The DNA of dance

The Mills Dance Department was founded on a code of experimentalism and innovation. Today, faculty and students continue to pursue a diverse and dynamic evolution of their art.

No comments
By Ann Murphy • Photos by Kurt Loeffler

If there are genetic does for college departments, then Mills College Dance Department DNA was encoded more than 70 years ago, when visionary choreographer, educator, scholar, and filmmaker Marian Van Tuyl arrived from the University of Chicago. She plucked classes out of physical education and placed them into the Division of Fine Arts and, with this bold move, defined the actions of the moving body as worthy of the kind of study previously reserved for “high art.” But Van Tuyl didn’t rest there. She understood, as few in the field at the time did, that dance is capacious, and that all dances, like all people, are worthy of attention and study. Before long she defined Mills as a vital hub of dance diversity, mastery, thought, and experimentation.

Marian Van Tuyl in the 1940s. Above, Judene Small performs at the MFA dance concert in April.

In the intervening years, innumerable changes have swept through the department as well as the field. Faculty and department heads have come and gone, dance language has constantly morphed, even dancewear itself has radically changed from thick cotton and wool leotards and tights to body-hugging second skins made of nylon. The motifs and concerns so critical to those early days, such as the torso’s contraction and release or the portrayal of archetypal figures from literature and legend, are now often hidden among hybrid influences, if they appear at all. The curriculum has evolved to encompass theater arts classes, including acting fundamentals and costume design, and technology that allows for live video feeds in performance.

But these changes haven’t altered Van Tuyl’s founding code, because what she envisioned and then brilliantly built was an evolving formula that subscribed to John Dewey’s conception of art as a social phenomenon. She believed that “every good dance has social significance… being ‘a thing of action, possessed of form.’” In her personal papers, now housed in the Special Collections of Mills’ F. W. Olin Library, she explains that a dance or a department is modern because “it subtracts certain elements from the total scale of possibilities… leaving a structural configuration which we recognize as of our time.” Today, with a faculty committed to aesthetic and cultural diversity and interdisciplinary collaboration, that formula is leading to exciting innovations that harken back to the department’s founding while continually moving forward.  

“When you think of innovation, it’s not that something is wholly new,” explains Associate Professor of Dance Sonya Delwaide, who has been on faculty for nine years and helped maintain and vitalize the department’s commitment to experimentation. “To be innovative you need to be creative all the time—and to recreate with that which you have already created. It’s the day-to-day innovation that matters,” she says. “It’s about not sitting in your chair.”

Cuauhtemoc Peranda in 2012

Such experimentation was on display this spring, when dance faculty got out of their chairs to conduct a joint seminar with the MFA programs in creative writing. They began in Haas Pavilion Studio 117, where Associate Professor Molissa Fenley ’75 and Peiling Kao, MFA ’10, demonstrated excerpts of Fenley’s spare, poetic dance, while the students responded in writing. Next, the poets and fiction writers reacted to dance film clips, writing collectively within the dictates of a distinct writing genre—from news to science fiction. What resulted was a rich text collage evocative of far more than the dance alone.

“Over the years we’ve been trying to keep as much collaboration as possible going with the Music Department. Now we’re working with visual arts and creative writing,” says Fenley, who notes that Van Tuyl herself launched similar relationships with nationally recognized artists—including choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and photographer Imogen Cunningham—as well as with faculty members such as Professor Arch Lauterer, who was skilled in set and lighting design, and composers Darius Milhaud, Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell. This summer, Fenley embarks on a project with photographer and Professor of Studio Art Catherine Wagner and is already spearheading an October celebration at the College of renowned Mills composer Pauline Oliveros, one of the leading avant-garde musicians of the 20th century (see sidebar at the bottom).

Collaboration finds further expression in ongoing partnerships with external arts and education organizations. For example, Patricia Reedy ’80, MA ’00, director of Luna Dance Institute, joins the department every year as an adjunct to teach pedagogy and place Mills dance students in local schools as apprentice teachers. Other alumnae bring their high school students to campus to learn and view performances, while during National Dance Week in April, people from the community are invited to classes in the Mills dance studios. The department has also expanded to include acting classes through a partnership with Berkeley Repertory Theater and has become the home base for a renascent Oakland Ballet. These and other collaborations break down barriers between disciplines, departments, schools, and geographical locations, and encourage Mills dance students to see themselves in fluid relationship with the community. Collaborations are also a locus of invention and sharing and, often, a source of magic and surprise.

Alexandra Michel, Elizabeth Morales, Nataly Morales, Ada Langley, Alana Giannatto-Ortiz, and Ashley Ramirez

In her years as head of the department, Delwaide has never forgotten the importance of invention to dance making. She has nurtured a faculty of accomplished artists and scholars who make experimentation their lifeblood because, she believes, the most meaningful innovation arises from a ground of artistic mastery. The impact on the students of such mastery is significant, she says, because “students are then learning from highly skilled people who are in constant touch with the art’s developments and who are pushing themselves to respond to those shifts. They are then able to bring those impulses into the classroom.”

But the students aren’t the only beneficiaries. Faculty members interact to discover ways in which their differences can foment creativity in the classroom, in the department at large, and in their own work. Visiting Artist Shinichi Iova-Koga, for example, has asked his Mills colleagues to take turns coming to rehearsals to “wreck” his work—pulling it apart and reconfiguring the parts— in order to inject the unforeseen into the pattern and shake up his own dancemaking habits. It is one version of a vibrant model that prompts everyone to push his or her own limits and to value failure as much as success and questions over answers. With this example before her, the student ballerina who studies dancehall or the Graham dancer who plunges into hula comes to understand that she isn’t going to lose what she loves; she is going to challenge, question, and expand it.

Kristin Torok

“I don’t know what art is without experimentation,” says Fenley, who continues to create and perform widely with her own company. Much of Fenley’s work reveals deep Yoruban dance and music influences absorbed during her childhood in Nigeria that are, in turn, fused with modern dance forms she acquired as an undergraduate at Mills. “In the Mills Dance Department, this tenet is quite pronounced; we acknowledge experimentation and give it a name.”

In such a climate it becomes unexceptional for students to create sound compositions as they choreograph a group dance, or to bring voice and drama into an assignment. In one of Fenley’s courses, students take concepts central in the work of a visual artist like Cindy Sherman or Vincent Van Gogh and translate them into solo work. In criticism and theory class, they view live dance performances then write news reviews, poetic responses, and theory-driven analyses, probing how writing genres alter the focus and tone of the dance conversation. In general, it is these kinds of hybrid discourses both in the studio and in the classroom that prompt students to grow exponentially as artists and to evolve into intensely inquisitive, eloquent, and thoughtful citizens.

Carly Boland

Perhaps nowhere are the results of that process more graphic and exciting than when graduating MFA candidates present their concert work. This year, on a Friday night late in April, the rich aesthetic and movement diversity of Mills’ small cadre of student dancers demonstrated the outcome of multiple points of collaboration and experimentation. A small army of students ran the show featuring 14 dance graduate students, a halfdozen undergraduates, composers from the MFA programs in music, and several videographers.  

In the plaza outside Lisser Hall, about 100 people were invited to gather in a large circle, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, facing inward, and slowly rotating clockwise. Cuauhtemoc Peranda, MFA ’12, entered the ring and began his solo to the sound of electric pow-wow, weaving together motions from the round dance, the gestural language of voguing, and abstractions of Aztec Huitzuilopochtli or hummingbird dance. Having come to Mills two years ago directly out of Stanford, where he majored in chemistry, Peranda also incorporated dance vocabularies that included extensions and curves of Merce Cunningham’s angular technique and classical ballet steps. From this mix, he devised his own hybrid language that celebrated multiple cultures and temporal realities.

When Kristin Torok, MFA ’12, took to the stage, her only visible partner was a chunk of styrofoam that seemed as hard for her to budge as Sisyphus’ massive rock. Her invisible partner was yet more formidable: each time Torok conjured up enough existential will to shove the boulder into the abyss beyond the back curtain, some inexorable force hurled it back onstage. Again and again, the trial continued until at last she ignored the rules of this absurd universe, effortlessly picked up the burden, and walked off as the front curtain came down.  

Judene Small, Deanna Bangs, Caitlin Savage, and Ashley Yee.

Ada Langley, MFA ’12, a gifted costume designer who grew up in Tennessee, took inspiration from early 20th century German expressive dance and applied cartographic concepts of space in order to invest direction and location with symbolic, not simply utilitarian, significance. Caitlin Savage, MFA ’12, a burlesque dancer in her spare time, explored gender identity with pathos and irony. Carly Boland, MFA ’12, explored family tragedy and endurance, while Elizabeth Morales, MFA ’12, drew out the correspondences between dance and architecture. Judene Small, MFA ’12, meanwhile, merged her experience of Jamaican dancehall and abstract modern dance into a complex whole.

When Van Tuyl came to Mills more than 70 years ago, she spliced creative ferment into the department’s DNA, expressed through an ethos of openness, courage, and innovation. Today, each Mills dancer keeps that legacy alive as they blend genres, create modern rituals, and open themselves to the new and unknown, pouring intelligence and eloquence into physical expression. Every day they explore an art form that puts the soul as well as the body on the line and, as they do, they never stop searching for an apt understanding of dance in our time.

Ann Murphy is a nationally known dance critic and writer trained in both ballet and modern dance. An assistant professor of dance at Mills, she teaches dance history, theory, criticism, and dance theater and will head the department in fall 2012. She and Molissa Fenley have recently completed “Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley,” a book profiling the artist’s 35-year career.

Yes We Canfield!

A dance event in honor of Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros turns 80 this year. To honor her, the Fine Arts Division will mount Event with Canfield, a site-specific work using elements of Merce Cunningham’s dance, Canfield, as it was performed by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the opening of Mills’ Haas Pavilion in 1971.

Mills dancers will be accompanied by professors from the Music Department, who will interpret a madcap score by Oliveros, originally commissioned by Cunningham. The score, In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer, calls for the musicians to roam Haas Pavilion with oscillators and walkietalkies in order to discover the resonant frequency of the venue.

Former Cunningham dancer and visiting artist Holley Farmer will set and oversee the production. The Art Department will recreate the lighting design of the first performance of Canfield, based on drawings by conceptual artist Robert Morris. Earlier in the week, Oliveros and her collaborator, Carol Ione, will lead workshops on Deep Listening and Listening to Dreams on campus.