The Ivy Covered Studio: Choreographers in College

July 31, 2007

For a choreographer, a university job may feel like a haven or a prison. It can offer an invigorating environment, with rehearsal space and a steady paycheck. But it also demands energy in classes and meetings, and may be in a town far from one’s dancers and collaborators. These days, however, many university administrations are realizing the value of choreographers as teachers and mentors—a big change from the days when it was looked down upon for faculty to take time off to perform. College administrators are now bending over backwards to offer faculty positions that allow dance artists of national stature to sustain their creative work, much as they would for published writers or research scientists.
Dance Magazine
spoke to four choreographers who have taken on faculty positions at universities about their experiences.

Bebe Miller
, known for her quirky and poignant movement vocabulary, has been at Ohio State University since 2000. Every year she requests—and is granted—a personal leave to work with her dance company during the fall quarter. Though the company office remains in New York, Miller and her dancers “converge in different places” to rehearse. Her leave is unpaid, allowing the dance department to invite guest artists to substitute for her.

How did this close-to-ideal situation come about? In the mid-’90s Miller had faced substantial funding losses that left her company struggling. Economics combined with “house lust” (a strong desire, she says, for the kind of home and garden nearly impossible to find in New York) led her back toward the stability of academia. In 2000 dance department chair Karen Bell negotiated with Miller to create a position with the flexibility Miller needed. Since then Miller has been teaching technique, repertory, and composition to both undergraduate and graduate students. Current chair Susan Petry says of the choreographer, “She brings a perspective and a breadth of experience that I find incredibly helpful. She has a sensitivity about people’s energy, people’s time.”

Miller benefits too. She describes how the interaction of dance and technology, about which she initially had reservations (“because I am all about live performance”), came to life for her in the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design at OSU. Her explorations of motion-capture technology, she says, “opened a new world that has affected me deeply.” In addition, Miller has collaborated with a graduate student in physics who had been taking dance classes. Her new understanding of “dark matter” led to the idea of an “invisible partner” in dance, which figures heavily in Miller’s current project with her company,
Necessary Beauty
, to premiere in 2008.

However, Miller’s choreographic process still depends on the more intensive, though less frequent, gatherings of her “virtual company,” as she now calls them. “I really need professionals to take me there in a different way. We’re peers,” she says of her company members.

But any time she feels nostalgic for her New York days, she pictures herself on the F Train with a backpack, Chinese take-out clutched in one hand, a boombox in the other, pushing a TV on a cart. Then she remembers that, while her job at OSU does create “a different balance of realities, some are more banal, but others are wonderfully transforming.”

David Dorfman
took a leap of faith into a full-time tenure track position at Connecticut College in 2004, where no special arrangements were guaranteed. But he is within striking distance of New York, where his 22-year-old company is based, and he figured he could make it work if, “by hook or by crook,” he could get 12 weeks of rehearsal with the company each year. So far he has succeeded. “It means I’m pretty darn busy,” he says. But that appears to have paid off: He is now chair of the department of dance, and David Dorfman Dance has been named company in residence.

As chair, Dorfman teaches fewer courses than before, and can take leaves more easily. Since he is married and has a 6-year-old son, Dorfman admits that balancing family, work, and creative life can be a lot to handle. But he enjoys management, noting, “As a kid I was a catcher when I played competitive baseball.”

As a teacher, Dorfman enjoys “the rigor of planning a successful class.” He is influenced by the students’ perspectives, and he loves working out choreography on them. Senior Zenas Hutcheson performed in early versions of the work that became
, which David Dorfman Dance premiered last summer at the American Dance Festival. A line that Hutcheson said in rehearsal—“I’m apathetic!”—later became an integral part of the piece.

On the eve of producing his own student concert, Hutcheson said, “David really pushed me towards choreography.” He described how willingly Dorfman gives his time to his students: “Basically whenever I have movement or a piece to show him, he’ll make time to do it.”

Like Miller, however, Dorfman feels his company members are the crucial collaborators in his artistic life. “It’s a bit of a strain, running the company from a distance, not having that day-to-day interaction,” he says. “The spark of immediacy starts to fade.” Fortunately for Dorfman and his dancers, the company’s upcoming residency will change that.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar
, who founded the Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women in 1984, holds an artist-in-residence position at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She is there 7–11 weeks during both semesters, and plans her absences based on UBW’s touring schedule. All of her classes are co-taught with other faculty members who take over while she’s away.

“I’m always learning from the students,” says Zollar. Like Dorfman, she often works out new movement on students that she later develops more fully with her company. She loves “being engaged in that constant learning process,” which she says is enriched by the presence of the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) at FSU. When Dutch choreographer Anouk Van Dijk visited MANCC on a fellowship in 2006, Zollar said, “I really loved to see how she unfolded her process through her technique,” a concept Zollar is trying to clarify for herself in her own work.

In recent years, several students at FSU have joined Urban Bush Women as full company members. Zollar notes that her familiarity with FSU dancers can help or hurt when they come to audition for UBW. “I know their work ethic,” she says, chuckling.

When Bennalldra Williams, now a UBW member, came to FSU in 2001, she wrote a paper on Zollar for her English 101 course. On learning that Zollar did not start studying dance formally until beginning her MFA, Williams, who had studied ballet, thought, “Wow, you can be a dancer, you can do all these wonderful things without necessarily having to go through a cookie-cutter method.” For Williams, learning that “there’s another thing just as important as the steps” was a revelation. About UBW’s emotionally rich work she says, “I had never danced like that before.” She describes how Zollar’s process with students involved more exploration of how to tap their emotions, whereas now, “because we are professionals, she expects us to tap that a little bit quicker.”

As a professional, Williams found that working with Zollar as a company member, “really did encompass all those things we were hinting at when I worked with her at school: that you need to have a voice, and no matter, whatever that voice is, validate it.”

Tere O’Connor
began teaching at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this year. He has a full-time professorship with tenure and teaches only during the spring semesters. During the summer and fall he works with his company, Tere O’Connor Dance, and produces a season in New York. O’Connor calls the arrangement amazing.

Since he remains in New York seven months out of the year, his time spent at UIUC feels like a productive break from the city. O’Connor bought an apartment near the university, and keeps a car in Illinois. It’s quite a change, he admits, from the New York life of subways and cramped dance studios. With baffled amusement, he describes driving in his “metal box” to a giant “big box” office store to purchase a “tiny box” of staples.

Within the dance department, O’Connor appreciates the division of labor and the input of colleagues, versus his work as a company director, which he compares to being “an insane circus leader.” He relishes opportunities for collaboration, such as the choreography and design course he co-created this year with landscape architect David Hays. The course echoes the architectural focus of his newest work,
Rammed Earth
, to premiere this fall in New York.

O’Connor says he wants to diffuse the usual teacher/student dichotomy. “I don’t believe in the teacher as a keeper of information,” he says, “but as engaged with some kind of investigation with the students.” Teaching, for him, has been “a journey of finding my own voice” and is intertwined with making his vibrant, thought-provoking work. Thus, he draws no distinctions between his creative process inside or outside of academia. “Everywhere I do a dance,” he says, “it’s the same kind of process for me.”

All four of these artists seem to be thriving in their academic environments. They continually find new ways to feed their students’ and their own creativity. And the students get new ideas, networking opportunities, and an inside scoop on the life of a dance professional. Zollar sums up the artists-in-academia relationship succinctly: “If it’s the right fit at the right time, it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Lea Marshall, producer/assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, is executive director of Ground Zero Dance Company and a freelance writer.