A new program at Montclair State University helps students understand dance from the inside out.
Donald McKayle coaches Montclair State University dancers for his work, Rainbow Étude.
A semicircle of 13 chairs faces the packed bleachers at the 2011 Informance, an annual event organized by the dance program at New Jersey’s Montclair State University. In the chairs sit MSU theater professor Neil Baldwin and the 12 student danceaturges, who, under his mentorship, spent the past semester analyzing choreographies composing the department’s yearlong Americana repertory and spring concert, working in a unique manner he describes as “from the inside out.” The danceaturges excitedly swap stories and pose questions to each other and an attentive audience of students and faculty. Baldwin listens eagerly, intervening occasionally to suggest a new prompt.
Within the last four years, a noteworthy sea change has occurred in the theoretical direction and ambitions of the dance program at Montclair State. The shift revolves around the innovation and application of danceaturgy, a new process of exploring the layers of performance works and the experience of a performing artist through exercises in writing, critical and imaginative thinking, personal reflection on kinesthetic experience, group discussion and historical research. After four years as an informal offering, the department recently elected to make danceaturgy a permanent and prioritized aspect of their future curriculum by formalizing it as an academic class offered for credit.
The concept was generated by Baldwin, who is also a widely published author and cultural historian. When he arrived at Montclair State in 2006, Baldwin’s only connection to the dance world was the wall his office shared with dance department chair Lori Katterhenry. Their physical proximity provided opportunities for frequent conversations, and mutual esteem and curiosity about each other’s work ensued. Katterhenry began to take note of ways that, although inadvertently, Baldwin was sparking the curiosity of her students and faculty, and how his physical presence and watchful eyes in rehearsals he sat in on inspired dancers to take new interest in the work they were doing. “His attention changed the chemistry of what we were doing,” she says. Dancers looked at their work with new attention and sought words to explain their experiences as movement artists. She liked what she observed and proposed that Baldwin teach a new course, similar to the dramaturgy class that he offered theater students, tailored to dancers and their medium.
In the world of theater, “dramaturgy” refers to the construction and deconstruction of dramatic work. A dramaturge typically conducts detailed and comprehensive research and becomes the resident expert on the physical and social milieus and the psychological underpinnings of a play and its characters. They also engage in in-depth study of the play as a piece of writing, through deep analysis of its formal elements, such as structure, rhythm and diction. They are able to provide valuable advice to directors during rehearsals and to make sure that the play works as a unified whole that will be decipherable to an audience. Dramaturgy is not a new concept to the dance world; however, Baldwin and Katterhenry felt the dramaturgy process needed to be refined and finessed for dance. Rather than looking at works as an observer, separate from the construction and creative process, and functioning only as consultants, their danceaturges would unpack choreography with which they were kinesthetically engaged and use their bodies as investigative instruments. They would learn to be both performer and spectator.
Experimenting with how to work as a danceaturge, Baldwin attended rehearsals for the college’s restaging of Martha Graham’s Steps in the Street. He interviewed Denise Vale of The Graham Company, who set the work on the students, and began tracing the chronology and context of the original piece. The dancers were amazed by the care and specificity he put into his research, and the depth of his thinking inspired many to deepen their own consideration of the choreography and its significance. His work showed students the value of taking time to deeply investigate the nature of their daily work, and his questions taught them the importance of being able to speak about their relationship with dance. However, his elaborate research lacked a crucial perspective for danceaturgical work: the experiential component.
This is where the students stepped in, and the trial course got off the ground. The faculty invited 10 students with exceptional writing skills to participate. Some of these students were nervous about squeezing another commitment in between classes and rehearsals, especially when most had only the vaguest idea of what this work would entail.
At the first meeting, Baldwin asked his students, “How does your physical experience inform your sense of meaning? And how does a sense of cultural context help your ability to perform?” They had the semester to consider these questions on their own, in written reactions to historical research that Baldwin provided and, most importantly, in conversation. The 10 students brought these questions to their fellow cast members and their choreographers, and they met weekly in a seminar forum led by Baldwin. “It’s not about answers,” Baldwin says. “It’s about exploration, critical thinking and empowering students to consider why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they convey this to an audience.”
This process allowed the students to appreciate new dimensions of the roles they performed. For instance, senior Sharrod Williams danced in Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Étude, and, with Baldwin’s encouragement, investigated the piece’s origin and the lives of chain gang workers like those represented in the dance. It enhanced the way he understood and approached the movement, and his dancing felt more human, empathetic and specific.
“It changed the way I approach a piece,” says junior Colleen Lynch. “My focus shifted from counts and costumes to society, community and getting a personal feeling for what I was doing and my relationship with this artform.” Recent graduate Melissa Sande, who worked with Baldwin for two years, agrees. “The pieces remained technically good, but they took on a new depth,” she says. For an aspiring choreographer like Sande, danceaturgy helped her figure out what she wants to say as an artist, who she wants to say it to and how she can make her vision legible. These are great sources of empowerment as she steps out into the professional world. DT
Johanna Kirk is an independent choreographer, performance artist, teacher and writer. She is currently completing her MFA in choreography at the University of Iowa.
Photo: Donald McKayle coaches Montclair State University dancers for his work, Rainbow Étude. (by Mike Peters, courtesy of Montclair State University)