by Sarah Ewald
The Repertory Workshop: Duke Gardens Project class met in the wood-paneled Southgate Gym. A mat lay over the small basketball court and, with giant, deafening fans overhead, dancers gathered in groups, chatted and warmed up waiting for class to start.
Professor Rodger Belman’s class stems from a personal project last summer, when he staged a work in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens with 30 students working on their own time. More than 300 attended the performance, so Belman added the class to the ADF school curriculum this year.
“Students learn some of my repertory, dance phrases and partnering, and also contribute to the dance making process by creating some of their own movement material,” Belman tells me, explaining that said movements are inspired by visits to the gardens.
“Through this process, I direct the creation of solos, duets and group dances specific to locations in the garden that culminate in a performance in the garden at the end of the festival,” Belman says.
This summer, Belman is concentrating the class’s Duke Gardens work mostly in the W. L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. He had originally planned to cap the class at 24, but robust interest led to a class of 38, including 90-year-old dancer Susan Gittler, with whom he had worked last summer.
During the day’s class, Belman first asked to see each group’s progress. Dancers in threes got up on the mat and presented their pieces. Applause greeted each group’s finish, and Belman gave some notes, complimenting the class on their spacing and phrasing of movements. But before moving on, there was a crucial sartorial matter to attend to.
“Socks on this floor are too slippery. [You] should fly across the floor,” Belman said, clearly not wanting to risk injuries. Many of the class obliged by stripping off their socks.
The day’s assignment was to add two-way or three-way partnering to their routines, which Belman said would break things up.
“Go and investigate that for yourselves,” Belman said. “So … play!”
The groups take to the mat for the remainder of the class, while Belman meets with each one, answering questions and offering critiques. With a few minutes left, the class gathers together again, and the various trios show what they’ve come up with during the class time.
I visited the class again a couple of weeks later. Though it had been scheduled to take place in the Gardens, rain warnings moved it back to Southgate. On this day, Belman wanted to focus on transitions from one group to the next, telling his dancers to “come in casually across the back.”
Those trios that were to take the stage soon lined up along the back of the room. The dancers who weren’t performing sat along the wall or silently stretched out. One dancer wound a bandage around another dancer’s chest and back.
“Walk [up] to this trio one at a time,” Belman instructed one group. When the dancer’s walk wasn’t up to par, Belman got to his feet and showed her how it’s done. Her subsequent heavy-hoofed execution bordered on comical stomping, and Belman wasn’t above poking fun at her while his class and the dancer in question laughed along.
“Alyssa, look at Alicia, like you’re taking her hand and helping her up,” Belman said, directing two specific dancers. They rehearsed until Belman was satisfied and waved the next set of trios down the mat. They ran through their routines, occasionally stopping for botched executions or spatial concerns.
“Dancers, you have everything. You really do,” Belman said. Before dismissal, he tells them they’ll add in the duets tomorrow.
For his part, Belman is already thinking about future projects.
"The more I'm in the gardens, the more I'm inspired. There's so much more to learn about, and to explore, in these 55 spectacular acres of garden," Belman said.
The Duke Gardens Project repertory class will perform on Sunday, July 18 at 10 a.m. Audience members should meet in the north side of the lower parking lot. Sarah P. Duke Gardens is located at 426 Anderson St. in Durham, N.C.