When Broadway dancer Bill Hastings came to the University of Georgia, he gave the dance majors more than a new take on technique. He brought a bit of the Great White Way and direct experience of working with Broadway dance master Bob Fosse. “In the middle of teaching a step he would tell them about what Bob Fosse said about it or what Gwen Verdon said about having to learn it,” says Lisa Fusillo, UGA dance department chair. “It gave them a link to history that put a face and a name to a dance style.” This is exactly the type of gift Fusillo hopes guest artists will bring her students when they visit Athens, home of UGA.
Guest residencies add breadth and freshness to a curriculum and allow teachers to see what their students are capable of. But finding, hiring and working with good guest artists can be challenging—especially if your budget is small and your school isn’t on a frequently trod tour route. Still, dance department directors facing these obstacles host great residencies every year. How do they attract good artists and build successful partnerships? With clear goals, a willingness to work with emerging artists and finding opportunities to share costs.
Defining Your Project
Deciding what you’d like a visiting artist to teach may seem like an obvious first step. But educators say being clear about desires and expectations is key to crafting a successful residency.
Fusillo looks for artists who can provide her students with an experience they wouldn’t normally encounter at UGA that fits their current skill level. In a single semester she may bring in several types of artists, including scholars and historians, to offer students an expanded academic perspective.
Edward R. Truitt, director of dance at West Texas A&M, used a residency to launch a cross-cultural exchange with Russia’s Kannon Dance Company that has spanned more than a decade. It began in 1998 when Kannon invited Truitt to be their guest artist. In 2003, he received a Fulbright that allowed him to return to Russia to teach. He then asked Natalia Kasparova, Kannon’s artistic director, to be a visiting artist at WTAMU. Their students have continued the exchange. Dancers in Truitt’s program traveled to Russia to perform with Kannon and hosted the company in Texas in for a joint concert. The experience provided Truitt’s students with lifelong contacts in Russia and, as Truitt says, “changed their lives and their outlook.”
Cara Gargano, chair for theatre, film, dance and arts management at Long Island University’s CW Post Campus, fills the bill for her annual Choreographer’s Showcase with works by visiting choreographers. Since her dancers’ strengths and interests are different each year, choreographic variety is important. Her proximity to Manhattan has enabled her to employ a wide range of New York City artists. “We want to offer students the opportunity to work in areas that will make them look wonderful, but also in areas that challenge them,” says Gargano.
Booking Within Your Budget
Once you’ve identified what you’d like a guest artist to do, the next step is hiring one. To locate good candidates, most educators rely on a network of colleagues. “I usually know somebody who knows somebody, which is how I get to the guest artist,” says Fusillo. Lynda Fitzgerald, coordinator of performing arts–dance at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) in Maryland, often tries to bring in artists from four-year institutions in the area that her students may eventually attend. Others find potential guest teachers at gatherings like the American College Dance Festival and the Congress on Research in Dance.
A cost-effective way to hire renowned artists is to tap those already scheduled to be in your area. When a local dance studio brought in Mia Michaels, for example, Fusillo arranged for UGA students to take her classes. And Fitzgerald was able to get a residency with Gabriel Masson, who danced with Lucinda Childs, Doug Varone and others. She heard he was coming to the East Coast, convinced her college to sponsor a performance and Masson made at stop at AACC.
You can also save on expenses by seeking out emerging artists eager to workshop new pieces. Consider working with alums and providing your network of friends with opportunities to work with your students.
Though most guest residencies ultimately prove successful, challenges do arise. The ticking clock seems to be the most common issue for guest choreographers. Gargano can only allow artists a limited amount of time with her students, but she finds ways to help if they’re anxious about a tight deadline. Often all that’s needed is on-the-spot encouragement. If necessary, she’ll go to rehearsal, provide positive reinforcement for both the students and the choreographer and suddenly “everybody just calms down.”
Fitzgerald gives guest choreographers very specific requirements: They must work fast, be succinct (pieces can’t be more than six minutes) and use all 20 of her company members.
Though such demands may seem inhibiting, Gargano believes they are helpful. “It’s important that the choreographer has information about limitations,” she says, regarding budget, time, space and technical options. Sending performance videos of the students and setting rehearsal times in advance can streamline the process.
It’s often obvious when a guest residency has been successful. For example, a piece receives rave reviews and the students can’t wait to have the artist back. But good residencies can also lead to future collaborations. “After performances,” says Gargano, “people have come up to me to say, ‘It would be really fun to set a piece on your kids.’” CW Post benefits from being in the New York City area, but Gargano says she’s willing to help spread the wealth. “If people call me and say, ‘We have this much money to bring somebody in,’ I can give them names of people who love working with students and have done beautiful work,” she says. DT
Cari Cunningham is assistant professor of dance at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is designing a major in dance. She is also artistic director of belle contemporary dance co.
“What is modern dance and why am I required to take it?” Every semester I get at least one phone call from a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, asking this question. After rambling for a few minutes about bare feet, live percussion and rolling on the floor, it strikes me how important it is to be able to tell students what we are doing and why we are doing it. Modern technique courses figure prominently in university dance departments—even in some that are ballet-based. Still, students, who often enter college knowing little about the form, are skeptical. There are ways to encourage “bunheads” (and other reticent dancers) to become believers, however. Four educators share what works for them.
In the beginning
Before their bare feet ever touch the floor, it’s good to let new students know that ballet and modern share a similar goal. Susan Douglas Roberts, associate professor of modern dance at Texas Christian University, believes that helping students recognize that modern, like ballet, is a concert dance form, allows classically trained dancers to recognize its value. She states this up front in her syllabus because, “it’s a way in.”
But, though the genres share similarities, Toby Hankin, director of dance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says it’s also important to remember what a huge leap dancers take when they begin a new form. “Put yourself in their place,” she says. “Remember how it feels to be a beginner, so you can approach students with empathy and respect.”
Keep on truckin’
Giving students the sense that they are, in fact, dancing can be crucial to getting them on board. Since modern dance often prizes movement flow over exact positions, David Capps, associate professor of dance at Hunter College in New York City, gives new students fast and fluid combinations to encourage them to step beyond the shape-oriented movement they’re used to. “I do things that are so unshaped that they have to follow the action contour and can’t get distracted by the position,” he says.
Roberts agrees. “I dive in,” she says. “Dancers understand dance through their bodies—even if the vocabulary is a bit different.”
Seeing is believing
Requiring students to see live performances helps them understand what they’re working toward and how modern technique factors into their performance goals. (If live performances are limited, videos can fill the gap.)
“That’s almost the most important thing,” Capps says of exposing students to live performance, “because you can pontificate in class, but until the students see the final product, they don’t really have any idea what you’re talking about.”
At TCU, Roma Flowers, who teaches dance lighting design and production, expands students’ knowledge by playing video clips of various companies in the background, while her students are working on assignments.
“There are many ways of planting seeds,” Roberts says of this strategic device to introduce first-year students to choreographic variety. TCU also requires all freshmen dance majors to take the “Topics in Dance” course, which offers students additional access to the breadth of artists in the field.
Guest artists also enhance students’ understanding. When TCU brought Susan Jaffe in to set a piece, Roberts received a flurry of e-mails from students about Jaffe’s mention of “dancing from your bones.” We all thought of you, the students told Roberts. “It was great, because here is a world-class ballerina talking to them about dancing from their bones, and they turn around and make a connection with their modern dance class and suddenly a bridge is built,” Roberts says. DT
Cari Cunningham is assistant professor of dance at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is designing a major in dance. She is also founder and artistic director of belle- contemporary dance co.