DT Notes: October News

Orlando Ballet School Students Make Waves

Students of Florida’s Orlando Ballet School have been showing off all over the world lately. Jeffrey Cirio, 18, who left a pre-professional position in Boston to study with OBS’ director Peter Stark, won the gold medal in the sixth annual Helsinki International Ballet Competition.
Cirio went on to place first in the pre-professional male category at the annual World Ballet Competition, held in Orlando. “What’s interesting about Jeff is that he’s done all these competitions but the goal has always been to be a classical ballet dancer. For him, this was always a means to an end. It’s really great that he’s kept that perspective,” says Stark, Cirio’s teacher and coach.
What’s more, Cirio was recently selected to receive this year’s Princess Grace Dance Fellowship, and the money awarded will go toward his salary as he returns to Boston to join Boston Ballet as a corps member.
Another OBS student, Arcadian Broad, was selected to compete in Las Vegas for NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Broad performed a contemporary dance routine to Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” (which he trained for with an outside teacher, Dawhone Perry), that earned him a unanimous vote from all three judges to continue in the competition. “Arcadian is an incredibly accomplished ballet dancer and pianist,” says Stark, who adds that Broad was closely considered for the role of Billy Elliot on Broadway. “He just enjoys the work and goes from one challenge to the next.”

Info: www.orlandoballet.org —Tracy Krisanits

Cunningham's Legacy

The dance community mourns the loss of Merce Cunningham, who passed away peacefully in his sleep July 26, 2009. Born April 16, 1919, in Centralia, Washington, Cunningham became one of the most salient figures in dance history. His groundbreaking work as a dancer, teacher, choreographer and innovator redefined modern dance and initiated the postmodern dance movement.
In the wake of his death, the Cunningham Dance Foundation has launched its Legacy Plan, to dissolve the company over three years, yet maintain the integrity of Cunningham’s work through the Cunningham Trust. Selected by Cunningham prior to his death, trustees Laura Kuhn (executive director of the John Cage Trust), Patricia Lent, Allan G. Sperling and Robert Swinston are currently arranging MCDC’s two-year world tour. The Cunningham Studio will relocate. However, open classes and educational and outreach programs held at the current Westbeth location will continue during this transitional period. The Foundation must raise $8 million to fund Dance Capsules to conserve Cunningham’s work and to provide career transitions for dancers and staff. So far, $3.5 million has been committed. For more information or to make a contribution, visit www.merce.org.
—Jenny Dalzell

Margaret Jenkins’ CHIME Crosses State Lines

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company’s Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange program, CHIME, received a $400,000 grant from The James Irvine Foundation, plus an additional $155,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to help fund CHIME Across Borders, an exchange among U.S. choreographers.
Conceived by artistic director Margaret Jenkins, CHIME funds self-selected pairs of professional and emerging choreographers in the San Francisco Bay Area to work together for a year with the simple goal of enriching each other’s work. Past pairings have included prominent Bay Area–based artists: Brenda Way, Molissa Fenley, Charles Moulton, Joe Goode and Julia Adam.
Beginning in January, the new CHIME Across Borders will bring well-known choreographers from outside California to mentor local choreographers in San Francisco. The first artist selected to work with CHIME Across Borders is New York–based David Gordon, who will travel to the Bay Area several times during 2010.
“I really thought it was important to expand the dialogue to people who have been working over decades,” says Jenkins. “One of the things I like about CHIME is that because it is process-oriented and not product-oriented—meaning no one has to finish a dance by the end of the year—you could decide to throw everything out and that would be as successful a year as making a work.” Jenkins says she also has international aspirations for the program: “My hope is that it will reach international exchange.”
Info: www.mjdc.org —TK

Giordano's Legacy

Gus Giordano may not have been present at the 16th Jazz Dance World Congress in Chicago this July, but his spirit was everywhere—from the “Gus’s JDWC” that was stamped on every student’s bracelet and black T-shirts imprinted with his smoky image, to an inspiring essence in every class.
The first Congress to take place since the death of its charismatic founder was dedicated to the man who changed the face of jazz dance. The film Gus: An American Icon, written and produced by Pedro Brenner, debuted on the first night. Told through acclaimed jazz dancers and educators, the narrative follows Giordano’s first steps in opening a dance studio to becoming a renowned jazz legend credited with bringing the jazz community together. He started the first JDWC in 1990, and he codified jazz dance for teachers in the Anthology of American Jazz Dance (unfortunately now out of print).
An acclaimed choreographer and director, Giordano is remembered best as an educator, and his students recall his classes fondly. “They don’t walk up the stairs and say, ‘I saw the best performance ever.’ They walk up the stairs and say, ‘I took a class with your father,’” said Amy Giordano, one of the Giordano daughters. “It’s not about the trophies; it’s about the teaching.”
A lunchtime “Ask the Experts” panel discussion brought together master teachers Ray Leeper, Liz Imperio, Jimmy Locust and Pattie Obey. Leeper encouraged teachers to find new ways to approach their corrections and to always identify the purpose of each exercise, while Imperio favored a more time-honored approach: “Make them repeat it until they get it,” she said.
Other master instructors on faculty for the five-day event included Joe Tremaine, Jon Lehrer, Homer Bryant, Randy Duncan, Masashi Mishiro, Susan Quinn, Kirby Reed, Sherry Zunker, Giordano company member Cesar Salinas and of course, Nan Giordano herself, who continues to lead the organization in her late father’s footsteps.
“This is who I am. Not just what I do,” Gus Giordano once said. “And I say, long live jazz dance.”
—Lauren Green

"So You Think You Can Dance" Launches Dizzy Feet Foundation

Nigel Lythgoe, the co-creator of “So You Think You Can Dance,” has teamed up with “Dancing With The Stars” judge Carrie Ann Inaba, director Adam Shankman and actress Katie Holmes to launch Dizzy Feet Foundation, a nonprofit charity that will provide scholarships and assistance to underprivileged but talented young dancers.
Paula Abdul, Jennifer Lopez, Miley Cyrus, Mia Michaels, Mary Murphy, Debbie Allen, Shane Sparks and others have been tapped to serve on a steering committee—the group responsible for selecting scholarship recipients and following their journeys.
“The financial crisis that the whole world is compromised by is affecting the arts big time,” says steering committee member Allen. “We’re on life support right now because arts funding is the first thing that gets slashed.”
Info: www.dizzyfeetfoundation.org —TK

Honors List

  • Austin Hartel, associate professor of dance at The University of Oklahoma and artistic director of The Hartel Dance Group, was awarded a Fulbright Scholar Grant to choreograph and teach for the National Ballet of Paraguay and the National Institute of Fine Arts in Asuncion, Paraguay, for the 2009–2010 academic year.
  • Greer Reed-Jones was named artistic director of Dance Alloy Theater in Pittsburgh. She was the education director at the company and formerly taught at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
  • North Carolina Dance Theatre named Wilson Middle School dance teacher Cherise Hill as Educator of the Year. The Dance Champion of the Year was posthumously awarded to Villa Heights Elementary School principal and Dance Theatre’s Education Committee member James Aiken, who passed away in March. Carol Owen, executive director of East Learning Community, also received a Dance Champion Award.


In Memoriam: John Goding 1958-2009

John Goding, The Washington Ballet’s ballet master, died of a pulmonary embolism while vacationing in Florida this past July. Goding served the company for more than 30 years.
As a featured dancer with TWB from the 1970s through 1998, Goding performed leading roles created for him by Choo-San Goh, TWB’s first artist-in-residence. He choreographed numerous works for the company including Danzon, Mysteries and Rhapsody in Swing. In 1998, he was named ballet master.
The company has set up an e-mail account, rememberingjgoding@washingtonballet.org, for anyone who wishes to share memories of Goding. They will be passed on to his family.

—TK

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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