At four under-resourced public middle schools in Los Angeles this spring, students will experience a lesson like no other — exploring their identities and place in society through a masterwork of dance created by one of the most luminous choreographers of the modern era. In addition to their own teachers, instructors will include Loyola Marymount University dance students and faculty, as well as dance professionals from the New York City-based Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.
Anchoring the lesson will be a study guide created by the LMU Dance Department based on “Deep Blue Sea,” the acclaimed, highly personal latest work by the renowned director, choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones, which depicts the sense of alienation many feel in a fractious era. The study guide and its implementation in four schools that receive federal Title I assistance are being funded by the Gluck Foundation as part of the Dance Department’s ongoing partnership with the BTJ/AZ company, a leader in the world of contemporary dance.
Finding Places of Connection and Disconnection – Through Dance
The study guide is designed to help instructors inspire movement and discussion on the underlying themes of “Deep Blue Sea.” “The impetus of the dance is Bill T. Jones’ identity as a Black, gay artist, all three of which are traditionally marginalized, but it goes beyond him to reach everyone’s story,” says Rosalynde LeBlanc Loo, associate professor and chair of dance. LeBlanc Loo is a former member of the BTJ/AZ company, and was instrumental in establishing the partnership, which has provided dance students with access to classes, discussions, and coaching from company members — including Jones himself — since it was formalized in 2015. “Our study guide addresses how middle school kids are thinking about themselves in relationship to their community, where those places of connection and disconnection are, and how to manage that.”
In “Deep Blue Sea,” Jones weaves in the plotline of Moby Dick, focusing on Pip, the young Black slave who falls off the ship and is nearly left stranded at sea; as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Through movement and dance, the study guide draws students into a discussion of the Herman Melville classic and Pip’s experience, as well as the civil rights movement and the speech as a galvanizing event.
Connecting Movement to Themes
A team that included three dance faculty members — LeBlanc Loo, Kristen Smiarowski, and Taryn Vander Hoop — developed the study guide alongside two LMU undergraduate dance students, three members of the BTJ/AZ company, three K-12 educators in Los Angeles, and a consultant from the Dance Education Laboratory in New York City. The guide features improvisational and creative dance exercises along with prompts designed to help the middle school students connect their movements with the themes. It also includes contextual information on Bill T. Jones and “Deep Blue Sea,” Melville and Moby Dick, and King and the speech.
Learning to Teach
LMU dance students will learn how to use the guide in the Dance Department’s Principles of Teaching and Dance Theater Group courses, then will have both a dance faculty member and a professional from the BTJ/AZ company mentor them as they bring it to the K-12 classroom. The program was piloted remotely last spring with three middle schools.
“This is a way to concretize our teaching program, giving our students marketable skills where they could be K-12 dance educators during the day and still have performance careers at night,” LeBlanc Loo says. “And intellectually, there is so much insight to be gained from explaining a complex, nuanced work of art to someone who is 12. That level of education is irreplaceable.”
Photo by Maria Baranova.