Courtesy Yale Dance Theater

This year, Yale Dance Theater will partner with the Urban Bush Women, a Brooklyn-based dance company, to develop an interdisciplinary project focused on the exploration of the self with particular emphasis on narratives of womanhood and people of color. The work will be unveiled in a showcase next semester on April 12 in the Morse-Stiles Crescent Theater.

Founded in 2011, the Yale Dance Theater is a faculty-driven research initiative that began under the leadership of director Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11, an assistant professor adjunct of Theater Studies and Yale College assistant professor adjunct of directing. The interdisciplinary project combines dance and writing, as participants blog about their experiences and perform choreography. The program emerged alongside the development of the Dance Studies curriculum, which is currently in its 10th year.

“Looking at what has been created, it is rich and diverse and covers a broad spectrum of dance forms, histories and geographies,” Coates said. “Many of the courses are cross-listed. We’re thinking about dance in conversation with other disciplines and drawing on their resources, as well as contributing dance’s unique methods of movement research to the creation of new knowledge at Yale.”

Given the events on campus last year and the current political climate, Coates says that the YDT felt a need to address the challenges facing multiple communities on and off campus by using art as a catalyst for sociocultural awareness and reflection. She said that she feels that the repertoire and values of the Urban Bush Women will be particularly resonant.

Founded in 1984 by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the Urban Bush Women company focuses on using dance to promote social change, and often does so via community engagement. Samantha Spies, a dancer and the associate director of the UBW, says that she hopes this collaboration will integrate the company’s core values but also push new and fresh ideas to the surface.

“I don’t know what will happen during this residency and that is the beauty of it and UBW. We’re invited into spaces and when we enter those spaces, we come in with the mindset of bringing the knowledge that we have as well as taking in the knowledge the community or the group we’re working with has,” Spies said. “We help to facilitate in bringing the voice to the surface, whether that’s verbal or through someone’s action, movement.”

Although the company has its roots in the tradition and culture of the African diaspora, Spies said that not all of the dancers within the company are women of color, though they all have ties to the African diaspora in one form or another. She said that it is necessary for each member to contribute to the narratives built through dance by drawing on their own personal histories.

Similarly, the YDT focuses on telling and shaping stories based on individual perspectives. The dancers, who are recruited every spring through an audition process, are expected to record their thoughts in a series of blog posts which are later turned into print journals available to the rest of the campus the following winter. This year, Coates nominated three student coordinators — Holly Taylor ’17, Naomi Roselaar ’17 and Brittany Stollar ’17 — to edit the journal as well as address the administrative needs of the organization.

As an American Studies major with a concentration in performance cultures, Taylor — who has edited the journal for the past two years — said the process has been especially rewarding for her.

“The women that I’ve been dancing with over the years have started off as ‘here is the dance and here is the writing. Those two things are separate,’” Taylor said. “They’ve also had a very strict understanding of what a dancer was and what learning choreography meant. I see now in the blog posts that [that] has fractured outward. Everyone is a little more comfortable with themselves as dancers and people who can embody choreography and also with themselves as artists.”

Coates said that the turnout for previous YDT auditions have been fairly high. Still, Taylor hopes that this year the organization will be able to attract a more diverse pool of dancers by publicizing the project broadly beyond the dance community.

Taylor said that she hopes the final showcase will resonate with audience members and highlight the relevance of the arts in conversations about representation. Meanwhile, Spies said that she is unsure of the UBW’s role in the ongoing conversations on-campus, but is hopeful that students are shaping and will continue to lead these discussions in an informed manner.

“Not really knowing the full history and the Yale community, I’m hesitant to say this is where we belong because as of now we don’t really fit into the conversation,” Spies said. “Yes, there are things happening at Yale that are relevant to the UBW communities and the communities that we are a part of. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we have the right to have a say in what that means to the Yale community and how to go forward.”

Coates has found her experience directing the YDT both rewarding and surprising because of the ways in which dance lends itself to “complexities of thought.” She said the encounters that she has had with students have been satisfying because of their development as artists and the different ways in which they begin to engage with the world at large through the art form.

Taylor said that she realizes audience members might not approach and react to the spring showcase with the same attitudes as the people involved have shaped it with. She said that she is, however, confident that spectators will emerge with nuanced conclusions that are informative and enlightening.

“The people you are giving your art to are smart people,” Taylor said. “It’s really easy, especially in this day and age, to reduce people to categories. So the fact that they aren’t necessarily are going to take your art the way that you want it to be taken reminds you that these are actual people that you are giving your art to.”

Auditions for Yale Dance Theater’s collaboration with the Urban Bush Women will be held on Dec. 5.