BWW Feature: THE FIRST GRADUATING CLASS AT USC KAUFMAN HAS THE WORLD AT ITS POINTED/FLEXED FEET
Glorya Kaufman, in 2012, instituted the first new school at the University of Southern California in 40 years; the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, to broaden the curriculum for obtaining a professional dance degree, or BFA. Up until that time, most colleges and universities offered classes in mostly ballet and modern styles, and courses regarding the history of dance and noted choreographers, which gives a solid foundation to become a concert dancer; but here in Los Angeles, especially, there is such a wide variety of dance styles, mediums, and avenues dancers nowadays can take and branch out with a much more focused, but well-rounded and complete acquired knowledge base. The USC Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center, with space for USC Kaufman's entire curriculum for The New Movement, officially opened October 5, 2016. It is a brick-and-mortar celebration of dance and movement, giving the school's leaders Dean Robert Cutietta and Vice Dean and Artistic Director Jodie Gates a unique opportunity to rethink the vision of a professional dance degree and build a diverse, flexible, globally-minded curriculum unencumbered by previous outdated requirements.
The dancers in training in today's world are much more prepared to tackle their future because of programs and curriculums like these. And to be of an age where you have the opportunity to attend a higher education institution with such specificity so early in life is incredibly valuable.
This will be the very first graduating class, and after seeing them perform at their Spring Dance Performance last week at USC's Bing Theatre I have no doubt they all will succeed at their hopes and dreams, and will greatly contribute to a myriad of artistic endeavors and accomplishments.
The graduating seniors (and also dancers from classes graduating in 2 - 3 years) performed both new and classical dance works by George Balanchine, William Forsythe, who is also a part of the faculty, Barak Marshall and Alejandro Cerrudo, to name a few. They showcased their versatility and strong technique in the selections chosen to perform, and seemed also to enjoy the performing part of it as well.
Beside their regular academic classes and dance schedules of classes, rehearsal and performances, these fortunate graduate students travelled to New York earlier this year and attended a program for student choreography at New York Live Arts and also a concert dance performance at The Joyce Theater. They are afforded many opportunities such as this, to be able to interact with and perform for choreographers, managers, directors and agents. They also have full access to master classes with visiting dance companies connected with Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at The Music Center. By the time of graduation, students have interacted personally with many of the world's leading dance professionals.
I had the opportunity to interview two of these gifted graduating students, Rachel Walton and Coco Alvarez-Mena about their experiences as students at USC and their plans after graduation.
Each graduating class member was assigned to create a Senior Project that spoke to their goals and ambitions and present it before graduation. The examples given included filming a documentary, hosting a benefit concert to support a nonprofit organization, implementing a dance outreach program at a local elementary school, creating a program that provides mental health services to dancers, and developing a computer application that will allow users to share dance research and choreographic exploration. The latter two, were created by Coco and Rachel, in that order.
Some of the graduates have more than one degree they have been working towards. Rachel Walton, hailing from Philomont, Virginia, is a dance major and a computer programming minor. For her senior project, she's developing an application that will allow users to share research both for dancers and non-dancers across the platform's database.
She began dancing when she was three years old, and can't really remember not having dance as a part of her life. When she reached high school, she also became interested in computer technology, studying at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) based school for her four years of high school while continuing her dance training. She found USC to be the perfect match for her ~ combining an accelerated dance curriculum with courses in the latest technology and media that fed her other interests and eventually intersecting them to form her own unique goal, combining everything together. Another talent, closely related to dance and mathematics that she has nurtured is playing lead alto sax with her jazz band during high school!
During her time @ USC, she has performed with the professional dance company Kybele Dance Theater, giving her a chance to observe the choreographic process, and the inner workings of a dance company, and found it to be very rewarding. Under the guidance of William Forsythe and his improvisational techniques, the teacher she most admires and has been inspired by, she continued to form a specific mindset; to find new ways of creating dance, using computer software, coding programs, developing an app and video game and utilizing Augmented Reality. She plans to keep expanding her concepts. "The project will culminate in a TED-Talk-style demonstration in which I will present the prototype for the app technology to the audience," Walton said. "Ideally, I would be able to have a live dancer perform the same movements that appear onscreen." Once the code is in place, Walton will be able to incorporate movement vocabulary from her dance training. This will elevate the capabilities of the application in order to set it apart. It also stems from the joy she receives from performing dance, wanting to broaden awareness of dance and it's benefits globally, and increase choreographic possibilities.
She also plans to dance professionally, going forward. She credits her strong work ethic and cheerful, light-hearted demeanor to her parents and all of her professors, in particular Patrick Corbin and Dawn Stoppiello who have given her so much support to follow her exciting, and impactful brand new ideas in keeping dance current with technology and creating and elevating a new frontier in dance.
Coco Alvarez-Mena grew up in Miami, Florida, studying dance, beginning at an early age; mimicking Britney Spears in the mirror, dancing to music whenever possible... a very expressive and uninhibited young girl, competing in ballet, contemporary, jazz and ballroom. She acquired a full scholarship to study the Vaganova ballet technique, created originally by Marius Petipa, as well as studying Latin ballroom and other styles, which gave her a wide base of dance knowledge to work with right off the bat. She, too, is very driven by her passion for dance, and is also very grateful to her family, especially her mom, who instilled hard work and persistence in her and her love of dance and music. She was so focused on joining a ballet company, she originally wanted to leave high school to do so, but her parents helped her see the value in attending college. Finding USC, and doing some research, she realized what an incredible experience it could be, and now, four years later, she will be graduating magna cum laude and starting a career as a professional dancer with the Oregon Ballet Theatre.
She has also performed with the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet, last year, as a guest artist, at the Laguna Dance Festival and for several multimedia projects in the Los Angeles area.
Among her other mentors, Vice Dean Jodie Gates, a former ballerina, helped her focus on hybridity and the inclusion of all forms of dance. She feels USC is the only university that has the best of both worlds: " a rigorous conservatory-style dance training program and a traditional social and academic college experience. The dance training I've received at Kaufman is unparalleled to the training at any other university or trainee program because of its focus on hybridity and 'the new movement.' Different from other universities, Kaufman also teaches their dancers to be curious about dance from an academic perspective in additional to physical embodiment."
Her senior project involves something close to her heart, something she experienced on her road to becoming a professional dancer, and that is learning to deal with the pressures and stress of auditioning, performing, staying disciplined and mentally balanced, and not letting disappointments or setbacks get the best of you. Last summer, while attending a series of summer dance intensives, she began to notice feeling low, unhappy and and a bit confused when her mom pointed out to her she didn't seem like herself. That is when she decided to start having sessions with her Sports therapist, which helped her immensely, gradually improving all the aspects in her life. Oftentimes when you are so focused and driven, you don't realize your mental state has shifted and that you are limiting your chances to be successful. As she saw herself improve by reaching out and discussing her concerns, she realized how many other dancers might be suffering in silence, and decided to do something about it. She would like to erase the stigma of mental health concerns. In the dance world, especially in ballet, you are drilled incessantly to be nothing less than perfect all the time, and to be stoic and strong, never being seen as weak or unsure. It is what dancers call the "perfectionist syndrome." It is not the easiest way to make a living, with all the pressure, constantly, and competition in securing employment, having to constantly audition and prove yourself over and over.
So her project has manifested into a program called Kaufman Care that makes mental health services exclusively available to BFA dance students. It is still in the early stages of development, but the goal is to accompany the physical health services already available to Kaufman students. Right now, dancers can easily sign up for physical therapy, pilates and gyrotonic appointments. Newsletters and events featuring guest speakers who specialize in mental health for dancers would also be part of the program. These experts would discuss dance-related topics like audition anxiety, healthy body images, stage fright and confidence.
She adds, "Being a dance major is so intense all the time that when you get in this environment and you have no outlet, you burn out." If I could prevent people from having to go through that, that's my goal. I want people to dance because they love to dance and not just quit because it was too much to handle."
These exceptional ladies are just now embarking on their professional journey, and have put in all the work, blood, sweat and tears, having the backing of years of training and absorbing, to blossom into their full potential. How exciting!
At their Commencement ceremony today, Friday, May 10th, 2019, none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov will be the speaker. How's that for a grand send-off?
Photos courtesy of Cathryn Farnsworth (Headshots), Benjamin Peralta & Rose Eichenbaum (Coco's Dance Shots) Mary Mallaney and Rachel Walton (Dance Shots)