Changing Course

Mid-career artists go back to school - from afar.

Jacksonville University faculty members Christina Teague-Mann (center) and Cari Coble with students at White Oak Plantation

Thirty-five years after beginning his career as a dancer and choreographer, David Parsons decided to do something he’d never tried before: go to grad school. In 2010, Parsons was one of 10 students to enter Jacksonville University’s brand-new Master of Fine Arts in Choreography. He wanted to experiment with new ways of using technology in performance—something he had little time for as artistic director of Parsons Dance. “It was a chance to spend time sequestered from the usual responsibilities I have as an artist,” Parsons says. Although it is a challenge to balance a graduate program workload with ongoing travel, production and teaching demands, the MFA’s low-residency format—summers in residency and fall and spring semesters off-site—allows Parsons and other mid-career artists to coordinate and connect their professional and academic work.

Jacksonville’s MFA program is one of three such low-residency programs, along with the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s MFA in Performing Arts–Dance and Hollins University’s MFA (in Roanoke, Virginia), which is offered in conjunction with the American Dance Festival. While each is distinct, their missions all aim to enrich and advance the careers of established performers, educators and choreographers. As mid-career artists, students bring a wealth of experience and discipline to the programs. The low-residency structure allows them to maintain their professional lives while developing new skills, expanding their pedagogy and exploring new approaches to performance and choreography.

Each MFA program requires two to three summer intensives, which consist of roughly six weeks of immersion study with a variety of guest artists and classes. The immersion experience—set apart from work and other obligations—allows students to engage in a constant dialogue with their peers. It is important to establish a sense of community before students leave, says Cari Coble, director of the Jacksonville MFA program. While diverse, the members of the cohort rely on one another for ideas, support and attaining the deep analysis that is at the core of the program.

During fall and spring semesters, students at UWM and Jacksonville take online courses, many of them seminar-style classes with readings, research and online discussions. Students in all three programs also work on independent projects, such as film techniques to document their work or mounting independently choreographed pieces, which may ultimately lead to culminating theses. Technology has streamlined the learning and communication process, and students and professors stay in touch via e-mail, Skype, cell phone and collaborative online tools such as Blackboard. Simone Ferro, MFA program director at UWM, can watch students’ studio samples online while talking with them on the phone.

Student Amy Baker Schwiethale finds that the stream of readings and discussions with her Jacksonville cohort seeps into her own teaching as an assistant professor of musical theater/choreography at Wichita State University. After reading a lecture about the Laban method and completing a movement assignment on herself, for example, she tested the concept on her students by giving three dancers each a different quality to apply to the same movement phrase. “It looked different on all of them and added texture to the piece,” she says. “It allowed me to understand my assignment even more.”

Daniel Gwirtzman, a choreographer and director of the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company, received his MFA from UWM in 2007 and says he saw a constant link between his professional and graduate work. “The added layer of scrutiny and accountability strengthened [my professional] work,” he says. The program helped him develop a more rigorous method of reflection and taught him to set measurable outcomes, which he now applies to his work with students and when writing funding proposals for his company. Graduate school also gave him new perspectives on creating and assessing work. “As a choreographer, one tends to work in a vacuum,” Gwirtzman says. “There’s not really a larger community developing and critiquing work.” Feedback from faculty and peers pushed him to explore the influence of musical theater; his dance musical Encore, which premiered in 2007 at Joyce SoHo and was an official selection of the 2009 New York Musical Theatre Festival, began as a project in one of his composition classes.

The three programs, all developed in the past 15 years, signal a shift in dance’s role in the world, particularly the academy. “There is a growing desire to write more about dance, to publish more about it, to broaden what we think dance is,” Coble says. A terminal MFA degree offers artists the opportunity to begin teaching or achieve tenure at the university level. Thomas DeFrantz, core adjunct faculty at Hollins/ADF, adds that in the process, “It opens up a space for them to rethink their relationship to dance.” DT

Sara Versluis is a freelance writer and former English teacher who lives in Virginia.

Photo by Heather Blanton, courtesy of Jacksonville University

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