Walking into Edwards Center for Art and Dance, you may run into interdisciplinary work in action. Last year, the Department of Theater and Dance launched the Performing Arts major with concentrations in dance, theater and interdisciplinary performance. And this spring, Assistant Professor of Dance Aretha Aoki is teaching Advanced Dance-Theater Company: Repertory and Performance—Bowdoin’s first ever advanced class to combine the skills of actors and dancers.
With support from faculty on both the theater and dance sides of the department, Aoki felt motivated to create a course that challenges traditional roles and gives students insight into the overlap between the two practices.
“The idea is to get advanced level actors and dancers in the room together to be in a creative process together and to understand more about their respective disciplines,” Aoki said.
The class is structured as a repertory, meaning that it focuses on developing original pieces of work for performance. Aoki modeled her teaching practices to mirror those of a dance repertory group.
“It’s called ‘Dance-Theater Company,’” she explained. “You have a group of dancers and actors and more than one choreographer comes in, so you’re involved in multiple creative processes … these are companies where artists get to come and work out new ideas.”
Aoki crafts a diverse range of in-class exercises meant to put students outside of their respective comfort zones. Movement activities challenge actors, whereas voice exercises test the skills of traditional dancers.
“Voice is a part of the body too, but somehow we identify it in the realm of theater … it becomes this interesting conversation of why we are disconnected from voice in a dance practice,” Aoki said.
Automatic writing and dancing exercises have also encouraged students to learn more about the way their bodies move and respond to physical impulses. Aoki explains that these activities allow performing artists to express themselves through movement without having a clear-cut idea in mind, instead simply responding to physical sensation.
Placing students from different disciplines in one collaborative atmosphere may seem like a recipe for disaster, but students say the setup works seamlessly.
Holden Turner ’21 had never taken a class in acting or dancing at Bowdoin before this semester, despite having some experience with theater in high school. Even as a self-proclaimed “amateur,” he has noticed a shift in his perceptions surrounding the practices of acting and dancing.
“I’ve worked less with dancing and movement, so when I’m asked to do that it’s more foreign territory, but it’s still really cool to try out because it’s a new way of approaching expression,” said Turner.
Lucy Sydel ’22 comes from a Performing Arts background and took Aoki’s Advanced Modern Dance course last semester. She has found that engaging with performance through a combination of text, movement and voice contributes to a dynamic classroom experience.
“It feels almost like even when we’re working with text, we’re still moving our bodies,” Sydel said. “Because it’s kind of blurring the lines between what is dance and what is theater, because both dance and theater involve moving your body and using your voice.”
This sentiment is exactly what Aoki wants students to take away from her course.
“The hope is that we get to learn more about ourselves … how do we develop more tools so that we can think more expansively of ourselves not just as dancers or actors but as performing artists,” she said.
Although the semester has just begun, students are already anticipating a joint performance at the end-of-semester dance concert.
“It’s been cool to work towards the idea of a performance,” Sydel said. “A lot of our improvs have been solidified into what could be a performance, which is a neat way to devise work.”
Aoki will invite local dance artist and choreographer Sara Juli to campus later in the semester and expose students to her creative process. Juli, who performed “Tense Vagina: an actual diagnosis” on campus last Spring, is known for her work using physical gesture as she delivers a textual narrative, and students will work closely with both her and Professor Aoki to prepare performance pieces for the concert.
Aoki looks forward to seeing her students grow creatively and develop a new mindset surrounding performative disciplines as the semester pushes forward.
“It’s not necessarily that these actors become dancers or these dancers become actors, but we can stretch the boundaries of what we consider acting or what we consider dance,” she said.
Editor’s note, 2/7/19 at 8:41 p.m. This article has been updated to reflect that the Department of Theater and Dance is a single department.