Yale’s dance laboratories attract world figures

When renowned choreographer Reggie Wilson and 16 undergraduates give two lecture presentations at Yale on Wednesday, March 6, they will demonstrate how the body can think.

Titled “Reggie Wilson Showings,” the presentations will take place at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Morse-Stiles Crescent Theater, 302 York St. Admission is free, but tickets are required; they are available at http://yaledramacoalition.org/shows/572.

The choreographer’s work with the troupe represents a new approach to arts education, one that serves as a model for integrating arts practice into a liberal-arts curriculum, says Yale Dance Theater (YDT) faculty director Emily Coates. It also gives dance at Yale a new prominence, she notes.

Wilson joins a growing number of international figures working with Coates, who has created practice-based research opportunities for dancers — laboratories that let students investigate choreography and its historical context through a rigorous, semester-long rehearsal process that culminates in a final performance.

The Yale dancers worked with the original Twyla Tharp Company in 2011 and Merce Cunningham’s company last year. In April, they will welcome members of Akram Khan’s dance company.

“Reggie Wilson and Akram Khan are major figures in contemporary dance,” said Coates. “It’s the dance world equivalent of having Tony Blair on campus.” Working with these artists, she says, gives students “a window into history and an understanding of cutting-edge performance today.”

Wilson, known for his critically acclaimed work with his Brooklyn-based Fist and Heel Performance Group, draws from the culture of the African diaspora, South African gumboot dance, downtown postmodern dance of the late 20th century, classical ballet, and more. As one of Wilson’s students writes on the YDT blog, “Reggie’s work is proof of the body’s intelligence — which comes not only from being able to master all these different styles, but also by connecting them together through one’s body.”

As students learn by doing, putting their research to practice, says Coates, they build on the work of Yale’s emerging dance studies curriculum and already-robust extracurricular dance community — bringing dance closer to the mainstream of a liberal-arts education and fulfilling of a goal in a 2003 report on education in Yale College. The March 6 lecture presentation, for example, will give the students an opportunity to teach the Yale community “movement literacy,” she says.

“Emily’s way of teaching dance is what we want to see in all of the arts disciplines,” says Susan Cahan, Yale’s dean of the arts. “This is the realization of our philosophy of arts education.”

As part of their research, YDT dancers regularly post blog entries about their experience: http://ydt.commons.yale.edu/. Elena Light ‘13 and Aren Vastola ‘14 serve as student coordinators of the YDT project.

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