A Chance to move | Thinking on your toes

Most Yale courses don’t have a dress code. Then again, most students spend class sitting at a desk. But for the students of Emily Coates ’06, tights and a leotard is expected.

On a Wednesday afternoon, 12 girls enter a pristine studio in the newly-minted Broadway Rehearsal Lofts. They spend the first hour on a contemporary ballet barre, rejecting what Coates calls “bolt upright torsos” and instead embracing “flexibility of the spine.”

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She emphasizes fluidity, a thread of movement throughout, as they develop the “kinesthetic foundation” for Twyla Tharp’s 1971 piece “Torelli,” which they will perform at the end of the semester.

“It’s in the details,” Coates reminds the dancers.

For the final half hour, the dancers become students, moving outside the piece to discuss it critically. Using the Tharp biography “Howling Near Heaven” as the foundation of the day’s discussion, they interpret the piece in the context of its creator. Much like analyzing a poem or painting or play, they debate Tharp’s intentions and the work’s critical and audience reception. All the while, the physical movements linger.

“Tharp democratizes the scene giving each dancer his or her own movements. She doesn’t dictate where the audience should look,” Zara Kessler ’12 says.

Coates’ seminar, “Advanced Dance Repertory,” one of a record three dance courses offered this semester in the Theater Studies department, illustrates a new recognition of dance’s academic capabilities.

“It is a given that dance is an intellectual pursuit,” Coates says.

But for the University, Coates’ assumption has been anything but a given. In fact, the place for arts majors in a liberal arts university poses difficulties. It’s hard to compare painting in a studio to reading in a library, and the inherent subjectivity only raises more eyebrows. And while Yale has boasted a long-standing commitment to the arts, dance never found its footing.

Considering the existing difficulty of incorporating arts into academics, is it possible for dance — the forgotten art — to ever find its way?

Finding a home

Coates would respond to these questions with a fervent yes, and she has made it her mission to prove it.

Before matriculating to Yale at 29, Coates danced professionally with the New York City Ballet and with the likes of Tharp and Mikhail Baryshnikov. But she made a conscious decision to trade “thinking and moving” for education. Upon her arrival in 2003, she was struck by the profound stillness of intellectual life, a shock for someone accustomed to always being on her feet.

And while pursuing her English degree, she knew something was missing.

During her senior year, Coates faced a dilemma: Should she take an anthropology course or venture into New York City to complete an independent study with the legendary contemporary choreographer Merce Cunningham?

With one word — “Cunningham” — Joseph Roach, Coates’ senior faculty advisor, transformed her Yale experience. She now had permission to think on her feet.

Later that year, Roach received a Mellon grant to fund the World Performance Project — an attempt to realign the relationship between performing arts and scholarly research — and invited Coates to serve as artistic director. And in fall 2006, Coates joined the Yale faculty. Her goal: “To teach a whole set of ideas and knowledge that students can’t access from a chair.” Dance found its home in the Yale curriculum for the first time.

Two years later, with three new performance spaces to boast and a record-breaking three dance courses in the Theater Studies department, one taught by Coates and the other two by visiting professors, dance is finally gaining momentum — and respect — at Yale.

“[Coates’] energy, her classical training, her receptivity to avant-garde, global and popular dance forms as well, combined with her rigor as a teacher have in two years already got Yale moving and shaking as a dance place among the Ivies,” said Toni Dorfman, Director of Undergraduate Theater Studies.

This semester’s “Advanced Dance Repertory” focuses on two American choreographers, or, in Coates’ words, “artist intellectuals,” Tharp and Yvonne Rainer. The course looks at dance history “through practical discovery and execution of the choreography.” Entirely different from being a spectator, it is a unique chance for students to inhabit their academic understandings of the art, Coates said.

For Rachel Plattus ’09, who also took Coates’ first class, “Dance Theater,” an academic approach gave movement a new significance.

“It was really exciting because one of the frustrating things about dancing growing up was the fact that so few people approached it as an academic discipline and an intellectual pursuit,” she said. “I have a new appreciation of what dance and movement can be even after having danced for so many years.”

For non-dance aficionados, a dance class may seem like a “fun class” or a “gut,” a time to twirl about without the pressures of midterms and finals and reading and essays. This impression is false, Plattus says, referring to the “demanding and rigorous” nature of the choreography itself and the work required to master it.

When Kessler, the only freshman in the course, tells her peers about the “Repertory,” she garners mixed responses. Some “wish they had known Yale offered dance,” and others scoff at the idea of taking a dance class. These skeptics are shocked to learn that in addition to perfecting technique, the course requires up to 100 pages of reading each week, a final performance, a final paper and several shorter assignments.

The practice-theory model

The nature of this work is comparable to many of Yale’s arts courses. For students majoring in fine arts, film, theater, architecture and music, analysis always complements the creative process.

“Scholarship and research inform performance and performance informs scholarship,” School of Music Dean Robert Blocker said.

Balancing participant and spectator, dance courses also abide by the practice-theory model. Like any other artistic practice, they are couched in a historical, social and cultural context. In class, Coates follows a three-pronged understanding: internal, visual and analytical.

“That journey is an intellectual journey that plays out in the moving body. One could not possibly understand it from merely watching a DVD of a performance that happened 20 years ago,” she said.

Movement is as central to a holistic understanding of dance as experiments are to the sciences.

“For me, dancing in class parallels a chemistry lab for a student of science, or a problem set for a math major,” said Theater Studies major and dancer Jacob Liberman ’10. “Arranging the elements of our dances and interacting with my fellow dancers provide the laboratory for learning and understanding. Dance, as with science, requires interaction as well as observation.”

The same can be said for visual artists. According to Sam Messer, associate dean of the School of Art, students must first learn the grammar, the “building blocks,” in preparation for independent research. Except in arts, this doesn’t take place in the library with a book, but rather in the studio with visual tools, he said.

In a 1958 article titled “Art and General Education” published in the Yale Alumni Magazine, the renowned Bauhaus artist Josef Albers spoke of the advantages of cultivating artistic talent in the university setting.

“At Yale, the student is taught to observe, to analyze, to formulate verbally the meaning of what he sees. Training the student to understand a visual experience and to communicate the nature of this experience to others is comparable to similar activities in the study of music, poetry, philosophy or history,” wrote Albers, who headed Yale’s Department of Design at the time.

Sixty years later, Albers’ words still resonate.

“The correlation between arts and scholarship has been a cornerstone of my Yale training and education,” Liberman said. “Through what I learned in my courses, performance has become a multifaceted form of academic exploration.”

But, unlike the other arts that abide by the practice-theory model, dance remains on the sidelines, left without a department and little formal acknowledgement in the academic world.

Perhaps the absence of a graduate dance program at Yale can account for this oversight in the undergraduate curriculum — art, music, theater, architecture and film studies benefit from the shared resources and professors of its graduate counterparts. For Dudley Andrew, a professor of film studies, the undergraduate curriculum flourished with the creation of a graduate program in 2000, 14 years after Film Studies became a major.

Lacking the vote of confidence provided by a professional school, dance can solely rely on the energy and support of the World Performance Project.

“Through this new curriculum that is forming at Yale, these lessons can only expand,” Liberman said. “This pedagogy, one that is so specific to Yale, has, and continues to produce some of the finest artists working today. It is my hope that dance will be given the same support as the other arts at Yale.”

A battle to fight

Support from students aside, dance still has a battle to fight. It has yet to persuade the non-believers of its academic legitimacy.

Music uses standard notation and art uses tangible relics but study of dance can only rely on descriptions, videos and photos to analyze the performance and the piece, Anna Goddu ’09, a dancer in Coates’ class, explained.

“I think that many traditional academics are a little uncomfortable with the lack of textual or tangible ‘evidence’ of the work,” she speculated. “But for me, that’s why it’s so important that people studying dance actually try the dance.”

But for most of Yale’s history, dance has been relegated to the extracurricular world — a world of 15 dance groups and some classes on the fifth floor of Payne Whitney.

Dancers, according to Blocker, can’t mature with the longevity of the other arts because they have a time frame in their careers. He also warned of the “danger in diluting core studies in a bachelor of arts degree,” suggesting that dancers may focus too exclusively on technique and performance.

When hypothesizing the neglect of dance, some dancers also raised the issue of gender.

“Dance is a form that has been dominated by women,” said M.I.T. visiting professor Thomas DeFrantz ’80, who is teaching Concert Dance in the Africanist Tradition this semester. “It has been thought of as decorative. That is why dance is taking so long to arrive.”

Many of the dance groups are disproportionately female, Plattus remarked. But she added that when the program grows, those involved will diversify.

Issues of longevity and gender may always plague conversation about formal dance training, but Coates’ approach is cerebral. She focuses not only on the art of dance, but also on the study of that performance more broadly, echoing again the practice and theory paradigm.

Acting Dean Joseph Gordon GRD ’78 drew a distinction between performance and performance studies. Yale College does not have performance majors, he said.

“All of our arts majors are expected to be based on the study of history and theory, even as those programs appropriately include opportunities to practice and critique the creation or performance of student projects,” Gordon wrote in an e-mail. “If there were to be a dance major, it would certainly have to follow this pattern to gain the approval of the Yale College faculty.”

Gordon also spoke of Yale’s limited resources, a deep-seated complaint among dancers. He raised concerns over adequate faculty and facilities to augment the hypothetical dance studies program.

“What else will we not do at Yale — or not do as fully — in order to afford supporting dance as an academic subject? There are opportunity costs, as well as financial ones,” he said.

For dancers, this is precisely the problem.

“Yale doesn’t acknowledge dance as a category of activities,” said Ashley Douglas ’10, who serves as the executive director of The Alliance for Dance at Yale, an organization devoted to raising dance’s profile on campus.

Goddu unofficially joined ADAY to spearhead their campaign for acknowledgement. With the help of Roach and Coates, she created a petition to ignite conversation about lack of space and funding.

But for Coates, the issue is not only one of resources.

“Many reasons may boil down to this Cartesian mind-body split of Western thought, in which the body is devalued. It is conceptually separated as if that is accurate,” she said. “Those of us aiming to teach a practice-theory model argue otherwise. The mind is thinking. The mind is within the body. There is no separation. That is a core nugget that we are challenging.”

The belly of the beat

Though Coates’ initiative is certainly making great leaps, Yale is still playing catch-up.

The Harvard Dance Center opened in 2005 with a 4,100 sq. ft. dance studio and performance space, and Princeton offers a certificate program in Dance within the newly-launched Lewis Center for the Arts. Both universities include dance on the web; there is no mention of it on the Yale Arts Web site.

Back in the classroom, Coates asks Plattus to set the tempo by striking the side of her leg. She sets the “belly of the beat,” and the new studio, nestled on the third floor above Trailblazer, becomes the heart, pumping dance into academic life.

Amorphous for now, a dance curriculum is still searching for how it will be presented in Yale’s curriculum. Students and faculty have tossed around ideas. Some envision a performance studies major and others imagine an interdisciplinary track within the existing Theater Studies department.

“The Theater Studies Program in Yale College has to my mind one of the most subtly designed theater majors in this country: Its mixture of theory and practice, and its emphasis on the interplay between those two ways of knowledge, are precisely the point,” Dorfman says. “The dance program in Theater Studies fits right in.”

In her short time on the Yale faculty, Coates has attracted a dynamic cohort of visiting professors — from Burkina Faso choreographer Lacina Coulibaly to Reggie Wilson, a scholar and choreographer who leads his own Brooklyn-based dance company. Later in the semester, the Yale Repertory Theatre and the World Performance Project will host the first festival of international dance at Yale where Yasmeen Godder, Opiyo Okach and Rainer will “explore and explode” the frontiers of dance.

When asked if Yale might one day become a place where students could major in dance, Coates simply answered, “I hope so.”

This year less than 1 percent of students are enrolled in curricular dance classes, but it’s a budding group who refuse to believe in the mind-body split.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Really strong article on an important topic. And a note to the online editor: the bolded section headings look great. Keep doing that! I can finally read scene covers online!