Garfield Lemonius in the dance studio at Point Park.
Assistant Professor Garfield Lemonius joined the Conservatory of Performing Arts as a guest artist in 2009 and became a full-time faculty member in fall 2011. He holds an M.F.A. in dance from Southern Methodist University, and a B.F.A. in dance and bachelor’s degree in education from York University in Toronto. Lemonius' professional background includes performing as a principal dancer with the Dallas Black Dance Theatre and guest artist at companies across the world. He has been a master teacher at many prestigious schools and summer dance programs, including the Debbie Allen Dance Institute Summer Intensive. Prior to coming to Point Park, Lemonius was on faculty at the nationally acclaimed Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. The Point spoke with Lemonius:
You have an extensive dance background. How do you incorporate your professional experience into the classes you teach?
GL: I am a firm believer in augmenting what one learns in the classroom with outside experiences. In my classes, I encourage students to attend performances and see as much dance as they can. I also encourage writing a critique of the performance, thereby fostering the notion of ‘looking at and talking about dance.’ They need to have a point of view – not only with what they say through movement, but also how to articulate their thoughts; they need to be critical thinkers! That was important to me when I was dancing. I went to see dance and engaged in conversations about what I saw. I also incorporate information, anecdotes, and survival tips I've learned from the profession – gained from the touring, the crazy schedules, as well as choreographers, dancers and artistic directors I've worked with. That will help the student gain a better understanding of the professional world, the movements they will be exposed to, how to be artists and ‘make movement mean.’ As well as how to condition their bodies for daily technique classes and rehearsals to ensure they can dance longer, and stronger, way into their careers. Bringing segments of repertory movement materials from choreography that I've performed into the studio also challenges the student's skill level and exposes them to new movement ideas from masterworks as well as cutting edge contemporary choreographers.
What has been your biggest professional achievement?
GL: Students usually see an amazing dance work and lust after it, or want to work with a specific choreographer at some point during their dance careers. For me, it was Asadata Dafora's 1932 classic Awassa Astrige/Ostrich. It's brilliant, timeless, intricate and incredibly challenging! It's a solo dance, depicting a warrior clad in ostrich feathers, imitating the graceful yet powerful movements of the magnificent ostrich, king of the birds. It defines artistry; a whole body experience that one experiences only through dance. I was one of the few male dancers in the US given the opportunity to perform this timeless work on many theatre stages. It was a dream come true. After dancing that work, I can say that I truly lived.
What is your teaching philosophy?
GL: Students first! And the three R's: Rigor, Relationships and Relevance. Each class is rigorous, challenging the student's notion of how far they go and how much they can achieve. It is important that I also understand each student's background, their learning styles and who they are as a person, so that I create a safe atmosphere conducive to their learning, where they are comfortable enough to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them and grow. And of course, the coursework does not exist in a vacuum. It has to be relevant to the "real world". In essence the classroom, their university experience, becomes a matrix of the dance world, ensuring that the student can easily transfer their learning into real life situations.
What advice do you have for prospective students considering a career in dance?
GL: They will get to see the world, meet incredible people and become cultural aficionados. However, as the saying goes, ‘to keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.’ It will be a wonderful experience: they will love every minute of it,and also hate it sometimes. But to persevere, they have to see each opportunity as a learning experience, and continue to grow. And don't forget to have fun. Early in my dance training someone once told me to ‘practice instant forgiveness.’ That has never left me since. Forgive the screw-ups, and move on! But learn from those teachable moments, because it's how we learn to play with a poor hand in a game of cards, that defines us; we won't always have or get the good cards!
In your opinion, what makes Point Park’s dance program unique?
GL: Point Park's dance program is unique because the students receive intense conservatory training within a university setting. The dance spaces are enormous compared to most, the faculty are brilliant teachers in their own form and stylist dance areas, and the caliber of the training in ballet, modern and jazz is comparable to the top pre-professional conservatory dance training programs in the country and abroad. Pittsburgh’s close proximity to the major dance hubs of Chicago, New York City and Toronto doesn't hurt either. Traveling and teaching a lot this past summer allowed me to compare what is happening here at Point Park versus in other parts of the U.S., and the world, as it relates to dance and education. It is my observation that the faculty in the dance department at Point Park are doing an incredible job in preparing our students to meet the demands of this ever-evolving art-form we call dance. We too are practicing adaptability and versatility in our approach to educating tomorrow's dancers. We must! I am happy to be a member of this vibrant team of educators/artists.
What are your upcoming plans in terms of your own creative work?
I will once again choreograph for the faculty concert in Spring of 2013. I was thrilled with Contagion, the work I created in March 2012. The students did an excellent job and the audience, in kind, rewarded their efforts and artistry. I am excited and nervous about the next work. I cannot say what it will be about, but I will say that my work will continue to show dance as an art form first, along with the brilliance of our very talented students here in the department! Dance is an "art" first, that is demonstrated through movement "forms". It is our job as artists/choreographers/educators to maintain its integrity and educate students accordingly.
Any other news to share?
In summer 2012 I spent three weeks in Sydney, Australia, where I taught and re-staged one of my works at the Newtown High School for the the Performing Arts, one of the leading performing and visual arts schools in Australia. At a young age these dancers were incredibly gifted and committed to their training - I wanted to bring them all back to the U.S.! I also had the opportunity to be a master faculty member and jury chair at the Jazz Dance World Congress 2012 that was held here at Point Park in August 2012. It was a first for me teaching at the Congress, and I was pleased to see the excitement and energy generated by the event. Point Park was ablaze with students, renowned guest faculty, dance celebrities, and brilliant local and international dance companies participating in classes and the choreographic competition.
Editor's note: Wendy Perron, editor in chief of Dance Magazine, blogged about Point Park dancers and the Jazz World Dance Congress here.
Photo by Chris Rolinson
The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park University