Figures in Flight

A Modern Choreographer Jumps the Prison Wall!

My friend and I are seated behind three wisecracking, bouncing tween-age boys with no supervisory adult in evidence-unlikely neighbors for a dance recital. They’re still chattering when the lights go down as a beautiful young woman sings “In The Arms Of The Angels” and “Imagine”  to a piano accompaniment as simple as her black jeans and dance company T-shirt, and stragglers hunt for scarce seats in the McKenna Auditorium.

It’s a packed house. Susan Slotnick has been teaching the children of New Paltz dance since 1988, and many of them and their families have remained friends and fans. This 24th annual recital of  her Figures In Flight, the youth troupe she works with and choreographs on a professional level, has drawn an audience full of the university town’s well-groomed and comfortable Bohemian set.

My friend shushes the kids, and the bounciest of the three glares briefly and mouths the word “bitch!” Not the most auspicious beginning to a cultural performance of any sort, maybe- but a Figures In Flight dance concert is about to begin, and even though she’s not physically right here at the moment, “Miss Susan,” as the school kids called her, has this handled.

And by the time Alvin Ailey tribute “I’ve Been Buked” is past its opening notes, sure enough, the kids are rapt. They are paying absolute attention- which, as Slotnick tells all her students, is equal to love. “And they get it,” she explains. “They realize it’s going to give their lives more fullness, more richness, more passion- and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Slotnick likes to quote a veteran teacher she met early on: “Children will rise to the level of our expectations, no higher.”

The air is electric as the spotlight falls on soloist Andre Noel and he flows into motion set to Sam Cooke’s “Change Has Come.” Noel, a gifted dancer, cut his performance teeth in front of a tougher audience than this- his fellow convicts at Woodbourne Correctional Facility. “A lot of people come down here to make fun,” Noel said in a 2008 interview from prison.”They walk by the gym and see us doing exercises…Then they see the whole performance and it’s mind boggling.”

Even in a lefty college town like New Paltz, it’s very likely that this evening marks the first time most in the audience have knowingly, deliberately spent time with former prisoners. For Slotnick, a choreographer, painter and writer, the very existence of Figures In Flight Released- sharing a stage for the first time with Figures In Flight IV- is a validation of the years of Sundays she has driven from her comfortable suburban home to the razor-wire confines of the medium security facility, walked through the metal detectors and spent several hours helping long term prisoners with their plies- and their focus.

A grandmother now, Slotnick’s own dance passion was ignited by her search for release as a smart, poor Jewish kid growing up in an insular, rigid suburban setting. “Scarsdale was just the wrong milieu for a child with multiple artistic inclinations,” she says. “If I hadn’t channeled my rebellion and rage into creativity, God knows what would’ve become of me.”

Dancing, she felt “untrapped.” Through years of private teaching and school residencies, she had often thought she’d like to pass that experience along to people who were literally trapped behind bars. The opportunity came her way through her daughter Elianah, who grew up dancing and now choreographs works for Figures In Flight to perform at Brooklyn’s Battery Dance Festival, where they’ve been invited to perform for five years in a row.

“Elianah knew I’d always wanted to teach in a prison, and her friend’s mom was teaching at the Division for Youth facility. And when I started in there, I was so incredibly touched by the way these young men- a lot of whom had led very challenging lives- responded to the chance to move.” Some of what she encountered was haunting. “I never asked the boys why they were there, but some would tell me. One fourteen year old felt like he had to. ‘I raped my two-year-old sister,’ he said. ‘I can never go home.’ I was floored, but there was only one thing to say to this child- ‘Well, I forgive you. Now take off your shoes, it’s time to dance.’”

When the funds were cut for the youth facility program. Slotnick approached the organizers of Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA), a group founded at New York’s legendary “Sing Sing” maximum security facility, about starting  a modern dance program inside a men’s facility. The skepticism she encountered early on rapidly gave way to amazement as her dancers- most nearing the end of long terms of incarceration begun in their teens- stuck with her through demanding physical work and the stigma attached to a pursuit that might, in the hyper-masculine world behind bars, be deemed effeminate

As Noel observed, just one Slotnick-choreographed number makes a skeptic into a believer. Her work blends tap, jazz, ballet and modern styles and owes more to African American pioneers like Ailey than to the ballet classes of her Westchester girlhood. Her choreography is instinctive much of the time. “It feels almost like channeling- I’m very lucky. I hear the music, I see the dance in my head. I almost never wonder what comes next. It flows. But with the prisoners, I do consciously incorporate elements and moves that relate to their lives. What do they need to express? What will heal them?”

RTA was formed as a response to cuts in funding for inmate education, an expenditure that politicians don’t win many friends for supporting during tough economic times- if ever. It’s all too easy for the opposition to paint any “special” perks inmates receive as unfair to free people, a waste of tax dollars.

In 2009, correctional officers threatened to picket a planned performance of “Starting Over,” written and acted by an RTA-trained group from Woodbourne, at nearby Eastern Correctional. The cancellation of the event was reported in the local daily paper:

Kevin Walker, regional vice president for the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, said prison farms, annexes and print shops have been useful because they teach skills that can be applied toward a job on the outside. The union saw no value in theater work.

“How many of these medium-security convicts do you think will go to Broadway and get a job?” Walker said. “We believe it’s a blatant waste of manpower and funding.”

New York State Department of Corrections spokesman Erik Kriss responded that on the contrary, the emotional education involved had clear value. “It helps them cope with life,” he said, adding that the only cost to the department would have been the transportation involved. In California, where each prison once had its own arts coordinator, the programs were deemed expendable in the face of overcrowding and budget cuts.

Dave Moltavo, a Figures In Flight member released from Woodbourne last January after serving twenty years for murder, remembers the controversy without rancor. “I understand their point of view as working people, but the arts are what brought me to that understanding and respect,” he says. “You can talk and say anything, and still watch what you’re saying, but in dance you are yourself, straight from the soul. It’s taught me to work with other people, to accept their faults and mine.

“I was a knucklehead, seduced by street life, and involved in a lot of negative activity when I first came to prison.  Dancing in front of 400 other inmates was hard. One guy actually came up to me and said, ‘You’re not the same dude I respected. Dance? What the hell?’

“I told him, ‘I’m living a different life now. It’s about growth, and if you can’t respect it, that’s on you.’ He didn’t talk to me for a few months. But he came to the recital, and afterwards he came up to me and said ‘Dave, I need to apologize. I respect you so much right now. You’ve shown me I don’t have to keep that facade up- I can be whoever I want and be proud of it.’”

RTA representatives offered no comment on the cancellation of the play, declining to engage in the debate on that level- and despite the dearth of public funds, prison arts programs continue to flourish, fueled by volunteers like Slotnick who share a core belief that we cannot afford not to reeducate those who have made serious mistakes, and in the power of artistic expression to engender genuine, lasting change in the willing.  Unlike many rehabilitation programs, arts programs seem to reach a gut level place where participants bury old wounds, making possible the kind of re-connection to the human race that outperforms simple job skills in preventing recidivism.

The rewards for the volunteers are equally powerful, although they may come with a price. “I certainly didn’t go there seeking love, and it’s a surprise that that’s what happened,” says Slotnick. “I’ve found some of my best friends among forgotten people, men who most people would think they’d never want to be in the same room with. I pretty much keep it to myself, that these are some of the most amazing people I know.

“Yesterday, a man was released after nineteen years. He went in at sixteen- it was gang-related, he was at the scene of a crime and was told he could get away with taking the rap because he was a juvenile, told he’d be a hero when he got out. They tried him as an adult. He ended up attending his mother’s funeral in handcuffs and shackles, not feeling very heroic at all. He was released, and the first person he wanted to see was me- two other guys brought him over, we had bagels and lox and cream cheese, we danced the hora and the salsa together before they took him to greet his family.

“I mean, who would think this from watching Lockup? These guys are incredibly hungry for an archetypal mother-energy- gentleness, acceptance, kindness. It’s a lot of transference, very conscious, for them and for me. I get to be a loving mother, over and over.”

The type of individual who considers arts programs for prisoners a waste of time and money tends to hold a stereotypical view of volunteers behind the walls, especially women entering men’s prisons. It’s not flattering, and Slotnick- the happily married matriarch in a home where, she says, “we seldom seem to have a superficial conversation, and the kids blame that on me”- is not unaware of it. In the confines of the Woodbourne jail, she is engaging these men heart, mind and body, encouraging emotion to surface- not an endeavor for the fainthearted.

“There was one guy, not especially glamorous or attractive- kinda obsequious, what some might call an Uncle Tom. He insisted on calling me ma’am. One night I got there and the house steering committee wanted to meet with me. They said, ‘Andrew thinks he has a special relationship with you. That you care more for him than the others.’ (The inmate’s first name has been changed.) ‘It’s becoming a problem.’

“I looked at him and said ‘Yes, I do have a special relationship with him. I have a special relationship with each individual in the group. What other way could it be?’ And it’s true. With one man, I have a very intellectual relationship. We tell each other things that surprise me. With another, our personalities clash but we like each other, there’s always an edge to it. Another guy, he came in and said he had no skills, then he turned out to be the best in the bunch. So our relationship is around letting him know that…They’re different like each of the children is different. Like anyone.”

It does create a certain distance between Slotnick and her peers. “Some days I wish I felt more in tune with women my age whose lives are all about cruises and decorating and the grandchildren,” she says. “I don’t really have a network to hang out with- the few I’ve met who’re into the same kind of thing aren’t that available either. Psychically, this kind of work is a full time job.”

The tween boys in the next row have long since calmed. The packed auditorium has exploded over and over in gasps and applause and yelps of delight. The community’s children- the current incarnation of Figures In Flight is mostly female, and many families have brought bouquets for beloved daughters- have received a standing ovation, and Andre Noel and Susan Slotnick have shared a quick embrace. The scene is a world away from razor wire, from thug life or anything remotely connected to crime as Slotnick is surrounded by well-wishers.

“All that’s required of a good Jew is to be dedicated to healing the world,” says the perpetual outsider with a grin. “The prison gives me the opportunity to get that combination- to blend choreography and social justice, a matrix where my creative work mingles with my need to do good. To use it in a prison, just like training kids to pay attention and be kind- that’s something you can claim and say, I did that.”

“I’ll never forgive myself for the life I took,” says Moltavo, who now volunteers his time in attempts to engage inner-city youth. He has had a play picked up by NYU; the coordinator of one program he works with wants to begin a theater program with Moltavo instructing. “It’s not about instant gratification. Five or ten years from now, maybe some kid will make a good decision because of an experience they had with me, and even if I never know about it, I am enriched and so is he.

“It’s very clear to those of us who have lived it- the arts reach people like nothing else can. How many 21 year olds do you think are sitting in prison right now that can recite every word to a Young Jeezy album and don’t know how to write a resume? I’ve learned to expect more from myself. Readjusting’s hard, but even the disappointments help me grow- and every day out here is a beautiful day.”

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