Choreographer Alyssa Mitchel's The Classroom is a Learning Experience


September 4, 2019—Choreographer and dancer Alyssa Mitchel is inspired to create dance from experiences: moments in time, loss, transition, travel. So it follows naturally that she's created a dance from her experience as a teacher with an education and math degree (Summa Cum Laude with Honors). Premiering September 7th and 8th at ODC, Alyssa's latest piece The Classroom is her eighth work in the past five years. While busy rehearsing seven dancers for The Classroom, she is also dancing in works by other choreographers later this month, next month, and the month after that. Alyssa took a few minutes out of her hyper-speed schedule to talk with Michael Phelan about The Classroom.

Alyssa Mitchel. Photo by Afshin Odabaee
Alyssa Mitchel. Photo by Afshin Odabaee

Michael: Tell me all about The Classroom. First of all, are you dancing in it?

Alyssa: I am not. I have seven dancers. I choreographed the whole thing, and I have many collaborators, too. The Classroom started about a year and a half ago. I had a small residency with Levy Dance, and I wanted to integrate my other career as a math tutor. I had recently been to a conference by Carol Dweck of Growth Mindset. She's a professor who has the philosophy that we're not born with a set amount of intelligence, that you can keep developing it. So, I created a trio with Levy Dance on the Growth Mindset. And that summer I decided I didn't want to stop there, I wanted to continue building sections for this project. From that small trio I decided to do interviews.

Michael: How did you do the interviews?

Alyssa: I worked with videographer Mark McBeth. We went to five schools throughout the Bay Area and interviewed twenty-six teachers and students about different parts of the learning process. Following that, I was accepted for two seasons into ODC's Pilot program, and I created a section called Defining Intelligence, where I use all twenty-six of the responses, from kindergartners to college professors, based on the question "What does it mean to be intelligent?" I integrated all the responses and created a piece for five dancers. In the following Pilot season I created a section called Frustration, based on being frustrated in the classroom. I have one dancer who gets up on a desk and starts ripping paper, another dancer is dragged across the stage.

It was really special because for Frustration I got to collaborate with my cousin Jake Fisher, a jazz musician in Chicago, who composed the music for Frustration. After that ended in April, I built six more sections. This summer I had four students from the Urban School of San Francisco who wrote and then recorded themselves talking about their experiences in school. All of my seven dancers have a solo with part of the recordings. So The Classroom has nine sections. It's grown in a year and a half with some of the same dancers and some new dancers. It's very collaborative.

Michael: You have a background in education, teacher training and math. What inspired you to base a dance on that experience?

Alyssa: I went to Dominican University for their education program with a math minor. I myself had learning differences as a child. I had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), a hard time reading. But I had so many amazing teachers who believed in me and gave me strategies. I had great support from my parents to push through. I had an inspiring math tutor who became a huge inspiration for me, and I became a math tutor. I think learning has to do not only with how we think, but also how we feel. I almost tie it with dancing and movement, like when something clicks in your body, it's kind of the same thing as when something clicks in your brain. And it's cool to be able to connect that together.

I feel I can relate to a lot of students because I've had learning differences, and I've learned strategies, and I can put myself in their place, which is inspiring. I have a section in The Classroom called Tutor. It was really fun for me to reflect, in a funny way, about my career and occupation. There's a student at a desk, and the parents throughout the piece are snooping and making sure that the student and tutor are on the right track. You see the student struggling...and I won't say what happens at the end. It's a very comical piece, but at the same time real.

Michael: What are all the sections in The Classroom?

Alyssa: It starts with Defining Intelligence, which goes into two solos. One solo is about learning support from others and then learning to give to support to others. The next one is on learning English as a second language. I connected some of my dancers to the solos that fit. The girl who does this solo, Nicole Maimon, had to learn English in kindergarten, so she can relate to it. The fourth section is Frustration. Then the next is Eloise's Reflection. She's a student. It's broken into three solos: at a very strict, French school; then a relaxed middle school where there's no structure; then she goes to a competitive school in San Francisco, like where I went to high school. So it's her reflecting on the idea that she'll never be the perfect student, but she can learn how to push herself. After that it goes into Growth Mindset, the trio based on learning to persevere and struggle through challenges in order to grow. Then it goes into two solos, the first about a girl learning she has dyslexia, the second about her coming out with her sexual identity and learning who she is. The next section is Tutor. The final section is fun; it's Recess. I have a bunch of jump ropes, and playing tag, hide-and-seek, and bouncing balls. It's a very physical piece.

Michael: Are there set changes?

Alyssa: More like prop changes. There are a lot of props, like desks, chairs, rulers, whiteboard, notebooks...

Michael: You recorded interviews with over two dozen students and teachers. How did you integrate the interviews into The Classroom? What kinds of questions did you ask? What were you looking for?

Alyssa: One of the questions was, "What's your definition of intelligence?" I thought that was interesting to hear the kids' perspective versus the teachers'. Another question was "when do you feel smart and when don't you feel smart". I asked "how do you deal with frustration", which turned into a big section. I talked to everyone about their own personal experiences in school, and it was very interesting to hear the teachers' experiences as well as the students. I integrated the interviews into a video that is projected onto a wall of Argyle studio (at ODC), across the hall from Studio B, where my show will be. It's a pre-show video, snippets of interviews. I talked to teachers of kindergartners and teachers of high school students, and you hear the different perspectives, developmentally, of what they're working with. I thought it was really interesting to hear the personal backgrounds in addition to hearing the responses to the questions.

Michael: Tell me about the interview video.

Alyssa: It's shown before the performance as the audience is waiting in the hall. There'll be a big video projected with teachers' journeys and students' journeys. It's twenty minutes with subtitles. So the audience can get a glimpse before the show starts of who I interviewed and what these people look like.

Michael: Are you using any kind of mixed media in the performance?

Alyssa: At first I wanted to, but I decided not to, but I felt that with the recordings of the interviews, and the video, and the dancers are doing so much, I didn't want anything to distract from what is going on on stage. So I decided to use the video before the show.

Michael: Many of your works are based on personal experience. Do you think it's a trend in choreography now, basing works on personal experience, rather than universal themes?

Alyssa: I think so. I've seen a lot of choreographers take something inspired by a recent family event or their views on what's going on in the world. In a lot of my choreography I feel like the process is personal. I take a lot of time to create material that I really feel good about and that no one has seen. And then finally I'll get into the studio with the dancers and I'll have a personal experience with them, showing them exactly what I want. Part of my process is giving them the freedom to create and collaborate, too. My work has been very personal. In 2016 my grandparents passed away ten days apart, which inspired me to create a solo, In Memory. I think choreographers are moving toward work on a personal level, and at the same time the audience can relate to these personal experiences. So there's a connection between the choreographer, the dancers, and the audience.

Michael: You started in ballet, and your work In Transition is about your transition from ballet to contemporary dance, which you describe as your passion. At what point did you realize you wanted to do contemporary?

Alyssa: In eighth grade and high school I was a bunhead. In college I trained at Marin Dance Theatre, which had a little contemporary and a lot of ballet. I realized after my junior year that my feet are very flexible but pronate, and I was not enjoying pointe at all. I wanted to do ballet, but I couldn't do all the stuff en pointe that everyone else can do. We had a contemporary teacher, Andrea Basile, who danced for ODC, who mentored me. She involved composition, and taught us phrasework and improvisation, and got me interested in choreography. My ballet teachers at Marin agreed contemporary was a good direction for me, and they invited me to be the first student choreographer at Marin Dance Theatre. I started with solos to choreograph on myself, and then later on a few students.

Michael: You're rehearsing your dancers for The Classroom, and you're dancing in three other performances later this month, in October, and again in November? Do you live on double espressos?

Alyssa: Ha ha. Yeah, it's a busy schedule. For The Classroom I was able to make it work where I did festivals with a duet that I already knew. For Emotion Dance Company I did a few weekend rehearsals. I'm lucky to work with choreographers who are very flexible. I was able to make it work around my rehearsals for The Classroom, which are throughout the week.

Michael: How do you keep from mixing up the steps for different performances?

Alyssa: We have over 100 videos of rehearsals. The dancers are always studying the videos. It's so easy to record yourself in rehearsals. The choreography comes back to you.

Michael: What are you working on next?

Alyssa: I think it would be cool to show this work in schools. I was talking with ODC Theater about their suggestions because they've seen me grow throughout the Pilot program. I'm waiting to hear back from a few residencies, because I would love to create something new. I haven't decided what, but I think it will be another personal experience.

The Classroom premieres on September 7 and 8 at ODC's Studio B in San Francisco. For more information, see ODC.

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