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NOCCA/Riverfront dance chair Miguel Lopez gears up for summer school as the Riverfront Arts Institute begins its second season.

"We'll start with a series of floor exercises that help alignment, strengthening and centering of the body," Miguel Lopez explains, between sips of a cold drink, about his next project. The dance instructor will teach beginning and advanced modern dance courses to adults of all ages and talent levels when the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts hosts its second annual Riverfront Arts Institute June 2 through June 6. The institute, a weeklong offering of visual and performing arts classes specifically designed for adults, will be held at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts/Riverfront.

Lopez, chair of the school's dance department for three years, has just finished teaching morning dance classes to his young students. This will be Lopez's second year teaching the adult classes.

"(Last year) I had about 10 adults, all from different walks of life -- some lawyers, some doctors, some retired people, schoolteachers, dance teachers and some people who had never had a dance class before," he says. "What was interesting was trying to put these people together in a workshop that would combine everyone's talents, strengths and weaknesses to help them achieve in one week a semblance of movement, stretching and dancing. We had a blast, actually."

Each year Lopez determines the difficulty level of the classes after assessing the ability levels of his students. The simple stretching and body alignment exercises on the floor are followed by a standing warm-up. Finally there will be larger movements danced across the floor. "(Last year) I did a brief overview of modern dance," he says. "I used videotapes and we talked about different choreographers and we watched and discussed (the performances). Some of the students had never seen a dance performance, whether it be ballet or modern.

"Working together in that environment was interesting because the people who did have experience were understanding and helpful to the others and did not make them feel inadequate," Lopez says. "Everyone walked away feeling they had accomplished something and achieved some new understanding of modern dance and their bodies."

Lopez, a tall, thin native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, began his affiliation with the school and New Orleans roughly 20 years ago through former NOCCA dance teacher Lula Elzy. He had taught Elzy during his years of teaching modern dance at the Alvin Ailey School in New York.

Elzy invited Lopez to New Orleans to work with her students. "I've always been impressed by the professionalism of (NOCCA's) faculty and the creative vision they bring to their students and the community," he says. "When you see your students getting stronger, finding that sense of creativity that brings their performance to a new level of understanding and maturity, it's very satisfying."

Elzy introduced Lopez to local balletomane Olga Smoak. At the time, the early 1980s, Smoak was searching for a teacher and choreographer to collaborate with a principal dancer in the Bolshoi Ballet on a dance version of Porgy and Bess for a Georgian opera company in the former Soviet Union. Lopez got the job.

The staging required modern dance movements, training that Lopez was concerned the Russian dancers did not have. "Because of their (ballet) training and professionalism, it was very easy for them to adapt to this new way of interpreting movement," he said. "So, as you can see, New Orleans has played an important role in my career."

Lopez, now in his early 50s, discovered dance while attending college in New York and shortly thereafter received full scholarships to the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre School. He performed as a soloist with the New York City Opera and the Joyce Trisler Danscompany, eventually serving as that group's artistic director for five years. He also acted as artistic director to the Resonance Dance Company in St. Chamond, France, from 1985 to 2000 and now serves as an artistic adviser. Lopez has been a guest teacher at many universities and conservatories and at several international dance festivals in Europe. He also was instrumental in the 2002 creation of the NOCCA/Riverfront Dance Company, a troupe featuring some of the school's best dance students.

The premiere performance of the new dance troupe included the commissioned musical composition "PaloMoba" by Nicholas Payton and a choreographic collaboration with Elisa Monte, Robert Battle and Lopez. "Miguel has a genuine love for his craft," said Sally Perry, executive director of the NOCCA institute. "He is able to think across disciplines and loves to work collaboratively. It's very inspiring."

His late teacher, Joyce Trisler, helped direct Lopez's interest toward modern dance, in particular the Lester Horton technique that he will teach in the adult classes during the Institute.

Lopez believes that NOCCA's rare offerings, including summer classes such as his, provide the arts conservatory with a lasting foundation: "There are very few schools like NOCCA in the United States. From its inception, it has maintained its integrity for the arts, and I'm sure it will continue to do so."

click to enlarge "Everyone walked away feeling they had - accomplished something and achieved some new - understanding of modern dance and their bodies," - Miguel Lopez says of last year's inaugural Riverfront - Arts Institute's dance classes. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • "Everyone walked away feeling they had accomplished something and achieved some new understanding of modern dance and their bodies," Miguel Lopez says of last year's inaugural Riverfront Arts Institute's dance classes.
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