Centerwork: Campus Connections

September 28, 2011

CalArts students take a master class with choreographer Vincent S. K. Mantsoe (in black, at top). Photo by Scott Groller, Courtesy CalArts.



Enroll in modern dance course? Check. Study composition and improvisation? Check. Attend Random Dance concert, hear Wayne McGregor talk about his work, and take a master class with one of his company members? Check, check, check.

 The first two items on this list are standard for most college dancers. But the chance to see the work of professional artists and spend time with them in the studio is harder to come by. Some colleges, however, not only offer the typical courses required for a dance degree but are also major presenters of dance, hosting performances by some of today’s leading companies and giving students the opportunity to interact with visiting artists. Dance Magazine looked into three such institutions and how, through their role as presenters, they’re bringing students closer to the “real world” of dance.

Paige Cunningham Caldarella is assistant professor at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. A former Merce Cunningham dancer, she says that in addition to the school curriculum, students get unparalleled opportunities in their chosen field through the Dance Center’s presenting series. “It allows students to interact with a diverse range of artists both in the studio and lecture-based courses. They’re not just getting to dance with them, but they hear their research methodologies, inspirations, and thoughts on everything in between.

“What’s intriguing,” adds Cunningham, “is students see the dancers behind the scenes. It gives them a more realistic vision, because it’s not just the big performance moments.” This season the troupes scheduled to perform and teach master classes include artists from Bill T. Jones’ company, David Gordon’s company, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, and Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

 Philip Elson, a recent CCC graduate, says he saw about 30 different professional companies during his time there, which kept him in the know about “what’s happening currently and what new ideas are changing the face of contemporary dance. Being at Columbia,” adds Elson, “was the first time I was exposed to Wayne McGregor. To hear Wayne speak about Entity, and also hear the dancers talk about how challenging the work was, was wonderful.”

Lea Marshall, assistant chair of the dance department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA, produces dance events at the school’s Grace Street Theater. She says that bringing in artists gives students a close-up view of what it’s like to be a professional.

“Depending on the company, students can be a little starstruck while seeing dancers that they might only have seen from a distance, read about, or seen in a video. They respond enthusiastically to being alongside professionals, whether it’s taking class or seeing them rehearse. It’s a great motivator,” adds Marshall (who also writes for Dance Magazine), “and it gives students a sense of where they might fit into the larger field.” This season brings Ballet Hispanico and a residency by contemporary ballet choreographer Rick McCullough.

Marshall says the program is also great for networking. One VCU student, for instance, ended up working as an assistant for visiting artist Monica Bill Barnes after graduation.

Another alumna, Samantha Spels, is currently a member of Urban Bush Women. She and a fellow company member came to VCU last year to set Shelter on seven students, including Courtney Cook. “The process was very rigorous,” Cook says. “They wanted us to tap into a deep, emotional place, which pushed me as a performer.”

Choreographer Stephan Koplowitz is dean of the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at Valencia-based California Institute of the Arts. In addition to a performance venue on campus, the school operates the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater (REDCAT), in downtown L.A.

“Our desire is to expose our students to as many professional opportunities as possible,” says Koplowitz. “When an artist comes through from REDCAT, we have them do a master class.”

CalArts also benefits from the Alpert Award in the Arts; choreographers who receive this prestigious award spend a week on campus, and several have created new works or set repertoire on students. (Recent recipients include Pat Graney, Susan Rethorst, and Reggie Wilson.)

“The master classes have resulted in some amazing exchanges between artists and students,” says Koplowitz. “Students in a program as intense as CalArts, where we are training professional artists, shouldn’t be sequestered from the real world. They get a sense of what’s going on now, so that when they leave, there’s no fantasy and they have some level of professional contacts.”

Upcoming at REDCAT are Congolese dancer/choreographer Faustin Linyekula and Kyle Abraham, a 2009 “25 to Watch.” In 2008, David Gordon remounted Trying Times, incorporating 10 CalArts students into his company, which then performed at REDCAT and Dance Theater Workshop in New York. More recently CalArts brought in Trisha Brown alumna Kathleen Fisher to teach the structure of Brown’s classic Set and Reset. For Jose Luis Trujillo, who performed in the work at REDCAT, the experience proved enlightening. “It helped expand my mind choreographically. And to hear positive feedback from people who know the piece and the technique—that was gratifying.”

As CCC’s Cunningham says, “This kind of program keeps students current with what’s happening in the dance world. They see the journey that artists take and are encouraged to pursue their own paths.”


Victoria Looseleaf, who teaches dance history at USC, contributes to the
L.A. Times and KUSC-FM radio.