Safe House: Dancing in the Ivory Tower, Part 1

By Nancy Wozny

It’s been said that the university ranks as one of the chief supporters of the arts in the United States. With the migration of more and more working choreographers into university environments, it’s clear that artists are able to continue to create both inside and outside of these institutions. While the halls of academia offer some distinct advantages, most particularly to oft-itinerant and nearly always-struggling dance artists, other challenges and demands can sap their time and energy in their new environment. For this special Dance/USA report, I spoke with six choreographers navigating the academic terrain about both the rewards and sacrifices they face in giving up some independence for the Ivy Tower.

Joe Goode
Artistic Director, Joe Goode Performance Group, San Francisco, Calif.
Professor, Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, UC Berkeley

When Joe Goode first began negotiations with UC Berkeley, he fully planned to say, “thanks, but no.” His company was completely booked for the next season and he did not think it would ever work. “Not so fast,” the university told him, and, indeed, together they figured out a way to make it work.

Goode joined the academic life in 2001 at 50, well after his company, Joe Goode Performance Group, established itself as a leading force in West Coast dance. He came on board as a full professor with tenure and a one semester teaching commitment. “I didn’t know what tenure meant at the time, but now that I know what an ordeal it is, I’m glad it happened that way,” he says. “It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. It’s a happy marriage and a good match for my skills.”

Known for his highly theatrical and witty work, Goode found a strong home at the heady, once counter-cultural Berkeley campus. “This is a fertile environment. I have access to incredible resources in an intellectual community,” he says. “My colleagues are brilliant, smarter than I am. I feel embraced by my community.” The Bessie-winning choreographer has received numerous fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The California Arts Council, and a 2007 Guggenheim, to name a few among many.

Goode teaches choreography and interdisciplinary performance studies only during the fall semester. It’s the toughest time of year for him. “Even though I don’t spend that many hours on campus, during the fall semester I feel like I have two full-time jobs. Both of the classes are studio classes, meaning they come with a final showing at the end of the semester, so as the semester progresses I am there every evening attending rehearsals and giving feedback or supervising the technical production element of the showing,” he says. “Company worries don’t stop either.”

Regardless of his teaching commitment, university culture does take time. He’s served on search committees, written numerous graduate school recommendations for his students as well as participated in the multitude of administrative activities and meetings that come with academic life. “There was definitely a learning curve. How do I do this and not be drained?” Goode wondered. “I may have turned that corner but it was a slow learning curve and I am still learning. I find that I have to allocate time in the day where I do nothing but clean up administrative tasks,” says Goode. “That means setting aside all personal or company business and just concentrating on UC items. If I do this religiously then I can stay ahead.” Seems like a simple thing, but for an artist who works in a free flowing organic environment, this was a new way of thinking.

The fall-only teaching schedule allows him to tour with his company in the spring and summer months. During a portion of the spring his company is in residence at the University’s Zellerbach Playhouse, which allows him the luxury to develop work in a well-equipped theater. Berkeley students get a chance to observe the company process and some real dance world experience. “It’s a sweet residency,” he says. “We are there non-stop at the end of the semester.” Over time, more connections between university and company life have emerged, often forged during this residency period. Students have understudied and apprenticed, and his lighting designer is a UC Berkeley grad.

The faculty post has also offered some financial security. Goode owns a home, has a 401k and health insurance. He adds, “I’ve been able to do things I would not be able to do without it.” Goode credits the college dance program’s progressive approach to his double life success. “It’s a young program and not entrenched in the past.”

Karen Stokes
Artistic Director, Karen Stokes Dance (formerly Travesty Dance Group), Houston, Texas
Head of the Dance Division, University of Houston

Karen Stokes has a completely different story when it comes to looking at her artistic life in academia. “There are quite a few good choreographers that have ended up in academia who came with a company and a reputation as a choreographer intact to the university. This has not been my journey,” says Stokes. “I have built my work as choreographer alongside building my work as a college faculty administrator/teacher.”

After giving the dancer life a go in New York City during her 20s, where she danced with David Gordon and Stephan Koplowitz, she made the decision that it was time to move on. “I did not want to be 40 and living hand to mouth,” recalls Stokes. “I wanted to stabilize my career and continue to contribute.” She was fully resigned to a life in dance scholarship when she entered UCLA for her MFA. “I thought I was headed for a theoretical career, a Ph.D. and a life dedicated to writing and researching.” At UCLA something else happened. “I could not get out of the studio,” remembers Stokes. “I found out I was not done with the active physical part of dancing.” Stokes then switched from a Ph.D. track to an MFA and returned to dancing and choreography.

Stokes started her academic career at Connecticut College as a visiting adjunct in 1994 through ’96, then she moved on to Kent State from 1996 through ’98. During her last year at Kent State she founded Travesty Dance Group with two of her peers, which allowed her to perform and make work in several locales. She came on board at University of Houston in 1998 as head of the dance division and became a full tenured professor in 2010.

“Academia allowed me to take risks early on, which was a huge boon for my career. I get to do everything I like to do: make dances, talk and write about dance, and teach,” she says. As head of the dance division, her academic duties and teaching load are large. She teaches two courses per semester with an administrative load that varies between 15-30 hours per week. All 40 dance majors are advised by the faculty of three and she works with between 10-15 in her matriculation mentoring program. Stokes sees her life as a choreographer and educator as linked: “The two feed each other by building excitement and interest in my company and teaching. I feel more relevant to my students, staying more grounded with young people. I feel better equipped to mentor them in the field. Teaching helps me not be so wrapped up in the ephemera of being a choreographer.”

As time went on, Stokes became the most active member of Travesty, which has since become a leading professional company in Houston. In 2011, she re-branded Travesty as Karen Stokes Dance. Quite a few UH grads have landed much coveted spots in the company. “It’s always been an interest of mine to have a diverse company showing a realistic sliver of Houston. Because of UH’s population I have been able to do that.”

Stokes feels she had the support of department heads and faculty in other disciplines. “The wonderful thing about academia is that you are expected to contribute to your field through research or creative activity,” she says. “What I do as a choreographer lines up with the expectations of a tier-one research institution.”

The challenges, though, are not minor. Fatigue factors into the equation. For a while, Stokes pushed to get her company out to multiple venues during the season, but then found the effort too draining. “I believe it is important to create new work to stay relevant,” she says. “For me, this needs to balance with a timeline in which the quality of the work is paramount – and not be driven by an external expectation of quantity. It is a balancing act – I do need to produce regularly, but I also need to not do so at the expense of the work itself.”

Most recently, Stokes received support from UH’s cross-disciplinary think tank, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, to develop The Secondary Colors, a collaboration with composer Bill Ryan, that included several world-class musicians. “In contemporary/modern dance, you have to wear so many hats: grant writer, general administrator, production elements, laundry mistress, maintenance of my non-profit board, fundraiser,” Stokes admits. “I have to constantly balance the demands of the company with the demands of teaching and administrating the dance program. If my company continues to grow [financially], I will be able to off-load some of my responsibilities to a manager. That is the plan and the hope.”

David Rousseve
Artistic Director, David Rousseve/Reality
Professor of Dance, UCLA

Like Stokes, David Rousseve seeks a certain balance between his creative and academic lives. He came to UCLA in 1996, also with tenure. “I did not know back then what a big deal it was, but I know now it was crucial,” says Rousseve. For the first six years, Rousseve led a busy bi-coastal life, flying back and forth from Los Angeles to New York to keep his company going. “Those were hard years. It was difficult to do from a distance.”

Leaving his New York base wasn’t easy. “It was huge for me,” he says. “I had strong community in New York. It was very difficult on a personal level.” The choreographer has since restructured his company model to one that does project based work, which allows him the luxury to space out major works, take the time to fundraise, and plan for touring. “Being in academia is a disadvantage for fundraising. It’s harder to find the time, and also it feels like – since it is so tough for all artists out there –sometimes funders may lean toward supporting artists who may not have the benefit of a salary,” he says. “Time-wise, you essentially have two full-time jobs: The academic job and the creative one as choreographer. I’m fundraising for my new piece and that feels like a third full-time job sometimes. Time becomes a huge issue.”

Funds from the Herb Alpert Foundation, which supports innovative artists in multiple fields and is administered by the teaching institution CalArts, allowed him to put a down payment on a house. He’s adjusted to the spread out Los Angles dance scene. “It’s a difficult place, yet I have been able to carve out a niche,” he says of his West Coast lifestyle. “UCLA is a great place to work. I am surrounded by strong artists like Victoria Marks and Peter Sellars along with graduate students.”

Rousseve readily admits that he’s making less work, but feels strongly that the quality is better. The need to constantly put forth new work has subsided and he’s settled into a stable cycle for creating new work. He is just gearing up for a new piece, Stardust, an interdisciplinary evening-length work exploring intimacy and technology slated for the 2012-2013 season. He has seen a change in his professional profile. “It was a big emotional and identity shift to leave New York,” Rousseve says. “There’s always this tug between academia and being a working artist. But now that I’m doing less work in the field by choice, I feel less inclined to churn out material. My new work is less formulaic. Academia buys me some breathing room.”

Rousseve teaches composition almost exclusively where, he finds, “My classes can be an incubator for new ideas.” The chair is a revolving position, and he did his turn from 2002-2004. Although they were busy years, Rousseve sees the necessity to step up to the plate to advocate for his department. “It’s fulfilling. UCLA has a progressive mission to redefine dance, yet bureaucracy can be a challenge.”

Joe Goode teaching in 2010, photo by JGPG staff
Joe Goode Performance Group in The Rambler (2011) publicity photo by RJ Muna. Pictured: Jessica Swanson (left), Andrew Ward (lifted), Felipe Barrueto-Cabello
Karen Stokes teaching at University of Houston, photo by Lynn Lane
Karen Stokes Dance in Distestation, photo by Buddy Steves
David Rousseve, photo by Lorenzo Bevilaqua
David Rousseve and Taisha Paggett in Rousseve’s Saudade,
photo by Jorge Vismara


To read Part 2 of Safe House: Dancing in the Ivory Tower, click here.

Nancy Wozny is the editor of Arts + Culture Houston, reviews editor for Dance Source Houston and a contributing editor for Dance Magazine. She also writes for Culturemap, Pointe, and Dance Teacher. Wozny was a 2005 NEA Fellow of the Institute for Dance Criticism. She was also a 2004 recipient of the Gary Parks Memorial Award for Emerging Dance Critics, a two-time recipient of Artists Project Grants from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston/Harris County, a 2001 finalist for the Sommerville Award in Somatic Writing, and a 1994 research fellow at the Leonard Bernstein Center for the Arts and Education.


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