Michael Mao Teaching
Artist New York, New York
Michael Mao is a New
York choreographer who has choreographed over sixty
dances, which have been presented throughout the United
States, Mexico, China, Paris, and Oslo and most recently
in Australia. His works are abstract and formalist in
construction, humanist in expression, and direct and
bold in subject matter. His use of music is
wide-ranging, and his diverse dancers share his vision
of bringing exciting performance to the audience to
engage them to discover art and in the process enlighten
them to the importance of learning.
What influences your
work as a Teaching Artist?
I grew up in a home
influenced by internationalism. Since I was young I was
fortunate to have been mentored by teachers who helped
me to discover my innate potential. At Jacob's Pillow I
was instructed by the "father" of American Modern Dance,
Ted Shawn, on how to teach dance to children. At
Princeton I tutored in Math and English for the Trenton
Tutorial Project headed by the Dean of Inter-faith
Chapel, Ernest Gordon, who spent three years in a
Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II and
who chronicled his experiences in his book Through
The Valley of Kwai.
My career as a dancer
coincided with the post-JFK era of National Endowment
Touring and Arts in Schools, implementing and
co-directing educational dance activities along with
performing. As a dancer I trained and performed during
a period in American Modern Dance when multiculturalism
was inclusive and not exclusive. All forces conspired in
1993 for me to evolve ESLdance™ -- Learning
English Through Dance, an intensive project to
jump-start teen immigrants in New York City to learn
English kinetically through moving. This project
empowered and challenged me to continue with high-impact
arts learning through performance. I created
Multicultural Fusion through performing the
multicultural roots of American Modern Dance and fusing
them with stage and social dancing as a means for
self-expression and communication in choreography.
What do you consider
your greatest success as a Teaching Artist?
I have always considered
myself a student and as an ex-dancer and now a
choreographer I learn in everything I do. It excites me
to bring dance education as a tool to learn English with
young people. I am infectiously engaged with the
excitement and understanding that comes through
encouraging young people to participate in dance and how
dance informs what they are studying in school, in the
world in which they live, and can show them something of
their own potential to affect the world.
What is important to
you about The Association of Teaching Artists?
I think that it is very
important for artists who teach to have a community.
Working in a vacuum can be lonely. It is even more
important for Teaching Artists to have a community in
which to affirm their work building bridges between art
and education and to share resources, skills, ideas, and
information. ATA provides a place where a Teaching
Artists can renew their energy and share in the progress
of what is happening in and through arts learning.
How can Teaching
Artists find out more about your work?
Kingdom of words is
I see him often now,
carrying empty washed
his faded green jacket
close to his collar,
brown-billed cap down,
It is cold out there,
he walks, and November.
He passes out of sight,
from between red
opens barn doors,
steam to the chill.
Laying his face
to Holstein's flank, he
milk from swollen teats,
comfort to his cows,
the child in the corner.
The barn is warm and
and full with smells.
He carries pails of
calls the child to him,
hurry, it's late, and I
on the back of his seat
in the old black car all
all the way as he tells
and I spell hawk, speak
I grew up on an Iowa
farm near a town much like our upstate villages. At
5, because the country school my older sister
attended had fallen to consolidation, I was the
first in our family to go to town school. A
transportation system was not yet in place, so my
dad, who was the first in his family to graduate
from high school, but who loved words, drove us the
five miles to school, passing the time by pointing
out birds and teaching us their names. "Hawk" was
the very first word I learned to spell.
At the auction after the
rural school's closing, my parents brought home two
bookcases stuffed with books, among them four
children's anthologies called "Voices of Verse,"
published in 1943. I spent many hours with those
little cloth-covered books, beginning with Book One,
which opened easily in my child's hands, opening
whole new worlds to me.
The very first poem in
the book was Walter de la Mare's "The Huntsmen," and
it was followed by Robert Lewis Stevenson's "At the
Seaside," Christina Georgina Rossetti's "Who Has
Seen the Wind," and many more, a total of 155 pages
of poetry, each poem introduced with a brief
explanation and followed by questions, primarily
about content, but gently easing this young reader
into an understanding of metaphor and simile,
alliteration and personification without ever
talking down to her. As soon as I could make out the
words, I read those poems over and over, memorizing
many of them, trying to answer the editors'
questions, trying to understand, without knowing
what I so badly wanted to know, what the poets were
saying behind the words on the pages.
Words are the most
common of commodities: we learn to read by first
grade, we talk to each other all the time, we listen
to the radio and watch TV, where talking heads give
us the daily news with words; we study books, we
tell each other our most intimate secrets with
words. We think we know everything there is to know
about language until we open a book and read a poem
that answers a question we didn't know we had, or
raises another question.
Poetry is that most
special way of using words, language used in the
highest way, the one place where every word in every
line counts. A story or an essay or a novel may well
be exciting and well-written, but a great poem can
be that very story, deeply etched as if in stone; or
it can take one, mundane moment and elevate it to
the clouds. A day without poetry is not imaginable
to me; I need that concision more than I need that
first cup of coffee. A good poem helps me to clarify
my own thinking by asking me to think.
Now I live in words. Not
only am I blessed to work through Bright Hill
Literary Center, but I teach poetry and creative
writing to students throughout New York, working in
huge schools with highly diverse populations and
more than 40 languages in Queens, as well as in
small schools with 20 graduating students in the
Catskills. Leading workshops for teachers, for
gifted and special needs students, for retarded
adults and college students, and through the Empire
State Poetry Connection distance learning project, I
learn that most important of news, both from those
students and from the authors I teach; it was in
Carlos Drummond de Andrade's poem "Looking for
Poetry" where I found the sentence, "Enter the
kingdom of words as if you were deaf."
In February I was
fortunate to be a judge for the National Endowment
for the Arts Catskill Region Poetry Outloud Contest,
where I heard students from throughout the area
recite great poems from English literature with
intensity and verve; and in May, Bright Hill will
conduct its 13th annual Share the Words High-School
Poetry Competition, where students recite their own
The kingdom of words,
written in poetic form, is a wonderful place to
live, and April, National Poetry Month, is an ideal
time to visit that kingdom, maybe even stay awhile.
Bertha Rogers is poet
laureate of Delaware County and founder of Bright
Hill Center in Treadwell.