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John Selya, Former Twyla Tharp Dancer, Brings His Passion to High-Schoolers in New Mexico

Selya in Movin' Out; by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the photographer

"I had no idea you could do that!" says John Selya to Taylor Johnson-French, a freshman who has just executed a fiercely intentional and riveting passage of improv. Zooming like an arrow down a hallway lined with giant, neon coral sculptures, she looked to be seeking a target with her focus and the precise lines and angles of her limbs.

"I didn't either!" Johnson-French responds.

This exchange is one of many moments of empowerment and facilitated self-discovery from Selya's first semester as the dance chair at New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe, a public, statewide high school, where the arts disciplines (visual arts, music, theater and dance) are taught in daily three-hour intensives that follow the academic day. Founded as a charter school in 2010, the program is open to all students in New Mexico who qualify through a blind, competitive audition or portfolio admissions process.


Since taking the helm of the dance department, Selya has introduced a program of stylistic variety. In addition to ballet, students are exposed to subgenres of hip hop and various styles of contemporary and modern through the study of repertory. There are currently 23 students in the program, reflecting a range of previous dance exposure that includes everything from conservatory training to local studios to avid YouTube video watching.

"I want to empower my students to grow into dancers with a sense of artistic independence," says Selya. "When they graduate, I want them to be able to contribute in a professional context with confidence. Choreographers and directors these days will sit back and say, 'Show me what you have.' Dancers need to be able to bring their own strengths and ideas to the floor. By exposing the students to more stylistic variety I hope to help them recognize and cultivate their unique talents."

Trained at School of American Ballet, Selya danced with American Ballet Theatre for 11 years (at the invitation of Mikhail Baryshnikov) before joining Twyla Tharp Dance. He has been choreographing for his entire career and has received multiple awards and nominations.

He eagerly participated in outreach opportunities when they arose during his years with Twyla and went on to conduct residencies at LaGuardia High School, Youth America Grand Prix and university programs, including Princeton and Yale. He moved to New Mexico after the school recruited him and is currently receiving mentorship from longtime ballet instructor Sheila Rozann in working with adolescents.

"The transition from performing to teaching was really hard," he says. "As a dancer, you learn to trust and act on your instincts. To be an effective teacher you need a much longer perspective on what your students need in order to grow. It's a whole different skill set and way of thinking about the art of dance."


Photo by Sage Morris-Greene, courtesy of New Mexico School for the Arts

Selya watches his students perform at Meow Wolf, an interactive arts installation in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Selya Rehearsing Tharp's Come Fly With Me

​Photo by Gene Carl Feldman, courtesy of Come Fly With Me

Selya in Movin' Out

Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the photographer

The culminating performance of the fall semester took place at Meow Wolf, a unique fantasy world/interactive narrative arts installation in Santa Fe. The show was the result of a monthlong workshop in immersive performance. Students developed characters with complex backstories and movement vocabularies. Their performance was semi-improvisational as the dancers responded to each other and to visitors in the exhibition space.

"The Meow Wolf experience helped me get over a fear I've had for a while," says senior Violet Briggs. "I can feel a change in my attitude toward how I should be approaching dance and how I should take it in—not to fear it as a perfectionist but to take it seriously in a positive way. This realization has been a long time coming."

"I have felt myself grow so much as a dancer and had so many new experiences. It feels like I'm creating a new future for myself," says junior Magnolia Matishak. "I've started to choreograph material for myself and to feel more confident in what I show. It's helping me to find myself as a dancer."

This semester has been a serious challenge and growth experience for everyone," says Selya. "One of my biggest takeaways has been to give the dancers as many performance experiences as I can. When I first came in, I wasn't sure how much to do that. Without knowing them better, I was initially reluctant to push them in situations they weren't ready for. Now I realize they need every opportunity I can give them to grow as performers. They're rising to everything I've thrown at them. It's my job to challenge them and make sure they have the support they need along the way."

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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.

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