In his former role as director of the Netherlands’ international Springdance festival, Simon Dove sought choreographers who stretched the artform by representing something authentic about themselves and their worldviews. Such individualized approaches are essential, he says, if dance ever hopes to attract audiences that aren’t just made up of other dancers and dance devotees. “If 96 percent of the population doesn’t attend dance events [which is a figure from Europe], there’s a reason,” he says. “It’s partly education, partly exposure—but it also has to do with dances not always having value and meaning.” So three years ago when Arizona State University asked him to direct its dance department, he began envisioning a program that would develop the artistic qualities he—and his audiences—had sought when he worked in the professional world.
That ASU was attracted to Dove isn’t surprising since the university was also looking for ways to become more broadly relevant. ASU, led by its president, Michael Crow, recently underwent major restructuring to establish itself as a model for what it calls the “new American university.” One goal of this new model is to break down walls that separate the ivory tower from surrounding communities. “One thing Simon brings, which is very unique and refreshing, is the immediate connection to the professional world,” says dance faculty member Mary Fitzgerald. “That’s one of our big commitments—to bridge the university with current practices.”
ASU’s radically restructured dance curriculum, now in its second year, is largely the embodiment of Dove’s vision. Working with the faculty at ASU’s Herberger Institute School of Dance, he has created a program with ample room for personal choice and exploration. Rather than give students answers, it poses questions designed to drive them to a deeper, more personal understanding of dance, their relationship to it and what it can do.
Creative Practice (roughly equivalent to the study of choreography) is the new curriculum’s core. “All the other elements—learning a movement practice, history, theory, criticism—they’re all ways in which we’re contextualizing the individual practice of making dances,” says Dove. The first year of Creative Practice is devoted to helping students appreciate and understand what they already have. Through a process called “personal ethnography,” students make a solo that represents who they are. “And then we work with them on deconstructing it,” says Dove. “We look at the language they’re using: where they got that step from; what the origins of that language were. We’re helping them to understand that everything they’re doing has a context and a history.”
“Empowering the student to be in a constant process of inquiry has been the hardest thing to shift,” Dove says, but the ethnographic process helps by validating their origins, while also helping them see their backgrounds as only the start of a more complex story. It helps them first to “feel strong and reassured in their own practice, and then to start to question it,” says Dove.
Students also witness the creative processes of established artists. Recently, when a faculty position opened, Dove decided not to hire a new person but to divide the salary into five-week chunks to fund visiting artist residencies. Some visiting artists teach technique, some lecture, some critique student work. But there’s no mandate that they must teach or set a piece. And all are given time to develop work and can involve students in any way they like. When John Jasperse came, for example, he spent time talking with people about truth and falsehood—concepts that were informing his new piece. “That the visiting artists are all working on projects differently and got to their positions by such different routes is such an important message for the students,” says Dove.
Individual process and choice are also part of what the program calls Personal Movement Practice (roughly equivalent to technique). Instead of fulfilling department-mandated technique requirements, students select up to two genres from a list that includes ballet, modern, Latin, jazz, urban and African, among others. After a year they can take new styles or can continue on to the next level of what they’re already studying. They also take a Movement Practices course that serves as a sampler of other approaches like somatics, tai chi and yoga.
Fitzgerald admits that some students are initially confused by the new responsibility and freedom. “Because we’re not telling them, ‘You have to take ballet and modern,’ they get a little panicky,” she says. But the faculty gives students the support they need to feel comfortable. “At the second semester, the ones who were panicky were fine,” says Fitzgerald.
It’s all part of the process of educating artists who “are able to think critically about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” says Dove. “If we want dance to be a more central part of people’s lives, then we need a greater diversity of practice. In short, we need a revolution in how we imagine what dance can be, and how we, as educators, foster and nurture the dances we do not yet know.” DT
Lea Marshall is producer/assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s department of dance and choreography and co-founder of Ground Zero Dance in Richmond, Virginia.
Photo: ASU’s dance faculty, staff and students celebrate a successful year. By Tim Trumble, courtesy of ASU