CSUN dance and performing arts students recently benefited from the coaching of renowned South African theatre director Geoffrey Hyland in a three-day workshop sponsored by the kinesiology department.
The award-winning director recently made a cameo as a guest professor in multiple classes to impart his own opinions about the organic nature of performance art.
‘I believe in content driving form rather than the other way around,’ Hyland, a professor at the University of Cape Town, said of his vision. ‘You have to have something to say. That’s what makes great art.’
For the burgeoning choreographers in one workshop-style class, his approach upturned all preconceived notions about the origin of dance. His insistence that raw emotion be the catalyst behind an interpretive number rather than the very beat it follows left the dancers with wide eyes and forlorn faces.
‘The vocalist is responsible for the music,’ said Hyland. ‘An explicit emotion drove that artist to produce those notes, those words and tunes. What drives you? What is the responsibility of you as an artist?’ Hyland asked of the dancers.
Hyland, who has received several awards and nominations for works such as ‘Kissed by Brel Too,’ ‘Blood Wedding,’ ‘Masque: An African Opera’ and ‘Twelfth Night,’ demanded much from the new students. Though he fully accepted, even encouraged the students to admit, when they didn’t know what emotion was driving their piece, he didn’t accept them not searching within themselves to find the answers.
‘As an artist, you go to places that normal people are scared to go,’ said Hyland. ‘People spend their whole life learning how to exist in society, but they come to a performance to experience that which we are scared to experience in real life.’
Although he worked with the choreography students only three times during his stay, his mark was indelible on the growing performances.
Student Jeanette Fussell described her piece as visual interpretation of our busy lives and the need to simply take a breath. The ensuing dance consisting of a series of disconnected spasms and jerky movements, frenetic turns and hyper music was a perfect representation of a human life through the power of pirouettes. Fussell’s ability to translate stress to spins represented the necessity of content driven dances.
Kinesiology professor Paula Thomson echoed Hyland’s sentiments while coaxing her dancers to probe their own emotions.
‘A choreographer’s biggest challenge is to learn how to question. Anyone can put steps together and call it a dance,’ said Thomson. ‘A choreographer must be curious and willing to learn. If you think you’ve learned it all, you’re dead.’
Student Gena Williams’ openness to change her own labor of love exemplifies her professors’ opinions.
‘We want to expand it and explore it,’ Williams said of her piece. ‘We’ve already changed the music.’
After the 30-second performance of her dance, Hyland offered critiques and adulation. More feeling, less reliance on the emotions evoked by the music, and more breathing were oft uttered phrases from the director.
During the hour-and-a-half long class, Hyland physically and emotionally helped the dancers explore their beings. He spewed lofty phrases that would have sounded supercilious coming from anyone of a lesser caliber, but coming from him, they felt like profound utterances of truth.
By the end of the class students repeated each others’ epiphanies, vocalizing their thanks to the visiting director for helping them recognize dance as more than a series of movements and allowing them to explore the potential of those movements.
‘They have such a hunger for it,’ Thomson said. ‘It’s just wonderful to be around.’