Learning Right Steps From Top Dance Talent : Imported Teachers Help San Diego Students With Intensive Workshops

SAN DIEGO-Wendy Ellen Cochran was dissatisfied with the professional dance training available in San Diego four years ago, so she decided to do something about it.

Putting her entrepreneurial skills to work, Cochran started her own business, dubbed the Dancer's Workshop of San Diego, and set out to snare soloists from some of the leading dance companies in the country to teach short-term but intensive workshops in San Diego.

"I go for the best," she said at the Point Loma studio where the workshops are held. "San Diego never had top level dance instruction from imported artists, and I thought, if I'm stuck here, I might as well do something positive.

"I wound up here because my husband was in the Navy, and then when he got out we didn't want to leave because it's such a good place to raise children. Sure, there are trade-offs, but I'm glad we stayed.

"I did workshops on a smaller scale before this, but it probably would have been a lot easier for me to buy a plane ticket and go back to New York for coaching than to take something of this scale on myself," she said with a laugh. "But I wanted to improve the standards for all the dancers in town."

This week, Cochran is winding down her fourth annual summer workshop, featuring an impressive teaching staff. Former Martha Graham principal Jeanne Ruddy teaches Graham technique. San Diego's own Tony Caligagan (Alvin Ailey-trained and a current principal in the New York production of "Lost Luggage") gives instruction in jazz.

San Diego transplant Misha Morawski, with years of classical training in Europe under his belt, handles the ballet barre. Najite of Nigeria offers classes in West African dance from the Yoruba tribe.

Jazz dancer Bill Goodson (who appeared with Michael Jackson in his "Beat It" video) popped in from Los Angeles to give a couple of sessions in his style of jazz. Even Cochran got into the act with classes in repertory during the two-week workshop sessions, which attracted about 30 students.

"You can't get this kind of training in New York in the summer, because nothing is happening there now," Caligagan said. "People like Jeanne (Ruddy) are away this time of year, and she teaches at Ailey."

Morawski agrees that the level of instruction here is equal to any available in the major dance centers, and noted: "This is very beneficial for the dancers."

"It's very intense," said Caligagan. "We're working 12 hours a day, and (the students) are learning a lot of different techniques.

But the most important thing is it gives the dancers a chance to work with professionals. They've never worked with a company before, and they don't know the realities and discipline of professional dance. This is a good lesson."

Tonight, the students will show off their new-found skills in a potpourri of repertory works by the workshop faculty. The 8 p.m. performances will run through Saturday night at the Westminster Theater in Point Loma.

"We put together a hell of a show," said Cochran. "We didn't have that many students to draw from, and we have some tough choreography. But my faculty is really great."

For the first time, the Dancer's Workshop offered five scholarships through the American College Dance Festival Assn., and Cochran believes they helped attract talent from around the country.

Ohioan Lisa Catrett is one of the scholarship winners. She complains of the "long days" on the dance floor, but chose this program (from several offered by the association) because "there's good variety. You don't usually get modern, ballet and jazz" in one study program. "We're really learning a lot."

Ruddy was so impressed with Catrett's abilities, she gave the aspiring dancer a solo in "Harmonium," a Graham-based dance drama to be unveiled during the workshop concerts. Caligagan, in his first San Diego appearance in almost three years, will dance the male lead in Ruddy's ensemble piece.

Caligagan created a dance work of his own for the students, but he will not join them on stage for this one.

"I'm doing 'Guilty,' my version of a jazzy funk piece," he said. "It gives the dancers a chance to show several different characters."

Although Morawski has been teaching the principles of classical ballet at the workshop sessions, his choreographic contribution is more in the contemporary vein.

"Since most of these students are from out of town, and they have different levels of ability, it's very hard to make a dance for them," Morawski admitted. "But I love experimenting, and it was a challenge to do something different."

The result was "Tuba or Not Tuba."

"I found a new type of music when I was in Poland," said Morawski. "It's very contemporary--a solo for the tuba. It's very unusual."

Cochran describes Morawski's modern ballet as "off-the-wall movement with crazy sounds that takes you through a myriad of emotions." Morawski's 10-year-old son, Adam, will make his stage debut in this zany concoction. However, as the choreographer pointed out, "he's excited about this, but he's really more interested in baseball."

Expect to see another Morawski work on the program. This one, a solo titled "Awakening," will feature Palomar College dance instructor Jacquelyn Weiss.

Cochran was slated to dance the premiere performance of "Photo Album," a performance piece she created in collaboration with poet Shelley Savren. Unfortunately, the same injury that sabotaged her appearance at Three's Company's recent Dance X-Change concert will sideline her again this week.

"I rechoreographed it for 12 dancers," said Cochran. "Melanie Marlowe (a scholarship student from Georgia) is replacing me in the major role. It has been so much work just coordinating things here, I don't know how I would have managed it all if I had been trying to rehearse for the performance as well."

Ruddy, who regularly teaches workshops around the country, is impressed with the quality of the dancers in this workshop performance.

"The work is hard, and they're being challenged," she acknowledged, "but you can do a lot in two weeks of this kind of intensity. And these kids are getting a lot of professional training from people who have worked with the great masters. It should be an interesting concert."

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