‘Love poems to humanity’: Students close distance with dance

An interdisciplinary dance project is bringing together students, world-class choreographers, and other artists to create 16 “digital dance poems.”
Dance collage

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After the quarantine deprived her of the opportunity to dance with her peers in the Afrobeat dance group Dzana last spring, Yale senior Joan Agoh relished the chance to connect and create with them again this fall — even if it was over Zoom.

But this wasn’t just another online meeting. In September, Agoh and the other members of the dance group had the opportunity to collaborate with Gregory Maqoma, an internationally renowned South African dancer and choreographer, to create a new digital “dance poem” that they’ll eventually share with the world. 

Their work is part of a larger project, “Transpositions: dance poems for an online world,” a way for dancers and other artists to collaborate, perform, and connect in a time of physical distancing, created by Emily Coates, associate professor (adjunct) and director of dance in the Theater and Performance Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. 

While collaborating via Zoom creates certain barriers to movement, it can also open up new ways of performing, said Agoh. In fact, she found that it forces people to depend on each other for movement phrases and collaborate in ways that are not possible in person.

Existing in this seemingly endless digital space has its limits but also allows for different kinds of possibilities: to show up right where we are, right as we are, and make something of what we have, alone and together. This project is an opportunity to still create together while separate and to source a different kind of knowing in this distance.”

Dancers Dancers experiment with movement inside a Zoom box.
Dancers experiment with movement inside a Zoom box.

For the project, Coates invited 16 choreographers to create digital dance poems with dancers from across the campus community. Dzana, A Different Drum, Taps, the Yale Ballroom Dance Team, and other groups and individual dancers signed up to be a part of the academic year-long project. Dancers from the Yale Dance Lab have participated throughout. The choreographers are from Yale, New Haven, and beyond, including Philadelphia, New York, Burkina Faso, and, in Maqoma’s case, South Africa.

I wanted to create new forms of virtual communities that could cut across the usual divides, bringing people together who may not ever come together had this project not existed,” said Coates, who also teaches in the directing program at the Yale School of Drama. “I wished to bring us together for collective creation because human connection and exchange is of utmost importance in this moment when students are working from their dorm rooms or many of us are working without our colleagues around us.

Through dance, the project asks: How can we help to fortify and strengthen our capacity to understand each other?” Coates added. “How can we, as artists, chart new forms of collaboration and collective authorship to address the myriad of crises our world currently faces?”

Each choreographer works with a group of dancers for two 2-hour sessions during the fall semester. In that time, they experiment and explore ideas to create a digital dance poem. Natalie King and Jacob Santos, first-year theater management students from the Yale School of Drama, are supporting this development process as associate producers for the Yale Dance Lab.

The 16 final poems will be edited by Kyla Arsadjaja ’20 M.F.A., a recent Yale School of Art graduate, and scored by students in the School of Drama’s sound design program. The poems will be shared online in the spring on the Yale Dance Lab and Yale Schwarzman Center websites, and displayed onscreen at the center when it opens in the fall of 2021.

You can think of these poems as love letters to humanity and to human connection,” Coates said.

She matched the choreographers with dancers based on mutual interests in dance styles, or, conversely, because “the match may pose a direct collision of different backgrounds and styles that might broaden the dancers’ knowledge of choreographic processes,” she said. The full list of choreographers can be found on the Yale Dance Lab and Yale Schwarzman Center websites.

In the video below, dance critic Brian Seibert previews “Transpositions” (click to play): 

Yale student Zafirat Ndancky ’23, another member of the Dzana dance group, said working with Maqoma was an entirely new experience for her. “He put so much emphasis on the idea of personal space and invading other people’s spaces while in confinement due to the global pandemic, but through art,” she said. “It was really beautiful because I was moving in ways I was not exactly used to and learning how to sing in another language, which was super fascinating.

There was a combination of dance, song, and just enjoyment while I was indoors in a room, and for a moment I forgot that I was in that room, but instead felt I was in another place: inside of my head inviting people in through a [computer] screen. It was, honestly, remarkable.”

Performance artist and scholar Christopher Rasheem McMillan, currently a visiting assistant professor at the Institute of Sacred Music, choreographed a digital poem with Danceworks, Yale’s largest dance group. Members of the group, which doesn’t require auditions, have varied levels of experience in a variety of dance forms, including ballet, jazz, and modern.

Traditionally, we choreograph corporally and communally in the same space,” said McMillan. “But for this project, working inside a flat screen, we can’t tell exactly how what our bodies are doing translates. The dancers I worked with are incredibly creative, and they were open to everything, considering they never met me before.”

His dance poem collaboration deals with the idea of the sacred, McMillan said. “We are trying to make a space of creation versus a space of isolation. By bringing bodies together, the sacred is in our togetherness,” he explained.

John Sullivan, an M.F.A. candidate at the School of Drama who is working as a sound designer for “Transpositions,” enjoyed learning about McMillan’s idea of the sacred and seeing him choreograph the emerging dance piece, which involves the use of organ music to create an “abstract gospel remix.”

My role so far has been to create the soundtrack that the dancers will perform to, which involves conceptualizing, composing, recording, and finalizing a finished audio file that can be distributed to the dancers,” said Sullivan. This soundtrack will then be integrated into the final dance poem.

The interdisciplinary project correlates perfectly with the mission of the Yale Schwarzman Center, said Jennifer Newman, YSC’s associate artistic director. 

A core tenet of the Yale Schwarzman Center is to be a place that fosters community, collaboration and creativity at the intersection of the arts and humanities, whether online or in person,” she said. “Not only are students able to participate in making something together but are also able to engage with a wide range of creators they might not have had the opportunity to engage with otherwise.”

Coates said that the 16 dance poems will be will be rolled out one or two at a time on the Dance Lab and YSC website in the spring, and there will be a Livestream showing of all finished works in April. “In the end,” she said, “we hope our choreographic research and experimentation might illuminate something about this new existence and social space that we are all now occupying. We may be more socially isolated right now, but we’re not alone, especially when we move together.”

Follow the Yale Schwarzman Center on Facebook for more updates on “Transpositions.”


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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,