College-level dance and theater teachers have long made the case for performance as a mode of investigation, a way of knowing… [and] that our students, our audiences, and we ourselves find these modes of learning and of expression enlightening, critical, engaging, essential to truth-seeking and self-knowing…. Clearly, Colby and Bates are leaders of this pack.”
-Lynn Matluk Brooks. Episodes and Academe: Avalanche. Thinkingdance.net. 18 June, 2012.
Role: Principle Investigator, Performer, Producer. Description: Five faculty from the Theater and Dance Departments of Bates and Colby colleges explored dance-theater hybridity by commissioning and performing in an original evening length piece from Headlong Dance Theater. This experiential investigation allowed us to consider curricular ramifications of these hybrid practices. The piece premiered in 2012 at the Society of Dance History Scholars conference in Philadelphia, then toured to New York City, Portland, Maine, New London, Connecticut, and Lewiston, Maine between 2012 and 2013. Among the many outcomes were subsequent pedagogical, scholarly and creative collaborations.
Avalanche, my first major research project at Bates, was an original evening-length dance-theater performance commissioned and performed by faculty from Bates and Colby and directed by Headlong Dance Theater (HDT) of Philadelphia. The project manifested in two phases: Phase 1- research, development and first performance of Avalanche and open conversations on pedagogical implications of dance-theater hybridity, supported by a CBB Melon Grant of $41,618; Phase 2-a tour of Avalanche, accompanied by post-performance discussions about dance-theater hybridity, supported by the Bates Faculty Development Fund. The project continues to impact pedagogy and research among the participants, long after the formal conclusion of the project.
Phase 1 Description
In 2011, five Theater and Dance faculty from Colby and Bates colleges (Bates: Carol Dilley, Michael Reidy, and I; Colby: Annie Kloppenberg and Todd Coulter) were awarded a Colby Bates, and Bowdoin (CBB) Mellon Faculty Enhancement Grant of $41,618 for Process, Performance, Pedagogy: Perspectives on Hybridity in Dance and Theater. Kloppenberg, Coulter, and I authored the grant. Both Bates and Colby house the disciplines of theater and dance in the same academic department, however, in both departments collaboration between dance and theater faculty were limited. Seeing exciting genre-busting work by Headlong Dance Theater and other professional performers inspired us to look beyond the traditional boundaries between theater and dance. This project explored possible meeting grounds in dance and theater creative processes and pedagogy through the creation of an evening-length original hybrid performance, Avalanche.
The collaborative creative process, led by the four artists that make up HDT: David Brick, Amy Smith, Andrew Simonet, and Mark Lord, engaged the faculty as performers and co-creators. The creative leadership of HDT allowed the faculty investigators to move beyond their academic titles and artistic expertise. For example, Reidy, a lighting designer, was featured in a movement solo, while I performed a monologue. HDT developed Avalanche by giving the performers artistic assignments, the results of which were braided together through a process they call “open canvas.” In these long ensemble improvisations, performers drew from set material, improvisational scores, and their own compositional impulses to propose ideas to the directors. Open canvases-and the performance quality of vulnerability, listening, and presence that they engender- became an important part the performances of Avalanche. The emergent quality of the “finished” product gave a palpable experience of “performance as research” to both the performers and audience members.
During the first year of the project, we met with HDT four times: once in Philadelphia, once at Colby, and twice at Bates. Though focused on rehearsals, the residencies also provided opportunities for HDT to interface with the campus communities through master classes, in-process showings, and formal conversations on dance-theater hybridity.
Outcomes of Phase 1
- Group research trip to 2012 Philadelphia Fringe Festival to see several dance-theater hybrid works.
- Year-long development of Avalanche. Development process comprised of four intensive residencies with Headlong Dance Theater.
- The creative process, lead by David Brick, was a rich learning process in which each member of the creative team contributed expertise, improvisational scores, choreography, text, and conceptual development.
- In-process showings of Avalanche for Bates and Colby colleagues and students. These showings introduced our communities to HDT’s unique feedback method.
- HDT master classes for students.
- Panel on Theater and Dance pedagogy for the Bates College Department of Theater and Dance.
- Panel on cross-disciplinary pedagogy for Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin faculty at large at Colby College.
- Avalanche premier at Performance Garage, Philadelphia as part of the Society of Dance History Scholars “Dance in the Social City” conference.
- Based on audience response and post-performance discussions, the performance, which freely mixed theater scenes and dance choreography with structured improvisation, proved engaging to scholars attending the conference, and the general public.
- Strong reviews in June of 2012 Philadelphia Enquirer and Thinkingdance.net (links to all reviews are at the bottom of this page).
- In January of 2013, Dilley, Reidy and I presented talks on the process of creating Avalanche at a Bates “Fits and Starts” research lunch for Bates faculty
- In February of 2013 Dilley and I gave a similar presentation at the American College Dance Festival New England Conference.
Phase 2 Description
In 2013, we were granted $25,112 from Bates Faculty Development Grant for Avalanche on the Road, which allowed us to host HDT to further research Avalanche and tour the performance professional and academic venues. Each performance was followed by a post-performance discussion to share our research methods and hear responses from the audience. We invited guest artists to host these discussions when possible.
Outcomes of Phase 2
- Performance at Space Gallery, Portland, Maine. May 27 and 28, 2013. Lighting Design by Bates Alumni Stacia Saniuk ’09.
- Performance at Danspace Project, New York, New York. June 3-9, 2013. New York Times review. Post-performance discussion lead by David Dorfman.
- Performance at Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut. September 21, 2013. The College Voice Review. Lighting Design by Bates staff member Justin Moriarty. Post performance discussion lead by Krista Denio.
- Performance at Bates College September 29, 2013 on Schaeffer Stage. This performance was not funded by the grant but it was of great importance to us to share our research with our colleagues and students . The Bates College Student Review. Lighting Design by Bates staff member Justin Moriarty.
Above: Full-lenght video of Avalanche at Danspace Project in New York.
- The performances Avalanche in both scholarly and professional artistic venues, and the exploration of the theme of teaching and learning within the performance, challenged the divide between the realms of academic and professional performance.
- Working with staff and student collaborators for the performance at Space Gallery, Connecticut College and our final Bates Performance extended the faculty development experience beyond the five principle investigators. For example, several shows included a lighting collaboration with Justin Moriarty, Assistant Technical Director at Bates.
- This project modeled a collaborative creative research process for students and involved them in each step of the creation and reflection. This process has inspired some to more seriously consider performing arts research as part of their academic–and post college–lives.
- Both colleges curricula have been enriched by regular teaching and performance trades. We guest teach at each others’ schools and have begun to share guest artists more regularly. For example, in 2013 we shared the costs of a guest artists repertory piece featuring students from both Bates and Colby. Bates has also hosted a Colby student performance. Consequently our students have a more diverse experience and more integrated training.
- The faculty cast of Avalanche act as a working group for brainstorming curriculum, pedagogy, and survival strategies for performing faculty artists in Maine. There is strong mentorship between more senior and more junior members of this group.
- Collaborative creative and scholarly relationships are expanding between Avalanche performers: Dilley and I have made several works together, as have Kloppenberg and I.
- Kloppenberg and I are co-writing a paper on the project, drafts of which has been presented at 2014 Society of Dance History Scholars Conference.
- I developed writing and choreography I did for the Avalanche creative process into a new solo performance, Shadow Game (2012), which I am developing into an evening-length solo, Five on Family (in process).
- This project continues to spin off new performances, new writing, new conference presentations, new collaborations and new ideas for our classrooms, our departments, and our individual development as faculty artists. Faculty collaborations across theater and dance developed beyond the principle investigators. For example, in 2012, the Bates Department of Theater and Dance integrated new ideas about theater and dance collaboration into the curriculum. I collaborated with Senior Lecturer Kati Vescey to create a Short Term course developing an original dance-theater performance from the poetry of guest artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph. The design of the course was influenced by my experience working on Avalanche. In June of 2013, Vescey and I gave a presentation at the International Conference on Arts in Society in Budapest, Hungary: Artists in Residency: Two Different Models, in which we analyzed and the design and impact of the artistic residencies Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Headlong Dance Theater at Bates College (see supporting documents).
Why this project mattered to us as faculty
This experience was of incalculable value. Together with HDT, the principle investigators created a performance piece that pushed us as performers, informed us as artists, and inspired us as teachers. We also built lasting professional relationships that will affect not only our profession external work but also our curricula.
Perhaps one of the most influential aspects of Avalanche for me was developing and performing it over several years. Although I had long seen performance as a research method, working on Avalanche gave me a new perspective on knowledge production in performance. This became the basis of current scholarly research with Annie Kloppenberg, as well as the basis of another performance research project, Foreword/Afterword (see research portfolio project #4).
Performance Listing and Reviews
- Society of Dance History Scholars/The Performing Garage. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. June 2012.
- Reviewed in The Philadelphia Inquirer: Plenty to Watch in ‘Avalanche’. By Merilyn Jackson. 16 June, 2012. http://articles.philly.com/2012-06-16/entertainment/32269953_1_dance-theater-avalanche-dance-history-scholars
- Reviewed on Thinkingdance.net: Episodes and Academe. By Lynne Matluck Brooks. 18 June, 2012.http://thinkingdance.net/articles/2012/06/18/Episodes-and-Academe-Avalanche
- Space Gallery. Portland, Maine. May 2013.
- Dancespace Project. New York, New York. June 6-8 2013.
- Reviewed in the New York Times. The Dancing Life, Condensed. By Gia Kourlas. 7 June, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/arts/dance/headlong-dance-theater-at-danspace-project.html?_r=0
- Post-performance discussion lead by David Dorfman.
- Connecticut College. New London, Connecticut. September 21, 2013.
- Reviewed in The College Voice Avalanche Performance Brings Musings of Childhood and Maturity to Conn. By Rachel Matson. 7 October, 2013. http://thecollegevoice.org/2013/10/07/avalanche-performance-brings-musings-of-childhood-and-maturity-to-conn/
- Post-performance discussion lead by Krista Denio
- Bates College. Lewiston, Maine. September 29, 2013.
- The Bates Student CBB Professors Collaborate on “Avalanche”. By Maryanne Bodnar. 2 October, 2013. http://www.thebatesstudent.com/2013/10/02/cbb-professors-collaborate-avalanche/
Scholarly Presentations On Avalanche (PDFs):
- Fits and Starts. Bates Research Lunch. Lewiston, Maine.
Process, Performance, Pedagogy. Co-presentation with Michael Reidy and Carol Dilley. January 2013.
Bates Presentation: Avalanche Fits and Starts PDF
- Eighth International Conference on the Arts in Society. Budapest, Hungary.
Artists in Residence: Two Models. Co-presentation Roundtable with Dr. Katalin Vecsey. June 24, 2013.
ArtsinSoceity Presentation (2013) PDF
- World Dance Alliance Global Summit: Contemporising the Past, Envisaging the Future. Angers, France.
“Avalanche: A Case Study in Creative Action as Research.” Co-author. Case study paper co-written with Annie Kloppenberg. July 11, 2014.
World Dance Alliance Presentation (2014) PDF
Note: In describing this project, I am quoting liberally from the 2013 “Avalanche on the Road” faculty development grant report I co-authored with Carol Dilley and Michael Reidy, which is included in supporting documents.