Five college dance department: turns 25.
While this class could have taken place at any college, this particular group of students gathered from a unique quintet of schools that form the Five College Dance Department, a consortium of dance departments from Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Because of the schools' proximity in western Massachusetts, students can cross-register for dance classes and audition for performances at any of the five campuses. On the same day of the Davis class, students discussed a film of dance-pioneer Ruth St. Denis in Susan Waltner's dance history class at Smith, and during a partnering seminar at Amherst, freshmen mirrored responses with guest artists in wheelchairs from AXIS Dance Company.
It's this variety that attracted sophomore Valerie Becker to Smith. "I am in no way limited to the courses I can take to fulfill the requirements for my major," says the Boston Arts Academy high school grad who plans to open an urban dance studio.
IN FALL 2004, the Five College Dance Department marked its 25th anniversary. Waltner, the only remaining member of the founding faculty, serves as chairperson for this collection of course offerings and dance faculty that is among the richest in the nation.
The faculty is a collegial group of choreographers, performers, and historians, many of whom work beyond the five-college sphere. Rebecca Nordstrom of Hampshire College faculty is a former member of Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians. She continues to present her own choreography and performs with Chaos Theory, directed by Billbob Brown, of the UMass dance faculty.
At Mount Holyoke, two married couples share a single teaching appointment per couple to free up their time for outside creative projects and to raise their families: Modern dancers and choreographers Jim Coleman and Terese Freedman tour as visiting artists and direct the FREEDMAN/COLEMAN Dance Company; Charles and Rose Marie Flachs, former members of Ballet West and the Cincinnati Ballet, offer students classical training that rivals that of a conservatory.
Constance Valis Hill, associate professor of dance at Hampshire College, is a historian and theorist on the influence of black culture in dance. "I have enormous respect for the diversity of the faculty's skills and how they extend the idea of performer/choreographer," she says. "I don't see my colleagues as dance teachers. I see them as working dance artists."
WHILE MANY of the basic courses are offered on all the campuses, each school keeps a separate identity. Amherst has an interdisciplinary mix of theater and dance; Mount Holyoke emphasizes repertoire; UMass offers a BFA and a focus on education; Smith is strong in technique, composition, and theory and offers an MFA; Hampshire College allows students to design independent concentrations. "The Five College consortium means we can teach to our strengths, to our passions," says Rebecca Nordstrom of Hampshire College. "We don't have to be generalists."
Wendy Woodson of the Amherst faculty teaches "Choreography for the Camera" and is known for her multimedia work. "We have the resources of a large department, but we have our own campuses so the students get to know us," she says. This is one reason that Marlena Hubley chose to enroll at Mount Holyoke after graduating from the dance program at St. Paul's School in New Hampshire. "I wanted to receive professional-grade dance and choreographic training as well as attend a small to midsize college with a sense of community," she says. Hubley majors in both dance and anthropology, something Peggy Schwartz of the UMass dance department says is increasingly common.
Coleman says, "People who come to these prestigious liberal arts colleges have multiple interests." Another example is Martha Mason (Mount Holyoke 1988), co-founder and artistic director of Boston's up-and-coming Snappy Dance Theater. While she majored in dance in college, she also studied French, anthropology, and biology. She credits the support of the faculty for "preparing me to be a director, to wear many hats."
Waltner remembers the way it all started with a meeting in front of Helen Priest Rogers' fireplace. "It was the mid-1970s, when there were still cows in the farms flanking Route 9 (the main route), and no fast food restaurants," she says. "We were talking about this dream of making more of a presence for ourselves, joining little departments to become bigger." Rogers had come to Mount Holyoke in 1953 after dancing with Martha Graham and co-founding the Dance Notation Bureau. Rosalind de Mille of Smith had studied ballet in Hollywood with former Diaghilev dancer Adolph Bolm. Completing the group of five was Marilyn Patton from UMass and Francia McGlennan of the newly-formed Hampshire College.
"Amherst had no dance studio, and the programs at Smith, Mount Holyoke and UMass were located in physical education," says Waltner. Though zealous in their enthusiasm, it took several years before the Five College Dance Department began full operation, Waltner recalls.
WALTNER IS proud of the achievements of students and alumnae. "It takes some doing to make this thing work. You have to believe you ate stronger as a group than five individual programs," she says. "It means giving up some things, negotiating class assignments, schedules, and budgets. We have to have all five colleges agree."
In an example of the consensus process, the group brought in Balanchine specialist Victoria Simon to set the first movement of Serenade on a student cast for the 25th anniversary fall concert. "Since we all supported the project and shared the funding, we decided to insure a mix of students from all five campuses. We involved faculty as rehearsal directors and presented the work on three of the campuses," said Coleman.
"We all agree that it's worth it, but it takes willingness to compromise," says Waltner. "Luckily there is a track record that shows the collaboration works."
Iris Fanger, a Boston dance critic, teaches dance history at MIT this spring.
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|Title Annotation:||Teach-Learn Connection: Take 5|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2005|
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