On a Wednesday afternoon in Toronto, I watched two former dancers, husband-wife duo Alisia Pobega and Louis-Martin Charest, work alongside a group of serious sixteen- and seventeen-year-old ballet dancers from Canada’s National Ballet School. Pobega crouches in one corner of the studio with half of the students rallied around her, speaking in low tones. Charest is on the opposite side of the room with his back to the mirrors, his dark hair barely perceptible above a crowd of ballet bodies clothed in leotards, loose t-shirts, and sweatpants. He draws the students in closer. They lean towards him, straining to hear. Every now and then, a student slyly glances across the room to the other group. Laughter escapes from one side and punctuates the air.
This is the set-up for one of the “games” that Pobega and Charest use to teach improvisation and contemporary dance. In the years after retiring as soloists from the Montreal dance company Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the two dance artists have gone on to teach at Quebec’s premier school for dancers, L’Ecole Superieure de ballet in Montreal, along with producing dance films, collaborating with choreographers, performing, and teaching at weekly drop-in classes for professionals at Danse à la Carte.
Between the studio, the stage, and raising their two daughters, the couple has formulated a unique method for teaching contemporary dance that heavily draws upon their personal experience as dance students and their professional careers working with an impressive roster of international choreographers including Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, Jiří Kylián, Stijn Celis, and Didy Veldman at Les Grands.
The two groups of dancers slightly break apart and reform on opposite sides of the room, facing each other. Pobega and Charest move to sit in two chairs at the front of the room, making sure it is the side of the room without mirrors, as they are not needed for this kind of exercise. There is a light electricity in the sun-filled studio, the delight of something unexpected about to happen.
Without direction, through the quiet, one young dancer separates herself from the crowd and begins to walk towards the centre of the room with a relaxed gait. Her action has signalled a dancer from the other side to also break from the group and begin travelling towards the opposite side of the room. They meet at the centre. Their eyes acknowledge each other. What will happen next, nobody knows. I can feel Pobega and Charest lean closer with their eyes. The first dancer unleashes a blood-curdling scream (a sound that sends an expression of shock across her face, a volume that she herself did not know she was capable of). The other dancer reacts by moving to the floor, assuming the pose of a sphinx. After that, there are dangerous convulsions. Crawling. An apparition of death. Meowing.
Pobega and Charest watch intently, engrossed in the action. Unafraid to be open books in front of their students, they erupt in giggles or become quietly transfixed by the students’ individual realizations. At one point, recovering from laughter, Pobega leans over to Charest and asks incredulously, “What did you tell them?” As much in the dark about what’s going on as the audience of an obscure performance, Pobega and Charest elicit genuine pleasure in this charade and withhold any temptation to bring judgement into the picture. The game only becomes more unsolvable as each pair of dancers stride across centre. I catch myself darting back and forth as I try to inventory the growing list of actions—but it’s impossible. I never get around to asking what the rules are and by the end, they no longer seem important.
It is as though each of the twenty dancers was playing twenty versions of the same game. In a routine ballet class, this would be considered a disaster—twenty young dancers, each one doing something different. But that’s exactly what Pobega and Charest are after—individual interpretation.
As Emily Macel Theys writes in an article about improv education, “Just because students are in an advanced technique level doesn’t mean they’ll feel confident moving without set steps.” To get students to explore outside their comfort zones, Pobega and Charest use the lightness of open-ended games and exercises as a kind of permission for students to begin to create something independently, without the goal of technical perfection or aesthetics.
“For an hour and half, they get a chance to work without hearing the word wrong,” Charest says. His remark reveals the highest respect for the young dancers, viewing their experimentation as real work towards making creative choices, exploring their impulses, and exercising their individual skillsets. Charest’s teaching philosophy also has a negativity-free requirement—since there is no right or wrong in improv—but also because dancers with a ballet background often already feel intimidated by the loose and self-originating form of improvisational movement.
Therefore, a large part of what Pobega and Charest do as teachers is concentrated on shaping a positive and safe environment for experimentation to happen. The teaching duo elicits a warm and casual presence in the studio. Their body language conveys emotional availability rather than authority. They are no more instructors than they are people that—like the good hosts of a party—bring out the most interesting qualities of their guests and know instinctually how to strike a rhythm with their company.
Positioning themselves as mentor-observers, Pobega’s and Charest’s lesson unfolds like a constructive dialogue, focussing on the idea of exchange as opposed to top-down instruction. In an art form that has historically been taught by imitation, with the teacher producing a set of movements for students to copy in a near militaristic atmosphere, Pobega’s and Charest’s pedagogical approach is one that breaks from antiquated hierarchies to equalize the relationship between teacher and student.
Having once been a dance student herself, Pobega has seen the effects of incessant criticism on personal growth and learning. “It gives you a tough-skin, but at what sacrifice?” She pauses for a while, as though to contemplate the irredeemable consequences to a person. After some time, she says, “It’s about finding ways to treat these young dancers in a more human way.”
It’s about finding ways to treat these young dancers in a more human way.Alisia Pobega
Pobega’s comment subtly remarks on a poor track record in the dance world, where mistreatment, unprofessional behaviour, and psychological manipulation of dancers has been rife in schools and companies. Her teaching method is conscious of these failures, and while much of dance education still hinges on how obedient dancers can be and how well their bodies conform to a particular technique, Pobega seeks to make a small change by nurturing the human being beneath the façade of the body. Her teaching philosophy provides a space for inclusivity and self respect, acknowledging that within each dancer there are the human qualities that must be considered— thoughts, opinions, experiences, and feelings.
Thinking back to my days as a young dancer at the school, I realize how threatening the studio environment was to self-discovery. I can recall the tense atmosphere between students and teachers. The mind games. How fear and intimidation was used as a teaching strategy. It was often hard not to cry during class and I frequently watched my peers break down, not from physical pain but frustration and mental exhaustion. I wonder how that might have been a conducive environment for personal expression? How I could begin to think of myself as an artist in those moments when I didn’t even feel human, the air growing tenser all around me. It was a place that existed more in the mind than as physical space, where I obsessed over what I might be doing wrong before I even gave myself the chance to believe that I might be doing something right.
Another crucial way that Pobega and Charest activate a safe studio space for their students is to replace the culture of silence with conversation. As Charest explains, “Alisia and I get in the studio and are constantly asking the students questions. Questions about how their day is going, what they are working on in other classes, what they want to express, and how they might go about it.”
The discussions are meant to help dancers assert themselves as individual artists and begin to think about making their own creative choices rather than what their teachers have told them to do. In her article “Dancers need to be taught to listen to themselves,” writer Liz Hurt describes her experience with Gaga technique, “The teacher kept asking us if we were listening to ourselves. She kept asking us if we could listen first and move from that place.” Getting students to tune into their own intentions, personality, risk, imagination, and other senses (touch, sound, breathing), Pobega and Charest address what is often the missing link in the artistic and personal development of dancers.
After we had left the studio and sat down to dinner, Charest and I compare our experience as former students in a professional ballet school. Charest looks back to his dance training with some difficulty. As a student, he recalls feeling misunderstood in the studio and being the one that was “harder to reach.” That didn’t stop Charest from making a career in dance. Being different from his classmates and showing a unique interpretation of movement may have kept Charest away from large classical ballet companies, but made him attractive to many other artistic directors and choreographers. Charest went on to dance with Ottawa Ballet, National Ballet of Portugal, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. After his professional dance career, he founded his own company LIBERAMÆ Performance & Films and turned to making dance films, along with teaching. Charest’s earliest struggles to be recognized for his artistry and special movement quality have now become formative to his teaching values. “That quiet dancer in the back has something to offer,” he tells me.
That quiet dancer in the back has something to offer.Louis-Martin Charest
Never having been the stand-out student in my dance class, I could relate to what Charest was describing. As naturally introverted, I had to reckon with being true to my personality—the quiet, determined mover—or try to become the showy, confident performer that I could see everyone preferred. I didn’t feel like smiling; why was that such a bad thing?
In those years as a student, I wanted to change myself but for me, that was asking myself to change my relationship to dance, to turn something I felt genuinely connected to on a private level into something manufactured for the stage. As a student, I was always in my own head, asking my inner-self these deeply searching questions about what movements were supposed to feel like and how I could relate to them. I wondered why there was such a disconnect between what I felt on the inside and what I was supposed to copy on the outside. Unfortunately, in the silent and formal atmosphere of ballet class I didn’t find the answer. Looking back, I realize that what I most needed was kindness, permission to try out ideas, and honest dialogue.
In Charest’s and Pobega’s workshops, students are given the agency to ask questions, act out (or not act out), break lines, and try things that they know will come out messy. After all the years of pliés and tendues, this may be the most important lesson these students get and it has the potential to impact what their professional dance life looks like. Nowadays, it’s hard to come by a professional dance company that doesn’t require its dancers to improvise or actively contribute to creating a new choreography developed through both creative dialogue and improvisation.
Pobega knows first-hand the importance of improvisational skill and movement exploration in contemporary dance work today, having continuously been a part of new creations over her twenty- year career and worked with an expanding group of contemporary choreographers. Born in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Pobega studied dance from a young age at Montreal’s École Supérieure de ballet du Québec and shortly after graduating, joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal where she steadily rose to the ranks of soloist. She has performed works by acclaimed contemporary choreographers like Ohad Naharin, Didy Veldman, Andrew Skeels, and Margie Gillis. Through the many experiences and challenges of a professional dance career, Pobega has found a way to be a collaborator and advocate of young dance students. Her teaching method is one that succeeds on the basis of its human understanding and compassion.
Imagine you are a young dancer who has been told your artistic impulses matter. You are given a chance to develop confidence in your ideas. When you have a question or feel you have something to contribute, you trust in yourself to speak aloud. This is the kind of change we need to see in the dance profession. It begins with treating dancers at the outset of their training as valued artists and respected people, addressing a pedagogy as open-ended and intellectually-engaged rather than merely imitative, and allowing a playful humanistic approach to bounce and riff within the walls of the studio.