The University of Illinois Is Celebrating 50 Years of Dance

Photo by Natalie Fiol, courtesy of University of Illinois Dept. of Dance

This academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the dance department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In 1959, when the dance program was part of physical education, its head Margaret Erlanger invited Merce Cunningham for a four-month residency—the first of its kind on a university campus. Since then, U of I has been known for its vibrant dance programs, faculty, facility and innovation in the field. There is much to celebrate.

The stellar group of artists who comprise the program's full-time faculty frequently makes the news with their new projects and tours, honors such as the Bessie Award and publication of new books in the field. The staff list includes Cynthia Oliver, Tere O'Connor, Jan Erkert, Abby Zbikowski, C. Kemal Nance, Endalyn Taylor and Jennifer Monson, among others. This year visiting artist Nia Love heads to Illinois to share ideas from postmodern dance, West African dance and butoh.

On average, the U of I dance community totals nearly 100 people per year. There are 12 tenured and 3 nontenured faculty members, 3–5 adjuncts and 2 staff, 65 undergraduate students and 12 graduate students. Located in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the facility offers four state-of-the-art theaters and five studios. Plus, there is a Graduate Dance Center with a studio and lounge. The dance department's offerings include a BA, BFA, MFA and graduate minor; the 2018–19 academic year also launches a new yoga-certification program and musical-theater minor through the school of music.

Michelle Boulé with students.Photo by Natalie Fiol, courtesy of University of Illinois Dept. of Dance

Projects and performances throughout this 50th year bring together faculty members and graduates of the department to create and perform together on campus. The celebration kicked off in September with the presentation of the prestigious FAA Legacy Award to Michelle Boulé (BFA 1999). Coming up is February Dance, which features a unique pairing of four professors with alumni to collaborate as peers.

Boulé is a wonderful example of an Illinois alumna with a full and varied career in dance as a performer, choreographer, teaching artist and somatic practitioner. "U of I was a home for my self-discovery as a young artist, especially as someone who became deeply interested in somatic and healing practices and their intersection with my artistic work on all levels," she says. "Returning to receive the award, seeing my former teachers and being flooded with memories by walking into so many of the studios and buildings helped me register the extent to which that has been true."

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

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For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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