European classical ballet, American modern dance and traditional West African dance will come together in front of a class of Yalies on Wednesday morning.
Emily Coates ’06 and West African dancer Locina Coulibaly will debut their new ballet to students in World Performance, this semester’s DeVane Lecture Course, taught by Theater Studies professor Joseph Roach. Tentatively titled “Duet,” the work is part of the World Performance Project, a program of classes and workshops that use dance and theater performances as texts for research.
“Since this is the world debut of ‘Duet,’ I don’t know what it looks like,” Roach said. “I’ll have to be responding to it as it happens, viva voce.”
Coates and Coulibaly are highly acclaimed dancers with very different backgrounds.
Coates enrolled in her first dance class when she was five. Growing up, she studied American ballet and American modern dance. She performed for six years with the New York City Ballet, eventually going on to perform three duets with ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov. After that, she decided to go back to school, and in 2006 she graduated cum laude with an English degree from Yale.
Lacina Coulibaly learned to dance in his home country of Burkina Faso, a West African nation once controlled by French colonialists. Coulibaly trained in both European classical ballet and traditional West African dance.
When his Burkina Faso-based company, Kongo Ba Teria, won an international competition in 2001, it began a world tour that eventually landed Coulibaly a teaching job at Brown University. It was there that he met Coates, who was enrolled in his class.
“Working with Lacina in his class, I realized that he would be someone I could collaborate with,” Coates said.
The collaboration did not take place for another two years, however. Upon graduating from Yale, Roach hired Coates to serve as artistic director of the WPP, which he had just begun with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Traveling throughout Europe and the United States, Coates helped Roach recruit performers for the project’s first year. When the WPP reached its second year, Coates and Roach recruited Coulibaly to teach a course in West African dance.
Coates and Coulibaly quickly decided to work together on a performance for the WPP, Coates said.
Once it began, the collaboration was neither easy nor straightforward. Because they came from such different traditions, the two dancers had to work on developing new lines of communication.
“At the beginning, we just talked about the ideas we wanted to get at,” Coulibaly said. “Then we improvised around those ideas, just trying things out. Eventually we began thinking about the idea of support, each of us working on how to accept the other artist.”
Coates also emphasized the importance of discussion in the performance’s development.
“We talked about the differences in our upbringings and then examined how those differences were showing up in the studio work we did,” Coates said. “We went from ideas to dance and then back, trying to see what our dance could reveal about our different selves.”
Coates said this back-and-forth interaction between analysis and performance was a key part of the World Performance Project.
“That kind of creative and intellectual microcosm is what it’s all about,” she said.
In his lecture preceding Wednesday’s performance, Roach will attempt to prepare his students to understand “Duet” on both an artistic and an intellectual level.
In Roach’s course, dance and theater are treated as texts alongside books and films. Roach’s title in the World Performance Project is “principal investigator,” and he said he sees performances as moving laboratories.
“I want to talk about how the artists use energy and what energy means to their work,” Roach said. “We’ll also talk to the artists about transition — how they incorporate it, how they maybe don’t incorporate it.”
To further prepare for Wednesday’s performance, students in Roach’s class will read “Kinesthetic Empathies and the Politics of Compassion” by Susan Leigh Foster and “Immobile Legs, Stalled Words: Psychoanalysis and Moving Deaths” by Peggy Phelan.
The readings can be abstract and difficult, and some students say such a rigorously intellectual approach to art is at times misguided.
“Dealing with the highly intellectual stuff is definitely the hardest part of the class,” said Joel Knopf ’09, a student enrolled in Roach’s course. “Sometimes I feel that we’re trying to apply overly academic theories to very live art and that in doing so, we don’t really do justice to what we’re looking at.”
Wednesday’s performance will take place at the Yale Center for British Art.