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In the Vein of Merce: Foofwa d'Imobilité Pedagogy

by Renee E. D'Aoust
November 1, 2009
Montpellier, OT (France)
As a veteran of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (1991-1998), with physicality that embodies the Cunningham aesthetic, Foofwa d'Imobilité is a unique dancer. As the founder of his own association, Neopost Ahrrrt, with a commitment to production, pedagogy, and play, d'Imobilité understands that technique is meant to serve the dancer who in turn serves the choreography. But this is not pedantic. Students are meant to expand while nurturing their foundation, which is their technique.

Based in Geneva and New York City, Foofwa d'Imobilité teaches workshops corporeally and virtually. He teaches in person, but he also makes workshops available using web-based technology. He calls these "Telepedagogia: Workshops via the Internet".

The latest installation of "Telepedagogia" takes place from October 26 to November 6 during a two-week workshop at the Centre National Chorégraphique in Montpellier, France. Specifically, the two-week session begins with d'Imobilité teaching in person in Montpellier while the course is concurrently available by Internet at Studio Consuelo Geneva. Formally, the in-person workshop is called "Mercexerce by Foofwa." The workshop then continues for a third week from November 9-13 at Studio Consuelo in Geneva.

Foofwa writes (in an e-mail interview for this article) that "Mercexerce by Foofwa" focuses on the following:

    "During the morning technique class, we are trying to practice as well as analyze and contextualize the Cunningham exercises. In the afternoon session, during the workshop, I am trying to give information about a couple of Merce's ideas and then I ask the students to find how they can use this information in their dancing and in their own creative/choreographic work, how can they personalize this information, so that [Merce's] ideas are better understood and continue to live in these new minds and bodies."


Originally trained at the Ecole de Danse de Genève, d'Imobilité danced professionally with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany prior to joining the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He has been choreographing his own work since 1998. d'Imobilité has won grants and awards, including a 1998 New York Bessie and a 2006 Swiss Prize for Dance and Choreography. In 2009, he received an individual grant from the New York Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Foofwa also makes dance videos, engages in collaborations, and has an on-going interview project called "Merce-Art Forever!"

Foofwa d'Imobilité crosses international, artistic, and pedagogic borders. Merce Cunningham called him a "risk-taker." (Those familiar with d'Imobilité's Cunningham years know him by his given name Frédérick Gafner.) It never gets old to write that Merce Cunningham was a pillar of the avant garde, and his interpretation of the relationship (or lack of relationship) between music and dance continues to have a profound and lasting influence. Cunningham used new technologies, relentlessly innovating and exploring.

Perhaps because of his time with Cunningham, or perhaps because of his own nature, Foofwa d'Imobilité fearlessly embraces new media, using technology to break down boundaries between master and student.

While in-person dance training is obviously essential, Foofwa d'Imobilité uses the web as a teaching tool. Foofwa writes,

    "We are trying three things, and seeing for each technology, which one is best adapted to certain pedagogic goals: Skype-ing which sometimes works best for simple discussions and seeing dance; live broadcasting, which is best for showing the teaching to a world wide audience (like several groups of people all over the planet); and a third technology that is more like an open conference room, which allows drawing and an exchange of documents."


Foofwa often offers professional classes using the web and will certainly continue to use emerging technology in the dance studio. In Geneva, dancers can meet virtually but sweat locally.

d'Imobilité has provided free classes for professional dancers in Geneva since 2005. One of the missions of d'Imobilité's association Neopost Ahrrrt, which is managed by Yann Aubert, is to support the "Telepedagogia" workshops and "daily free classes for [dance] professionals in Geneva".

Since 2007, Gilles Jobin (a surreal Swiss choreographer) and Foofwa d'Imobilité have provided daily training; it's part of Foofwa's commitment to teaching. According to the Foofwa web-site, Foofwa alone provided "up to 200" free classes in 2006. It is a community service for dancers who are often broke. These classes are available at Studios 44 in Geneva; see www.foofwa.com for more information.

Director of Education at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Mary Lisa Burns says, "Foofwa is so smart, with a lively intellect, and he is an extremely warm person. I am sure that he brings that both to his choreography and to his teaching."

Foofwa quickly discovered that the use of technology makes specific demands on both teachers and students. When he first started using new media, the primary focus was on improvisation. Now he includes demonstrations, including teaching choreography, and giving feedback. Foofwa writes:

    "What is interesting to me is to develop a new technique for teaching from afar. I quickly found out you cannot teach the same way as in-person teaching. Because of the possible lags in the communication system, and the actual alienation that an interface and distance brings, several things are important:

      1. commands have to be as clear and as direct as possible, because misunderstandings take more time in a Telepedagogia session;
      2. a Telepedagogia teacher has to be very concentrated and conscious not to leave any misunderstandings around;
      3. the teacher has to find a way to leave independence and some part of decision-making to the participants because the teacher can't control everything. [Students] have to organize themselves, take care of themselves, instead of waiting for the teacher to tell them everything. This is an incidental factor, but I believe it is very positive for the students;
      4. we are thinking there is a need for a technical coordinator on each end of the communication, as well as a pedagogic/choreographic coordinator, so that when there are misunderstandings or technical problems, students are not left without knowing what to do;
      4. the teacher has to be very perceptive despite of a loss in the information s/he gets compared to a in-person session and find quickly the essential information to correct or help each student specifically;
      5. the teacher has to be clearly encouraging and maybe more positive sounding than in an in-person session, to make up for the alienation which is brought by the actual absence of the teacher in the space of the student."


While the "Telepedagogia" workshops have aspects that will continue to be streamlined, there is no reason that current technology should not be used in the dance studio and classroom. One of the most important attributes of a good teacher is accessibility. Foofwa d'Imobilité is accessible.

"It is hard for me to think about Foofwa without thinking about his extraordinary gifts as a dancer and a performer," continues Cunningham Director of Education Mary Lisa Burns. "I think that anyone who can study with him is fortunate for all those reasons. Foofwa d'Imobilité has so much to offer as a teacher."

To follow the progress of these and many other creative activities, and for information about Foofwa d'Imobilité's teaching schedule, the "Telepedagogia" project, and performance schedule, please visit www.foofwa.com.



Renée E. D'Aoust biography:

Renée E. D'Aoust's essay "Ballerina Blunders," published in Open Face Sandwich, received a "Notable Essay" listing in Best American Essays 2009. Her essay "Graham Crackers" was included in Robert Gottlieb's Reading Dance (Pantheon, 2008).
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