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Engineers Learn to Dance

Date: Nov 06, 2012


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Perhaps the most common reason your Average Joe hesitates to get up and dance is a lack of training. But for Jake Shakleton and Michael Dunbar, two ordinary Australian men, this is not an excuse. In fact, choreographer Lucy Guerin chose them specifically because they have no formal experience with dance.  As far as she's concerned, the rookie factor is their biggest asset.

In "Untrained," which premieres at BAM on November 27th, Guerin pairs two classically trained dancers (Alisdair Macindoe and Ross McCormack) with two inexperienced movers and gives them one task: follow a set of instructions.  The choreographer explains, "In the very first development week of 'Untrained,' the performers and I wrote out hundreds of instructions and tested them. [There were] simple, physical ones like 'do a turn,' [there were] elaborate, creative ones like 'choreograph a short piece,' [and there were] more personal ones like 'tell us about a physical defect.' Some were quite ridiculous, like 'be an electrocuted cat'."

The final list of instructions is taped to the stage floor and is the guide for the piece's composition.

Guerin's interest in the untrained mover stems from her own carefully analyzed physical actions in everyday life. She was curious about a human body that is not necessarily as conscious of its motion.

"As a dancer you are always aspiring to a physical idea---an efficient, aligned body which is coordinated, responsive, intelligent and expressive," she says. "You can't help but consider your body when doing everyday tasks. When reaching for a glass on a high shelf, when your torso slumps in a chair, or when you dart across traffic, there is a certain amount of opinion about how you achieve things."

But in contrast, Guerin observes a sense of risk and discovery from her untrained performers: "People without dance training don't necessarily know where their bodies are in space," she says. "It takes training to have a refined sense of proprioception, to know instantly if your leg is bent or straight. Sometimes the untrained dancers launch themselves into the air, forgetting in that decisive instant that they must also come down."

90 men applied to be part of "Untrained," and Guerin auditioned 40 of them, which was eye-opening in itself.

"They were focused and found it a great experience to do something with other men that was not connected with sports, drinking, or cars," Guerin recalls. "I guess that says something about Australian culture, but attempting something outside of their normal activities was really inspiring to them." Jake Shakleton, for instance, is an environmental engineer, and Michael Dunbar is an interactive Web and Application designer. Dance is the furthest thing from their comfort zones.

Now that she's conducted this experiment several times with different performers (she has to change them up because they get too comfortable on stage), "Untrained" has taught Lucy Guerin this:  "Everything that has happened to you, physically and emotionally, leaves an imprint on your body and how you choose to comport it, consciously and unconsciously. We have done the show with many different types of men: footballers, teachers, visual artists, meat workers, laborers, carpenters, PhD students, and of course, always with dancers. The rehearsals begin for me with an initial impression of these people, but as they progress, so many complexities emerge. The meat worker had a love of musical theatre, the visual artist loved fly fishing, the teacher had experienced a nervous breakdown."

It amazes Guerin how well she can get to know total strangers in one week using only movement. But it is this surefire discovery process that connects the trained dancers to the concept as passionately as the amateurs. For dancers, this approach offers a chance to look at the first impulses that led them to a life of dance training. "There is something about moving, particularly dancing, that releases experiences, says Guerin.

Before "Untrained" takes the stage, "Sans Objet"---by choreographer Aurelien Bory for Compagnie 111---opens this weekend at BAM. Bory's dancers interact with a shrouded robotic object. With precise, mechanized movement, the dancers blend and battle with it throughout the piece. As we all become more attached and dependent on our many computerized devices, this piece seems timely in its exploration of power between our human selves and the robotic systems we have made.  In both the work of Lucy Guerin and Mr. Bory, you don't have to be a dancer to recognize yourself on stage: You just have to be human.


Emeri Fetzer is the Online Managing Editor of, a website about professional dance and dancers