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  • University Project
  • 11.8.09

University Project: Stephan Koplowitz, Dean of Dance, CalArts

in conversation with Maura Donohue

Interview 10.07.09

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Stephan Koplowitz has been the Dean of Dance at the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at CalArts in Los Angeles since the fall of 2006. He holds a degree in music (composition) from Wesleyan University and an MFA in choreography from the University of Utah. He has guest taught at universities and communities across the country and had directed the Dance Program at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights where he taught from 1983 to 2006. As a director/choreographer/media artist he is internationally known for his work on the concert stage and for creating original site-specific multi-media works for architecturally significant sites. Since 1984 he has created 56 works and has been awarded 40 commissions. He has received the Alpert Award in the Arts (Dance), a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Dance and Performance Award (“Bessie”), and six NEA Choreography Fellowships.

Maura Donohue: I thought it would be valuable to speak to someone from our community who is a Dean. It felt like a big deal when that happened.

Stephan Koplowitz: Let me define what “dean” means at CalArts. As Dean, I am directly involved in our recruitment and admissions process, which is important and time consuming. With my Associate Dean, Cynthia Young, I am involved in the financial aid process because we make the majority of the awards, not the institute. CalArts of course has Admissions and Financial Aid offices, which support us every step of the way, but we are intimately involved in those processes. I don’t fundraise to the extent that other deans at big universities are obliged to, but I do participate in meeting current donors and potential donors of dance. So, in that sense, I’m a “dean” but I am not in charge of other art departments in the way a regular Dean of Arts and Humanities would be. Those deans spend a majority of their time as administrators, managing other departments. I’m more like a department head. Granted, there are things that I do at CalArts that other department heads don’t have to do, which gives me responsibilities that are impactful on our program. I’m also a faculty member teaching choreography and MFA students and mentoring, so I’m involved with students. Teaching is actually my favorite part of my work at CalArts.

Maura: Does this position allow you to bring your various backgrounds together?

Stephan: Oh, yes. It’s a singular experience. I never would have left New York City for a place that wouldn’t have honored the artistic process, but this has been much more exciting than I thought it would be. I taught K-12 for 23 years and now I feel like I got bumped upstairs and I get to go to college. I was given a chance to really remake an already robust pre-professional university program. I’ve been able to make new hires and have deep conversations about dance curriculum. It’s nice to have ideas and have some of them actually happen. In order to do that you have to be an administrator, but there is a real sense of creativity that I didn’t expect. CalArts gives me a lot of leeway in terms of decisions. There isn’t a lot of administrative logjam above me; I have a certain level of independence that is exciting. It’s like running a company.

This opportunity interested the educator in me. When Steven Lavine, President of CalArts, explained his vision for dance and that there was this chance for someone to come in and go, “okay, where do we go from here in this new century?” I thought “Gee, why not me?” I’ve had 23 years working in academia—from 18 years old and younger—and yes, as a veteran dance educator, I, we, naturally have our complaints about our own education or about how things should be in schools. I have now had a chance to actually do something about it. For the most part, I didn’t think I was the natural or obvious candidate to get the job at CalArts. The joke is that we put in a new kitchen and bathroom in our apartment in Brooklyn after I applied for the job. We weren’t expecting to leave. But here I am, part of an excellent team.

Maura: Academic programs are known for being divisive. How do you make such a large group of faculty and staff a team?

Stephan: By saying I want us to be a team, by putting it out there that we’re all together and we’ll make decisions by consensus as much as possible. Not letting things get too personal. It’s our shared vision. If someone asks me what our vision is for our school, I say “our students.” It’s simple—we’re student-focused, so everything has to benefit them somehow. If you start from there, then everyone is thinking and working together. I work with collegial people. I don’t have the old guard/new guard dichotomy. I’m three years down the line, and there are those who have been here for several years and they’re now in positions of leadership. I made two veteran faculty members Associate Dean (Cynthia Young) and Assistant Dean (Laurence Blake). The previous Dean, Associate Dean and Assistant Dean were either retiring or leaving CalArts and so there was major change at that moment in time. That’s not typical. At times former deans or department heads will remain as faculty while relieving their administrative load. I’m hired as a faculty member and my contract as Dean is renewed every year. So I too have the option of staying and just teaching. Such substantial change had never happened at my school. The last dean was at CalArts for about 26 years and when she decided to leave, she retired.

Maura: How have you shifted the program in the past three years?

Stephan: I inherited, as I said, a very robust dance program that had a lot of good things and resources in place. I’m a different person from my predecessor, so I have a different focus. I also wanted to make certain things that we were already in place stronger. For instance, I wanted to have the people teaching composition/choreography actually be working professional choreographers. I made that a priority. It’s a subtle (or not so subtle) shift in thinking. I added more courses. I bolstered and re-imagined our Dance for Camera course. I did many little things that add up to a whole lot of big things. We taught only one Dance for Camera for our BFA-3 students (juniors). When I had the opportunity, I hired Mitchell Rose the filmmaker/ex-choreographer and had him team-teach a class. I split the class in half, so instead of 20 students in the class, we have ten. And then each semester, they have a different artist teaching them. In partnership with the Theater School, I created a state-of-the-art Mac lab where everyone has access to their own computer, and through that partnership was able to create a sound studio and another Mac lab for seniors and graduate students. I brought in a composer for dance, Robin Cox, to teach more digital sound design. I want us to teach students what they really need for the real world.

Maura: In what ways can programs be more successful today?

Stephan: We’re a private institution that offers BFAs and MFAs and our tuition is over $30K, and you know what the economy is like for dancers no matter what the state of the current economy. The idea of the conservatory on the hill is a thing of the past. CalArts as a whole is really thinking about what happens next, how can we more fully prepare our students for their careers. I instituted a career design course for seniors over a whole semester. It’s called “Next: Preparing for My Future in Dance”. And I created a showcase company for the seniors, The Next Dance Company. I inherited a strong technical training program. It’s a serious ballet program—the ballet faculty at CalArts is superb and we don’t teach ballet for contemporary dancers, it’s ballet. Plus our contemporary faculty is a diverse group of amazing artists. Overall, we maintain high standards and the overall program is really quite demanding. We require four years of composition—that’s eight semesters (something already in place). Improvisation is a separate course from composition, and is an elective at the advanced level. Another class I instituted is a truly contemporary dance history course taught by Ed Groff that looks at the present going back only 20 years. We’re doing a lot of preparation so when our students walk out of our program they know what’s happening now. A lot of times I meet college students who don’t know what’s going on in the present. That is not something you can just correct by snapping your fingers. Some students are open to learning as much as they can and others need more structure and guidance.

Maura: I think you’re the first non-liberal arts program professor I’m talking to, and I think it is reflected in the shape of what you offer, more like a conservatory.

Stephan: CalArts does not call itself a conservatory—that’s why we say we’re an institute—but we’re not a liberal arts school. We offer a BFA and a MFA. Our students have an academic program that is rigorous, which we take extremely seriously within our school. The School of Critical Studies (as it is called) is constantly being refined and improved and has a really distinguished faculty. We do get a different type of student at CalArts than at a large university program like OSU and Champaign-Urbana, which are state schools and have somewhat of a built-in audience. We are different from liberal arts schools like Smith, Barnard or Wesleyan. So, I’m trying from this part of the academic world to make the experience as well rounded as I can without losing the rigor and discipline the art form requires. When I saw you up at Amherst a couple years ago, I was working with all of those students from the different campuses. It was satisfying intellectually, there were so many precocious minds but physically it was a totally different level. There is no perfect program or community but everyone enters from different avenues. I think the atmosphere here at CalArts is unique. I find all the disciplines very exciting. The first thing that I noticed (being the product of a liberal arts education) at CalArts is that you are primarily dealing with other artists. The absence of traditional liberal arts is huge in terms of its impact on the dialogues I’m having—I don’t have to defend dance as an academic pursuit; it’s a given here.

Maura: How do your BFA/MFA students interchange with faculty and one another?

Stephan: My MFA program is very small. I only have six students at most each year—three MFA 1s and three MFA 2s. Because of the nature of what I require of my MFA students and what we focus on, we can’t have more than three graduating a year. We used to have larger enrollment: I inherited seven the year I came, and went from 10 down to four and then up to five and now still have five. We are a two-year MFA program. The focus is on making art, making dances. It’s not on the theory of making art. It’s not on performance. It’s on actual art making. The MFA program is a place for artists who have been out in the world making work and want to jump-start and infuse their portfolio by working with well-trained dancers, and in two years time (two 8.5 month periods), they will make four works: three separate pieces their first year and a full evening concert their second year. I throw as much teaching at them as I can. They all do teaching. We offer institute classes (similar to courses for non-majors). They are all Teaching Assistants in all aspects of theater production. Some are working in our video documentation program. We do live 2-3 camera shoots and editing for every production. Everything is documented in a high-end manner. As they learn how to run that program and work in the costume shop and on the technical side, they’ll leave with real credentials around production and theater tech. They get to collaborate with artists of all disciplines because they are required to work with other artists at CalArts. But one of the great perks with being in my graduate program is access to dancers with an incredible level of technical skill.

Maura: What is the real cost for the MFA program?

Stephan: On the books it is in the low 30K range but we give substantial scholarships. It is hard for returning professionals with income from dance to go into debt to go to school. All of my graduate students get support. My goal would be to be able to offer everyone full scholarships and stipends, but unfortunately we’re not there yet… I’m working at it.

Maura: I think what’s really interesting for me is the profile of possibility for breaking apart the working artist/academician dichotomy that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with.

Stephan: As you know, I’ve always taught full-time and made work at the same time. I’m used to dealing with the tension of having a certain number of days teaching. I spent years at a high school, which is far more labor intensive than being a professor. Teaching at the K-12 level amounts to 5 days a week, often from eight to five. It doesn’t mean there is less intensity in work as a professor, our faculty put in four days, some five. And, of course, there is a different expectation at the university level: you are expected to maintain your professional standing, to continue to do research—that takes time. But CalArts as a school is a place for artists, and the idea is that everyone who teaches here has an artistic practice as much as possible. For me as an artist, I’ve managed to do okay given the demands of learning a new job, which has been an incredible learning curve. I got a very big commission by way of CalArts, actually, that allowed me to start a new company, Taskforce. This new company has taken my work as a site artist to a whole other level and I continue to get invited to do work outside of my home, as you saw firsthand when I was at Amherst, MA with my camera obscura installation. I did a piece in NYC last fall for The Breaking Ground Charette. This summer I had films shown at the River to River Festival and took TaskForce to the UK. Don’t get me wrong, I have to work harder at maintaining this balance and some days I feel like there is no balance and other days I think “aren’t I lucky.” But I am an artist and an educator at my core. I’m taking on an administrative role but I’m still teaching. I teach the advanced choreography class and seminar on top of the other things I do. I feel blessed to be where I am right now. Will I want to stay in this position of leadership forever? No. As I get older, I want more and more time to make art but I’m not thinking of making a change. I’m still learning and am very excited to be where I am right now. CalArts is giving me opportunities I never thought possible. The other side is that I’m now in the position to give opportunities to other artists. It’s different. Now that we’re on this side of the conversation you realize why people make decisions when we make them. It’s not personal. It’s all usually the context. I’m very lucky. I’ve created a very fine team around me and I’ve gotten the chance to travel extensively for my own work every summer since starting this job. I try to give the dance faculty the time to do the things they need to do as artists. We all have to exercise a certain balance between our commitments to our programs, our students and our artistic lives. That’s the tension we’re all in when we take on these jobs.

Maura: The further I get into this entire interview process, the more my conversation has shifted from how do artists live in this landscape to what’s next.

Stephan: Let me tell you my big fear because the real world, the independent world, of artists is shrinking so much and there is this rise in the University as supporter for Big Art. That’s fine. Our generation didn’t make the big companies that survived like Merce’s or Paul Taylor or Ailey. Mark Morris is of my generation and basically, he’s it. So, our generation is the one that’s bridging this gap by crossing over into the academic world. But, what about the next generation? Really! We keep saying we want our students to have real world experience, but, what is the real world anymore? If it is just teaching or working in the academic world right after college, that’s a problem.

Maura: We’re caught in a loop. I’m looking around thinking the field will survive because of academic support. Universities are keeping artists going. But that can’t sustain it. All of these artists coming out of schools can’t go right back into schools. Where do they go?

Stephan: And, what do they do? If they don’t go anywhere does that mean they drop out? We always know the strong survive—the ones who come to NY and just make it happen will remain true, yes. But, how far will those artists in their 20s or early 30s go to get by. And by the time they are in their 50s, where will they be? What are the opportunities out there?

Maura: I think that’s a really challenging road ahead for the dancer. Those interested in making work in the leveled out hierarchies and independent spaces will continue to do it the way it’s been happening, if you are willing and able to find and keep a day job. But if you want to just dance as much as possible, those jobs are disappearing. That’s definitely the million dollar question forming in this process.

Stephan: You aren’t carrying the debt issue at Hunter because the tuition is relatively low. Many of them have to put themselves through school, yes, but they don’t leave with substantial debt to get these degrees and then wonder what to do. There is a loop, you are right. We’re working hard here to attack the debt, but there’s no quick fix. So, how do our students make money when they leave to capitalize on their incredible training? Well, aside from training creative minds and bodies we have to hope the economy will not shrink forever.

Maura: There is so much change at work in our whole cultural system and it is hard to understand where dance will remain when we emerge from this moment.

Stephan: I am at my core an optimist and believe that if our students work hard, remain open to different opportunities, things will happen for them, no matter what the landscape. These are volatile times and I think we’re going to have to keep working and keep the quality of work that we do as high as possible and be patient.

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