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Tiffany Mills Offers a Fresh Perspective About Being a Guest Artist at Muhlenberg College

Photo by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of Tiffany MIlls Company

Guest artist residencies let college dancers explore new movement styles and interact with working professionals. But the students aren't the only ones who benefit from the experience. Visiting a university to teach and set work gives choreographers a unique chance to connect with the next generation of performers and creators. To get more insight into the perks—and challenges—a residency can offer, DT spoke to New York City–based choreographer Tiffany Mills about her time as Baker Artist-in-Residence at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.


Nuts and Bolts

Mills, who launched Tiffany Mills Company in 2000, has an extensive CV when it comes to college dance experience: alumna of the University of Oregon honors college (BA) and Ohio State University (MFA), with guest artist residencies at Temple University, Boston University, Kenyon College, Goucher College and Reed College, among other schools. "Residencies feed me in so many ways," she says. "I always come back feeling energized."

And Muhlenberg is almost a second home—she previously guest-taught there, from 2004 to 2006, and has returned a handful of times for lecture-demonstrations and workshops.

In October 2017, Mills' Baker residency featured an informal performance by her company and a Q&A that let students learn more about her work. Then, Mills spent three days teaching technique, partnering, composition and pedagogy. (The Baker grant also took the company to nearby DeSales University and the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts.) At Muhlenberg, the company was given time and studio space to work on a new piece, and students were invited to watch and give feedback. And finally, in four jam-packed rehearsal days, Mills restaged with the students her piece It Only Happens Once…Yesterday and Tomorrow.

Muhlenberg students perform Mills' "It Only Happens Once...Yesterday and Tomorrow." Photo by Matthew Wright, Fig Tree Photography, courtesy of Tiffany Mills Company

If it sounds like a whirlwind week, it was. But for Mills, the condensed time frame of a typical residency is part of the draw. "With my company, we might take a year or two to create a work," she explains. "At a college, we often have seven days or less. It's refreshing to see how quickly we can put something meaningful together."

Creative Process

"One current that runs through much of my work is human relationships—how we communicate with each other, or don't," Mills says. "I'm interested in the differences between people, so I always try to bring out the uniqueness within each dancer." She accomplishes this by having dancers generate their own material. She'll often assign a task or share an image to get the ball rolling. "Then," she says, "I'll edit their phrases, or I'll pick out interesting parts and have them explore those further."

The work she chose for Muhlenberg is one she's set several times before, including at Boston University and Temple University, at Seattle's Velocity Dance Center, and on the contemporary company 10 Hairy Legs. She's done the piece with all-female, all-male and mixed-gender casts, and with anywhere from 5 to 12 performers. "It Only Happens Once…Yesterday and Tomorrow is very versatile," Mills says. "It has some constants: It's always in three sections, it always starts with the same image, and there are a few landmarks along the way. But how it develops is unique to each version and each cast. We build the piece collaboratively."

Challenges

Mills was pleased to find that her Muhlenberg group seemed ready to handle everything she threw their way. "This cast was hungry," she says. "They arrived warmed up and ready. They took direction and ran with it. Unfortunately, that's not always the case." They were even able to spend the fourth rehearsal day cleaning and video taping, which meant Mills was able to head home confident in what they'd made together.

Still, leaving is one of the hardest parts of any residency. After her week at Muhlenberg, Mills wasn't able to return to check in with her cast, although she did Skype into a few rehearsals. "It's hard, as the creator, not to be there all the way to the end," she says. "I have to let the piece live on its own." Also, due to scheduling conflicts, she wasn't able to attend the performance. "One dancer got ill at dress rehearsal," she says, "so the cast downsized. Then, on opening night, the girl felt better and came back. The dancers had to deal with that curveball without me."

Perks

"My company is small—six dancers—and we know each other very well," Mills says. "When I do a residency, I'm getting fresh perspectives." She often comes home with new tools and imagery to bring to company rehearsals, as well as to her classes going forward. "I might have found a better way of teaching a certain partnering move, or I'll have had a spark of an idea that will eventually lead to a new piece," she explains. The push to work quickly also sometimes has lingering effects: "I'll walk into company rehearsals and say, 'Today, we're not going to talk so much. We're going to be efficient.'"

Aside from the impact residencies can have on her own artistic endeavors, Mills enjoys the sense of satisfaction that comes from watching dancers blossom. "College students are young and eager," she says. "They're curious. They're sponges. In only a week, you can see them grow."

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Music
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.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

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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