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  • Steve Sucato

GroundWorks’ Fall exCHANGE Program brought Professional Movement Concepts to Students and those Students to the Stage

By Steve Sucato

One of GroundWorks DanceTheater’s most popular core education programs, exCHANGE, gives students a window into the same concepts and processes that GroundWorks professional dancers are using in the studio to create new dance works with choreographers.

The 2-part program for school students of all ages includes an in-school workshop with GroundWorks teaching artists and dancers and a field trip to the theater where students share some of what they learned in their in-school workshop, often with other schools participating in the exCHANGE program, in a fully produced showcase with stage lighting and sound. The program concludes with a performance by GroundWorks DanceTheater and a Q&A with the dancers.

Such was the case this past October 13 & 14 in Cleveland and November 3 & 4 in Akron as part of GroundWorks’ Fall Performance Series, where Clark Pre-K-8 School 2nd graders, General Johnnie Wilson Middle School, Southview Middle School, and Longfellow Middle School 6th graders, along with Cleveland School of the Arts 9-12th graders had the opportunity to perform on Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre stage, and Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts 6th graders (with 7th graders as volunteers) and Firestone Community Learning Center 9th & 10th graders performed on The Knight Stage at Akron Civic Theatre, respectively. 

Part 1: In School Workshop

The first part of the exCHANGE program, the in-school workshop, typically takes place up to two weeks before the in-theater field trip. Each workshop lasts between 50 and 90 minutes. During that time, GroundWorks’ teaching staff introduce the students to the creative concepts and processes that GroundWorks’ dancers are using in the studio.“I boil it down to the essentials and, when needed, make adaptations for different grade levels,” says GroundWorks’ Director of Education & Community Engagement, Joan Meggitt. “We have to be sensitive to the environment the students are in to make sure they have the support they need when it comes time to be in the theater.”

Meggitt made such adaptations this fall in working for the first time with students at Lorain City Schools on the concept of contrast. “I had the students come up with a favorite dance move and a movement they do in everyday life, such as brushing their teeth, screwing in a light bulb, or putting on a sweater,” says Meggitt. “Then, we combine this contrast between dance and daily life by making one of the moves big and the other small. This becomes a foundational kernel for when we come into the theater and watch the company dance. The students can hold onto something they have learned in the school workshop, put it into, and see it in action on stage.”

During each workshop, the teaching staff and the students spend 20 minutes coming up with movement studies and another half hour editing them into a dance that the students can rehearse with the school’s faculty and perform when they get to the theater.

“When I learned about the exCHANGE program, I knew I wanted our students to participate,” says Clark Elementary Dance Educator Amy Notley. “It was a wonderful experience for our students and was extra special as our three second-grade teams who had previously worked with GroundWorks teachers Joan (Meggitt) and Morgan (Ashley) last Spring. My favorite thing about the program was how the GroundWorks team interacted with the students. The students learned so much about collaboration, and even though they didn’t have to remember choreography, they had to remember their spacing and timing and, of course, the concepts of over, around, under, and through.”

Kelly Berick, Dance Chair at Lorain City Schools, echoed Notley’s sentiments, saying, “The exCHANGE model is ideal for all age levels, but it was especially appropriate for Lorain middle schoolers in their second year of dance education. The creative movement and improvisational processes used to make phrases during the exCHANGE workshop were familiar to them from their creative movement-based content. The path from creation to performance and the required teamwork and innovation were directly streamlined for maximum impact on student learning targets. The work they created provided a natural springboard for their dance teachers to work from in future project assignments. There is no doubt that this opportunity will inform their future creating and performing projects.”

Part 2: Theater Field Trip

For the second part of GroundWorks’ exCHANGE program this past Fall, the participating schools bused their students to either the Allen Theatre or The Knight Stage for a 10:30am-Noon showcase.

The showcase began with Meggitt and the GroundWorks teaching staff welcoming and recognizing the participating schools and their students. It was followed by an overview of the exCHANGE program with a demonstration by GroundWorks’ dancers of the concepts learned in part one of exCHANGE. Then, it was the students’ opportunity to take the stage for their 2-10 minute group studies with the other schools in attendance. 

“At the Allen Theatre, I was on the stage with the dancers and GroundWorks Teaching Artist Morgan Ashley demonstrating for the second graders’ showing. The sixth graders did their movement studies independently, and the Cleveland School of the Arts students did a full-blown dance work with quartets that rotated on and off the stage; they took the concepts learned and made interesting and sophisticated choices,” says Meggitt.  

Part two concluded with GroundWorks dancers performing Founding Artistic Director David Shimotakahara’s duet Sweet, and an excerpt from Flock’s lasts a lifetime, plus a Q&A with GroundWorks dancers and teaching staff. 

Sixty students from Lorain City Schools participated in the Allen Theatre field trip. Of those 60, says Burick, this was the first visit to an actual theater for 21 of them, and for 23 students, it was the first time viewing live professional dance.

“Having Groundworks DanceTheater in our buildings and as our host at Playhouse Square was something that I hope we can continue to bring to our 6th graders annually,” says Burick. “As we strive to make Lorain City Schools known nationwide for its K-12 Dance Program, we will also make Groundworks DanceTheater a household name in Lorain.”

Students from Clark Elementary also reacted positively to their exCHANGE experience at Playhouse Square.  

Mrs. Sanchez’s class loved being on the big stage. Angel, a student in the class, said his favorite part was when the lights were out, and the GroundWorks dancers moved in the dark until the lights came up. The purple lighting was his favorite. Javielis, another in the class, loved seeing the other schools perform, especially Cleveland School of the Arts. And Ceyri couldn’t stop repeating the earned concept of over, under, around, and through and doing the moves to go with it.

Other reactions came from Mrs. Schupbach’s class, who loved going downtown on the bus. Some of them had never been to Playhouse Square and loved seeing the lights on the marquees and being onstage with the GroundWorks dancers, and Ms. Hanna’s class loved seeing all of the theatres and couldn’t believe that someone painted the ceiling so high above them. 

exCHANGE is a really unique program,” says Meggitt. “It is amazing that any Cleveland or Akron Metropolitan school can have us come in and have free, dedicated creative time with their students no matter their age or dance experience. Then, they get to participate and see a free show just for them in the theater. It is a great opportunity for students, and I hope to reach out to more schools to be involved in exCHANGE, especially those with no dance whatsoever as part of their curriculum.” 

   exCHANGE was made possible through the generous support of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture

Photos from Fall exCHANGE Programs in Cleveland and Akron. Photos by Mark Horning,  Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, and GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers and staff.

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