Dance class with BalletLab’s Phillip Adams

Nothing like a difficult dance workshop to understand Phillip Adams's "Amplification"

BalletLab's "Amplification"/Photo Jeff Busby

BalletLab’s “Amplification”/Photo Jeff Busby

My Friday was looking good: a master class at Conduit Dance in the morning taught by Phillip Adams, the founder and artistic director of BalletLab, and a performance that night of his piece Amplification. My day couldn’t have gotten any more perfect. Turns out it was a double whammy. Not only did I get a great class, but I also got a preview of Amplification and the process and environment in which it was made.

As I entered the Conduit studio, I saw four people I didn’t know lying about in various positions on the floor, chatting quietly and warming up. I didn’t know it, but Adams was one of those people. Normally teachers will separate themselves a little, warm up by themselves or stand near the sound system. But Adams was undetectable; he was one of us.

Tall and lanky with a mostly full white beard, he wore dark blue sweats and a grey sweatshirt over a green t-shirt. Adams speaks in an upbeat Aussie accent, and he filled class with lots of anecdotes and movement directives as we went along. Unfortunately, because of the acoustics in the room I missed a lot of what he said, but I watched his body language instead and his open, relaxed and friendly personality emerged. He professed a love for teaching, and it was apparent.

Dance class with Phillip Adams.

Dance class with Phillip Adams.

Adams was originally supposed to teach a class on partnering, improvisation and building new choreographic vocabularies for intermediate and advanced dancers. But instead he woke up on Friday morning, rolled out of bed and decided he should teach a rigorous and technically demanding class instead. So he did, and I’m not complaining.

His movement vocabulary was a combination of post-modern dance and ballet, sourcing from his ten-year stint in New York City dancing with BeBe Miller, Trisha Brown, Irene Hultman, Sarah Rudner, Amanda Miller, Donna Uchizono and Nina Wiener, just to name an illustrious few.

BalletLab's "Amplification"/Photo Jeff Busby

BalletLab’s “Amplification”/Photo Jeff Busby

After a simple warm up of yoga poses and some “old school” plies and tendu’s, as he said, Adams began teaching the main combination in a slow methodical way. It began deceptively simply, with just one arm swinging front and back, then a weight shift at just the right moment, lifting the left knee and a falling onto that foot, a turn, a pause and then it began to build in momentum. Arms crossed over head propelling the body around on one leg, gathering into a jump and sending us backward into space. There were lots of direction and level changes, manipulations of time, and a mind-boggling, revolving petite allegro (small jumping steps) at the end with a high kick back down to the floor. I finally got the petite allegro section two days later as I was reviewing it in my head while lying in bed trying to fall asleep.

Once we had “learned” the combination, and I use “learned” in the broadest sense because I never fully got it, we were broken up into two groups and began to do it over and over. Little by little he sped up the music, changing to a different song each time. Classical to ‘80’s to disco and finally the last piece of music, which I don’t remember at all because at that point we were moving so fast that I was in this weird state of trying to keep up with my peers, remember the choreography and letting go—letting go of the form and completely surrendering to the movement.

Adams said in his Q&A after Friday night’s show that in order for the dancers not to hurt themselves doing the movement, they had to let go completely and surrender to the experience. This seems to be the point in Amplification: When things get really tough, disassociating and going limp are some of our best defenses.

Amplification from Phillip Adams BalletLab on Vimeo.

About halfway through class, Adams stopped in the middle of the room, crossed his arms over his chest, put one hand to his chin in contemplation and started describing the parking garage across the street. He said (and I am paraphrasing) that it had straight lines, it’s grey, it’s plain, it’s concrete, it’s purely structural and boring. The phrase of movement that we were working on wasn’t about anything. It was pure movement, unadorned, structural and boring like the parking garage. It wasn’t boring by any stretch of the imagination. But I understood what Adams meant: Simplify, edit, and take out all the superfluous emotional extras and just move.

I believe this movement phrase was a glimpse into his creative process. In hindsight all of the material that we were working with in class was present in Amplification. His philosophy, his questions, how he created the movement, how he sped it up to an ungodly speed, his relationship to music, and his relationship to space and time and structure and objects around him. His workshop contained his choreography in Amplification in a nutshell.

I was really surprised and sad to see that only seven dancers from our community took advantage of Phillips’ master class, actually five if you don’t count the two from out of town. To be fair, it was at 11:30 am on a Friday morning when most dancers I know are at work. There aren’t very many paying dance companies in Portland and funding is hard to come by, so most dancers have day jobs, making it nearly impossible to take a dance class in the middle of the day. Although I am happy these master classes exist, it seems like some revamping of the program should be done so that our dance community can actually take advantage of these amazing artists that White Bird brings to town.


Nim Wunnan wrote about Amplification for ArtsWatch right after opening night.

Read more by Jamuna Chiarini.

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