Dance Minor Enters Second Decade
The UVA Dance Program is doing some celebrating of its own...
This seems to be quite the year for milestone anniversaries at the University of Virginia, with the Grounds still abuzz with the excitement of the remarkable Bicentennial Launch Celebration that literally lit up the Lawn with excitement, and the 30th Anniversary of the Virginia Film Festival.
The UVA Dance Program is doing some celebrating of its own as it enters the second decade of its dance minor by continuing to provide students across Grounds and across academic interests and disciplines with a dynamic and vibrant platform for learning, discovery, and artistic expression.
The minor was founded in 2006 with the hiring of dancer, choreographer, and educator Rose Pasquarello Beauchamp. From the beginning, Beauchamp, and her successor Kim Brooks Mata have worked to expand their students’ understanding of dance through a holistic approach to the discipline that combines artistic inquiry and expression with critical socio-cultural analysis.
Each year hundreds in the University community and beyond are exposed to the Dance program at UVA through its classes, guest artist residencies, and annual Fall and Spring Dance Concerts, which feature student artists from nearly every corner of the UVA academic world, working with both highly-acclaimed guest choreographers and with their fellow students and faculty. Some of the guest artist residencies that have been conducted in the past 10 years included David Dorfman, Bill T. Jones, Kyle Abraham and Abraham.In.Motion, Pilobolous, Dance Exchange, Yaa Samar! Dance Theatre, Helen Simoneau, Christopher K. Morgan, Katharine Birdsall, and danah bella to name a few. While the program has a focus on contemporary modern and post-modern techniques, it also offers jazz, ballet, contact improvisation, composition (choreography), somatics, and history and theory, among others.
Yet, the story of UVA dance today is really less about prescriptive genres and processes, and more about an approach that puts students at the heart of the creative process; “There is something about making work in an environment where you are actually asking for artistic input and engagement from your dancers,” Brooks Mata said, “as opposed to solely setting pre-constructed phrases for them to learn and re-create. There is value in both of these approaches, but engaging students in a creative process that includes their voices and makes them an integral part of what is performed on stage provides substantial learning opportunities. This becomes important for the student choreographer as well.”
Brooks Mata relates it to a traditional academic setting; “As with a paper you are writing for class,” she said, “sometimes it may come across as if you are writing in platitudes or regurgitating phrases heard or read, but your work lacks your individual perspective, your own voice in relation to the subject matter. When you are making work, you are not trying to erase all movement that you have learned before, but you are trying to find your voice, your unique way of perceiving and moving in order to build a piece that expresses an idea or theme through physical exploration, and that takes time and practice.”
Like so many other programs and departments at the University, the Dance program has greatly benefited from the diversity of academic interests the students bring to it. Brooks Mata easily recalls multiple cross-disciplinary collaborations, including several in which her students have collaborated with composers and poets and created choreography alongside their collaborators.
Dance faculty have also worked closely with faculty and graduate students in the Composition and Computer Technologies program in Music, the School of Architecture, Studio Art, The Fralin Museum of Art, Kluge-Ruhe, and the School of Engineering. Brooks Mata co-taught a project-based class with former Engineering faculty member Amy LaViers entitled Electronic Identity and Embodied Technology that explored the concepts of identity, embodiment and technology in a collaborative, multidisciplinary environment that included Engineering and Dance students (several of whom combined their Engineering majors with a Dance minor). “It was a really interesting experiment, and the process was a fascinating experience for all involved,” Brooks Mata said. “In many ways, the engineers were really surprised by the challenges of collaborating through the creative process, where you weren’t really sure what you are making until you were in the process of making it. This was frustrating for the students from both disciplines. But, by working through the process, we were able to cultivate an appreciation for the creativity that exists within engineering and the research that goes into the art-making process when you are thinking about ways to resolve issues or create new ways of building systems or structures.”
Connecting the worlds of building structures and moving bodies was also important to the Dance Program experience of Naomi Moore, who combined her Architecture major with a dance minor. “Throughout my time at UVA,” Moore said, “I had noticed a connection between concepts in my architecture classes and dance classes, which sparked an interest in how the two disciplines interact with and shape space. My concentration in architecture school was Design Thinking, which is a way of thinking creatively to solve problems or develop strategies. This required my thesis to incorporate my minor, which was dance, and allowed me the opportunity to explore and develop upon my interest in dance and architecture simultaneously.”
For Erika Choe, the Dance program prepared her for her current work as a dance artist working in New York. As she reflects on her experiences, “Two years out of UVA’s dance program and I still find myself constantly going back to my readings and theoretical concepts we studied to effectively apply myself as an intentional and active member of my dance community. Our study on Laban Movement Analysis and the compositional concepts taught in the program play such an important role in my dance career, particularly when interpreting movement, I receive from choreographers around me today. More importantly, the training we receive in critical thinking of movement and the role it plays within our society has primed me to be able to have important and thought-provoking conversations with my colleagues, advocates and administrators of our arts community.”
Luke Williams, a fourth year in the college has found that the cross-disciplinary benefits of his UVA dance experience flow in both directions. “Once I enrolled in the dance classes, I saw how important dance studies was, so I connected the class material to my major in political and social thought. Now, I am writing my thesis on Black dance, performance studies, and politics in the sixties under the supervision of Kathryn Schetlick, a part-time lecturer in the dance program. My interdisciplinary work out of the dance program has set me up for an exciting career in academia as well as introduced me to some incredible people.”
The diversification in the program is also the result of its founding principle of inclusivity and experimentation. Each year, Brooks Mata and her team invite all students, regardless of their experience, to audition for the Fall and Spring concerts. “We’vehad instances where we have had people with non-traditional dance backgrounds audition, and we have had people from primarily a hip hop background audition and perform in pieces that were considered to be more postmodern or contemporary work. I find that working with people who move in different ways and who have different strengths allows you to expand your vision for choreography, so it is not only about going in and making something that is preconceived. It is about going into the studio with ideas to explore with diverse individuals and creating something that can highlight that diversity.”
Fourth-year Dance minor Braelyn Schenk, who came to the program with an intensive dance background in high school, finds the unique mix of styles and levels to be one of the most attractive things about where the program stands today. “This idea of people at different levels and mindsets is one of the reasons I became a dance minor. There is an allowance of the bigger picture, an allowance of ‘yes,’ and an allowance that helps you shift the way you think about things so they are not always in such tight frames.”
The approach, she says, has allowed her and her fellow students to create a deeper experience than she might have had by focusing entirely on her dance interests. “I was coming with a little bit of fear around what dance means. I wouldn’t be who I am without the rigorous initial training I had and the people who invested in me, but I have found dance at UVA to be more graceful and considerate of the human body. It made it more sustainable, and allowed me to build this bridge between my other interests, including my major of American Studies, where I can bring movement methodologies to the study of space, and movement in space, in the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture for the program as it begins its second decade, Brooks Mata said, is to continue to provide students of multiple backgrounds and interests with the opportunity to become makers in their own right in an environment that encourages risk taking and celebrates mistakes as vital to artistic and intellectual growth. “It is very important to me that we create an environment that is conducive to students taking risks and making mistakes. We won’t become more than we are if we are afraid to fail. I always tell my students that it is important to make mistakes because otherwise, how will you know where your boundaries are?”
Recent graduate, Ellen Crooks reflected on her time in the program and states that, “Not only did the program nourish a technical engagement with dance, it offered space for interdisciplinary study to bubble up. By my fourth year, the distinctions between my majors and minor were much less important than the ways that performance can grapple with their similarities, a curiosity that was stoked by the faculty at every turn. The Dance Minor Program taught me to fall and keep falling, to question all limits, and perhaps most importantly, that our bodies already hold all the answers.”
As the program moves forward into its second decade, Brooks Mata sees great potential for continued growth. “I think what makes our program unique is that our students are deeply engaged academically, physically, and artistically, and when they commit to asking challenging questions and expand upon their understanding of dance as a discipline a really rich environment is established in which to create thought-provoking work.”