Hitting Her Marks

Hold me closer, Yale dancer.
Hold me closer, Yale dancer. // Karen Tian

Midway through my interview with dance studies professor and director of the Yale Dance Theater, Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11, I realized that I’d become distracted by her hands. A trained dancer, Coates seemed to react to every question physically. Sometimes she smiled, or inched forward in a moment of enthusiasm, but usually it was her hands — marching in the empty space in front of her, hitting marks to the rhythm of her voice and then pausing in her lap to rest on her half-full bottle of orange juice.

In fact, distracted probably isn’t the right word for the experience, because looking back, I realized that each of her movements was in the service of some point.

She took a significant pause before answering my first question (“How would you define dance studies?”). The fingers of her right hand were extended, flexed against the edge of her comfy chair. I imagined a plié.

“Let me tell you four goals for the dance studies curriculum,” she said. Her hand shot up, palm facing me, index finger raised. Number one.

* * *

Coates gets to set these goals because she is the only full-time dance studies faculty member, a discipline that, as of now, is not recognized as a concentration within the larger field of theater studies. Besides her, there are only three other part-time faculty in her department. Between them, they offer only seven or eight courses a year, but that doesn’t mean they think small.

“As you can imagine,” Coates said, “any art form has its poorer examples — cliché, riddles — and simultaneously innovation, fresh vision and originality. One goal with the curriculum is to share exactly what that is.”

To that end, seminars such as “The History of Dance” (THST 380, taught by Coates herself) require students to both write formal analyses of choreography and to work through movement exercises. You can’t understand genius, the logic goes, without feeling it.

And this feeds into Coates’ second goal, to shift culture toward a focus on “process” over “performance.” Students in the Yale Dance Theater (YDT), for instance, write journal entries on their discoveries after six-hour weeks of rehearsal, reflecting on what the practice has taught them.

“Anyone here teaching courses related to the arts will inevitably share this goal,” Coates joked. “Process is everything.”

To students of dance theory, the act of recording that process becomes something else — research. How do bodies respond to choreography differently? What do dancers feel as they perform? Often, this sort of information is not written down,

The YDT aims to fight that trend. In spring 2011, when Coates founded the troupe, they reconstructed choreography from videos of Twyla Tharp’s 1971 work, “Eight Jelly Rolls.” In 2012, they worked with members of Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe to consider the legacy of the famous avant-garde choreographer, who died in 2009. This year, they are studying brand-new material from two choreographers: Reggie Wilson and Akram Khan.

Aren Vastola ’14, one of the student coordinators for the YDT, pointed out that for scholars of dance, the records that members of the troupe keep — both of their choreography and impressions during performances — count as “primary source material.”

“This blurs the distinction you often find between theory and practice,” Vastola said.

For those of you keeping track, teaching the University to broaden its research agenda and include studies like this counts as Coates’ goal number three.

* * *

Before leaping, so to speak, into goal number four, I’d like to pause for a moment and mention that, during spring break, Coates visited CERN, the world-famous particle physics laboratory outside of Geneva, Switzerland. CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider, which is responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson — a particle thought to be the source of all the mass in the universe.

But Coates wasn’t leading a double life as a research scientist. Instead, she was conducting her own kind of study, what she called a proto-version of one of her current projects, “Discovering the Higgs Boson through Physics, Dance, and Photography.” Hold your breath, it involves getting physicists to dance.

“For once I wasn’t the only embarrassed one in the room,” Sarah Demers, a Yale particle physics professor who went to CERN to collaborate with Coates on the project, said.

Demers is not a dancer, but she knew the experience of working with Coates well. It all started in 2011, when Bill Segraves, Yale’s associate dean for science education, came up with the idea of developing an interdisciplinary class in the sciences that catered to nonscience majors, but fulfilled the College’s quantitative reasoning and science distribution requirements. Demers and Coates paired up to take the lead on the project.

In the course, which was dubbed “The Physics of Dance,” Demers assigned problem sets and gave lectures, while Coates taught choreography and pushed people to think beyond the mathematics of their movements — as they would in a dance studies class.

“In my mind, the students would just become the demonstration,” Demers said, acknowledging that there were moments when, for instance, people fell to demonstrate the mechanics behind the center of mass. “But that’s not at all the course we taught.”

Since then, both Demers and Coates have made a commitment to working together, and to investigating what research looks like in both their fields. This partnership is what took them to CERN, and to some extent, explains the rest of the dancing physicists, with whom Demers and Coates applied the concepts they had workshopped in a classroom at Yale. Physicists were taught movement exercises to mimic the dynamic features of the particles, while Coates caught up on the literature of the breakthrough.

The Higgs boson particle is infinitesimally small, and due to its size, it acts in ways fundamentally different from anything you could understand with a human eye or a simple computer simulation. Inspired by this challenge, Demers and Coates received funding from the Greater New Haven Arts Council for a project that would attempt to find the best possible way to communicate the Higgs discovery. Along the way, they teamed with Kike Calvo, a photographer, who gave them another way to conceptualize the particle’s unique features. The final part of the collaboration has yet to be fully defined (though it will take place in New Haven). It’s also not Demers and Coates’ only collaboration; they are several chapters into a textbook titled “The Physics of Dance.”

“We’re having too much fun to be done,” admitted Demers. “And we’ve learned too much to be done.”

The expansion of cross-disciplinary involvement rounds out Emily Coates’ list of goals for the dance studies curriculum as number four.

* * *

Coates has the dubious privilege of being able to set these sorts of goals due to Yale’s traditionally limited set of dance offerings. And, even while Coates has successfully helped expand dance’s presence, tradition has a way of being sticky.

“Dance, particularly in the Ivy League, has been dismissed as P.E. for a long time,” Vastola pointed out.

Amymarie Bartholemew ’13, who acts as the other student coordinator for the YDT, agreed, adding that dance is often seen as “feminine,” a sentiment that’s a remnant of Yale’s former all-male history.

This trend can be seen in other Ivies as well. Students at Columbia University who wish to study dance, for instance, can only find classes in the subject taught at Barnard. Harvard and Princeton both offer classes in dance, and their dance curricula remain about the same size as Yale’s — limited, that is.

Bartholemew pointed out that by the spring of her senior year, she has taken all but one or two of the dance studies classes that Yale offers. Elena Light ’13, another member of the YDT, echoed Bartholemew’s sentiment, and mentioned that due to the guest lecturer status of many dance professors, great classes aren’t always offered again.

“If you miss it, you’ve missed it,” Light said, joking that a great course could be “the one class that doesn’t fit in my schedule.”

Light, an history of art major, wrote an opinion piece for the News this fall on these sorts of problems with Yale’s dance studies offerings. In it, she also cited a larger issue: Dance studies is not considered one of the College’s majors, or even a concentration within the Theater Studies Department. Prospective students with an interest in dance, in Light’s opinion, may not consider Yale because of this seeming lack of support.

But while some dance students may express doubts, Coates is unfazed. This year, she admits, many courses have had more students than they are designed to hold, but this just “builds momentum that leads to the possibility of expansion.”

On this point, everyone seems to agree. Both Bartholemew and Vastola spoke to increasing interest and enthusiasm from members of the freshman class, and their hopes for the continued growth of both dance studies and the YDT. Light agreed, pointing out that it’s time for the University to add another lecture to the curriculum, and add a full-time faculty member.

Coates admitted that though she has experience with many different styles of dance, she herself is not an expert in a critical theory approach, something that could be fixed by the addition of a dance historian to the faculty.

Light, on the other hand, got more to the point.

“Emily has literally changed what I plan on doing after college,” she said. “I want to make sure that these changes are continued, and that [the administration] hire more Emilys.”

* * *

Considering the unbelievable trajectory that led Emily Coates to a position on the Yale faculty, Light’s suggestion may be easier said than done.

In 1992, the same year that Coates was applying to colleges — “I got into my top choice, Princeton,” she laughs — she received an offer from the New York City Ballet, and “you can’t put that off.”

She left the company after dancing for six years, and decided to transition into contemporary dance. In 1998 she received an invitation from Mikhail Baryshnikov to join his dance company, the White Oak Dance Project — another offer that you can’t refuse. She danced with them for four years.

After such a high-flying career, Coates decided to return to her “Ivy League dream.” Putting some of the course credits she accumulated in her off-time from her professional career to use, Coates transferred to Yale and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in two and half years of full-time study.

In 2006, as soon as Coates graduated from Yale College, she was hired by Joseph Roach, head of the Theater Studies Department, to oversee the dance studies curriculum, which was created at the same time. Since then, she has also found time to complete a master’s degree in American studies.

By the end of our interview, I thought that I had exhausted every aspect of Emily Coates’ career. I told her so. She laughed and told me that I forgot one crucial point.

“I still perform,” she said, “which is super important to me as a professor.”

Since September 2007, she has collaborated and performed choreography with Lacina Coulibaly (at Coates’ invitation, Coulibaly has also taught classes in West African dance at Yale). In February, she revived a project with Christopher Janney called “Heartbeat.” As our interview ends, Coates tells me I should look it up.

In the performance, Coates dances in flowing red pants while the a cappella group The Persuasions sing in the background. Throughout the performance, Coates is plugged into a heart-rate monitor, and her heartbeat is amplified through a speaker system. She twists and twirls; her body folds and unfolds.

I can’t put it into words, but you know exactly what’s going on.

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