Safe House: Dancing in the Ivory Tower, Part 2

By Nancy Wozny

Editor’s note: This is the second part of an in-depth article examining the artistic and life-style choices dancers and choreographers make when they enter the field of academia but continue to produce artistic works. To read Part 1, click here.

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.

David Dorfman
Artistic Director, David Dorfman Dance, New York, NY
Professor of Dance, Connecticut College, New London, Conn.

David Dorfman’s double life is in full swing right now with his piece Prophets of Funk just wrapping up at the Joyce Theater in New York, with more U.S. touring planned. Dorfman’s eight Bessie Award-winning company has performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music, the American Dance Festival, Jacob’s Pillow as well as on several international tours. Known for his ability to fuse the personal with social issues, his work offers inclusivity often rare to post-modern choreographers of his generation.

He also presides over the dance department at his MFA alma mater at Connecticut College, where he has taught since 2004. “I have three jobs really, teaching at the College, running the department, and my company, since 1985. I have the energy of 10 people and it’s still hard,” he says. “I’m also a husband and father to a ten-year old.” Dorfman’s company is in residence at the college for three weeks each year where he holds open rehearsals.

Dorfman was swept up in a wave of mid-career artists heading to academia during the late 1990s and early 2000s. With cuts in funding and less touring on state and national levels, academia became the lifeboat for him to maintain his New York-based company while keeping a stable roof over his head. He admits life away from New York is “less crazed.” “Our home in New London is palatial compared to New York,” he says.

Depending on what’s happening with the company, there’s a good deal of going back and forth to Manhattan, a two-hour drive. During the summer and winter school breaks he will rehearse for a solid month. “It’s a tough schedule,” he says. “The physical distance is an issue; it’s harder to get work. With each passing year, it’s a little easier to feel out of the scene and not on peoples’ minds as much as in the old days. That being said, I just had a great APAP conference and felt that our presence was solid and recognized.”

Unlike research institutions, Connecticut College emphasizes teaching and service. Dorfman has found a definite synergy between company and academic life. Students have been involved with almost every aspect of the company’s creative process from working out an idea to apprenticing as a dancer. One Connecticut College grad is now a full-time member of the company.

Chairing the department is a mixed blessing for Dorfman. “My attraction to chairing is similar to the desire to run a company for these almost thirty years: you get to have a very direct influence on the passing on of dance and its communicative powers,” he says. “That being said, I do look forward to the time when I will not be chair.” Letting go of the chair position will offer more mental space for Dorfman to focus on his company, from nuts and bolts daily activities to creative long-term planning. “I’m feeling this need for more each year that I am up here. The more you know what you need, the more things change, so I’m looking forward to the shifts ahead in this next period of my ‘dual’ life.”

Much has changed since the better days of dance in the early 1990s. The company has had its ups and downs, along with the expected financial woes that have afflicted most mid-size troupes. Right now, with Prophets of Funk making the rounds, the company stands on solid footing.

When Dorfman first entered academia as an associate professor in 2004, he wasn’t sure it was a long-term solution. After his father died, his thinking continued to evolve. It was his father who urged him to put his MFA to work. “I didn’t know if I was a lifer. I wasn’t convinced, but the job grew on me,” he says. “Today I looked at the job in a different light.”

Susan Shields
Independent choreographer,
Professor of Dance, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.

Susan Shields has carved a different path in the university system. The 2006 Choo-San Goh Award-winning choreographer has set work on major regional companies including Ballet West, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Washington Ballet, Richmond Ballet, American Repertory Theatre, and others. Her dancing credits include Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, and Mark Morris Dance Group in The Hard Nut.

Being an artistic director of a dance company was never in her plans. “The world doesn’t need the Susan Shields Dance Company,” she says. “The regional dance company model didn’t appeal to me. I like production values too much.”

As a freelance independent choreographer, a full-time academic position proved a necessity. “It’s one way to survive as a choreographer,” says Shields. “George Mason gives me an artistic base. Plus, I have amazing colleagues and support all the way to the top.” Shields feels surrounded by faculty colleagues who share her interests in teaching and keeping independent careers afloat. “My students love it when I do work, they attach to it,” she says. “Sometimes I will use them to work out a section [of a project], but mostly I do original material in my classes. I want to teach the right kind of class for their training.”

The university expects her to spread her choreographic wings. She tries to schedule her gigs in the summer during off months, although it’s not always possible. “With a mission where innovation is the tradition, George Mason wants us out and about,” Shields says. In 2008 a Ballet West commission, “Grand Synthesis,” proved big for her. “I expected it to be a launching pad for me, but I’m still waiting for the phone to ring,” admits Shields. “I don’t do as much marketing as I should.”

Shields has just wrapped up a major dance-theater project, Stay, a evening-length collaboration with playwright and George Mason colleague Heather McDonald. “I’m tired,” the choreographer reveals. After big projects Shields is ready to focus on her students where she feels appreciated and stimulated.

Michelle Ellsworth
Soloist, independent performance artist, Boulder, Colo.
Assistant Professor of Dance, Co-director of the Dance Department, University of Colorado Boulder

Michelle Ellsworth is up for tenure right now. In addition to her regular teaching duties and performing, she’s spent the past year preparing a huge portfolio of her work. “I’ve jumped through a few hoops already, and now I’m ready for peer review.”

Ellsworth’s academic track is unusual in that she teaches at the same institution where she received her MFA in 1998. She went from guest artist to tenure track, where she has been an assistant professor for 11 years. Ellsworth is a soloist and independent performance artist, whose work often references themes in science, politics, feminism, and the history of art. Because her body of work involves an intense research period, she finds the university environment a good fit for her curious sensibility.

She has full access to the intellectual campus community, and is not shy about reaching out to colleagues in other departments. She co-taught an interdisciplinary performance seminar with composer Michael Theodore and a course called “The Art and Science of Climate Change” with Jason Neff, resulting in her work, The Objectification of Things, which referenced a slew of scientific facts. “The piece actually started by teaching the class with Jason,” she says.

Currently, she is working with evolutionary biologist Rob Guralnick for her piece, Preparation for the Obsolescence of the Y Chromosome. “We may teach together in the future,” she adds.

Ellsworth finds that teaching fuels her creativity, while administrative work, a part of her daily life, can become draining. “Meetings suck my life force,” she says. “It exhausts me to go into that persona; it’s not pretty either. It’s best if I set aside time for it and do it in one chunk.” A mother of two school-age children, Ellsworth appreciates the financial security the university job offers. “I’m a girl who likes health insurance,” she says. “It’s too stressful to be a freelancer.”

Ellsworth lists sleep deprivation as her chief problem. “I have no life between teaching, making work and family,” she says. “It’s like having two full-time jobs.” Currently, she teaches two classes per semester, using the remaining time for research and choreographic exploration in the studio. She does all her own grant writing and marketing, occasionally hiring people to make sets. Her high-school-age son helps her with her website, video editing, and photography. “If I have to compromise, it’s my teaching that suffers,” she admits, “but I believe my students benefit from my dedication to my work. I model what it’s like to be a committed artist.” Ellsworth describes her university environment as “well adjusted,” insisting “I’ve had nothing but support.”

It’s clear from these six stories, that academia is providing a valuable lifeline for these artists, allowing them to continue putting their work on in the world in a way that works despite the obvious obstacles. It’s almost painful to wonder how many mid-career artists might have stopped creating work all together without university support. As almost all mentioned the two-job conundrum, it’s not an easy situation. Surely, the security is a huge benefit as artists move toward mid-career, yet the choice comes with continual negotiation, artistic sacrifices, and compromise.

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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