When Burchfield announced last month that she would leave ADF and Hollins at the end of the summer, the news sent shockwaves through the dance world.
On the afternoon of July 19, and briefly on July 24 and 25, we talked for a couple of hours about what she’s leaving, where she’s going—and why.
Thanks to head librarian Kelly Lawson and the staff of Lilly Library at Duke University for hosting our conversation.
INDEPENDENT: At this point almost everybody knows what you are leaving—your positions as Dean of the American Dance Festival and as Director of the Dance Program at Hollins University.
Let’s open the conversation by focusing instead on what it is you are moving toward.
DONNA FAYE BURCHFIELD: Open space. (pause)
Tell me more.
I was talking to a friend late Saturday afternoon. It was after a long day, and she had called to talk through this news of me leaving. At one point in the conversation I said, “I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff.” Which is pretty true.
This is my 28th summer here. That’s more than half my life.
I don’t even know what my address will be in Philadelphia. I’m selling the home my children grew up in Roanoke. I’m leaving Hollins, which has been this cradle of—reassurance.
If you can imagine, when I went there my son wasn’t even potty trained, and my daughter had never been anywhere except a one-room schoolhouse and she was about to go into first grade.
[Burchfield worked in the region at Carolina Friends School and N.C. State, before her time at Hollins.]
So it was a big deal for me to leave here to move to Roanoke.
I can only say it really is a valley, and it really did reassure me and comfort me. Roanoke and Hollins became this reflective space. It just was.
Something happens in a place where you sleep there, you eat there, you watch your children grow up there, you walk down a hill behind your house and you teach your class. And you dance there, and all of these minds and bodies are working together and thinking, and bodies are moving between classrooms. It’s that idea of circulation—a circulation of knowledge and of hope.
I would say that the circulation of knowledge and feelings generates an ontology of hope, in a way.
Something happens in that kind of space.
So really, it was just ideal at that time in my life. (laughs) Also, just being in that women’s space; it was just essential.
The experience of shadowing dancer Kat Folckomer as she attended classes made me curious about the other classes offered during ADF. I chose three more classes to attend and observe. As ADF asks of its students, I chose two technique classes and one theory class.
I arrived at the Durham School of the Arts’ Upper Studio for the technique class called “Slosh and Fall: Moving with Weight, Clarity and Ease.”
Instructor Abby Yager addressed the intriguing title, telling me that the class "addresses the question of weight [and] how to use gravity to your advantage to move with ease and efficiency.”
“It allows us to access maximum movement potential within the body and through space,” she continued, adding that her class examines the mechanics, or the “how,” of dance, and not just the “what.”
Yager led her class in stretches, instructing students to “get a little bit more snake-y” in their movements. The dancers moved in spirals and arcs, while Yager told them to pay attention to the movements’ nuances.
Her students incorporated yoga moves as well. They bounced on the balls of their feet as they raised their hips upward, posed in the downward dog position.
“Real work comes from getting out of your body’s way,” Yager said, invoking a comparison to the task of childbirth.
After warm-ups, it was time for the choreography. Students performed the routine in groups while Yager issued instructions for perfecting deliberate movements.
“[Move] almost like you could slice the space and the room would fall apart,” Yager said.
The next technique class, on hip-hop, promised to be energetic. Back on Duke’s East Campus, it’s held in the Baldwin building’s auditorium—or, as one student referred to it, “Club Baldwin.” Dancers first warmed up stretching in a circle, swinging their arms and rolling their shoulders. Unlike the other classes I’ve visited, many dancers here wore street shoes to dance in.
After sitting in on Kat Folckomer’s two technique classes, I follow her to the Nelson Music Room. It’s here where she’ll attend her last class of the day, “Composition, Improvisation: the Practice of Performance.” This class is designated as Section B, meaning that it’s a class devoted to theory.
“We’re only allowed to take two technique classes a day, so the other one has to be theory,” Folckomer says.
“I wanted to take this class because I’m focusing more on technique [theory] and I wanted to think about dance in ways that were more than just movement,” she says. She says that she’s taken similar classes to this one at Hollins University, where she is a student.
When teachers Jesse Zarritt and Lindsay Clark arrive, Zarritt gives the class their prompt. “Where am I in the body of dance?” Dancers spread out across the room, notebooks in hand, to ponder the question and jot down thoughts.
Afterward, the students gather in a circle as Zarritt leads a discussion on the distinction between being interested in a performance as opposed to the actual performance being interesting, and how acting as an observer differs from beinga performer. This leads to discussion of using performance as an idea of practicing presence, and that there always needs to be a “why” attached to performing.
INDEPENDENT: You were one of the founding members of the group.
SARA PROCOPIO: Yes I was.
What was your first contact with Shen Wei; the first time you saw anything he did?
I first met Shen Wei at Hollins University in 1997. He came to Hollins for a couple of weeks in the midst of creating a solo show he was performing in London and New York, to finalize the show and prepare its technical elements, using the theater on campus.
He was a guest in Donna Faye Burchfield’s dance history class. He spoke of his experiences growing up in China and training in Chinese opera, but at the time his English was very limited. He taught a master class, and after his technical rehearsals were finished, he gave a performance of his solo show.
That was my first introduction to him — as a solo artist, and not someone who had a company or was interested in having a company.
I remember thinking that his solo was beautiful, and I enjoyed his master class. And that was that.
At the time, Burchfield was bringing in a host of guest artists to the dance program at Hollins; though he might not have exactly been just another face in the crowd, it sounds like he was just one person among a constellation of artists you were being exposed to.
Exactly, exactly. It was an experience — and then we moved on the next experience, I guess.
INDEPENDENT: I know your history with the company goes back to the early 1990s. What was it about his work that made you seek him out?
JEAN FREEBURY: I had seen Points in Space on TV when I was 16; I didn’t understand it at all at the time.
I had [Cunningham dancer] Catherine Kerr teach me in London for the first time, but I had never seen the work, and it was a mystery to me. I was very curious and quite amazed at what she could do. But she was pretty intense and I was a little shy, so I never asked her anything more. I was pretty young; it was my first year outside of Canada.
I think I actually saw the company do an Event in London, but at the time it still didn’t get me.
I hadn’t seen very much of other kinds of dance besides ballet until I was 20; originally, there was zero modern dance in Alberta.
I remember the first time I saw the company, live, in 1990. I was on spring break from the [UNC] School of the Arts. I went to City Center to see them; the program was August Pace and Fabrications.
I was totally blown away; they had a kind of physicality that I really liked. I was 21, and at that age you’re looking for movement you’d like to do, that you’d want to perform.
When I saw the company, I said I really have to try this; I have to figure out how to get here.
But really, it was the physicality in what they were doing, more than the choreography, that got me when I first saw them.
The Repertory Workshop: Duke Gardens Project class met in the wood-paneled Southgate Gym. A mat lay over the small basketball court and, with giant, deafening fans overhead, dancers gathered in groups, chatted and warmed up waiting for class to start.
Professor Rodger Belman’s class stems from a personal project last summer, when he staged a work in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens with 30 students working on their own time. More than 300 attended the performance, so Belman added the class to the ADF school curriculum this year.
“Students learn some of my repertory, dance phrases and partnering, and also contribute to the dance making process by creating some of their own movement material,” Belman tells me, explaining that said movements are inspired by visits to the gardens.
“Through this process, I direct the creation of solos, duets and group dances specific to locations in the garden that culminate in a performance in the garden at the end of the festival,” Belman says.
This summer, Belman is concentrating the class’s Duke Gardens work mostly in the W. L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. He had originally planned to cap the class at 24, but robust interest led to a class of 38, including 90-year-old dancer Susan Gittler, with whom he had worked last summer.
After five full weeks of dance, it was hard to shake the inaccurate sense that we’d already seen it all. But when a dapper young man shot a young woman sitting across from him at a café table in the face, without warning, with a high-power water hose on stage during the final week of last year’s American Dance Festival, it was a wake-up call, to say the least. Then, just to make sure we got the point, he did it again. And again, as the stunned party crowd on stage went as still as the audience.
And that was merely the opening bid of Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret by choreographer ROSIE HERRERA. By its conclusion, Herrera’s work hadn’t flinched in its spoofing of Celine Dion—or its unhurried representations of androgyny and gay male desire, for that matter. Its various sequences sending up old school sex symbols made us chuckle—before we went quiet as we wondered exactly why we were laughing.
Then a depicted moment of hospice silenced us, before a surreal film sequence dared suggest that, ultimately, no one stays on board a lifeboat, in one of the most stunning—and humane—works of the 2009 season.
This year ADF invited Herrera back, commissioning a new work, Pity Party—and requesting a restaging of Various Stages by her own company.
We spoke with her by phone at midday, on June 30, in Miami, Florida.
INDEPENDENT: The title of your work, Various Stages of Drowning, brings one question immediately to mind. Who’s drowning?
HERRERA: That’s a good question. I think it symbolizes several different types of drowning: drowning in somebody’s presence, by an experience, by an emotion, or being drowned by memory.
It also comes from my personal experiences, having felt at times like I was drowning, too—professionally, emotionally or psychologically. There are five stages of drowning; I used that as a structure to help separate those different ideas.
I’ve always had a very strong connection to the ocean, to the freedom of being underwater. My father’s Cuban and my mother’s Puerto Rican, so I’m genetically predisposed to being below sea level. (laughs) I’m bound to be within five minutes of the beach; that’s my structure. I’ve been working with underwater photographers and underwater filmmakers; I’ve always felt this incredible energy with the water.
But Various Staging of Drowning was based on series of dreams. I felt at first they were disconnected, but then I realized they were part of the same thing. When I started developing a structure for putting them all together, I was interested in created the surrealist atmosphere of a dream. The closest I could get to that would be underwater.
I meet up with ADF student dancer Kat Folckomer in front of Epworth Hall, where ADF maintains its administrative headquarters. She’s wearing a loose-fitting brown tee, shorts, Birkenstock sandals and sunglasses. It’s 10 a.m., and class starts in 15 minutes.
On the way to her first class, Folckomer explains that classes are held every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On the other days, students have the option to attend informal classes, such as Pilates, or attend showings of work other students are in the process of producing.
Classes are divided based on difficulty level. On the schedule, levels range in ascending order of difficulty from one to five. But Folckomer says the levels are pretty fluid and open to interpretation. “They don’t really mean anything,” she says.
Her first class, “Cunningham-Based Technique,” (named for Merce Cunningham) takes place in the East Campus’s Brodie Gym. Many students have arrived and are stretching at the wall or on the raised platform.
When class begins, teacher Brenda Daniels takes roll, saying, “I know everyone’s tired from that whole complete week of dancing.” The class stretches to warm up, employing basic ballet. Daniels walks among her students, correcting technique here and there.
In an effort to rid her students of their “loose, Barbie-doll legs,” the dancers break into pairs and take turns balancing while turning on one leg, while their partner turns their leg to facilitate easier movement.
For the second hour, it’s time to dance. The class practices several sequences, each one getting more complex. The students divide into three groups of four columns and take turns dancing the routine across the mat to experimental music provided by an accompanist. The routine encompasses a lot of vertical leaps with arms spread out.
It’s been a whirlwind of a year—but it’s not at all clear that MARTHA CLARKE would have it any other way. In February she workshopped a new arrangement of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for a Broadway producer. She also learned two bits of news: She’d won the Scripps/American Dance Festival award for Lifetime Achievement, with an honorarium of $50,000. Plus, she’d received a commission for a new work to premiere at this year’s ADF. The result, ANGEL REAPERS, is based on the history of an obscure New England sect: The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—better known as the Shakers.
We spoke with her by phone on June 23, in New York—the morning after the first full run-through of her new work.
INDEPENDENT: How’s it going?
MARTHA CLARKE: Very hot in New York.
My sympathies; it’s already broiling down here. And you’re not in a place where you can enjoy a beverage, something cooler?
Well, this apartment has air conditioning, but the studios don’t.
And working with hot dancers, on a hot day, in the heat is, uh, a little hard.
I’m emailing somebody who wants to come to a run-through. I’ve just said, “Bring a fan.”
You could be forgiven if you thought American Dance Festival was solely about the performances at Duke’s Reynolds Theatre and the Durham Performing Arts Center. But ADF also hosts 385 student dancers from such far-flung locales as Singapore and Cambodia.
One of the students is Kat Folckomer, a rising senior at Hollins University in Virginia. The last two years, she’s taken the ADF’s January intensive sessions in New York City. Hollins also requires that each dancer earning a bachelor of fine arts attend two ADF summers, with credit given out via pass/ fail grades on Duke transcripts, earning a total of 16 credits. Folckomer says six or seven students from her university’s program are attending this year.
Although she’s danced since she was about 10 years old, Folckomer was unaware of ADF’s reputation until relatively recently. She attended high school at North Carolina School of the Arts, where she studied modern dance, and marvels at the fact of having an internationally renowned dance festival taking place just an hour and a half up the road. “I didn’t know how huge ADF was [when I was] in high school,” Folckomer says.
Folckomer spent her freshman year at East Carolina University, where one of her professors told her about ADF. She then decided to transfer to Hollins’ dance program after visiting a friend there.
“ECU’s program was based around musical theater, and you didn’t have much chance to experiment. At Hollins, students play a role in making decisions in the [dance] department,” Folckomer says. She also notes that ECU had a larger program, enrolling over 100 students whereas Hollins boasts a close-knit program of around 20 students.
The first weekend of ADF is termed “preview weekend.” During this time, dancers can take all classes offered and find what fits them best. Auditions for repertory workshops and the Past/ Forward workshops are also held at this time.