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Skype Sessions Connect U.S. Arts Teachers With Iraqi Students
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 26 Dec 2014 12:55:59 EST
Jonathan Hollander, executive director of Battery Dance Company, has helped to develop a small group of U.S. arts instructors who teach Iraqi students via Skype.
Jonathan Hollander, executive director of Battery Dance Company, has helped to develop a small group of U.S. arts instructors who teach Iraqi students via Skype. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

When Aadel Qies Aadel wants to try out dance steps he learned on YouTube, he waits until a local park empties out.

It isn’t an ideal place for dance. But neither is Baghdad.

Mr. Aadel is a 22-year-old aspiring dancer in Iraq, where dance studios are few and far between. He does, however, have a teacher: fellow dancer Sean Scantlebury, who instructs him regularly via Skype from a Tribeca studio.

The pair is one of several in which U.S. professionals are teaching young Iraqi performing artists who have struggled to further their educations in their home country. They have found each other via a grass-roots network of artists, at the hub of which is New York choreographer Jonathan Hollander, founder of the Battery Dance Company.

It is a role that Mr. Hollander didn’t anticipate, but one that has evolved from his work bringing arts to regions of conflict.

In 2006, he started Dancing to Connect, a weeklong arts workshop that has since visited more than 40 countries, often with funding from the State Department or U.S. embassies abroad.

In 2012, Dancing to Connect sent two teachers to Iraq, where they led a program in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Later, as word of those teachers spread and the situation in the region worsened, some students found Mr. Hollander through Facebook .

As he listened to their stories, he began to offer guidance. “At first, it was about me. I was counseling and mentoring,” he said.

Sean Scantlebury, a New York-based dancer, works with a dance student in Iraq via Skype.
Sean Scantlebury, a New York-based dancer, works with a dance student in Iraq via Skype. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

This year, he realized he could provide real help by finding fellow artists who could teach over Skype. He tapped into his own network, asking a well-connected music couple, the cellist Roberta Cooper and violinist Eugene Drucker, to recommend teachers of violin and piano.

Ms. Cooper said she gave careful thought to the question. “It had to be someone who had a feeling not just for teaching, but the kind of person who is compassionate,” she said. “You’re not going to be teaching children of affluence.”

Constance Meyer, a violinist who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., said yes. Over Skype, she has led several one-hour lessons with Hardi Mohammad, a 24-year-old living in Erbil.

They have studied etudes and scales, but her central goal has been correcting his hand positioning, which was too close to the body.

“If your hand is up against the neck, you look like a waiter,” she said. “On his Facebook page, there is a photo of him in a local orchestra. The entire string section looks like that.”

“She gave me some technique,” Mr. Mohammad said during an interview over Skype, adding that for three years at his local art institute, he didn’t have a regular teacher.

To make do, he watched YouTube videos and practiced on his own. He and others also participated in a summer-instruction program run by American Voices, a nonprofit that from 2007 until 2013 ran arts camps in Erbil and other Iraqi cities.

For the pianist Hersh Anwer, 24, of Erbil, the visits meant access to trained professionals. “After they’re gone, there is no piano teacher,” he said.

American Voices’s founder and executive director, John Ferguson, said that at the time he first met Mr. Anwer, there was a teacher, but he was more of a composer.

“He was teaching them to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ with the pedal down the whole time,” Mr. Ferguson said, rather than the light touch that the virtuosic work calls for.

Even though Mr. Anwer is an accomplished pianist, he sought out Mr. Hollander and now studies online with pianist Diane Walsh, who lives in Maine.

Ms. Walsh declined to comment, saying her students’ work is private, but Mr. Anwer said her advice is mainly “about my body, my fingers and the form of how to play. She really likes me when I play Chopin. ”

Mr. Anwer is considering becoming a teacher himself, he said during a Skype chat, after which he showed off framed pictures in his home, including a poster from his concert.

While musicians can practice in solitude, the situation is harder for an aspiring theater director like Halo Azad, 22, who Mr. Hollander is mentoring.

Mr. Azad studied theater in Erbil, organized a local theater festival and took his stage adaptation of the book “The Patience Stone” to a festival in Algeria.

In August, he moved to Germany, where his family once lived and where, he said, the artistic constraints are fewer.

In Iraq, theater artists are often afraid to perform outside university or official settings, which makes Mr. Azad grab at his mop of curly hair.

“How can you tell your story if people can’t see you?” he asked.

Mr. Aadel, who studies law in addition to dance, understands Mr. Azad’s craving for an audience, he said. “How can the people outside Iraq know me?”

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