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By Wendy Perron
Penn State students at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Photo by Molly Johnson, Courtesy Penn State.
Elisha Clark Halpin was determined to give her students at Penn State a more relevant education in dance. The theater on campus had presented the companies of Graham and Taylor. “But that’s not what I teach,” says Halpin, whose approach to modern technique is based in the use of somatic practices. The Penn State program does not offer a B.A. or a B.F.A. in dance, so her students will likely never get a job with those companies. Many are pursuing alternate careers that may involve dance in ways other than performing. As head of dance at Penn State, Halpin wanted to give them a new environment artistically and culturally—to “push them out of their comfort zone.”
While searching the internet, she discovered the annual Dublin Dance Festival, which presents performances and workshops by an intriguing array of contemporary artists. She designed her own study-abroad program and took 10 of her most dance-crazy students to the Irish capital for a month last spring that included the two-week festival.
“To get to see smaller, more contemporary shows,” says Halpin, who is also a stage manager for Bebe Miller, “makes them realize there’s a place for them in this field.” The festival offerings ranged from the majestic Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in the Grand Canal Theatre to Ireland’s hilariously randy Ponydance Theatre Company in a tiny upstairs bar.
The Penn State group saw every performance and took every workshop and master class. Tanika Peart, who is heading into her senior year, said she felt “a little confused” by seeing Eiko & Koma’s famously glacial-paced works. But after she took their Delicious Movement Workshop of “sleeping and dreaming exercises, everything gelled,” she says. “I never thought someone touching my shoulder could initiate a dance.”
Another master class showed Peart how dance could be part of her chosen career path as a speech therapist. Led by Emmanuelle Vo-Dinh, a choreographer from France, it combined vocal work with movement. “She showed how dance can cause outbursts of sound,” says Peart. “It made me think I can connect the two in the future.”
Before each performance Halpin gave her band of adventurers some background, and afterward they would talk excitedly about what they saw. Michelle Fitzgerald, who is double-majoring in public relations and integrative arts, benefited even from the performances she didn’t like. “They raised questions that made me step back and look at my own definition of dance,” she says.
Through constant discussions with the group, Fitzgerald says, she “gained a lot more points of reference than just ‘How high was that dancer’s leg?’ Now I can talk about inspiration, the creative process, and how the performers related to an audience.” Engaging with her fellow students was key. “Hearing their opinions only allowed my opinions to be stronger. The festival has given me a voice in conversations about dance.”
As with Peart, the experience has helped Fitzgerald to envision her future. She hopes to go into public relations in the arts and finds she is much more confident and articulate now.
By chance, while they were there, President Obama came through Dublin and gave a stirring speech to a huge crowd in the heart of the city. Witnessing the love of the Irish for Obama was another cause for excitement.
But that is only a fraction of why, Peart says, “I can’t stop talking about Ireland and the festival. I loved everything about it; I’m already including in my five-year plan to go back to Dublin.”