Three spheres of activity

‘Three spheres of activity’ is a report by Annette van Zwoll on John Jasperse’ intervention at  European Dancehouse Network Atelier on Dance Training, organised at Dance Ireland in Dublin on 29/30 June 2018.

‘Develop and nurture a creative community, that’s the most important thing’

John Jasperse, director of Sarah Lawrence College – New York

Having been a student there once himself and turned into an experienced and recognised choreographer, John Jasperse took over the role as director of dance at the undergraduate and graduate program of the Sarah Lawrence College (SLC), in Yonkers, one of the suburbs of New York. Founded in 1926 as a women’s college, Sarah Lawrence has always been a liberal arts, but class-based, college highly influenced by the theories of John Dewey, who aimed for experimental learning and critical thinking. What does that mean in current days? Current days, in which dance companies and performances are in decline, but in which dance has become increasingly popular through competitions like ‘so you think you can dance’. Current days in which dance artists embrace not only a huge variety of aesthetics but also increasingly develop socially engaged practices, present in non-traditional spaces and work with a multitude of disciplines. Current days in which dance artists are faced with a neo-liberal, economical driven context and face less and less security.

SLC is aiming to be of relevance for students now and in the future. Therefore Jasperses aim is to educate students in three spheres of activity that are all intertwined: as a producer of artistic work, as a participant in the labour economy and as a citizen of the world. But how to do that? A lot seems to come from acknowledgement. Acknowledgment: 

  • that students will exist in a very different, dynamic professional field than the teachers have knowledge of.
  • that students are longing for different kind of dance aesthetics, and the acknowledgement of the hierarchy that currently exists between them. 
  • of the history of the different dance aesthetics, the broadness of cultural appropriation and influence of imperialism and colonialism.
  • of a changing demography of students in terms of class and cultural background (e.g. in 2034 the US is anticipated to become a ‘majority-minority’ nation, meaning that no single ethnic group will form a minority anymore)

The ambitions of Jasperse are high and his enthusiasm contagious. In everything he does he tries to touch upon all those three spheres. With that he aims to implement the guiding principles of including multiple, diverse traditions, of having interdisciplinarity in focus, of empowerment of the students individual and creative voices, of encouraging self reflection and critical thinking and catalysing new forms of knowledge. He tries to intertwine those in all parts of the curriculum and by doing so nurture individual voices as well as creating a community. Practically this results in:

  • The restructuring of the curriculum by decreasing hierarchies between genres: contemporary dance, ballet, African diasporic dance, somatically based forms, but also butoh, hip-hop, vogue and bharatanatyam are taught and given equal importance.
  • Creating synergy between movement practice, creative work and analytic studies; apart from the movement courses ,history, anatomy, dance theory and pedagogy classes are given as well as improvisation & composition classes and dance & media (e.g. lightning) classes. There is a strong commitment to placing equal focus on artists and arts from Euro-centric and the African Diaspora and Global South traditions.
  • A focus on the relation to other disciplines by supporting interdisciplinarity and nurturing the potential of working with other art forms as well as encouraging students to think and work beyond the boundaries of the traditional theatre space.
  • Capitalizing on the asses of the location: the proximity of New York allows SLC to interface with the local dance scene and artistic communities, and at the same time it makes it easy to invite national and international artists from different dance aesthetics and disciplines. Also, the presence in Yonkers invites the students to explore dance in innovative ways to cross-historical class and racial barriers.
  • Investing in the practical aspects of making it work: grant writing, budgeting, project planning, funding outreach, social media.

The complexities of implement a model are high and lay among others in the size of the institution, that offers many programs partly competing with one and other, practicalities and the tension of organizing an intense MFA for only six students while at the same time implementing this model for the undergraduate program that is available to all students. But the internal culture is changing and there is a strong wish to be relevant for the current and future dance sector and for educating students into the three spheres of action.