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Slice of Life: Christopher Morgan, dancing to his own beat

Sunday - 2/17/2013, 3:53pm  ET

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Christopher Morgan, a 37-year-old modern dancer and Artist in Residence at American University, finds inspiration for his choreography by observing the world around him. (Courtesy of Brianne Bland)

Hoai-Tran Bui, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - As the dulcet classical music swells from the laptop perched on a table at the front of the dance studio, all eyes turn to Christopher Morgan, the 37-year-old modern dancer and Artist in Residence at American University.

He immediately launches into the complicated choreography that he seems to be making up as he pirouette and weaves through the studio. The wide-eyed group of young AU dancers follow his every move, picking up his movements effortlessly.

It's the kind of inspired and impromptu dancing style that sets Morgan apart from other educational choreographers, as well as his experience as the artistic director of the professional dance company Christopher K. Morgan & Artists.

You have a very intimate and playful instructive style than other dance instructors I've seen. Would you say being close to your students helps you teach?

Yeah, I think getting to know the students really well just helps the whole educational process. I think if people feel that they're invested in that way, that they're more likely to learn and grow and prosper, and especially in an arts environment, that's really a key part of the long-term journey and growth of each student. I'm also interested in the multiple approaches of learning --some people learn better with humor, some people learn better with rigor, so I do try and balance those kinds of approaches.

Do you focus mostly on modern dance or do you explore other areas?

These days my focus is primarily on modern dance. I grew up in Southern California, so the first big exposure I had to dance was through jazz dance, a much more commercial scene. So when I began, I was focused on that. I always trained in ballet throughout my career and really believe in some of the tools it gives dancers, and I've also studied a lot of martial arts. So I think what ends up happening in my work is that it's a synthesis of all these different things, that I've studied different types of modalities and movement over the years, but definitely my focus is on modern.

So what would you say your dance style is specifically?

If I have to say it in just a few words, I would say it's modern dance, the contemporary aesthetic. And then when I talk more about it, I tend to say that in general I start creating a new dance with an idea or a sense of meaning. Sometimes that meaning is rather apparent in the final product. Sometimes it's just a jumping off point if I'm moving for something more abstract as the work develops. But I'm definitely interested in making art that's about something, not just pure abstraction.

So how are you influenced to make those abstractions in art? Like, how are you inspired?

Usually an original inspiration for dance comes from something personal, either that I'm experiencing myself or that I observe in life around me. I think a few of the works that I've made that in some ways have been the most successful some really have to do with the personal journey that I've been through myself.

I have a work entitled "Rice" that uses a childhood task that I had every day of making rice for my family for dinner. Then it became an exploration for me also about race. As a child I would watch my hands every night making rice, and as the water would turn milky white so would my skin. And that kind of became this interesting thing for me as a child sometimes wishing I were different than I was. So that ended up being sort of a monologue which turned into this performance piece that I've probably performed more than any other piece in my life; I've probably done it more than hundreds of times by now.

Do you see the body as an art form itself?

Yeah, absolutely. I think the amount of training and discipline that it takes to get a dancer's body into shape is like any other classic art form -- it just takes a lot of discipline, a lot of time and investment, focus and energy that spans a lifetime. And then in terms of the artwork that I make as a performing artist, the body is my primary tool.

At the same time, I'm interested in other mediums. Occasionally works of mine have incorporated texts. I collaborate with other artists. Right now, I'm working with a cellist. In fact, the class you just saw, all of that music is kind of working tracks of a piece that will be premiering in April. So though the body is my primary tool, I'm also interested in all the different ways that an idea can be transmitted in performance. And I think the body's a big part of it but not the only part of it.

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