Dance in the Ivy League

July 31, 2013

What’s changing at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard


Eulalia Ayguade Farro of Akram Khan Company, teaching a workshop at Yale.

Michael Marsland, Courtesy YDT


A low drumbeat pulses
as 13 intensely focused students, arranged in two lines, try to keep up with its rhythm. Arms lash out; hands sculpt the air; legs drop into deep, outstretched lunges. Beads of sweat start to fly.


“That was just a warm-up, right?” says Eulalia Ayguade Farro, as Young Jin Kim pauses the music. The two dancers—both members of the London-based, globally acclaimed Akram Khan Company—have traveled to New Haven for a three-week residency with Yale Dance Theater (YDT). Panting, the students nod and gamely resume their starting positions.


A few days later, a post appears on the YDT blog: “Dancing these phrases,” one student muses, “it’s almost as if the energy instructs you. It expands, it compresses, it hits, and it stretches, but it never stops.”


Emily Coates, director of dance at Yale with students. Photo: Michael Marsland, Courtesy YDT

Ten years ago, this scenario—rigorous rehearsals with internationally known dancers, a forum for written reflections on the process—would have seemed out of place at Yale University. That’s when Emily Coates, the director of Yale’s now burgeoning dance studies curriculum, arrived on campus as a 29-year-old undergraduate, after six years as a dancer with New York City Ballet, four with Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, and two with Twyla Tharp.


“There weren’t many people in the community who knew about dance—the kind of professional dance and the artists that I’d been engaging with,” says Coates, who now dances with Yvonne Rainer. “There was a landscape of extracurricular dance groups that had a role in the social life of students.” But, she adds, “there were no courses. That was very clear—there was no curricular representation of dance.”


Historically, the tradition-laden Ivy League has equated dance with recreation, not regarding it as a serious academic discipline. Coates attributes this attitude to “the anxieties of the academy toward the body” and to a perceived divide between thinking and “doing” in any form, be it dancing, painting, or other modes of art-making. “There’s been this separation of theory from practice,” she says, “a devaluing of the thought process of what it is to do, to make, to create.”


With the exception of Columbia University (home to Barnard College, where students can major in dance), no Ivy League school offers a dance major or supports a full-fledged dance department, suggesting that these biases, to some degree, persist. Formalized dance departments, found at many liberal arts colleges throughout the country, bring certain advantages (as compared to less structured minor or certificate programs): for students, the ability to make dance a top academic priority; for faculty, a voice in broader institutional decision-making. Departmental status also conveys to the academic community that dance is as worthy of study as history, English, or biochemistry.


But at Yale and other Ivies—particularly Princeton and Harvard, which have hired new dance directors in the past five years—the presence of dance is growing, even if not to departmental maturity. So, too, is the caliber of guest artists working with students (though rehearsal and performance opportunities, for the most part, remain extracurricular). The dance directors at all three schools, as active dance artists themselves—Coates at Yale, Susan Marshall at Princeton, Jill Johnson at Harvard—are making efforts to teach what is current and forward-thinking in the field. And they’re fostering unlikely connections between dance and far-flung disciplines.


At Yale, Coates began building the dance studies program from the ground up in 2006, invited by her academic mentor in theater studies, Joseph Roach, who had received an award that helped to fund her position. In designing the dance curriculum—now seven courses, housed in the theater studies program—Coates has adopted a theory-meets-practice philosophy. In Advanced Dance Repertory, for instance, students not only read about Tharp’s Torelli and Rainer’s Trio A but also learn the choreography from Coates, who danced for both choreographers herself. While Yale Dance Theater is still extracurricular, the group has learned works by Tharp, Merce Cunningham, and Reggie Wilson. Combining that physical experience with the YDT blog, Coates hopes to cultivate “not only savvy, broadly exposed artists, but artists who can then turn around and write beautifully about the form.”


“I’m an art history major, so I’d learned about Trio A from a postmodern, minimalist art perspective,” says Elena Light, class of 2013. The pedestrian movement looked easy on film, but doing it in Coates’ class was another story: “I found that it is, in fact, incredibly difficult. It requires a different type of virtuosity than the one I’m used to in ballet or modern dance.”


Coates doesn’t feel hindered by the lack of a formal dance department; rather, she sees it as “a blessing” that exempts the curriculum from certain bureaucratic constraints. “It allows for a supple, responsive, outreaching cluster of courses”—courses like the Physics of Dance, which she co-taught with an assistant professor of physics, last fall. (The two are now co-authoring a textbook.)


Susan Marshall, director of dance at Princeton, teaching a class. Photo: Denise Applewhite, Courtesy Marshall. 

At Princeton, which offers a certificate in dance, theory and practice have long been linked. Ze’eva Cohen, who directed the dance program from its inception in 1969 until 2009, designed courses that met three times a week: twice to work on technique, once to focus on composition and theory. Seniors could elect to do their own creative theses, with full resources and mentorship from the program (albeit not for credit).


That structure remains intact, even as Marshall has amplified it, adding more introductory and interdisciplinary courses for students who might ordinarily shy away from dance. Her arrival in 2009 came shortly after the announcement of a $101 million initiative to bolster the arts at Princeton. Those resources have enabled, among other luxuries, the licensing of repertoire by legends in the field (Cunningham, Tharp, Balanchine, Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, Trisha Brown), as well as new commissions by younger contemporary artists (Kyle Abraham, Deganit Shemy, Camille A. Brown).


“The visibility level is higher,” says Silas Riener, a Prince-ton alum and former Cunningham dancer who now teaches modern technique at the university. “It’s not just dance girls in a different part of campus doing their own thing. It’s attempting to be more integrated, more cross-discipline, getting involved with visual arts and neuroscience, for instance.” Last fall, Riener staged a Cunningham Event, with a score by the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and a backdrop by Martha Friedman, a colleague in the visual arts program.


As for whether dance, without its own department, risks being seen as “not serious,” Marshall’s interests lie elsewhere. “Ze’eva fought that battle, and thank God,” Marshall says. “She had to fight for every single inch of space, every course.” She adds, “My concern is more about giving the students what they need, right now, to go out and be real innovators in the field.”


One student, Lisa Einstein, entered the field even before graduating, when an on-campus project with Camille A. Brown led to performing and touring with Brown’s company. Einstein sometimes craved a more conservatory-like environment (“Graham this year, Limón next year,” she says). But she appreciated the flexibility of Princeton’s program—especially in light of her demanding major, physics—and the choreographic guidance she received from faculty. “For a student that’s good at creating their own path,” Einstein says, “it’s definitely a good place to be.”


Jill Johnson, director of dance at Harvard, with dancer Sokvannara (Sy) Sar. Photo: Rachel Papo for Dance Spirit.

Harvard offers fewer curricular courses than Yale and Princeton, but according to recent graduate Mackenzie Dolginow, dance has become “incredibly central and vibrant”—and more “academically relevant”—since Jill Johnson arrived in 2011. (Her predecessor, Elizabeth Bergmann, had expanded and deepened the dance program over 11 years.)


A senior lecturer in the music department, Johnson has hit the ground running, piloting a course on the choreographic process of William Forsythe (with whom she danced, to great acclaim), and hosting master classes by 30-plus guest artists, including Ohad Naharin, David Hallberg, Ronald K. Brown, Margie Gillis, and Forsythe. She has also invited Andrea Miller, Pontus Lidberg, and John Jasperse to mentor and choreograph on students. Meanwhile, the program continues to offer (non-credit) technique classes in ballet, contemporary, and conditioning at the state-of-the-art Dance Center.


Like Coates at Yale, Johnson sees the absence of a department as liberating. The opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration, in particular, “are phenomenally rich and without the constraints of a fixed course of study,” she says.


“I do think it would be cool to have a dance major,” says Dolginow, who majored in neurobiology. “If anyone could do it, Jill would be the one.”



Siobhan Burke is a
Dance Magazine contributing editor who also writes for The New York Times and The Performance Club. She is a Barnard College alum.