How Alicia Graf Mack Cultivates Curiosity and Creativity in Her Juilliard Students

September 15, 2022
woman looking into camera wearing black V-neck tank top
Alicia Graf Mack. Photo by Claudio Papapietro, Courtesy Juilliard.

School administration may not seem like an obvious path to exploring creative practices and processes, but the approaches that academic leaders take will either spark or extinguish their students’ engagement. Alicia Graf Mack, the dean and director of The Juilliard School’s dance division since 2018, utilizes a service-oriented approach to bolstering young dancers’ artistry. Building upon her own formidable experiences performing with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Graf Mack is an inspiration to students and educators alike. Dance Magazine spoke with her about innovative leadership, unleashing students’ creative potential and reimagining dance education at one of the world’s most storied arts institutions.

When I took the helm, I saw many talented, hungry, generous students who were not empowered to share and live in their own excellence. I needed to lift the atmosphere and remind the dancers why they want to do this!

It begins in the audition process. I teach a class first, and we don’t cut dancers right away. I’m not looking for a mold, but someone curious in nature and driven by passion, so that four years in a rigorous program will yield even more curiosity. I don’t want dancers feeling like all they’ve learned and all they are is not good enough.

When I was training, I was under the impression I was a tool or instru­ment for a choreographer, and I honored that idea. I was creative while dancing in terms of interpreting and bringing myself to the work, but I was not often asked to be a part of the creative choreographic process. I had a gap in my tools, and we want to fill this gap between being a learned, technical dancer and being on the cutting edge of where dance is going.

In the past, all students at Juilliard had one year of composition, then dancers were chosen by faculty to continue into a second year. I made the second year mandatory for all students. These are young people, and I didn’t want to evaluate a student’s ability to create in their first year and then make a decision for their life.

I made improvisation mandatory, incorporated Gaga and contempo­rary floorwork, and brought in choreographers and artists who called up the dancers to collaborate. We also offer four workshop opportunities­ a year, where students create work not for class or credit, but to play. Their work is not evaluated, so they are empowered to take risks.

Being someone who empowers others is at the forefront of my life as a mom, and at The Juilliard School. Having two children who are natural movers, I see the full cycle of an artist’s journey, starting with the seeds of needing to move and express yourself. We need to honor and protect the passion that makes us dancers, and keep that idea at the forefront of the training.

I take on a Mama Mack role—I demand much of the students from a place of love, respect and encouragement. I keep my office door open, they have my cell number, they can FaceTime me. I have practical conversations about how to operate in a fast-paced, demanding environment.

We’ve kept equity, diversity, inclusion and a sense of belonging to the Juilliard community at the top of our value system. With faculty and leadership, we’ve had more training, conversation, listening and understanding, so each person can step into the room as a student and artist and be their authentic self—this is the only way they can really grow. I’m not in the business of repression, I’m in the business of flowering!