How do human bodies “literally and metaphorically shape our political and physical worlds”? Addressing that question will be part of the focus of Movement Matters, a multiyear endeavor at Middlebury College that will bring emerging dance artists to the school to collaborate with faculty and students in other disciplines.
The project just won a $310,000 Mellon grant, an unprecedented sum not just for the dance program but for the arts in general at Middlebury, according to Christal Brown. An assistant professor of dance and chair of the program, she will oversee the three-stage project.
Phase one, Brown says, involves planning over the next year — finding professors across campus “who may want to take the plunge into an interdisciplinary project.” At the same time, the department will send out a request-for-proposal to artists “and ask them to dream up the most important project of their lives.”
The three dance artists who are chosen for winter term 2015 will come to campus “to meet their interdisciplinary partners,” Brown continues. Asked to give a hypothetical example of a partnership, she suggests cellular biology. While the students study what is happening inside the body, a choreographer might show them how to move those cells. “It’s small to large in terms of movement, and with each other,” Brown says.
Finally, one of the three artists will be appointed for a two-year residency as the Mellon Interdisciplinary Choreographer at Middlebury, who “will do research and work with groups throughout campus to develop creative collaborations in and out of the classroom.” Brown insists the three artists are not in competition; the department will simply choose the person “we can best support.” That person will then receive a production budget for his or her project on campus.
Brown believes this interdisciplinary approach is not about teaching nondancers how to dance, or even just making them more aware of their bodies in a space or context. She sees it as part of a bigger picture. “A liberal arts education should lead to a global citizenship — a life of action,” Brown says. “Movement Matters is a piece of that; it’s continuing to bring light to this idea of an embodied scholar.”
When Brown waxes enthusiastic about movement, she makes it sound like an integral part of social functioning in the world, and a critical component of self-confidence. Underscoring this idea, she says of Middlebury’s dance program in general, “[It’s] not a conservatory, so we focus on the creative process. It doesn’t ask that you make dancers without context; we don’t teach dance just for the purpose of being a dancer.”
According to Brown, the value of a dance education is creating one’s own movement vocabulary — “How would you say this in your own body?” she asks. Regardless of students’ majors or future professional fields, an understanding of movement “unearths who they are,” Brown says.
The Mellon grant and Movement Matters project come at a significant period for Middlebury’s dance curriculum. Two longtime professors — Penny Campbell and Andrea Olsen — are retiring (although Olsen will continue to teach as an associate after a sabbatical). For the last 25 years, their respective focuses — one on performance and improvisation, the other on anatomy and kinesiology — have been “the two specialties the program has been built on,” says Brown. “We’ll continue to think about [this legacy] but add a more contemporary approach to training. It is my hope that we can shape this program in terms of what is happening in dance now.”
Brown envisions Middlebury College becoming a “hub” in the field of dance that prepares its students for the real world. In turn, visiting dancer/choreographers come into academia to “sift out their own work,” she says, calling that process “a corridor that has existed for years.”
Sometimes those visitors are big names such as Liz Lerman. But under the Mellon grant, Brown notes, Middlebury will work instead with emerging, yet-unknown artists. “They don’t always get the same opportunities,” she says.