Training the Future: Context, Difference and Awareness in Dance Education

Artist in Residence proposal by Angela Linssen (artistic director, Modern Theatre Dance), Bojana Bauer (artistic director, Expanded Contemporary Dance) and Gerleen Balstra (artistic director, Urban Contemporary/JMD)

For a period of two years, from 2019 to 2021, Urban Contemporary (JDM), Expanded Contemporary Dance, and Modern Theatre Dance departments will jointly run the Artist in Residence programme: Training the future. Context, Difference, Awareness in Dance Education

Collectively curated by the artistic directors, Gerleen Balstra, Bojana Bauer, and Angela Linssen the programme will gather students and teachers of the Academy of Theatre and Dance, a panel of international guests and Amsterdam dance community. We wish the merging of the training courses to be a process of consistent and lively exchange of content, knowledge and experiences.
The first session took place from Monday 7 January 2019 to Friday 11 January 2019 and focused on the topic of talent.

To address the questions surounding this topic and move forward to the best possible practice we invite, students, educators, professional dancers, choreographers as well as theorists to think along and engage in practical experiences, through classes, workshops, discussions, conferences and more.
The guests who will work with students through classes, workshops, and discussions are:
Shailesh Bahoran, Drosha Grekhov, Judith Sánchez Ruíz, Calixto Neto, John Agesilas, Saâdia Sooyah, Mariem Guellouz, and Teana Boston-Mammah.

The Academy of Theatre and Dance (ATD) has been working since 2013 on the creation of a new dance department that will ultimately replace the two existing dance BA study programmes (UC (JMD) and MTD). Extensive research was required to define the purpose, format and artistic direction of this new department. This research took place in the period 2013-2017, with contributions by teachers and students from the two existing programmes as well as representatives from the professional field, and culminated in a mission and vision statement for the new BA study programme. The vacancy for department artistic director was made public, and following an extensive application procedure Bojana Bauer was appointed to the position.
In 2017-2018, a curriculum development working group wrote a first draft of the new programme and prepared its implementation. The study programme was named Expanded Contemporary Dance (ECD). Auditions for the first intake of students into ECD were held in Spring 2019.

The ECD started running in the 2019-2020 academic year. While the ECD programme is being phasing in, the two existing programmes will continue running with their final cohort of students (2018 intake) until graduation. In this transition period from 2019 to 2023 there will be increasing crossover activities (e.g. selected classes and events) involving all three programmes: UC (JMD), MTD and the new programme, ECD. For students and teachers in the three departments, it is crucial that their respective study programmes do not become separate 'islands'. To this end, a series of crossover events will be organized under the umbrella title Training the Future: Context, Difference and Awareness in Dance Education, to create a cross-departmental learning community.

For this reason, we [the three study programmes] are making a joint AIR programme for the coming academic years. We are keen for the merging of the training courses and the exchange of content between them to take place in a consistent and lively manner. We believe that this process can be effectively supported by the AIR programme we are presenting here. The proposed AIR programme will run over two years, comprise of five week-long events and host a panel of diverse guests.

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Crossover programme focus: practice, lectures, historical context, discussion and exchange:

First period 2019: 7-11 January
Theme: 'Talent' in contemporary dance and in the context of cultural difference   
with UC/JMD and MTD all year groups
Second period 2019: September    
Theme: 'Personal and cultural agency through dance'
with: ECD first year, UC/JMD and MTD second and third year
Third period 2020: January
Fourth period 2020: August-September

Expanded Contemporary Dance will hold auditions and select future students who we believe have the potential to become dance performers. We are looking to create a radically open educational context that includes students from very different backgrounds and dance educations. At the same time our mission is to train talented students to reach the highest professional levels. This raises the question of how we are to define the talent necessary to become a professional contemporary dancer today? What artistic criteria are we operating, or should we operate? This raises a further question: How should talent be defined in a context of cultural difference? Can we say that a person’s talent is limited to specific types of dance, or can a person be a talented dancer in a general sense? Is talent still the right word to use, even?

The established notion of talent appears to be an outdated concept that is hardly applicable to contemporary artists. Art historian Thierry de Duve – who led an extensive, five-year study into the reform of art education in France, which was documented in the 1992 publication Faire École – offers us interesting insights into the joint evolution of the nature of art and the aptitudes of artists. De Duve argues that the concept of ‘talent’ belongs to an academic and traditional approach to art that splits the arts into distinct disciplines and assigns specific technical aptitudes to each of them. He argues that within this paradigm ‘talent is specific' – an individual may have a talent for playing the piano, for composing music, or for painting, for example – but while it is obviously possible to accumulate multiple talents, this does not alter the fact of their distinctness, defined as they are by technical and normative requirements. With the advent of modernism and more specifically the Bauhaus philosophy of art and art education, the notion of 'talent' was superseded by one of 'creativity', says de Duve. Whereas talent is distributed unevenly amongst individuals and targets specific art forms, creativity is universal: everyone possesses it; it is generally present, and not subject to any technical qualification. This means that everyone is an artist (if only potentially) and the school exists to stimulate the individual's inventiveness and capacity for experimentation. The final shift comes, De Duve claims, when both 'talent' and 'creativity' are replaced by 'attitude'. Drawing on avant-garde routes of conceptual art, since the 1970s it is the 'critical attitude' that has been the dominant notion in art discourse and the operator in redefining studio practice in art schools; progressive art schools offered alternatives to aesthetic, social and political status quo with renewed 'critical vocabulary and intellectual tools with which to approach the making and the appreciating of art’ (De Duve, 1994). De Duve offers a useful historical model that explains changes in aesthetics, social ideologies and the psychology of artistic practice and their consequences for art education.
De Duve's model can be applied to the evolution in Western countries of artistic theatrical dance: from ballet's academic approach to the modernist emphasis on the individual's creative exploration of the dance medium; to the democratization of dancing bodies that become 'pedestrian' in the 1960s; and finally to contemporary choreography that looks critically at the notion of dance and theatre and uses an expanded definition of dance and choreography to look critically at the world.

De Duve's historical narrative is clearly excessively schematic, and it needs to be updated to today's reality, with its new curatorial, artistic and educational concepts such as the ability to conduct 'research'. Indeed, in the majority of art schools, students are expected to be capable of conducting research.
But when it comes to today's dance practices, audition calls and, especially, the education of young dancers, we must do more than merely add nuance and detail to de Duve's model, because in this field the notions of talent and technique are more present than ever – indeed, they never disappeared from dance vocabulary. It would be too easy – and inaccurate – to proclaim that dance is anachronistic and that it is conservatively preserving an outdated academic framework, or to pit those who still rely on 'talent' and 'technique' against a progressive, avant-garde niche of contemporary choreography. Things are more complex than that. One has to wonder why and how different ideologies manage to coexist, to affect and contaminate each other, in today's dance world. What are we to make of the fact that we so casually combine notions of talent and creativity, and of creativity and critical ability?
The question, then, is less about why the notion of talent is still in use, and more about the precise meaning of ‘talent' in the context of today's theory and in practice. How is it defined by usage? How did the notion of talent evolve from its academic meaning to its current usage? And what is this current usage, precisely: What do we mean when we say 'talent'? What criteria do we apply – consciously or not – when watching a performance, or an audition for a school or for a company? What is actually meant by commonly used phrases such as ‘looking for dancers with strong technique'? How are we dealing today with such concepts (and embodied experience of same) as the ‘instrumental body', the 'pedestrian body' and the ‘virtuosic body' or, on the other hand, the functional approach to movement and somatic awareness? And what is indicated by the shift in vocabulary from 'dancing talent' to 'performing talent'?
Is this multiplicity of criteria confusing and contradictory, or is it simply a reflection of the profound complexity of the spectrum of human motion, the human body, and of performative forms in contemporary dance?

These already complex questions are further complicated when we critically probe the history of ideas upon which de Duve's schema of art history rests, namely European classicism, romanticism, modernism, and post-modernism, from the point of view of their common connection to the history of colonialism and imperialism. In other words, how does the 'talent-creativity-attitude' schema fare in the face of cultural differences? And before even embarking on an interrogation of de Duve's schema of historical evolution, we need to look at how each of the individual terms used, such as 'talent' or 'creativity', define what we see or do not see and who we judge to be artists (or 'good' artists); and at how this ostensibly neutral use of ‘artistic parameters alone' actually defines those very same very parameters, based as they are on notions of race, gender, religion and class.

In dance, this line of thought brings us immediately to the material base itself: the body.
Consequently, our questions are these: How do we connect the notions of ‘talent' to 'body type'? How are ‘body types' racialized? How are racialized bodies stereotyped in terms of ability or lack thereof. How is an individual's culture of movement or the collective movement style they embody translated and read in terms of talent and hence naturalized as that individual's – or worse, group's – innate ability?

When we try to move away from these 'technical' parameters of bodily and movement capacities into the area of creativity and attitude, we carry another set of culturally determined biases. In her study of selection procedures at the Willem de Kooning arts academy, Teana Boston-Mammah underlines the 'The unequal distribution of attitudes that are traditionally associated with those from a more privileged habitus come into play when foregrounding, for example: 'risk-taking',  ‘critical thinking' and ‘a curious mind'.' How do we judge someone to be a ‘good performer' and how is this judgment embedded in our current understanding of the importance of narrative, abstraction, expression and individualism, for example, or the dancer's ‘individual' capacity to debate and research together with a choreographer?
Indeed, in a dance context, nowadays we also prefer to use notions such as ‘creativity’, ‘originality’, ‘open-mindedness’, ‘originality’, ‘motivation’ and ‘critical ability’. We should not forget, then – as Boston-Mammah points out, quoting Pierre Bourdieu – that the uncritical use of these terms/attitudes as assessment criteria only legitimizes social differences that perpetuate relations of inequality and domination.

While these questions merit some theoretical unpacking, they concern us also on the most practical of levels. Over the course of this academic year, the ECD will hold auditions and select future students that we believe have the potential to become dance performers. We are looking to create a radically open educational context that includes some students from very different backgrounds and dance educations. Concrete questions need to be answered and concrete actions need to be taken: What kind of language should be used in our announcement of the auditions? What kind of auditioning process should we put in place? Through what lens should we look at our future students?
What is the school’s function in relation to talent? Schools like to see themselves as talent incubators, but what happens to talent outside the school system, and what can we learn from the self-learning paths that some individual’s take? Why do some people choose not to go to school?
In order to address these questions and move forward to the best possible practice we would like to invite students, educators, professional dancers, choreographers and theorists to contribute their thoughts to the process and engage in practical experiences. Our first one-week event, in January 2019, will be a gathering of different voices, perspectives, and experiences that range from workshops, classes, creative projects, roundtables, personal narratives and/or analytical studies.

The guests who will work with students through classes, workshops, and discussions are:
Shailesh Bahoran, Drosha Grekhov, Judith Sánchez Ruíz, Calixto Neto, John Agesilas, Saâdia Sooyah, Mariem Guellouz, and Teana Boston-Mammah (tbc)

Components of the week-long AIR event:

  1. 105 Student in 5 groups will follow daily workshops with guest artists.
  2. In the afternoons, students, teachers and guest artists will reshuffle to form new discussion groups. Discussions will be mediated by the students and teachers themselves. They will address questions arising from our project argument, pre-existing questions they bring along, and questions that arise during the encounter.
  3. Two evening lectures with Q&A.
  4. Final day, Friday: wrap up, findings, selecting conclusions.

The second edition of the Artist in Residency programme Training the Future: Context, Difference and Awareness in Dance Education ran from 2 to 6 September 2019. Students and teachers of the Expanded Contemporary Dance, Modern Theatre Dance and Urban Contemporary study programmes took part in this event organised by Angela Linsen, Bojana Bauer and Gerleen Balstra and co-curated by Bauer and Linsen. A limited number of spaces were also be available to students from other ATD study programmes who participated in the open afternoon and evening programme of discussions and performances.

During this second AIR session we focussed on the matter of agency. To what extent is dancing about agency? And what can we learn about agency in general through dance?

The approach was threefold.

First, we approached the notion of agency as a subjective sense of self that is intimately related to the experience of movement and action. How does a sense of self emerge through the distinct but interrelated experiences of initiation, control, authorship or ownership of one's movements and actions? If these aspects of embodied subjectivity are integral to the developmental process of everyone from very early childhood, in some dance practices and somatic techniques particular attention is given to them. We’ll try and understand why and to what effect. Does bringing focus on the operation of the dancer’s attention, perception, sensation or affects – focus that is practiced in somatic techniques – contribute to shaping dancer’s agency? Does it increase the dancer’s potential to act freely and autonomously ?  And if it does, how is this achieved, and what personal, subjective and relational processes are at stake? What kind of personal agency are we talking about? And how does this agency play out in dance and choreographic work?

The second approach, directly stemming from this first series of questions, was angled on the dancer’s status and role in today’s professional field. Nowadays, ‘open’, or ‘expanded’, dance practice is rich, diverse and bewilderingly demanding. The list of possibilities open to dancers – and of expectations and demands placed upon them – is very long: they may need to knowing many dance styles and physical techniques; cross from one artistic and cultural world to another; be able to also sing, speak and perform in interdisciplinary works in various settings – from staged spaces to museums to site-specific performances. How can a dancer find personal and artistic agency in an environment that can easily subject them to neo-liberal workforce conditions? Must they be flexible, multi-tasking, adaptable to anything and everything, and... exhausted? Where is the positive potential for developing personhood and community? How does one find an artistic voice and make choices? What are the consequences of the choices we make and how do we deal with their consequences? How does a dancer find or choose work? How do they construct a sense of agency in an artistic process? How do they enter and relate to the different choreographic idioms of artists they work with?

Last but not least we looked at agency as a socio-political concept that applies to individual as much as to collective subjects and defines their capacity to act autonomously and freely in relation to social and political structures. In this context many dance forms can be understood to offer an opportunity to gain and shape the agency of its practitioners in relation to historical determination, assigned positions and identities, structures of oppression, and domination. How do dance communities and collective agency emerge together? How can the potential for emancipation be constructed through dance? How is the relation negotiated between such dance practices and the institutional and economic appropriation?

Over the course of the week, the participants unpacked these questions through a rich programme of workshops, discussions and performances.

Our guests, fellow artists and thinkers: Bertha Bermudez, Benji Hart, and Romain Bigé & Antonija Livingstone.


Performance as Protest / Protest as Performance
by Benji Hart

Benji Hart is an author, artist, and educator from Amherst, MA, living in Chicago. The writer behind the blog Radical Faggot, their commentary has been published at Teen Vogue, The Advocate, The Chicago Reader, and others. Their solo performance piece Dancer As Insurgent, which explores voguing as a practice of Black queer resistance, was featured at CA2M (Madrid), and the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (Chicago). Their current project, World After This One, examining the myriad ways Black art forms rely on the materials of the present to construct liberated futures, premiered at BRIC (New York), and is still in progress.They have held residencies with the Rauschenberg Foundation, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, and are the recipient of the 3Arts Award in the Teaching Arts.

Vandalism [ répertoire & exploration ]
by Romain Bigé & Antonija Livingstone

Romain Bigé, PhD, digs, writes about, curates, and improvises dance and philosophy. Lives and teaches nomadically in and out of Paris, Europe.Fell in dance in North America with Steve Paxton, Lisa Nelson, Nancy Stark Smith, Matthieu Gaudeau, and many others. And investigates the somatopolitical potentials of dance for mobilizing sensitivities to other critters.

Antonija Livingstone ( CA/DE)
Operates at the intersection of performance & plastic arts practice. Graced by a self-directed non- institutional education with choreography and performance studies, her outlook is informed by her family of geologists living in nomadic gold mining camps in the Yukon. Kinship with the elements. Exploration. Affection for the makeshift. Formerly, as a dancer choreographer working most extensively with Meg Stuart / Damaged Goods as well as in a variety of projects with Benoit Lachambre: Recently, as an Associate Artist at Ménagerie de Verre, Paris and Darling Foundry Montreal 2018; curating, coaching, creating new sculptural works. Her body of work includes a decade devoted to creating, producing and touring a series of co-authored feminist performance installations including : Culture Administration & Trembling with Jennifer Lacey, Stephen Thompson, Dominique Petrin, Supernatural with Simone Aughterlony and Hahn Rowe, les études ( hérésies 1-7) with Nadia Lauro and CHAUD collection 20 with Mich Cota. She coaches performance practice and facilitates workshops at École Supérieur Nationale de Paysage, Versailles, EXERCE CCN Montpellier, MDV, Paris, DOCH, SE Impulstanz,AT Movement Research, NYC, PACAP Forum Danca PT, HZT Berlin, Lovein and other hives.

Public Programme:

We are not moving, we are being moved
HALf6 moderated by Bojana Bauer with Romain Bigé and Antonija Livingstone
September 3 & 4 - 17.30 Central Hall ATD

What can dance do to limit environmental catastrophe? Everything. During our Half 6 conversation with Romain Bigé and Antonija Livingstone, we will take this bold idea seriously. Beware, we won’t be commenting dance pieces that are about ecology, and we won’t be discussing how to lower the carbon foot-print of dance industry. Instead we will try and find out how dance practices can help us redefine the very idea of what is « human » and its relation to other earthlings. We’ll consider dance as a precious space of experimentation in which we can try and disturb anthropocentric ideas of personal and collective agency. We’ll procede by asking a couple of simple and at the same time difficult questions: Who is moving? Am I moving, or am I being moved? Through different answers to these questions, we’ll try and embrace a multi-focal and multi-agent perspective of ourselves and of the world. In other words, through dance we will try and reach a shift in thought that makes the survival of our world imaginable.

Dancer As Insurgent - A Performance by Benji Hart
September 5 - 19.30 Theaterzaal ATD

Dancer As Insurgent explores the dance form of vogue as a tool for radical social transformation. Through improvised movement and original spoken word, the piece traces the form’s roots back to its inception in Riker’s Island prison, grounding it in a history of queer struggle, and insisting that vogue is not only a source of individual empowerment, but a portal for revolutionary social and political reimaginings.


(photo header: MTD Midterm 2018, photographer: Sjoerd Derine)