In a new class taught by visiting professor Kathryn Syssoyeva, Interdisciplinary Performance Making, students are learning circus techniques that they will use in an original production by the end of the semester.
The purpose of the class is to bring students from different departments together to improvise a performance based on Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a short story about a dystopian America where the government enforces total equality by handicapping anyone with special talent. The new course is cross-listed under music, visual arts, dance and theater.
The class is an exercise in the theatrical process of devising. The process of adapting the story, writing the music, and choreographing movement is done spontaneously as a group. The students are a symbol of the communication that happens between departments, which Syssoyeva believes is important to the Bowdoin community.
“A really hard thing to do with an interdisciplinary course is to find a way to structure the time so that you can get a lot of people working from their disciplines together,” she said. “This production allows us to do that.”
Students of all backgrounds have flocked to the class. The pool of talent includes dancers, musicians, composers, dramaturgs, writers and designers.
“I signed up because I wanted to branch out with my music,” said Dan Lesser ’14. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of collaboration between the arts here.”
Although there was no audition process for the class, the quality of the participants is high.
“I created the course, and the right people showed up,” said Syssoyeva. “That’s a kind of magical thing that sometimes happens in devised projects. You put out the call, and the people it speaks to show up.”
A unique element of the performance will be the incorporation of nouveau cirque—techniques such as aerial silks, unicycles and clowning. To help with these skills, Syssoyeva has brought in outside teachers, including a unicyclist and clown named Avner Eisenberg, or “Avner the Eccentric.” Syssoyeva also has experience teaching a workshop at the Circus Center San Fransisco.
While one of the thrills of the class is that each individual can offer many creative ideas, one of the challenges is that all these ideas have to come together in one piece.
“It can feel like chaos. It can feel like not knowing. To my mind, that’s what life is, and what life feels like,” said Syssoyeva. “So it’s a very good exercise in life, but much more interesting because you’re making theater.”
The students have already shown great progress, according to Syssoyeva. Within the first two classes, they have practiced on the aerial silks and written the music for a scene.
“Everyone has a pretty different musical background,” said Lesser. “We just started jamming, and I played a riff I’d been hoping to use at some point.”
The course has been supported by all departments involved and the College in general. It has received course development funds to supplement the class’s production budget. It will also use a full-scale stage like an extracurricular production.
Syssoyeva, who has taught at Stanford University, Florida State University, Colby and the Yale School of Drama, focuses on connecting the academic and artistic interests of her students.
“That’s extremely important as a college, but also in terms of modeling for students in the arts the fact that there is no opposition between your intellectual self and your artistic self,” she said. “You just have to figure out the best ways to bring them together.”
Full disclosure: A&E Editor Emma Peters is a student in Professor Syssoyeva’s class.