The College at Brockport's Department of Dance has a long history of hiring teachers who are professional artists with years of experience performing and choreographing modern dance. The department celebrates its 50th anniversary this week with its annual Danscore performances.
According to the department interim chair James Hansen, the landscape for dance in higher learning looked different at the time of the department's inception at Brockport.
"In most departments across the country at that time, they were run by people in physical education programs," Hansen explains. At The College at Brockport, professional dancers staked their claim in academia by founding a dance department that included its own touring company — Danscore — made up of faculty members.
Five decades later, Brockport continues its tradition of bringing downstate professional dancers together with aspiring students looking to professionally break through. According to Assistant Professor Stevie Oakes, this community of in-house professionals helps link the collegiate community with the dance community at-large. "This year's Danscore provides only the best examples of how that kind of integration benefits the students and the local community," she says.
The upcoming Danscore performances serve as a showcase, a vital snapshot of where contemporary dance has been in the past 30-plus years, and where it's headed now. The real coup of the program for the Brockport dance community is its reimagining of the late choreographer and dancer Trisha Brown's "Set and Reset" as "Set and Reset/Reset." Professor Emeritus Jacqueline Davis garnered the grant Brockport needed to successfully stage the work, which is the linchpin of the performances.
In addition to benefiting from the expertise of Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director Mariah Maloney — who was a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company from 1995 through 2002 — the students learned the choreography and tools necessary to execute it from Vicky Shick, an original cast member from the 1983 premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as Iréne Hultman, who was the first company member to perform Brown's role.
Maloney recalls five rules for "Set and Reset" as established by Brown: "Keep it simple, act on instinct, stay on the edge, work with visibility and invisibility, and get in line." She characterizes the resulting dance as "small layers that accumulate group choreography through improvisation," akin to the classic matching cards memory game.
The choreography in the original "Set and Reset" is highly expressive and fluid, featuring Brown's exciting technique in tandem with a more traditional approach as danced by an artist well-versed in classical dance. The contrast is beautiful, particularly in the tension that it creates.
Looking back at her time working with Brown, Maloney has fond memories herself. "I had the opportunity to become the most articulate artist I could possibly become," she says. "Her material, her process, her choreographic devices — they're inviting. Trisha grew up in the northwest rainforest, in Aberdeen, Washington. I grew up in Alaska. Her material made me feel at home and it made me want to be able to do it so much better, every time I did it."
Hansen says the bill's various dances aren't connected by theme, but by their "current, postmodern" aesthetics, and that the unity hinges on Brown's "Set and Reset." "Trisha Brown was the emergence of postmodernism, and the majority of the rest of the work is the most current examples of how postmodernism exists in the dance world," he says. "So I guess that's the connective thread — how postmodernism has evolved over time."
Hansen doesn't mince words in explaining the strengths of Brockport's dance department that will carry it into the future.
"Jump ahead 50 years, and I would say that we are still continuing to be revolutionary, in that we have on faculty the most current and cutting-edge dance artists and philosophers that exist," he says.
Some of the large, older, and reputable conservatories — at Juilliard, SUNY Purchase, and North Carolina School of the Arts — "were founded by and continue to have instructors who are 70, 80 years old, who are not current in their investigation of the form," he says. "Our department is all cutting-edge, young people who are pushing boundaries."
Maloney cites the additions of Jenise Anthony, who specializes in African dance, Julia Berrer, formerly of Doug Varone and Dancers, and ballet dancer Jennifer Weber to the Department of Dance faculty as part of a vital shift in focus.
"The reset that's happening in-house at The College at Brockport Department of Dance is that we've had new faculty come in and senior faculty retire and transition to new locations," she explains. "And so, I feel like this performance for Danscore this year is evidence of both the history and the absolute deep roots of creativity that this department has always had, and the rigor, and it's honoring the new possibilities with the new faculty."EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to clarify that Iréne Hultman's role in the Trisha Brown Dance Company.