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  • University Project
  • 4.20.09

University Project: Notes on DTW’s Lobby Talks, Part One

Relevance of the University, Lobby TALKS series at DTW organized by Chase Granoff, 4/14/09

Notes by Alejandra Martorell

Last night we had the opportunity to participate in a group discussion centered on some of the same questions The University Project set out to disseminate. Organized by Chase Granoff and sponsored by DTW, the Lobby TALK “Relevance of the University” went on for over two hours and was a lively exchange among panelists and attendees. This is a first attempt at summing up some of the salient topics and perspectives. You are invited to ask, correct or add more information by posting a comment.

From the program: “This conversation will explore the relationship between the academic world and the working artist. Recent shifts and developments in the creation of Professorships allow artists to remain active and engaged with the field of dance. How does this mutually benefit the University and the dance community?”

Panelists: Donna Faye Burchfield, Artistic Director of Hollins University/American Dance Festival M.F.A. program; Mary Cochran, Department of Dance Chair and Artistic Director at Barnard College of Columbia University; Maura Nguyen Donohue, Assistant Professor of Dance at Queens College; Cherylyn Lavagnino, Chair, Department of Dance, Associate Arts Professor at Tisch School of the Arts; Bebe Miller, Professor, Department of Dance at Ohio State University, Columbus, OH; Jennifer Monson, Professor, University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana; and Dean Moss, Visiting Lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University.

[[Lobby TALKS creates a forum for open and in-depth discourse on contemporary issues in dance and performance. Organized around specific themes, each meeting uses as a starting point one or more of the artistic investigations, methodologies, and motivations that can be seen in performance today. Subjects will be investigated, challenged, and considered by an invited group of artists, critics, and theorists, and is open to all who would like to join the conversation.]]

Organizer Chase Granoff framed the conversation with intentional looseness, sharing that his interest was a response to seeing changes at various dance programs, such as the development of low-residency MFAs at Hollins and Milwaukee; increased commissions for younger choreographers from colleges and universities; and a few unique professorships that allow active choreographers to crisscross the country between teaching and performing.

After the panelists introduced themselves, introductions came from the “floor” and began to shape the conversation: Melissa Beatty, founder of WAX, was curious about how academia is preparing students in practical ways for the world outside. Ben, an undergrad at The New School, spoke about his concern around entering the real world. Margaret Morrison, a lecturer in tap at Barnard and incoming MFA at Hollins, expressed her interest in moving tap dance into academia as a way to help the form grow. Vernon Scott had attended several colleges starting in architecture, switching to dance at NYU, then onto Julliard and then dancing for 20 years with major companies like Elisa Monte, Mark Morris and White Oak: “I had a career where I supported myself as a dancer. After I stopped, I went into the corporate world for nine years and now I’m an intern at DTW because it wasn’t part of my world, being on the road a lot, and I want to know what I missed.” Tessa Chandler comes from a classical ballet background and is now in the Hollins MFA program. “It’s opening my eyes to the rest of dance and I’m loving it. I’m curious now to hear from all of these artists. How you interact with the primarily verbal focus of academia, justifying what you do in a verbal world. I don’t want to put negative connotation in using these words. I just find it an interesting tension for dance.”

Tessa’s comment on the potential friction between a verbal-based world (academia) and a physical, experiential-based world (dance), had a lasting effect in framing the conversation, which didn’t stray too far from navigating this old paradigm—and articulating a new, alternative one—that poses the binary body/mind as somewhat mutually exclusive. It resurfaced in echoing binomials throughout the conversation—research university (liberal arts) vs. conservatory education, and interdisciplinary approach vs. defending “the form”, technique, or having a “foundation”— that appeared to be breaking apart or, alternatively, resurrecting from the dead.

dance as research

It was mentioned by several people at different instances that dance practice is beginning to be recognized as research in academia, parallel and comparable to scientific and social research (see the reading list). Jennifer Monson’s position at the University of Illinois as part of a “cluster hire” of geography, history, philosophy, religion, natural resources and art specialists is a positive sign in that direction.

Dean Moss spoke from the perspective of a studio class (at Harvard University) that doesn’t need to respond to the demands of a program or major in dance, and at which students come from all diverse fields: “There’s a lot of talk, but it’s a studio class and we do work. They are asked to come in with projects that then we dismantle and have other people do again. They get to see that whole process. They learn to have a critical conversation about the work. Also to talk about how they feel when they see what other people do with the work they originated. The conversations are broader, based not only in structures of aesthetic, but also on interpersonal relationships.”

“It becomes my job to take what Dean just said and shift the paradigm,” said Donna Faye, extrapolating from Dean’s course description to the work at Hollins. “I have to go and convince the administration that this stuff is research—it’s in action, it’s embodied.”

The context and focus of each particular school dictates to some degree the ‘who, how and what’ is taught. At Hollins, clarifies Donna, “the classes are not called technique, they are called movement studios. We had to do it because it’s a liberal arts school—we can’t only teach dance students, we have to teach everyone.”

Ironically, given her own hire, Urbana-Champaign is “not a liberal arts college yet,” said Jennifer. “We’re trying to change the curriculum to reflect that model more. The students still have to take a number of ballet classes, I teach a composition class – they still call it composition—and they don’t consider what I do technique.”

Cherylyn Lavagnino places Tisch somewhere in the middle: “We are both—a conservatory within a University—and definitely a place creating individual artists.” In response to the preoccupation of preparing students for the so-called real world, she added: “in a philosophical sense, the process-oriented experience they are gaining is going to allow that individual to have a well-suited tool kit.”

Anna Sperber, who graduated from SUNY Purchase, spoke about her frustration with that conservatory model, where the battle to bring exciting artists to teach still seems to be tremendous. To which Donna answered with a creative, three-dimensional image of two intersecting planes: “the horizontal is the contemporary and the vertical is the history, the tradition. In these times, the horizontal plane is vast!” And she added, “I think they are not mutually exclusive–the conservatory and the university–they can’t be. If you’re thinking, you’re aesthetically creating, and vice versa. Thinking and dancing do happen together.”

It seemed as though Jennifer’s position at UI was a real hands-on experience of these two planes coming together and rubbing against each other to find new thinking and doing models: “That makes me think about this particular community that I’m a part of [in New York], and how our research into somatic knowledge doesn’t happen in academia. And now it’s infiltrating that world in a very profound way.” In response to the original question on verbal and written language versus dance practice: “When our graduate students wrote their thesis and they wrote about something else as the source for the dancing, the research that we’re writing about is in the body.”

Levi mentioned a job posting from Arizona State University that made maintaining an active professional engagement as an artist a requirement for the position as an example of the shifting terrain: “Then there’s the Adjunct issue,” he said, pointing to the other side of bringing working artists to the campus as temporary work, without support for their lives, as artists or otherwise.

“I talked to Simon Dove about that posting,” said Bebe. “It was called Creative Practitioner. Professor was not a term used. I think they are looking at research in a more inter- and intra-disciplinary level. I also think it’s hard to imagine an institution that is nimble enough to respond quickly to these changes.”

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