Liz Claire discovered experimental modern dance during a concert at Washington University in St. Louis, where the audience was invited to lob golf balls at choreographer and performer David Dorfman. The experience inspired her. Now, nearly a decade and a half later, as the founder and director of a summer study program focused on dance and design, Claire gives students tools to create work that, like Dorfman’s piece, mix choreography and objects—but with a distinctly European twist.
The program, MADE (Movement Arts and Design in Europe) in France, is a monthlong workshop that sends 18 students to Paris and the countryside of Mélisey to explore notions of European dance theater. They study art, culture and technique with European artists, and, guided by dancers, designers and composers, they create choreography for a final performance. The workshop, created and run by Washington University, helps students effectively combine choreography, sound, costuming and design.
It was the mid-’90s when Claire saw the piece by Dorfman, who is a Washington University graduate and now heads the dance department at Connecticut College. At the time, Claire was studying literature and history. But she was so intrigued by the performance, she decided to minor in dance and went on to perform with Dorfman’s company, a French troupe called Au Cul du Loup, and PersonWidrigDanceTheater. Along the way, she fell in love with the European notion of dance theater, and after earning a PhD at NYU in Performance Studies in 2004, she approached Washington University with the idea of MADE in France.
The program consists of two parts. For the first 10 days, the students research French culture in Paris. They go to museums, attend contemporary performances and study design and dramaturgy for dance. They sketch and take notes on paintings, sculptures, furniture, costumes and decor.
“Progressively with each new site and performance, the students begin to identify patterns and design elements that they repeatedly seek out and/or reject,” says Claire. “Some are drawn to strong bold lines and contrasting colors, or ironic juxtapositions of soft delicate things in dangerous situations.” This field research helps students identify dramaturgical elements that will guide them once they begin their creative process.
Part two of the program takes place in the small village of Mélisey at an 18th century refurbished farmhouse owned by Dominique Montain and Henri Ogier, co-artistic directors of Au Cul du Loup. It contains two dance studios, a design workshop, a cinema and accommodations. Guided by a group of European artists as well as professors from Washington University and Connecticut College, the students spend the next three weeks using their Paris research to create.
In Mélisey, the days are filled with classes. MADE in France faculty have so far come from France, Italy, Germany and the U.S. “It has an international festival atmosphere,” says Claire. The morning begins with dance technique taught by Connecticut College dance professor Lisa Race and Washington University’s David Marchant. This is followed by a master class with a European artist, such as aerial dance artists Enrico Tedde and Virginia Heinen. During the afternoons, students study design. In 2008 and 2009, design classes were taught by costume designer Bonnie Kruger. In 2010, when the program’s focus will be music, the class will be on sound design and taught by French composer David Lesser.
Students also have daily opportunities to show their work and get feedback. “The professors collectively teach a one-hour session during which the student groups show what they’ve worked on—choreography, objects, costumes, music—in the past 24 hours,” says Claire.
MADE in France is limited to 18 students, which, says Claire, allows for a “close-knit community.” Its enrollment is open to students across the U.S. The 2009 attendees came from a variety of schools, including Yale, Rice, Brown and George Mason Universities. And while the majority of attendees are dancers, a few are design students who collaborate with the choreographers and study dance alongside them.
Noelle Bohaty attended MADE in France in 2008 just after graduating from Washington University with majors in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology and dance. She says the program taught her how to collaborate effectively with designers. For her MADE in France project, Bohaty did copious research. But once in the studio, she had to meld her project with that of the designer with whom she was teamed.
In fact, Bohaty was so intrigued by the design element that she spent most of her time in France absorbing costume and technical ideas and left much of the choreographic exploration for later. “A lot of programs help you improve technique, but not your intellect about dance,” says Bohaty.
“Liz and her crew push you to think about what you’re doing, about why you’re doing it and how you can effectively communicate the ideas and images in your mind.” DT
Emily Macel, former associate editor of Dance Magazine, lives and writes in Washington, DC.
Photo by Leah Varga, courtesy of MADE in France