This lesson can serve as a concluding project to Lessons I.-V., or it can be used as an unit in and of itself. The title I have given this lesson (for my own future teaching purposes) is, “Documentary Dances: A Study of Dance at the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School”. The teacher may need to bring in an additional instructors) for this final lesson, if he/she is not skilled in the areas of photography and videography. The use of both camera and video equipment will be needed to document some of the dance classes, rehearsals, and performances/productions. The use of video for interviews with teacher(s), students, and in some cases members of the audiences), are great for documentaries on dance.
Teachers and students will have an opportunity to note students’ progress at different intervals throughout the year, or at the completion of the academic/arts school year—both as individuals and as a student ensemble. They will be given the opportunity to voice constructive criticism and/or observations of classes, workshops, and performances. Teacher may wish to present class documentation to school administration for purposes of touring lectures and/or demonstrations. The teacher should create a class or school dance department vault for keep-sake, as well as for sharing with the next “generation” of students of the dance arts.
With the six variations for possible lesson plans concluded, I would like to share with you one of the production goals I have set for my students for the 1995-1996 school term. I am an avid reader and have often considered the challenge of developing an author’s literary work(s) into a dance series or ballet. Well, I’ve decided that I will do my first full ballet based on Sula by Toni Morrison, using the students I teach at the Coop. as well as a few professional dancers. The ballet will not be a complete and literal adaptation of Sula, but will be inspired by the story with emphasis on the main characters and events I feel I can work with to create this ballet. Another dance teacher might choose the story of Sula and create a ballet with a totally different perspective. It is my hope that the ballet will move the audience(s) to read the book. I have read that there will possibly be a movie made for Ms. Morrison’s work within the next year or so. I doubt that the movie will be in the theater this year when I begin the ballet, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing how the literature will come across on film. When the movie hits theaters, I will view it myself and again with my students, hopefully the same dancers with which I am creating the ballet. Nevertheless, I am providing the list of characters (and summaries) for whom I am going to choreograph variations. Proceeding this will be my prelude segments to the ballet and the beginning of Act I.
I have also chosen a few poems by the ever-so-talented poet/author, Ms. Maya Angelou. The poems will be used for voice-over purposes in certain scenes. I am making note of this now so that you are aware when you come across one of the poems, that there is an unseen person’s voice heard reciting the poem while a character acts out or dances his/her role on stage. I will also be using a narrator in the form of a folks woman of the Bottom (the place in Medallion, Ohio where the story takes place), who will deliver the opening narration for Sula to the audience. I’ve not yet decided whether or not the narrator will be visible the audience or just heard during Act I.
Stage setting and lighting makes all the difference for any stage production. There are independent technicians and set designers as well as those who work for the hall, theater, or auditorium which you are renting. Because this ballet is a special project for me, I will be seeking the services of both an independent technician and set designer to head the staging responsibilities and give me their professional advice on which of my specifications are possible, etc. I will also include some of the technical ideas I am considering for the prelude segments and the beginning of Act I. The complete ballet will consist of three to four acts. The musical accompaniment for the prelude dances will be by the phenomenal singer, Ms. Nina Simone. I was careful to select the pieces of her works which I feel encompass the aura of the main characters for whom I am choreographing the ballet.
Annotative list of characters (of focus)
Eva Peace—mother of Hannah and grandmother of Sula.
Hannah Peace—The eldest daughter of Eva and Sula’s mother who is constantly in need of a man’s attention.
Shadrack—a war veteran and the “crazy” drunkard of the Bottom who founded the National Suicide Day.
Helene Wright—an uppity woman from New Orleans with bad memories of southern oppression, the mother of Nei.
(young) Sula—a girl uncertain of her mother’s love, a loner on a mysterious quest.
(young) Nei—Helene’s only child who is a loner and becomes the sole friend of Sula.
the Deweys—three orphaned boys taken in by Ms. Eva and given the same name, thereby adopting the same personae even though the boys look completely different.
Tar Baby—once handsome, fair-skinned (almost white) drunk who boards at the home of Ms. Eva and is the first to join Shadrack on Suicide Day.
“Ajax” (A. Jacks)—”twenty-year-old pool haunt of sinister beauty” who teaches (adult) Sula about passion and possession.
Jude Green—husband of Nei who abandons her and the children following his affair with Sula.
(adult) Nei—still Sula’s lone friend who in the end concludes that she does not regret her friendship with the Bottom’s most peculiar woman.
(adult) Sula—a woman who developed her own definition of love and life, who lived by her own rules; and whose death brought relief to the woman of the Bottom.
Brief summaries of major characters,:
A World War I veteran, who after being discharged from a veteran’s psychiatric hospital, returns to the Bottom in 1919. The town folk regarded him as a crazy drunk with wild eyes and long, matted hair. Shadrack began National Suicide Day on January 3, 1920. He would walk through the Bottom every third day of each new year with his cowbell and hangman’s rope and his message for the people—”kill themselves or each other”.
The daughter of a Creole whore who was raised by her strict grandmother, Cecile, in New Orleans. When Cecile’s greatnephew, Wiley Wright (from a place called the Bottom) proposed marriage on a visit with his great-aunt, Helene saw this as an opportunity to escape and free herself from the fear of her mother’s “wild blood”. After nine years of marriage and life in the Bottom, she gave birth to her only child—a daughter whom she named Nel. Helene was considered a respectable, church-going woman in the Bottom.
A lonely child raised by her mother with a very stern hand. Her every move was monitored and her imagination dimmed by a mother who controlled both her and her father with a polite manipulation. While studying her face in the mirror one night she decided, “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me . . . . Oh, Jesus, make me wonderful.”
Ms. Eva Peace:
The wise one-legged matron of the Bottom. The town folk never asked her directly how she lost her leg, but there were rumors that she’d stuck it under a train for a pay-off, or, that she’d sold it for $10,000 to a hospital. The folks of the Bottom always had something to gossip about when it came to Ms. Eva and the Peace Family—like the night when, after many efforts to save Plum from the grips of drug addiction, Eva Peace burned her only son to death while he slept.
Unlike her mother who was quick to set men in their place, Hannah was always willing to please men and made them feel as though their appeasement was the only thing that mattered. She would give in to any man whether married or not, and yet the men never talked ill of her. . . .” She was unquestionably a kind and generous woman and that, coupled with her extraordinary beauty and funky elegance of manner, made them defend her and protect her from any vitriol that newcomers or their wives might spill.”
The “good” women, on the other hand, were bewildered and would comment, “One thing I can’t stand is a nasty woman.”
The only child of Hannah, raised in a household in constant disarray with people coming in and out at all times and things scattered about. She’d spend much of her youth day-dreaming and in need of a confidant.
Toni Morrison gives such detail and care to all of her characters in Sula, yet the strongest focus and the basis of the story is the friendship between the characters of Sula and Nel, which spanned eighteen years. Ms. Morrison writes of the friendship—”Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he was not), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”
They were both thin twelve-year-olds in 1922 when they befriended one another. The friendship was a potent one, with Nel being the strong yet dependent character/friend while Sula was the moody independent.
Music selections for Prelude segments
“Strange fruit”; “Black is the colour of my true love’s hair”;
“Don’t explain”; “Tell me more and more and then some”;
“I put a spell on you”; “Chilly winds don’t blow”;
“Mood indigo”; and “Feeling good”
“Strange fruit” will be performed by the characters of Ms. Eva Peace, Hannah Peace, Shadrack, Helene Wright, Ajax, Nel, and Sula (each dancer spotlighted). “Black is the clour of my true lovels hair” will be a reminiscence piece danced by a male and female representing the young Eva Peace with her ex-husband (and father of her children), Boy Boy. “Don’t explain” will be danced by the Hannah Peace character. “Tell me more and more and then some” will be danced by the (adult) Sula. “I put a spell on you” will be danced by the (adult) Sula and Ajax characters. “Chilly winds don’t blow” will be danced by the character of Helene Wright. “Mood indigo” will feature the characters of Shadrack, Hannah, Helene, Nel, and Sula. The character of Ajax will end the prelude segment with “Feeling good”.
Technical cues/notes: stage is dark with “high” spotlight and purple scrim (a cotton or linen fabric used as a set backdrop for stage) for lst dance; stage lights are deep amber with green scrim for 2nd dance; lights are blue with yellow scrim for 3rd dance; lights are blue/red and deep yellow with deep blue scrim for 4th dance; lights are red with bright wing (side) lights and a deep green/jade scrim, also using dry ice machine to create smoke effect for 5th dance; lights are green and amber with deep red scrim for 6th dance; all stage lights are “up” with deep blue scrim for 7th dance; finally, for 8th dance, stage lights are “down” (out) and dancer(s) is spotlighted then all stage lights go “up” with deep purple scrim.
Time factor: 25 minutes.
The narrator will either appear on stage or just the voice will be heard, following the prelude segment, with the opening narration:
“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.”
The scene on stage for the opening narrative silhouettes the full cast of dancers portraying the inhabitants for this once existent neighborhood called the Bottom. There are children playing, elder folks joking and cooking, women gossiping while cleaning, a group of men hanging out, and a congregation of churchgoers chatting all in different areas of the stage. This will be a busy scene and will provide the audience with visual imagery with which to relate to the narrative—but not so much that they do not hear the words of the narrator. The only sounds that are audible are the children’s giggles, the women’s various remarks, the men’s laughter, and the congregation’s exclamations of ‘Praise the Lord’, and the like; all of this underneath the music for narration and the narrator’s voice. The scene fades out as the narration ends and the character of Shadrack appears alone on stage. He begins his sol to the poem (delivered with musical accompaniment), “We Saw Beyond Our Seeming”.
The poem begins—”We saw beyond our seeming. . . . . . These days of bloodied screaming”, and ends with the sentiment “And now of souls lie broken. . . . . . Dry tablets without token.”
From here, the ballet for
will be on its way. I pray for a successful production! It was my intention in writing this curriculum unit, to share with other dance teachers ideas for lesson plans, activities, and goals with which to excite, encourage, and grab the interest of the teachers and their students. It is my hope that I have done so.
Materials (for classroom use)
for dance composition
: writing utensils; binded notebooks (for journals); spiral note pad (for notes and written homework); tape recorder; VCR
for dance movement / choreography
: tape recorder; ballet barre(s); portable mirror(s)—if possible; dance wear (teacher’s specifications); costume closet; camera(s) / video equipment (if applicable)