When Ivan Pulinkala was preparing for his interview at Kennesaw State University to create the school's first dance program, he figured the whole thing would be a lark, at best. After all, the New Delhi–born choreographer had just gotten his green card, which meant he could teach anywhere, and Kennesaw, Georgia (a half-hour outside of Atlanta), wasn't his first choice as a location. But after doing a scan of collegiate dance in Georgia, he began to change his mind. "I thought, 'Wow, if someone starts a big dance program at a public institution, the market's wide open,'" says Pulinkala. "There were some good programs, like Emory University, but they were niche—private and expensive."
You can probably guess what happened next: He accepted the position, excited by the challenge of starting a dance program from scratch. "There were no buildings, no faculty, no curriculum," he says. "It was a leap of faith." Now, nearly 14 years later, he's happy to report that Kennesaw houses the largest college dance program in Georgia, with 110 majors (and 6 full-time and 10 part-time faculty, 3 staff members and 2 accompanists).
"The university has really supported my vision," says Pulinkala. The main tenet of that vision has been to consistently keep Georgia-bred dancers in mind—he credits the program's growth and success to the unique opportunities KSU offers, including a dance study-abroad program in Israel, intensive production training and a brand-new performance venue built specifically for dance.
From the Ground Up
Pulinkala's hunch that Georgia would benefit from a state-school dance program proved correct. "It grew faster than I expected—a function of the need and demand in the region. By building this program, we were able to attract and retain some of our most talented dancers in Georgia." The program is now highly selective: Well over 100 students audition every year, with only about 25 to 30 accepted.
At the start, Pulinkala—who began his professional career in musical theater and studied intensively at the Paul Taylor School in New York City—says he had only his choreography to attract students. "So that's what I put out there," he says. His plan worked—and made him something of a celebrity on the American College Dance Association scene. The work he brought to ACDA's annual Southeastern regional conference has been selected for the biannual national gala three successive times—meaning for six years in a row—nearly half of the program's existence.
Pulinkala's choreography has afforded him another unique opportunity—one that's had ripple effects for his students, too. Six years ago, the cultural attaché from the Israeli consulate saw his work and arranged for him to visit Israel, where he choreographed on the Israel Ballet, Fresco Dance Company and Batsheva dancer Ido Tadmor. With each successive annual trip, Pulinkala began to develop a relationship with Batsheva, Israel's premiere contemporary dance company. Three years ago, he launched a weeklong summer study-abroad opportunity for KSU dancers. "They get to take Gaga classes every day; they study Batsheva rep; they get to interact with the dancers; they've even met Ohad [Naharin, the famous former artistic director]," he says. The summer program has also spurred an important connection between KSU and Israeli contemporary dance. "We've brought in a lot of Israeli choreographers to choreograph on our students and work with them," says Pulinkala. "They get an experience of contemporary dance from one of its epicenters in the world."
In 2017 KSU's Dance Theater opened, the only dance-specific theater in the greater Atlanta region. Modeled after The Joyce Theater in New York, it has 450 seats, a sprung marley floor and state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems. Pulinkala's vision went beyond creating a beautiful space for the KSU dancers to perform in—he wanted it to be a Southeast performance hub for major dance companies. So far, he's brought in Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, SpellBound (a contemporary ballet troupe from Italy), Los Angeles' BODYTRAFFIC and Philadelphia's BalletX. Each visiting company is asked to hold a master class. "The students get to work with the dancers or the choreographers while they're here, and that's added great value to our program," says Pulinkala.
When he started the program, Pulinkala made a rule that no outside professionals would run tech for the department's shows. "That forced us to train our students to be stage managers, light-board operators and sound-board operators," he says. Six years ago, the department hired a full-time staff member as the resident lighting designer and production manager, offering students an even more detailed study of dance production and stage management. In addition to running light and sound, dance majors hang lighting (even using an electric lift to focus the lights), lay dance floors, hang theater curtains and backdrops and operate a fly rail system. "As a result of that," says Pulinkala, "our students are working across the country—not just as dancers and choreographers, but in production arenas."
Despite the obvious success Pulinkala has had with KSU, he's quick to share credit with his peers and gratitude for the freedom KSU offered him 14 years ago. "I believe that the health of any program is definitely rooted in a lot of hands being a part of it," he says.