TEACHER PROFILE: CHARLES SLENDER-WHITE
Based in San Francisco (USA), Charles Slender-White has had a dynamic performance career throughout Russia and Europe, before returning to sunny California to found his own company, FACT/SF. Here Charles shares with us his experiences and how, from the world of competitive athletics, he discovered his love for dance and Countertechnique.
By Madeline Harms.
Tell me a little about where you come from and how you started dancing:
I grew up in San Diego, California, and was a competitive gymnast and diver for 10 years. When I started dancing I was immediately excited by the intellectual component that went with a physical practice that was as demanding as sports. The idea of being an artist and making artistic choices, or becoming an instrument for other people to make artistic choices, seemed really exciting to me.
When was the moment that you decided that you wanted to make dance your profession?
My university training was a rather strict Graham modern dance program. In some ways this was limiting, but as a beginner it was useful to get a depth of knowledge, rather than a breadth of knowledge. In 2004, I was encouraged by my university professors to go to the American Dance Festival for more experience, and it was the first time I entered a community and environment of working arts-professionals. People seemed engaged, fulfilled and curious and I just wanted to be a part of this!
When did you discover Countertechnique and why did it grasp your interest?
I first met Anouk van Dijk at ADF in 2005, when she was teaching and choreographing there. I took her class at the beginning of the summer and honestly thought it was nonsense. To me, it was just a contemporary-ballet class. She also had a casual attitude towards dance and I thought that was wrong. I thought dance should be taken very seriously and I didn’t understand that there could be a different type of rigour. At the end of the summer, I watched the work she had created called Derivatives, that many of my other classmates were involved in. I could see that something had really changed in them; they performed in a way that I had never seen before in terms of ease of movement, the way they attacked the space with speed and endurance - it was like watching a magic show! So, that was my conversion moment.
When did you start to study the technique intensively and when did you become a teacher?
I stayed curious and followed Countertechnique from a distance during my first years as a professional dancer and choreographer working in Russia. I also taught during this time, but although my classes were fun, there wasn’t any real logic or philosophy behind them. After two years in Russia, I moved to back to California in 2008 and founded my own dance company, FACT/SF, in San Francisco. For the first four years I trained the dancers in my own way, but by 2012 I had became a certified Countertechnique teacher and brought this in as our main professional company training.
How does Countertechnique influence your approach to dance as a choreographer and director?
Countertechnique has helped me establish a common language with my dancers, not just in terms of movement vocabulary but also in problem solving. When we come across a technical challenge, we can use the Countertechnique toolbox to help strategically understand what we are doing mechanically. Furthermore, I have a few dancers who come from a ballet background and Countertechnique has been a useful way to help them find more ease in their joints, a more dynamic relationship to space and to dance in a more mindful way. Over the past six years, I have observed how Countertechnique educates dancers how to work safely; how it can condition their bodies to do the demands of work they need, but also help their minds engage in a healthy way, and carry this to the stage. As a result, the rate of injuries is very low.
It is important to clarify with dancers that although I use Countertechnique to help us in our work, we do not use Countertechnique as ‘choreography’.
Can you articulate what it is that gives Countertechnique its unique ‘aesthetic’?
I think sequential movement is a really big part of it, however what is unique is the use of space and weight of the body in space. Orientating the body parts along the horizontal axis, rather than just the vertical, and working perpendicular to the forces of gravity. I think that this creates an aesthetic of flowing movement, dynamic balance, quick direction changes, of whips and spirals. Sometimes dancers make the mistake of thinking that copying what it “looks” like is the same as “doing” Countertechnique. This is okay for the beginning, because this is one of the ways dancers learn (trying to look like the teacher), but then there must be a switch to the understanding that thinking the thoughts and doing the thoughts, is what Countertechnique is - not the shape or moves of choreography. I try to help my students understand this by saying my thoughts out loud whilst dancing and teaching.
How has Countertechnique helped you in your own performance career?
My body doesn’t really hurt anymore! Of course the body can get out of line in the way that it always can, but I feel like it happens less frequently and when it does happen I have a better understanding of how to help myself out. I also actually enjoy dancing now! Up until studying Countertechnique, I hadn’t realised that I had lost the enjoyment of dancing . I liked the ability it gave me to travel, the camaraderie with my colleagues, performing and making art, but the joy from the actual physicality and taking pleasure from my moving body had completely disappeared. Dancing, for me, had become more about success and achievement.
What would you like to see in the future of Countertechnique and its role in the dance world?
I think it would be interesting to have a longitudinal study on the psychological influence that Countertechnique has on dancers; how Countertechnique can change the dancer’s psychological self-perspective over a longer period of time, preventing physical or psychological trauma from occurring or healing old wounds. This could be very important, because I don’t think there is enough candid discussion in the dance field about the amount of trauma that dancers experience. By trauma, I mean the unnecessary body dysmorphia that dancers carry along with them, or opinions about the connection between dancing excellence and moral righteousness, which I think occurs a lot in the United States in particular. Here, when dancers make a technical mistake, the response is often negative criticism, which can very quickly spiral into unhealthy self-shaming, rather than being met by an objective curiosity about why it went ‘wrong’. In America, there is also often a direct relationship between effort and worth; the more effort you put in, the more valuable you are. Countertechnique proposes a different relationship to rigour and effort.
What best defines the spirit of Countertechnique?
Something that I love about teaching Countertechnique is the community of teachers, keeping in touch with each other even from all corners of the globe, sharing challenges, discoveries and experiences of teaching. And though I am the only teacher in San Francisco, I still feel connected to everybody else and feel that I can rely on them to support my continued practice, both as a practitioner of Countertechnique but also as a teacher. The openness of the teachers and this community is special. We all try to be as accessible and approachable to our students as possible, inside the studio and outside. We try to remain open, curious and receptive, which I think is really important for building the community.
Find out here where Charles is teaching next.
In September, the Teacher Profile Interview Series will feature dancer and Teacher Countertechnique Yi-chun Liu.
The Countertechnique Teacher Profile Interview Series started in October 2017 and is written by Madeline Harms, an Australian dancer and writer, currently based in Mainz, Germany. Learn more about Madeline on her blog Travelling Dancers.