Dance lab takes the stage

Yale Dance Theater dancers act as researchers, investigating the synthesis of cultural forms in Wilson’s work.
Yale Dance Theater dancers act as researchers, investigating the synthesis of cultural forms in Wilson’s work. Photo by Yale.

In one Yale laboratory, experiments are performed on the researchers by the researchers themselves.

Today, the first half of Yale Dance Theater’s semester-long spring 2013 project will culminate in “Reggie Wilson Showings,” two lecture presentations that will feature Reggie Wilson — a critically acclaimed choreographer — and 16 undergraduate members of YDT. During the presentations, Wilson will describe to the audience the derivation of different aspects of his choreography in conjunction with YDT’s performance of his work. The presentations will demonstrate YDT’s focus on movement literacy in the hopes of informing the Yale and greater arts communities of the intellectual relevancy of dance, said Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11, YDT faculty director.

“Other universities license choreography,” Coates said. “We bring choreography and choreographers into our dance laboratory and develop ways of researching it and writing about it.”

YDT was established as an extracurricular group in 2006 as a practice-based arts research initiative. Linked to the dance studies curriculum in the theater studies major, YDT aims to invent and experiment with research methods to understand the historical basis of choreography. As researchers of Reggie Wilson’s choreography this year, YDT students have investigated the synthesis of cultural forms — references to the African diaspora, Moses, Zora Neal Hurston, the 1960s pedestrian movement, classical ballet and even fractal geometry — within Wilson’s dances.

“His work is very much about the physical experience of doing it — letting your body do its thing,” said Elena Light ’13, a student coordinator of the spring 2013 project and a dancer in the presentation. “He scrunches up his face and says, ‘I’m thinking very hard about doing a big jump,’ but that’s not doing the jump.”

Light said being physically engaged with Wilson’s works instead of researching them through video or text allowed her to gain a broader, more informed perspective that aided her in writing about his choreography.

In addition to dancing Wilson’s works as research, it is required of YDT members to compose blog posts after each rehearsal that translate learned movements into writing. Students are challenged to connect kinesthetic and linguistic practices by translating movement without losing the vitality of the dance, Coates said.

“They are mutually exclusive practices that are at the same time mutually informative,” Coates said.

Caroline Andersson ’15, a YDT dancer in the spring 2013 project, said writing about dance allows her to reflect deliberately about her performance in class. She said that since the focus of Wilson’s work is on the body and not the mind, on doing rather than thinking, the dancers are not considering the past or the future — and therefore are not actively forming connections between the different movements they learn. She added that writing about past learning has allowed her to connect motifs and themes, helping her improve in the next class.

“I wouldn’t necessarily think about the overarching themes and ideas that the choreography is trying to impart, if I didn’t reflect on it, because I get really caught up on details,” Andersson said. “Sometimes [details] aren’t useful for dance because you have to see the big picture.”

Light said that it is imperative for scholars of dance studies to write about dance. She said blogging about choreography provides her with an understanding of Wilson’s work that she would not have acquired through solely dancing it. She compared practicing dance as research to performing Shakespeare to gain a deeper understanding of the text; instead of maintaining the critically distant perspective that is so widely practiced at Yale, being kinesthetically involved in the study of a work provides a unique outlook.

“There are ideas that can only be accessed through embodying them,” Coates said.

Coates said YDT’s practice-based research in dance is innovative among United States liberal arts institutions, and that the dance world has thus come to view it as an exciting movement of ideas and research. Andersson and Light said they hope this external attention, when combined with increasing prevalence on campus, will garner support for the expansion of the dance studies course offerings and faculty. Both women added that Yale dancers need more than what Coates and YDT can provide — Coates’ approach to dance education proves the potential for an amazing dance program at Yale, they said.

“We need a more consistent course offering and a more consistent voice in the faculty,” Light said.

The lecture presentations will be held at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Morse-Stiles Crescent Theater.

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