Iceland!-September 2012

An amazingly beautiful country,- Iceland.

I  found myself there in September teaching at the Arts Academy to a new generation of dancers and choreographers.  I also had the pleasure of working with the modern dance company, and the organization “Danse Atelier”.  My experiences were, as always, deep and joyful, difficult and fun,- all workshops have their own flavor as the group determines so much the direction. The information;words, repeated many times in these past over 20 years, maintain a richness and resilience.  The work I do/teach always teaches me as well as teaches my students. Many hours a day to a vibrant an rich community, and hours of work time in the studio brought about a new and still in progress solo. Green Space in LIC, NY gave it its first showing on September 16. Its growth will continue. I am now in Berlin, teaching another wonderful group, and want to take the time to thank my teachers = Fritz Smith and Susan Klein.

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from SOLO w Nany Allison, choreography Barbara Mahler

from SOLO w Nany Allison, choreography Barbara Mahler

Nancy Allison


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To continue with Daisy Levy’s interview with Barbara………

B:  But, um, I came to Hunter College because they had a particular program for teaching in the inner city, in the inner city schools, ‘cause I grew up in the housing projects [poor audio quality] interested in teaching, in helping – and they had a program called the TTT, and I applied, and Hunter was one of the top, uh, Hunter and Brooklyn College were the top [pauses, hand gestures] colleges in the City University so I got into the program that I was interested in, and so I started teaching in the elementary schools. That’s how they do it. So instead of waiting … ’til you’re [break in audio] and then you go into the school and go [makes a face, rolls eyes, sticks out tongue] that’s not for me – straight away into these inner city school – in these uh, the worst schools in the city and  [laughs rolls eyes] THIS IS NOT BEING USED AS VIDEO TAPE [shakes head and still laughing]

Really interesting, and it was challenging. But also, at the same time, they had, maybe there were 20 dance majors – this was in the mid 70s http://bad so I was talking some improvisation classes – they were with some clubs and they had a dance major that was developed by Professor Vislocky.

D: Can you spell that for me, please?

B: V-I-S-L-O-C-K-Y – and she’s um, a pioneer in dance anatomy. I don’t know if you know her

D: I know of the name, yes.

B: Yeah – she danced in the Nikolai company for a few years and then she developed this program and also had ways of, or interesting ways of teaching anatomy to dancers in an experiential manner. And, uh I started with improvisation and composition so I could understand. Really I couldn’t do anything, but I was just in LOVE with all kinds of movement and explorations of creativity, and performance

quote/unquote it had to be in the form or anything like that. In ballet I was just a mess I was just here [lifts shoulders up closer to neck and ears, stiffens arms, holds head rigid]. I was like that for years –

D: So, um, you said you didn’t have a dancer’s body. What does that mean?

B: Oh, uh, very hyper-extended low back, uh, they tell me, [my ribcage] proceeded me into the room at least ten minutes ahead of me. Probably a little exaggeration. SO, nothing could really let go. I was stuck like this [arms out to side at 45 degrees, ribcage lifted, lower back extended] and we know that our bodies and our emotions aren’t different. So there were many many years of digging around that I had to [bad audio] for my body to change. It’s pretty normal now.

D: Yes. Yes. So would you say …if that’s NOT a dancer’s body? What IS a dancer’s body?

B: Well, now, and the way I trained, I think it depends on what somebody wants to do, the effort they  put into moving and the way they want to move. And, I think change is possible. Um, you know I just remember the frustration of being in classes, and never getting an audition, and never getting anything, and being told how resistant I was, and it just sucked. You know I had no idea what I was doing wrong, um, that I was completely cut off from my physical self, and yet, dancing was the only thing that made me like myself – it was a paradox, and so I continued to try to move and just you know stayed with more creative types of performance.

D: So, describe what some of that more creative types of performance- is that improvisational … ?

B: Yeah -( I steered away from technical uh classes until I got to be in my late 30s). I found this, what seemed to be, crazy studio on the Upper West Side – the Susan Klein and Colette Barry School of Dance and they did, what seemed then, weird stretch and placement classes, and talked very differently about the body and technique anybody else did at the time.

D: And when was that?

B: Um, I found the studio, I wandered in – that’s on my website there – I wandered in one summer, when I was, maybe in 76? And I took class there everyday, three times a day,

D: Three times a DAY?

B: I took stretch classes three times a day. [Smiling. Nodding.]

D: ok. Wow.

B: I didn’t feel anything changing. So that just tells you kind of where I am. But I was changing. So I know that by the time I got back to school, I had changed. Things were changing. But as soon as I went back to what I normally would do, and the atmosphere was different, I just found myself going back into my really rigid ways of thinking – it had more to do with thinking – and my perceptions of myself slipped back – whatever they were, they were pretty unconscious, um, I just knew I was never gonna be good enough. I mean I think that essentially, that was like the bottom line – I was never good enough.

D: So …

B: But I still, I could dance. I was not a good mover. I  had potential. But you know how can you be resistant, when you don’t – when you’re not in touch with yourself –

D: So, this may be is a tangent, but do you –  when people were saying to you, you’re very resistant to change – do you think they were talking about your body as resistant to change, or your, like your self, or your – what is your – do you know what I mean? Was it that you were so strong willed?

B:  I’m strong willed. I grew up in the housing projects. We were very poor. Um, I had a lot of will and, um, you know it was a big thing to get out of the projects, and to even get into, to go to college, and go through the honors programs, in high school. That took a lot. So I guess I needed the will but the will at the same time, was in my way. – it’s hard to say. It’s hard for me to say.

D: Yes. I understand.

B:  I think for a lot of dancers now, technique is really very harsh. It’s kind of gone back. You know how things go in these waves of high technical facility,  and that it shortens a dancer’s life, their dancing life and they get vey single focused on doing this one thing, so they can achieve this particular aesthetic, so I’m not sure if that’s different from the way I was thinking, though I wouldn’t say it had to do with my drive for technique. But that kind of one tunnel vision to focus on what you want to do just keeps you driving in that … and the only thing that makes you change is an injury or some major incident in your life.

D: Yes. So, can I go back to – would you say that this moment when you found Susan Klein and … who was she?

B: Colette Barry

D: Colette Barry – was that sort of a transformative moment for you?

B: Well, not right away. But, it was. It was something in the fact that I wasn’t corrected. I wasn’t corrected. Which was for me, a big deal. It doesn’t work for everybody. Um, in fact, they pretty much just let me alone to work. And that was also a huge thing, very important for ME. Doesn’t work for everybody. And it, cause it goes into my teaching, and I realize that not everybody is like me, but I know that space is necessary. You can’t just throw all your information at somebody, and say ok, this is it. Eat it .Take it all in now and this is how it works. So that balance of space but letting them know that you’re taking care of them in class-  it’s a balance I’m still working on

B: I think the thing that was the most changing was that I felt like I was at a home – and everybody knew everybody and talked to everybody – it was a big studio but … you know it was like a community. And you know the work – there was a lot of breathing and stretching and breathing and stretching and letting go and things weren’t necessarily explained all the time. I think  they were still trying to figure it OUT, what it was they were doing. They both worked with Irmgard Bartenieff, and so there’s a lot of that information in there. Um.. And also Dorothy had this emphasis on the pelvis which is also what led me to be really engrossed in what they were doing at THAT studio – because they were talking about the pelvis. But it was two totally opposite sides of the spectrum-  of how the pelvis sits on the legs. One was very muscular, and one was very not muscular.

D: oh yes [nodding] Dorothy …

B: Vislocky

D: Oh right. I didn’t register the name.

B: and she was a Nikolai dancer. But still, at the same time, she would think like, she had that context, but she would also point out things that nobody could really point out to me. She’d say look at that dancer’s stage presence, or look at that, that quality – she could see way underneath, way beyond what was just presented in front of your face. You know, look at the – It’s not just the choreography, but watch the body in motion, watch the presence, see the person come out -whether they’re dramatic and – what do people say –

D: expressive, maybe?

B: no, very out or kind of like inner quiet where the person can kind of draw an audience member to them… but  she pointed out these things to me, that I could actually see them. And it made me feel kind of weird,  but also, and unique, but I knew it was different than the way most people were looking at dance.

D: And how would you say most people were looking at dance?

B: Just what was presented right in front of them.

D: So like how high their legs were, or straight, or what the position of their foot …

B: Yeah. Right. Right

D: So you said there were these two sides of the spectrum. You had this pelvis in …

B: in Motion …

D: pelvis in a muscular way, and then in a not muscular way.

B: Right.

D: Could you say some more about that not muscular way?

B: Well it’s from the deep inner muscles that Irmgard talked about a lot, and Susan was very good at analyzing everything and so she broke down all of those exercises and Dorothy broke down all of her exercises, and um, then there was like no perfect body. You know the idea was to have the person be fluid enough to, to, be resilient as a mover. And to know themselves well enough to avoid major injuries, to pursue the kind of dance career that they wanted. I mean, sometimes it actually meant that you couldn’t do this high technical stuff, but it didn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t be a fabulous beautiful expressive dancer. Mover. [Nodding] {Laughs] You know cuz there’s all kinds of different styles, you know, there’s all kinds of different styles. Less so now, I think now, everything is very, I don’t know I always think it’s the economics – you know they need a job, they just go, they try it, they don’t get a job, they go do something else. [Laughing]

B: Oh. I’m talking so much. I’m sorry.

D: No. NO. That’s the point. [Laughing]. It’s good. I’m trying to restrain myself, actually. I tend to talk too much myself.

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Notes from an interview….. collected for a dissertation by Daisy Levy


B: And so I started dancing at 21.

D: And I started dancing at 19.

D: And I was pretty untalented.

B: I was very untalented. {Smiling]

D: And so it’s interesting to hear you talk about yourself, as a very accomplished, and well respected mover, it’s interesting to hear you talk about yourself that way………..

my injuries…….B: that was the first. Actually before that I had a back thing. And after that I had, tore a hamstring. All on the same leg. I sprained my ankle so that it was swollen for about 5 months cuz I didn’t stop dancing, and then I had an opposite injury on the inside of the foot. It was everything on this side.

D: Wow.

B: It wasn’t fun. Like 5 or 6 major injuries. And my back would go out a lot.

D: And what was that period of time. Was it like a year or several years?

B: About 4 years.

D: Ouch.

B: Yes. And then when I started studying seriously, with Susan- my back would still go out, but I would know. I learned to know when it was going to happen. I could feel my hamstrings go away. You know there’s this connection between the sits bones and the heels? And you know they talk about them in many different ways.  And So you know instead of feeling like there were grooves in the muscle, they would feel like they were like ICE. And then I would take myself to the chiropractor to get myself some body work. I would prevent. I just knew myself so well.

D: I think that’s a little bit of what I’m trying to write about. For academics – this knowing yourself, knowing your physical body in that way. So could you … I’m trying to think of how to ask a question, without telling you what I want you to say …

B: Well, I think what a lot of people learn about their bodies – is like this is good for you, and that’s not good for you. And this is good for you, and that’s not good for you. But they don’t necessarily have the time process available to them, or are encouraged, to actually experience it themselves. They just listen to what other people say this is good for, is not good for you. They come and see me and say ‘what exercises should I do.’ I say ‘well you have to come to class for 6 months.’ It’s like ‘6 months?’ [looks incredulous]. And then, now, you know people do stretching, so they just take stretch class once a week. And really stretch class is the basis for everything. It gives you your legs, it puts your pelvis on top of your legs, and brings your spine then into a much more easy upright, and brings your head up and facilitates movement from the heaven to the earth. To the ground, to propel you so you can feel powerful. You know what you said was missing. You know it’s not just stretching. And that’s really, that’s where it’s kind of stuck now. So people stretch cuz they know it’s good for them, and they do ab-work cuz they know it’s good for them. But there’s all these studies now about what the c ore actually is, and how damaging actually  some of the transverse exercises are to the lumbar spine, and you know we’ve been, people have been talking about it for 35 − 40 years. Mabel B. Todd. All of them.

D: Now – you just gave me a name. What was that name?

B: Mabel B. Todd wrote The Thinking Body in the 30s. And she … I read her book like the bible.

D: I’ve not ever … I know of her, but I’ve not ever read-

B: Its called The Thinking Body. There are some amazingly beautiful philosophical things in it.

D: Great.

B: So you know I think some people’s thinking is still somewhat cubed? Squared? You know so you don’t really  get to actually experience your body changing. And the other thing is, I think, sometimes too much emphasis on sensation. But sensation is so fleeing. You know you feel it, it’s gone. And, people have a sensation, they want to HAVE it. You know, this is my cue. But to go through this like, this self-wisdom, or body wisdom, to get to this place where you go way beyond , in terms of vertical learning, as opposed to linear learning, way deep into what that, where that sensation came from, and how, so you can use the tools, instead of aim for the sensation. Does that make sense?

D: Yes. It does make sense. I mean, I think, um, one of the reasons I came to, decided on this project. There are several, a handful of scholars in my field, who are interested in this idea of embodiment as a knowledge making practice. But it seems to me as I’m reading them, that what they’re really writing about is emotion.

D: Cuz I mean, the BODY.

B: Being in yourself. Being who you, deeply, in your self.

D: Deeply, like deep into your muscles and your bones and your nervous system and all of that.

B: Yeah. Right.

D: that is to me, that feels to me like embodiment. Affect is some part of it.

B: I completely agree.

B; But you know stretch class I think works on releasing the muscles and goes way underneath and gets the bones to be stacked up and lined up and energy, gravity travels through and bony structure actually changes – osteoblasts and osteoplasts and the whole system Wolf’s Law and so in a couple of years a body could entirely change. My body entirely changed.

D: What are some of those changes?

B: I can move my legs. That was one thing. I can backbend forever [demonstrates bending backwards from a seated position] which I couldn’t do when I was – and I can move my legs [lifts one leg far from the floor and out to the side] which I couldn’t do and I had endurance and I could move. I just couldn’t move. This is kind of a joke, but, you know, Susan said when I first was in class, I didn’t have a joint between my neck and my ankles. I was just like a sheath of muscle.

D: Right. So, this will sound like a really silly question – but what’s better about being able to move than not being able to move?

B: For me, it’s my – for me, it’s ME. I guess even way back then – I was not really an athletic kid, I was pretty uncoordinated I couldn’t ride a bike, I learned how to ride a bike at 35, I never did any sports except punch ball cuz that’s all we had – Pensy Pinky. Um … I don’t know, the expression that I feel connects me to something bigger than myself, is through moving. And through teaching, now. But through moving.

D: I’m hesitant to ask but would you say more about this connected to something bigger than yourself?

B: Well they call it, there’s a book called, of course there’s always a book, I like to read. It’s called Flow- something about flow, consciousness and flow. It’s like when you get connected to the universe, or you’re in flow with everything around you and things happen, connected to certain things, all these coincidences happen, and this leads to that, leads to that, leads to that. So That’s what I’m talking about, this kind of flow of being.

more to come……………

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Santiago, Chile

Beautiful work happening in the workshop in Santiago! Deep concentration and a profound respect for the both the teaching and the work, Klein Technique.   A wonderful time for me=warm and generous people.

The Andes separate Chile and Argentina, and  the mountains can be seen on clear, non- foggy/smoggy days.

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In Valparaiso, Chile.

Twenty three wonderful students in a workshop held in an old theater.  “..we can never really know what direction life will take, or what changes small movements/actions might cause….We have to surrender to uncertainty, while appreciating its intricate beauty”.  Deepok Chopra

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Dance Photos of Past and Present

Photos with  Jamie Chandler, Donna Costello, Cara Heerdt, Laurie Hockman, Alissa Horowitz, Amy Kail, Barbara Mahler, Rebecca Pearl,  Julianna Tilbury and Jessica Winograd

Top left photo by M.Mathews, all others Julie Lemberger


heerdt, mahler, J. LembergerGermond and Mahler

photo Paula Court

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Somatic basis for choreography?

Rebecca Blair Hillerby, a dance graduate student attending Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona recently asked  me a question in regards to my choreographic process and how it is impacted by implementing somatic principles.   This “conversation” will explore several aspects; what is somatics, and how, historically  have somatic principles presented themselves in the choreographic process.

This was my initial response to her first question.

barbara mahler/julie lemberger


What is your definition of a “somatic” approach? It has become a very popular term and seems to include many different systems of “body work”. Klein technique, and Klein/Mahler, in its evolution over the past 30 years was developed by dancers, for dancers, to experientially and intellectually learn and integrate  in parts of equal balance, how to  make better use of their bodies.  As in many other systems striving to connect the body/mind/spirit, its practice creates very real and deep changes, not only in the body’s structure, but also in the person.  These changes are carried into creative realization through time and daily practice.  They  become integrated and become a  part of the individual’s use of their body.  It need not have specific aesthetic.  It can be applied to all styles of movement, including daily life.  The goal – to create, dance and live with a healthier and better functioning body.  It therefore has no real “style”, or choreographic process. If the choreographer creates all the movement for his or her dances, then the movement quality, grounded ness, sense of space, body articulation and its connections show in that movement.  The transmitting of this to one’s dancers will take place if the dancers themselves are in their own bodies in a similar way or through the art of coaching and teaching.

The work grounds itself through the process of learning. One of its fundamental goals is  learning movement without copying shape and form, but to know, on a deep body understood level, (kinesthetically), the pathways  to achieve the choreographer’s goal, realizing  his or her vision. It works the same way from the perspective of improvisational processes – the dancer must be connected, grounded, with and in their own body.

I do not know if others choreograph from the perspective of bodywork. I do not.  My movement and ideas  comes from within. The way movement and form shape itself in space is the aesthetic choices of the choreographer.

Systems of body-oriented, or somatic movement techniques (i.e.Feldenkrais, Alexander, Yoga, Pilates, Klein Technique, Body/Mind/Centering (BMC), to name a few, work best, in my opinion, in undiluted ways.  When in a class the immersion of and mindful work of one technique, rather than the attempt to integrate many, will, I believe, be more affective. As my teacher Dr. Fritz Smith often says “I wish you could see the world (of the body) the way I do”.

I believe we, as a culture, have come to think of somatic work as having a loose and undefined physicality, as well as the opposite, which is dance as a conglomerate of outer-worldly movements and contortions, acrobatics and legs wrapping around one’s head. That is not all there is to choreography, dancing and performance.  For me, choreography has form, structure time, design, composition, emotion, perspective, clarity, movement invention, and rigor; and the many parts make up a whole.

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