Relating a conversation with Donna Faye Burchfield, the departing dean of the American Dance Festival, without audio and video footage is, to some degree, an exercise in frustration. Even seated, her hands and body work through the concepts we're discussing. Her speech is peppered with sudden pauses for reflection, followed by equally sudden surges of insight. Pensive murmurs contrast with full-bodied laughs as she contemplates the absurdities and deeper implications of her craft.
As the festival's dean since 2000, and in other roles there dating back to 1984, Burchfield has inspired a generation of dance artists, both here and as co-chair of the dance department at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. In 2005, she founded an MFA program that united the two institutions.
When Burchfield announced that she was leaving ADF and Hollins at the end of the summer, the news startled a dance world that had counted Burchfield's association with those two institutions as a given. This fall, she will head the dance department at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. We talked for a couple of hours at Duke about what she's leaving, where she's going and why she chose to leave during the last week of this year's festival, which ended July 24.
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. 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 can only say it really is a valley, and it really did reassure me and comfort me. Roanoke and Hollins became this reflective space.
For the last 17 years, I spent so much time in that reflective space, that cave of creativity, really deep within. I've spent so much time trying to create this conceptual space of dance for myself. I mean, I had to. Because dance wasn't really there; dance wasn't anywhere at Hollins except in these classrooms. You couldn't go out and see dance—in that sense, it was pretty isolated.
I know the University of the Arts' administration initially asked you to advise them on the vacancy in their dance program. Then their dean asked if you'd want the position. Initially, you turned him down. I'm wondering what was the pivotal moment where you changed your mind?
One day later on, [their dean] sent a quick e-mail that said, "Just keep us in mind." And when I went home alone, again—at 9 p.m., again—suddenly it was like a tipping point; a place where I was in relief.
The next day was a faculty meeting at Hollins—and a person who had been at Hollins for 35 years was retiring. And I was whispering to myself, "OK, let's fast-forward. Is that going to be me? Am I going to be here 35 years? And if that happens, what?" And with that, I just said, "Run for the hills! RUN FOR THE HILLS!" [Laughs]
I'd been working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., I don't see anything changing, it's not going to change—and for all those reasons, I start asking what will happen if I do apply.
I understand that visiting dance programs in Europe with your MFA students made a profound impression on them and you.
In Vienna, dance had moved rather away from these connections with who we are as people ... WUK, the collective that started Im_flieger [a Viennese performance lab], began as squatters who took over an abandoned public building, a hangar. And they built on these important, radical ideas—sharing, being responsible to one another—and they developed a collective sort of power.
It was a small group of people who were working with next to nothing. And they took root, virtually next door to something immense, called ImPulsTanz [Vienna's international dance festival], which is operating with hundreds of thousands of dollars—just as the program at Hollins existed close by the American Dance Festival, which was also so much bigger.
You can't tell me both of these circumstances are just coincidences. In both cases, something small pushed up against something big and created one of Ray Oldenburg's "third places"—a space that was necessary ... We forget that dance can really exist—and maybe even thrive in these ways ...
Maybe it was just, literally, a certain kind of personal freedom that I could experience. Again, it's as bell hooks says: "When you create new relationships, you create new meaning." So there we were, creating these new relationships. And I was saying, "Oh, so this is what this feels like! I forgot!"
I forgot that I had the capacity to do anything outside of certain, very particular ways of thinking and ways of being in dance. I can only say that being inside an organization like ADF for as long as I've been here, I really, really didn't have a full sense of myself outside of here—ever. [Laughs]
I understand that the University of the Arts has approved an MFA program. What did they ask you about the Hollins/ ADF MFA?
[They asked me,] "Can you imagine other ways of an MFA program happening?" And I said, "There are a lot of ways that dance studies can be imagined and re-imagined, and I'm committed to doing it. If I can't do it here, or there in Philadelphia, I'm just going to keep trying. It's got to happen. I have no choice."
[The installation artist] Ann Hamilton talks conceptually about creating an environment of possibilities. My job, I feel, is to continue to create environments where there is potential for that meeting, for that becoming to take place. And when I talk about it, I feel my body moving toward it. [Laughs] I want to move my body toward it. I feel like it's in motion.