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)

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 will be held in spring 2019.

The ECD will start 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.

The transformation of dance performance education at the Academy of Theatre and Dance in our view presents an opportunity to jointly reflect on how we can create a variety of contexts for artistic and educational practice in dance, to examine its aesthetic, cultural and institutional history, and to re-evaluate what contemporary dance means today and how we want to approach it in our academy.
The existing richness and diversity of dance education at the ATD provides us with an excellent starting point for the further interrogation of the relation between what we call 'contemporary dance' and traditional, vernacular and urban dances, as well as the notion of 'contemporary dance' as it is practiced and discursively constructed in contexts that may be described as ‘non-western' (despite the vagueness of that term in our globalized world). Through this Artist in Residence Programme, we want to address a number of issues: the problems of artistic, social and cultural diversity and difference; the underlying colonial and imperial-historical determinations of artistic practice and theory; and institutional policies.
It is timely to tackle issues of cultural difference and diversity in dance as an art form and through the education of dancers – not only because the overall policy of the ATD promotes diversity and inclusivity, but also because those notions are increasingly being critically scrutinized by a number of social and artistic movements, through the lenses of the colonial heritage, power relations and cultural domination that form the fabric of the modern world. The briefest survey at the international artistic and cultural landscape in the past few years reveals the increasing urgency of these questions. A number of research and curatorial initiatives in the field of visual arts have emerged that re-examine the colonial history of institutional bodies in culture as well as the vestiges of that history in today's language, images and bodies. The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, La Colonie in Paris, BE.BOP. Black Europe Body Politics (2012–2016) in Berlin, are just some of the institutions and/or artist-led initiatives and research projects that are engaged in raising critical awareness and proposing new modes of making, doing or looking at art.

The contemporary dance field is also increasingly confronted with problems of representation, cultural appropriation, gaps in judgment, mistranslations in intercultural contexts, and problematic dominance of historical narratives. The heated discussions that occurred during the American Realness festival and Impulstanz are examples of this. Still, it seems that these issues are more often examined through individual artistic practices than on a structural level.

Moreover, questions and debates are mainly raised at the curatorial and choreographic/dramaturgical level. A good example of research being carried out into the question of decolonization of the curriculum, and that addresses both educational and choreographic practice can be found close to us: at the SNDO.
The problem we want to address is the relative invisibility and silence regarding cultural difference and diversity when it comes to the dancer's practice, particularly when it comes to the dancer's education and training. The approaches to diversity and difference that are already in place in dance programmes at the ATD deserve to be shared and debated more often and more systematically. And we want to go even further: while transitioning towards the new programme – which has at its centre diversity and difference in a decolonial process – we would like to explore a radically egalitarian take on education for young dancers with different backgrounds, on the level of their social and cultural milieu, but also their dance styles, vocabularies, technical training, modes of existence, and aesthetic horizons. What will this mean on the programmatic level? What will this mean for educational content and architecture, for didactic approaches, for auditioning procedures, and so on?

In asking these questions, we wish to explore what brings us – we dance-driven new generations – together, and create and celebrate a learning, sharing community.
It is important for the students and teachers that we create a healthy crossover between the UC (JMD), MTD programmes and the new ECD programme. While the current scale at which we are implementing and operating this new approach is perhaps modest, there is potential for a broader influence: while conceiving and imagining a future for dance education at the ATD, we should perhaps also be taking the opportunity to engage a broader dance field in the practices and discussions that are clearly becoming ever more vital and necessary.

The crossover programme Training the Future: Context, Difference and Awareness in Dance Education will run for two years and across five AIR events with distinct yet interconnected topics. The entire body of students and teachers from the three dance departments will participate in all five encounters. Each will last one week with a combination of formats: classes, workshops, discussions, lectures and student-led projects. Several guests will be invited for each encounter, with some recurring guests throughout the crossover period.

The first session will take place in January 2019 and will be attended only by MTD and UC (JMD) students and teachers. The first cohort of ECD students will start their school year in September 2019, and from there on all three departments will participate in these AIR events. As the AIR programme progresses, we will look into the possibility of opening up the collaboration to other departments (such as ATKA and SNDO) that might be looking at the same issues through a different prism. The final encounter will take the form of an international symposium.

The five events will have the following themes (in chronological order):

  1. 'Talent' in contemporary dance and in the context of cultural difference
  2. 'Personal and cultural agency through dance'. Agency of dancers in the working field. Agency regarding representation and gaze. Agency regarding cultural constructions of bodies through class, gender, racialization, religion etc.
  3. 'Decolonizing technique: What is at stake in the training of a dance performer'. Cultures of perception and embodiment.
  4. ‘Hybrid and border aesthetics in dance'
  5. 'What is “contemporary dance” in the dance department of the ATD?’

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.

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