In Conversation

Ten years since its founding, dance studies has growing momentum

Dance Studies at Yale’s Emily Coates discusses the program on the occasion of its tenth anniversary — and the past, present, and future of the art form at Yale.

When he was an undergraduate at Yale 20 years ago, there were extracurricular dance groups on campus “but no hint of dance being an intellectual pursuit or a fit subject for academic study,” recalls Brian Seibert ’97.

Seibert, who since 2011 has been a dance critic and feature writer for The New York Times and is the author of the award-winning 2015 book “What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing,” is today teaching about dance at Yale. In his fall seminar, “Writing About Movement,” students are reading examples of dance writing from the 19th and 20th centuries and are using a variety of approaches to write about the artistic medium themselves.

His class is one of eight in dance studies offered this academic year. Among other subjects, undergraduates can also study the history of dance, West African dance (from traditional to contemporary), dance composition, storytelling in dance, and technologies of movement research.

Seibert says that teaching in the dance studies program “has been a joy,” but adds, “I enviously wish I could be a student” to experience what he was unable to as an undergraduate.

Dance Studies at Yale is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Part of the theater studies program, the curriculum consists of studio and seminar courses that “cover the history, theory, and practice of dance forms spanning time and geography,” with the mission of giving students the opportunity to compose and perform original and established dance works, as well as to “develop a shared critical vocabulary for reading, interpreting, and writing about dance,” according to the program’s website.

To mark the Dance Studies at Yale anniversary, YaleNews spoke with Emily Coates, who has directed the curriculum since its inception. She is an assistant professor adjunct of theater studies and of directing at Yale School of Drama. She came to Yale as a 29-year-old undergraduate after dancing with New York City Ballet, Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, and Twyla Tharp, and graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English in 2006. She went on to earn her M.A. in American studies at Yale, and is now working part-time toward her Ph.D. in that discipline. 

What follows is an edited version of the conversation with Coates.

What interested you in coming to Yale, given that there was no academic curriculum for dance?

I very much wanted to study literature and to write when I came to Yale. That’s why I became an English major. I had already been dancing professionally for 14 years when I arrived. I wasn’t looking for a dance program, and I was not bothered by the fact that Yale didn’t have one or have a dance faculty.

But after a year of being here, I wanted to revisit dance through the different lens that I was acquiring through my studies. People said, “You have to meet Joseph Roach [a Sterling Professor of Theater Studies]: He knows all about dance and dance scholarship. I eventually worked with him on an independent study project, and later, after he won an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award, he turned to me and said, “Would you like a job?” He used his prize money to hire me to develop a new dance curriculum in theater studies, as one facet of his goal to foster performance studies at Yale.

Is dance studies a popular interest on campus?

Ten years seems like a while, but at the same time dance studies at Yale is relatively new as a discipline. Many of our courses are at maximum capacity — a pretty good indication that interest in dance studies is very high.

What’s special about Yale’s program?

One of the most special aspects is our faculty. This year, we have the highest number of dance studies faculty members we’ve ever had with seven total. We represent a fantastic diversity of perspectives, dance forms, mediums, and methods. All are experts with significant reputations in the field. One coup we had this year is to have Renee Robinson, a renowned dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, join as our newest faculty member. Her class “Embodying Story,” which is cross-listed between theater studies and African-American studies, is packed.

All of our faculty members are to be celebrated. In addition to Brian Seibert and Renee, we have the Guggenheim Award-winning choreographer Iréne Hultman, who was a dancer and rehearsal director for the Tricia Brown Dance Company; Jessica Berson, a noted dance scholar who works on the intersection of performance and gender and sexuality; Maya Berry, a specialist in the scholarship and practice of Afro-Cuban dance; and Lacina Coulibaly, a prominent artist from Burkina Faso, whose course on West African dance has been a key part of the curriculum since the beginning.

Who is teaching for the curriculum is as important as what is being taught. Each instructor brings a unique artistic sensibility and ethos with regard to human engagement, creativity, curiosity, respect, integrity, and mentorship that models for students how to be an artist in the world.

In addition, the fact that most of our courses are cross-listed in other disciplines — African American studies, American studies, African studies, English, film and media studies, physics, and art, along with theater studies — is a testament to the depth of their reach. Sarah Demers in the Department of Physics and I have co-taught for several years a course for non-science majors that investigates the intersection of physics and dance. That collaboration has enriched my own creative life and work immeasurably. Sarah and I are currently completing a book for Yale University Press about physics and dance.

What is the value of dance in the world and of studying it at Yale?

A dancer lifts her arm and the past unfolds: she articulates a legacy of moving ideas in the simplest of gestures. This is why UNESCO has designated dance an “intangible cultural heritage” — part of those rituals, oral traditions, and performing arts that constitute our inherited cultural knowledge. Dance holds history, even as dance artists envision and realize new social and political futures.

Why study dance at Yale? Because how we move reveals who we are. The humanities can only get so far in understanding what makes us human without taking into account this embodied repertoire that drives culture and history.

There is an emphasis on writing in the curriculum. Why so?

We teach our students to actively synthesize movement and writing in one artistic practice. The ability to move fluidly between mediums, to create a circular path of inquiry between movement composition and writing, opens up more resources for an artist in terms of developing one’s ideas. There is also the matter of the archive. Dance artists who write literally write themselves into history. In dance, your work disappears after each performance. You are less empowered if you leave the imprint of your voice in the archive up to the one critic that happened to be in the theater that night. The synthesis we teach is a means of making one’s voice heard in as many ways as possible.

What is the role of the Yale Dance Theater in the curriculum?

Yale Dance Theater (YDT), founded six years ago, allows our students to work with professional artists for a semester, during which time they get to reconstruct existing choreography or develop a new work. Each project results in a final public performance. It’s an extension of the methods and vision of the courses but is an immersive studio encounter with the great choreographers and repertories of dance history.

The students in the group work hard, spending six hours a week in rehearsals. Over the years, I have personally watched every YDT member grow as a dancer and an artist through the process. They also write about their experience on a blog. We publish their writings in the Yale Dance Theater Journal, edited by our YDT coordinators; we recently published our third volume. 

To give you an example of the diversity of projects, two years ago, students worked with Matthew Rushing, a long-time dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on a brand new dance piece he created for them, while also working with Renee Robinson on an excerpt from the 1958 Ailey ballet “Blues Suite.” Last year, students worked with guest artists Saar Harari and Lee Sher on a new piece that used the movement language Gaga, which emerged just over 15 years ago out of Israel, as a tool in the process. 

This year’s project is yet again distinct and timely. Students will work with Urban Bush Women, a critically acclaimed dance company that promotes the expressive forms and traditions of the African Diaspora from a woman-centered perspective. The company has developed a profound way of using dance as a form of social and community engagement. YDT dancers will work with Urban Bush Women artists to learn their methodology and choreographic work from the company’s repertoire. We need artists more than ever right now, to bring us together and lead the way forward. Urban Bush Women has been working on exactly that for over 30 years.

The choice of Urban Bush Women is a result of our students articulating what they’d like to explore further, in this case how dance can fit into a landscape of social and political advocacy.

For anyone interested in joining this project, the audition for new members will take place on Dec. 5!

Will there also be some special guests in the spring?

Yes, some of the guests I have lined up include New York City Ballet ballerina Sara Mearns and dancer/choreographer Jodi Melnick, who have just collaborated on a new creation that they premiered this month in the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series.

Two alumni in the dance world — choreographer Sidra Bell ’01 and Michael Apuzzo ‘05 of the Paul Taylor Dance Company — will come back to visit in connection with a course I’m teaching, and they will give workshops that will be open to members of the Yale dance community.

In honor of our 10th year, it feels especially important to bring back some of our alumni who are active in the field; these particular guests graduated before there was a dance studies curriculum at Yale.

What hopes do you have for Dance Studies at Yale into the future?

Dance is endlessly rich and continually reinventing itself as an art form. I hope to expand even further the breadth of dance forms and research methods that the curriculum covers. I’d also like to develop our cross-disciplinary work. I collaborated extensively with Dean Robert Storr on forging ties with the School of Art, and have done a number of projects with Yale University Art Gallery. I’m working with the Yale Center for British Art on a dance-related initiative for the spring. The connection between visual art and dance is an area that is open for growth here at Yale. Another goal is to continue developing generative connections between art and science, as we have been doing through the physics and dance work.

In general, there is great momentum in the dance studies curriculum and in the extracurricular realm. Of course, there is a need for adequate rehearsal space, and we look forward to working together to solve the space issues in the near future.

In addition to the courses and Yale Dance Theater, there are over 20 student-led extracurricular groups, and it always seems there is a new one starting up every year. These range from a Bulgarian folk dance group to Bhangra to ballroom dance to swing. When you tally up the membership in these groups, about 500 students are involved in dance. Between our full courses, Yale Dance Theater, and the extracurricular dance groups, we’ve got a lot of people dancing — and studying dance — at Yale.

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