already been to the doctor who said “oh, you’re growing a lot this year,” and they always answer this way, but I’m finding more and more it’s almost never that. I spend a little time and it usually takes some kind of personal time, a moment with a kid and they tell me something. The student actually broke her ankle when she was 6, and no one ever helped her with it. I finally just worked with it in this way from Bonnie and my Feldenkrais work to loosen it again, and the reason her knee hurt is because she’s been off that injured foot for a long time. Ballet is great because it shows [injuries], like this injury probably wouldn’t show up if she didn’t study dance. I’m interested in getting people back to their neutrality.

MK: Do the other ballet teachers in the program use the same practices?

AM: I’m trying to get the teachers to as much as possible. Last year, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen actually taught a workshop for the ballet teachers; it was a miracle. Sometimes, as teachers, we’ll go off to a workshop together, I’ll hold workshops for them. Any teacher can take anything I teach for free, including Feldenkrais workshops and that kind of thing. I actually just looked at this class taught by Marissa Castillo who has been here for 10 years with me, and she studied with me for more. She has just matured into such a great teacher. I went to watch her class and from having done the Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen workshop, her confidence in touching children was so precise. She comes from a Vaganova background, but she’s completely holistic now.

MK: What are your thoughts on the purist ballet technique and training?

AM: I love Vaganova because it’s got such a good system of vocabulary, you know it really follows a thoughtful progression. It goes bad when Westerners try to turn us into the Kirov School, and that’s when it’s a problem because we’re not the Kirov School. I wish really major ballet schools would just take children, bend them in their underwear, and select that way. I get the kids when they’re 13, they’re devastated, they’ve been trying to do something and then they can’t move. I think that people often think that ballet and somatics don’t go together, but I think they really do because in ballet, there are a lot of movements that aren’t threatening or lifesaving, meaning like, if you learn a somatic idea and then you just go out into the world, it’s hard not to apply it because you need to do that movement in your life to survive. Whereas you don’t really need to do a fouetté in your movement. You might if you’re a professional dancer at some point, but for a general public or for a kid, they’re willing to take the risk of finding [a movement] as a spinal exercise rather than a lifted leg exercise. I think ballet can be really interesting because you can practice these ideas. It’s a practice, not just a performative thing. I find this with lots of things, that people can do anything as a practice or a performance, we make jokes about “competitive Feldenkrais class,” it could be done. I mean, I’ve seen competitive Pilates, and it wasn’t meant to be done that way. It’s meant to help you, but I think anything can be. What’s so great about practicing ballet that way is that you can use it. Sometimes I’m going to make it a performance, sometimes I use it to recover. It’s so great when I can use my artform to recover, I don’t have to go get a massage, take Pilates or something, I can do it in my own class.

MK: What do you try and communicate to your students?

AM: More self-trust. More faith in what they do. I usually do one combination facing the mirror and second time away from the mirror. I let them do it the first time toward the mirror because half of them don’t know the combination. I give them that, I let them futz around and find inside. I actually think that there needs to be a little more of that in with the kids as well, people always do something better the second time. And if you insist on perfection the first time, there’s no room for experimentation. Usually when people are forced to be perfect the first time, they just get less and less involved, less and less of their body is involved in it and then it’s a very unsatisfying thing and it overworks the parts involved. I’m really looking for a full body experience. That’s another reason why I often ask students to consider whatever I’m saying to be a suggestion, not a correction, so that they can think, take a moment and say, “oh that’s very nice Augusta, but how does that apply to me?” Not to try and slam it on before they get a chance to dance and to feel it. I guess what I’m really trying to get my students to do is to feel.

MK: What have you personally learned from teaching?

AM: My students are my best teachers, they are always informing me. Ballet is nothing without the students, it’s just in a vacuum. It’s sort of like when I first went to college. If you really wanted to pass a test, you had to make a test and give it to someone else. You do that, and you’ll be an A student. I have to know a lot in order to advise people. I have to constantly feel and I have to not turn off. I was teaching at a major university, I’m not going to say which, and I was even hired by one of my former students. My student was now this person in charge and said “we know how you are, just do what you do.” Then halfway through the semester she said, “be sure you write down exactly what you do so you can exactly recreate it next year.” And I thought, what if I did that when I was 20-years old? Do you know what I would have? Nothing. People take my beginning ballet class for years because they can’t believe it’s always changing. The vocabulary is not changing so much, but the approach is constantly changing. I’ve had some students for 25 years, if I only had them for one semester I wouldn’t need to think of anything. I could just keep saying the same thing. But I have to change, I care about that student who’s been dancing for 25 years, I have to keep things interesting for her. I have to keep her learning, and I’d be so bored if I just taught the same thing over and over again.

MK: Does your evolving syllabus come from your broadening knowledge of somatics or does it change in congruence with your students?

AM: They’re intertwined completely. I mean, certainly knowledge of somatics. I’m one of those people that the minute I learn something it burns in me and I have to teach it right away, so I’m always immediately passing information on. It’s really such a symbiotic relationship and I feel truly like a conduit. Sometimes people tell me things that I have said in class and I just have no memory of it because I’m highly present; teaching is when I’m most present. I always come in with a very elaborate plan, but it’s often altered. Still, I really need the plan, and I fight to stay on the plan because it’s really important to move forward in the technique. That’s the ballet part, which is why I love ballet, it gives me a plan. I like using syllabi, various syllabi, because then you might forget to give a movement. The syllabus keeps me honest; it gives me a format in which to practice these interesting bodily discoveries.

MK: Do you have a moment or memory that is particularly inspiring or significant for you?

AM: To see somebody get something is just a miracle to me, that’s what makes me a teacher. I don’t know why that means so much to me but it does, and that’s who a teacher is. I’ve seen so many life changing things, people just in shock and awe. If you shift the way you use your body, your mind shifts. Learning is this huge undertaking, so I’ve had people tell me things like, “after I found my pelvis two weeks ago, I decided I have to divorce my husband and get a new job.” Because when you shift your body, you shift your consciousness. My ultimate goal is to help people with that, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a professional performer or doing this as your practice or however you’re using it, because I want performers to have their minds blown the same way as a professional dancer, it’s all I want. When I have injured dancers come to me from San Francisco Ballet or other places, they have made such a weird thing with their tendu, it’s almost looks like a pas de cheval. I think it’s because their brain has folded on itself and it needs to do something with a tendu and nobody’s guiding them with any new stuff because they don’t really have time, but we all really do need to keep growing.

I am so grateful that I started studying with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in the last couple years because it’s been 20 years since I learned a new system and I feel reborn from doing it. Again it came out of an injury, so I was forced to take this time to learn. That’s been the blessing and she always says, “don’t waste the suffering.” It’s such great advice, I don’t want to waste the suffering, there’s so much learning in that. There was this beautiful quote I heard once that said, “We are not spiritual beings coming here for a human experience, we’re human beings coming for a spiritual experience.” And I think sometimes people do give them an opportunity to have that in dance class, that’s so meaningful. But that’s why, as a ballet teacher, I don’t want to turn it into just some whim of my demanding. I am actually really demanding, but I’m demanding the self-exploration within the technique. I don’t want people just gripping. I teach by contrast a lot, so we practice the difference between yielding to the floor or collapsing, and the difference between gripping and pushing. The contrast is important, because you don’t know black until you know white. That’s a big trick for me as a teacher. If anyone wanted to know what helps teaching, it’s to look for the contrast, and feel when they’re doing something and when they’re not.

MK: What about ODC sets it apart from other dance centers and communities?

AM: I couldn’t do this work any place but ODC. I sat, working on this for 20 years and ODC called me up and said, “Come try to do this here.” My philosophy is so completely right with the philosophy of ODC. Even looking at the place, you walk in and it’s open. Brenda Way created this beautiful lobby because most dancers have crappy apartments that they have to go home to. I come here and I do some of my best work in the lobby connecting people. It’s amazing because she created this space for us to work in and I feel like that it keeps coming back to community; the community with your body, the community with the people, the community with dance. There’s just something about ODC that really facilitates that. I’ve worked here for 10 years, I’m one of the oldest. I always feel like it’s feeding, and I think it’s partly because it has room for that openness of ideas. Also, because it’s a modern dance school, they’re looking for ways to facilitate new movement and facilitate healthy movement. I’m very supported by the artistic directors; there’s just something about it that really lets me go full on into what I’m doing.

MK: Any additional comments about teaching or ODC in general?

AM: There are two things about the directors. It’s founded by three women, they’ve been together over 40 years, and I never feel any competitive stress. Almost every organization has something where the higher ups are not happy, that just doesn’t happen here at all. I feel like something is going right there, [this is] an environment where they support each other, and thus that comes down to us. I also love having the guidance. That’s one of things that I really appreciate; having that kind of guidance and that influence here. Whenever I bring in guest teachers, they just love our students. They always say they’re so open. To me, the greatest compliment is when guest teachers come in and say “I just love your students.” You want students that are open and I think it’s really important for students not to feel threatened or scared, rather that they’re going to be cared for.

Augusta is the director of the ballet program here at ODC. She teaches a Feldenkrais class on Saturdays at 10:30am, followed by a ballet class at 12pm, and a pointe class at 2:30pm. She also will be co-teaching with ballet teacher Marisa Castillo in the fall, as a part of the beginning ballet workshops. 

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