The Eye

The Last Dance: Dance Majors on their Capstone Performance

Columbia University students discuss the process of creating a piece for the Senior Creative Thesis Dance Concert
Updated Mar. 31, 2016, 5:47 pm

For undergraduate dance majors at Columbia and Barnard, the Senior Creative Thesis Dance Concert is an intimidating academic opportunity that offers them the chance to conclude their studies with a live, graded performance. Their Creative Theses are repertory works that combine expressions of self and a rigorous application of theory to motion, their choreography realized in a final two-day concert.

The dance major at Barnard combines work in dance history, composition, movement science, and a range of electives including dance across different cultures and historical periods. Completing the 11 courses required for the major necessitates a 25 to 30-page written senior thesis and an additional seminar course in either dance research or a repertory performance.

This spring’s Creative Thesis performances on March 25 and 26 brought to life a range of personalities and philosophies of dance in ways that highlighted the diversity of dance at Columbia. For those who elect to develop a repertory work to be performed at the Creative Thesis concert, the process involves an intense exercise in self-actualization through art.

That is what Barnard senior Shirley Dai sought to achieve through EEEEE, her contemporary dance piece that sets Dai’s convulsive, energetic motions against a slideshow of black-and-white industrial photographs and a mechanical soundtrack.

Although she already had experience with traditional Chinese folk dance before college, Dai came to Barnard as a prospective anthropology major. After she took one of her first modern dance classes as a sophomore with Colleen Thomas-Young, she changed her mind and decided to double major in dance and art history.

To Dai, dance is about far more than just the physical aesthetics—it is a medium for intellectual expression.

“Dance introduces me to different perspectives and different angles in terms of viewing the world—that’s another thing that keeps me thinking,” Dai says, reflecting on her past four years in the Barnard dance department. “It’s a learning process for me, things I knew about dance when I was a freshman were completely different.”

Dance has helped Dai to better understand who she is as a person and artist.

“I learn as I take more classes, think about more things, and learn from my choreography experience. Through dance, I can always continue to think and to do research, so I never stop dancing and creating,” Dai said.

In EEEEE, Dai highlights how the dynamism of lines and contours in her photography work by translating them into physical movements.

Dressed in black and white like the photographs behind her, Dai emerge slowly from the arc of her backbend as the lights turn on, rising steadily to the pulsating beats of the soundtrack. With her back still to the audience, she performed a series of jerky, repetitive movements, occasionally throbbing her head and arms spasmodically to the whirs and pulses of the soundtrack. Robotic, yet performed with manic energy, Dai’s movements were synchronized with rather than responded to sound and photography.

Dai’s integration of photography and dance in EEEEE reflects her conviction that dance cannot be isolated from other forms of art, a topic that she chose to discuss in her written senior thesis. Dai’s academic research dealt with postmodernist choreographer Trisha Brown, whose body of work explores her ideas on choreography through drawings.

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Photo by Ashley Garrett

“Film and photography, especially in the modern period, really draw from thinking through abstract concepts. In that sense, dance is not isolated from other art forms. It’s just another way to show abstraction—through physicality and movement,” Dai declares.

Having admired choreographer Netta Yerushalmy for her ability to articulate spatial concepts through movement, Dai decided to seize the opportunity to work with Yerushalmy for her final performance at Barnard.

For students like Dai, Barnard’s location in New York City and its prominent role in the national academic dance discourse can afford them the opportunity to work with professionals they have admired for much of their adult lives.

Working with an outside choreographer obviously comes with its own challenges. How does the dancer try to understand the choreographer’s vision without losing their own artistic integrity?

“It’s a mutual understanding but also a mutual exploration,” Dai concludes. “How my body can present her ideas with my own understanding of these movements and spaces.”

Dai’s Senior Creative Thesis, expressive and analytic, contrasted heavily with another performance that had a much more somber subject. Like Dai, Catherine Haber, another Barnard senior, took advantage of outside expertise to develop her thesis.

Haber collaborated with French dancer Kevin Quinaou on November 13th, a piece inspired by the Paris terrorist attacks. Her work articulates a profound sense of grief that seems to physically work its way through her body.

Having recently choreographed the MaMa Project, an hour-long dance show by on-campus dance group Orchesis, Haber knew she did not want to choreograph again for her Senior Creative Thesis. She was understandably thrilled when her advisor introduced her to Quinaou, a former dancer with the internationally acclaimed Nederlands Dans Theater who lived in Berlin but was planning a trip to New York soon.

Over a span of two weeks, Quinaou created a six-and-a-half-minute solo for Haber on which they spent three to four hours a day rehearsing one on one.

“Having had this work choreographed for me, I’ve really been able to focus on my own movement quality and that’s brought back around a lot of questions—where I’ve come from and how I’ve been and how I approach movement,” Haber explains. “When the choreographer says ‘I want you to do this move’, what is my intention? What am I initiating from? All of this deeper thought I’m able to analyze based on a singular movement.”

Unlike many of her peers’ performances, which were often more contemporary, Haber’s piece November 13th was set to classical viola and piano music by the likes of Brahms and Chopin. Her movements were fluid and a single spotlight follows her silhouette as she twisted, turned, and tumbled restlessly across the stage.

From where the audience sat, you could hear her breathing, loud and frantic and distressed, as if in response to the tragedy itself.

The piece was no doubt physically taxing for Haber as a dancer. “It is a battle with myself in some sense to keep going and to accomplish it,” she says.

Between rehearsals and more rehearsals, Haber hardly found time for much else—but it was all worth it in the end. “I picked something challenging—I picked something I knew I was working towards—and to be able to take ownership of that has been really rewarding.”

In contrast to the heavy topic of Haber’s performance, Debbie Mausner, a Barnard “hyper-junior” who is graduating a semester early, directed a pair of quirky dance films for her Senior Creative Thesis that she then screened at the show.

The film series, aptly named Out of Bounds, takes place in what one would usually consider unconventional dance spaces—one in the Diana Center reading room and the other in the Barnard registrar’s office.

Both mini-films are humorously self-aware: In the first film, Mausner ends her solo by sitting down at a computer and typing just like any other student in the reading room; in the second, three dancers slither through the hallways of the registrar’s office like a trio of girl spies, wreaking all kinds of havoc, only to be interrupted by the registrar herself ringing a bell.

    I. The Diana

    Diana Center, third floor reading room, Barnard College

    Choreographed and performed by Debbie Mausner

    Film: Danielle Fox

    Editing: Sarah Kellner and Debbie Mausner

    Music: soundtrack by Debbie Mausner

 *A huge thanks to Robert Boston for help with audio editing!  

Mausner has been thinking about site-specific dance films ever since her first semester at Barnard when she took a class on site-specific dance composition. Like Haber, Mausner sees the Senior Creative Thesis as an opportunity to get out of her comfort zone as not only a choreographer and dancer but also a filmmaker.

“What draws me to film is that fact that live performances are ephemeral and that dance doesn’t hopes that have the same way of being preserved as other art forms do.” Mausner explains. She hopes the film can make dance more accessible, especially contemporary dance, which is often performed in select “niche” theater venues.

“At the same time, I feel like film can represent dance in a truer form in retrograde and zoom in. You control what the viewer sees essentially, whereas some of that is lost when you’re in a stage setting and you might be sitting all the way up in the balcony.”

Although the genre of dance films has existed for a while now, Mausner notes that the Barnard dance department has been increasing its efforts to integrate technology into the dance studio. For example, dance professor Paul Scolieri is teaching a seminar on digital performance and technology which includes multiple guest lecturers and workshops.

Barnard’s interdisciplinary and conceptual approach to dance can be refreshing to a dancer like Mausner, who has undergone strict and regimented classical ballet training up until she transferred from the Boston Conservatory as a sophomore.

“You really formulate your own dance schedules that suit the needs of your body and the needs of what you’re interested in. In that sense, I’ve developed a sense of individuality,” she says.

Columbia College senior Sarah Kellner takes dance composition to a more personal level, using her Creative Thesis to explore ideas of repentance and judgment in Jewish prayer. “It’s an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a long time—what it means to go through very individual prayer in a space with hundreds and hundreds of other people at some times,” Kellner explains.

In Kellner’s piece, That My Mouth May Declare, 20 dancers of various heights, genders, and ages performed a series of pedestrian movements together as if they were part of a service, leaving Kellner to perform a separate, contrasting routine alone downstage, closest to the audience.

Furthermore, That My Mouth May Declare was unique in that it featured a live vocal performance of hymns by Columbia College sophomore Mira Davis. Kellner says her inclusion of students outside of the dance department in her work has made her more aware of the ways that dance can reframe an individual’s understanding of the world.

“Having the non-dancers brings this raw and real element to it,” she clarifies. Having never worked with non-dancers before, Kellner was surprised at the differences between teaching to dancers and non-dancers, which was a connection that she only made through the process of creating her thesis.

“As dancers, we’ve been trained for years and years to move every muscle independently, to move with different qualities, and to be able to move two different parts of our bodies at the same time in different ways; other people haven’t necessarily done that.”

Kellner identifies as a “dance scholar” rather than a dancer. “A lot of the dance major is academic,” she says. “When I create work like I’m doing for this piece, I’m more interested in what creating the dance means for me, what it means to the other dancers, and how my choices will affect the audience. I’m less interested in the technical aspects of it.”

Kellner, Mausner, Haber, and Dai all praise the Barnard dance department for keeping a good balance between the academic and performative aspects of dance, especially in comparison to professional dance conservatories.

The Creative Thesis is not a frivolous exercise in art for the sake of art. In these performances, according to students and faculty, their four years of training and theory are concentrated into a final, choreographed work of art that shows just how much they have learned about their bodies and the medium of dance.

Dance Department Co-chair Katie Glasner underscores the importance of putting all this academic research into practice through the Creative Thesis. “With dance, one could be completely theoretical about it and never move. But that’s not dance. You need the body moving in space with effort and time to be dance.”

In addition to the Creative Thesis, which is optional, all seniors in the Barnard dance department are required to write a written thesis. In Haber’s words, the written senior thesis “affirms the fact that this isn’t a BFA. It’s a bachelor of the arts in dance, so there is a very heavy academic component to the dance major.”

“I think it’s imperative that the two go hand in hand in the department—it is a blended department with practice and scholarship,” Glasner says. The annual dance concert can serve as an inspirational tradition for underclassmen who might want to organize their own Senior Creative Theses one day. For Dai, the concert is an emotional moment—one she has envisioned for years—and yet it’s a moment whose importance is only dawning on her.

“I remember sitting in the audience seats in the theater my first year, sophomore year, and junior year, watching all these amazing past dance majors perform, and I always thought I wanted this to be the best moment. Now that I am within the moment about to perform, I see [the Creative Thesis Dance Concert] as a capstone of all these four years at Barnard through which I have explored dance and art.

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