Thursday, May 16, 2013

Performance at Marillac

Lisa Golda, Opera For All Teaching Artist

It’s the times kids really step it up for the performance that make teaching artists’ work so nerve-wracking.

I mean, exciting. I mean, exciting or nerve-wracking. Which one it is, modern psychology tells us, depends upon our perception of the chemical message from our brain.

“I know your stomach hurts,” I told a particularly conscientious, and stomach-achy, student, Charmaine, just before our performance at Marillac House this past week. “It’s the kids who care who get nervous. The kids who are too relaxed will mess up. Your nerves are telling your body that it is time to focus.”  I tried to sound convincing.  After a rough dress rehearsal the day before, which with kids is generally NOT an indication that the performance will be stellar, I was convincing myself, too.

Charmaine went on to have a fantastic show, covering lines and solos for other kids last-minute, helping others to transition on time, dancing and acting with total commitment, and in general, leading her after-school group (the rest of whom did not seem very nervous) to do their very best. I was so proud of Charmaine, for a year’s worth of hard work and a new maturity evidenced so obviously in her contribution to our show. We could not have done it without her.

I was also proud of all the kids who found the focus, courage, and enthusiasm needed to make their show happen at the last minute! And not just happen, but succeed with humor, excitement, and some genuine dramatic flair. A roller coaster ride for all adults concerned, but one with a fantastic unveil at the end.

“These kids will surprise you,” Deanna, the manager at Marillac House, told me the day before our performance. It’s the first year at Marillac for COT, and the first-ever year-long residency there. What this meant for us was that kids and parents expected to transition to other projects and activities just when our participants really had to dig in and work on their material; or, from a kid’s potential point of view, right when the most exciting part of the program kicks in!

Having written their script and lyrics, memorized their songs, and created characters for most of the year, the students, come spring, get to dance and act and make set pieces. That is usually when the kids themselves are intrigued with the concrete life their formerly abstract work takes on, and that is when they get hooked on the countdown to the performance date. That’s when they start asking if we are coming back next year, and what they should wear, and mentally preparing for what can be a new (and a little scary) experience onstage.

Our kids were tempted, at that crucial point, by volleyball and a spring heat wave, sidetracked by some ISAT tutoring that they genuinely needed, surprised by the fact that there was more to come, and lacking in understanding due to inexperience as to just what it takes to get onstage and do a show. After weeks of a rotating bunch, notwithstanding a few faithful kids who were not subjected to or did not give in to other extra-curricular temptations, we finally ended up with a substantial, but under-rehearsed, cast.

Deanna, Maureen, Jalesa, Hannah, and Ersilee gave it their all once the cast solidified, adding extra rehearsal time for the kids and pushing them to succeed. Some kids got serious at that point, but some still didn’t, and we were all on that inexorable climb to the top of the coaster together. Once you get to the top—to curtain time---all you can do, no matter how prepared you actually are, is let go and enjoy the ride. But enjoying a show that is loaded with potentially unpleasant “surprises” is a tall order for a seasoned performer.

Not for these kids, evidently. Tough as life is for some of them, these kids can toss a little case of stage fright to the side with a shrug. They’ve got more substantial things to fear, which had both its advantages and disadvantages when we were trying to get them to rehearse for a far-off performance.

But when that day finally came, they smiled. They laughed. They glowed. They threw themselves into their show with greater enthusiasm and focus than I’ve seen all year. They knew their lines cold. Our beat box maestro, Jadari, kept an intricate rap beat consistent while adjusting his volume for soft-spoken kids. Sisters Dejanae and Teshara took the creative reins in their class and got the other girls on board. Britney free-styled her little heart out in the dances. Everyone soaked up the obvious pleasure of an audience of at least a hundred parents, siblings, and other Marillac kids witnessing a bunch of kids, finally, revel in the sheer excitement and postponed gratification of live performance.

As a teacher and a performer, I’ve learned to expect anything, if not to disregard the queasy stomach that the ride to the top of the coaster can provoke, and to just hang on. I was definitely relieved, but I wasn’t surprised, by the kids’ eleventh hour transformation.

But I think that the kids surprised themselves. And as any adult who has been to a kids’ party can attest—there’s nothing quite like the joy of surprise on a child’s face. Especially if it results from your gift. Kids came out for their final bow and then stood uncertainly, all boisterous silliness and bravado suddenly vanquished by an unexpected and positive limelight. I think they were startled by how good that approval and achievement felt. I don’t think they were expecting to succeed. Perhaps they were not expecting anything.

They are, now.

“Are you coming next week?” was the breathless question asked multiple times after the show by Makhai, a faithful, if sometimes recalcitrant, attendee. “Are you coming back?”

And that was the very satisfying finale to our first year at Marillac.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reilly and St. Vincent dePaul: 2 Legit 2 Quit

Mandy Compton, COT Teaching Artist and Choreographer
When I begin to choreograph a dance, the first thing I do is just listen to the music.  I sit down, push play, and let the sound wash over me.  As I listen, I try to sense how my body naturally moves to the beat.  My body tells me what will work, and what will not, as I begin to dance. 

This year I was tasked with the exciting opportunity to choreograph an original piece for all of the Opera for All schools (Gangnam Style/2 Legit 2 Quit), and a special mash-up dance for St. Vincent De Paul's after school program.  Knowing what motivates a dance in the context of a show adds zest and excitement to the overall arc of any performance.  I was excited when, for St. Vincent de Paul, I wasn't just given a song to choreograph.  I was immersed in their entire script and lyrics.  
Mandy and students at St. Vincent dePaul Center
Their mashup dance became more than a mid-show diversion, it was a full out fight scene between the good and evil super heroes!  Teaching the dance to the students proved an exciting endeavor.  Because each song in the mashup (three songs total) brought out a different element of the conflict between the super heroes and villains, each change in melody brought with it a new mood and thus completely different movement.  We began our session by exploring how each student's specific super hero (including, but not limited to, Mr. Cool, Silver Rock, and Fashion Girl), would a) move, and b) fight off enemies.  
Students creating characters for their dance
Some of the kids were hesitant at first, but by the end, everyone was excited to share their character's movement, complete with sound effects.  This helped the kids to incorporate their characters' motivation into challenging dance moves.  As I taught them the steps, I tried to instill in them the same sense of relationship to the music with their bodies as I use when I choreograph.  We alternate between listening and dancing so that  instead of relying on demonstration or example, they can connect intuitively to the movement and music. 
At Reilly, where I teach for Opera for All on a regular basis, our guest choreographer was Devery McCoy.  This was my second year to have the privilege of working with her on an OFA dance day.  She is a true joy to watch as she always has creative ways of explaining and teaching movement.  She is able to teach kids with no previous dance experience a full length (and, I might add, challenging!) dance combination in less than an hour.  She is incredibly patient and always encourages and motivates the kids to do better.  I took notes from her method last year in preparation for my own dances and teaching this year!  The kids learned "Starships," "Space Jam," and my own "Gangnam Style" during our two dance days.

It was a very special experience to see some kids, who might not have stood out during class before, find their rhythm and shine in their dancing.  As a Teaching Artist for Chicago Opera Theater, these are the moments I cherish.  I'm lucky to be part of a program so diverse that EVERY child can find a new reason to believe in themselves, in ways they might not have otherwise imagined.

Mandy and students at Reilly dancing to "Gangnam Style"

St. Vincent dePaul Performance Night

Bryna Berezowska, COT Teaching Artist

As the audience piled into the St. Vincent dePaul Center (SVDPC) theater space, the young performers seemed excited, nervous and anxious to begin.  As a teacher, there is nothing more exciting and nerve-wracking than seeing the culmination of so many months of work. It is amazing to see the students’ growth in confidence, creativity and performance ability over the year. For me, the most exciting thing was noticing how the performers reacted to the audience adulation. They were singing with more energy and dancing their little hearts out for their peers and parents. You could see genuine joy on their faces, knowing that they were entertaining and even inspiring the younger kids!

During the “Gangnam Style” dance the younger grades in the front rows were doing the hand actions along with the performers. The young audience members were mesmerized by the operatic alien song, and amused by Mr. Cool zapping all the aliens cool. The fashion girls sounded particularly lovely in the climactic song “We are the fashion girls, and we’re here to accessorize you”! Overall, everyone did a fantastic job pulling the show together. Transitions were smooth, voices were clear and strong, and lines were delivered with confidence and character. I couldn’t be more proud of the group, and I’m sure we have some budding opera performers and opera goers in our midst. I believe we also reached the parents of the Opera For All students as well. So many parents came up to me and gushed about how amazing this experience was for their children and how much they enjoyed it and wanted to see more. Nothing honors a teacher more than a student who feels a sense of accomplishment due to the growth they’ve experienced over the months of work. It wasn’t always easy. One of the older boys in the class started out as unsure, standoffish and even a little “too cool for super school”. By the second half, he was the leader of the group, knew all his lines, and all the dance moves. After the performance he came up to me and asked to take a picture with me. This warmed my heart and reminded me why we are doing all of this. His mother was glowing with pride, and both have been instilled with a love of music and opera from now on.