The Pleasures of Returning to School; The MFA Program in Choreography at UC Davis

By Della Davidson


Many mid-career dance artists reach a moment in their careers when the next step is not apparent. Dance is not a career that is easily left behind. It is a calling that requires devotion and devotion demands action.

As funding and opportunities within dance disappear, artists look for creative ways to continue their careers. Many mature choreographic artists are returning to academic positions to stabilize their income and to be in an environment that can provide other systems of support. Returning to the University to obtain an MFA Degree is an important step toward applying for teaching positions. Besides having a practical goal it also can serve as a “time out” from the demands of surviving in the non-profit system. Returning to school is an opportunity for dance artists to re-focus their artistic work while gaining new skills, knowledges and connections.

In the past, returning to academia has been looked at as failing to succeed in the professional world. Fortunately, attitudes are changing. Molissa Fenley once said that Universities are the new “Medicis,” referring to the influential Florentine family of the 15th century that were patrons of the great artists of their time. Universities are environments that can provide a context to refine artistic goals, examine cultural forces and provide the resources that dance and theater artists need to develop and produce their work.

Candidates in the masters degree program at UC Davis are usually artists who have pursued a professional performance and choreography career in dance and now wish to focus on their development as interdisciplinary artists while getting an MFA. In developing the program, I felt it was important to allow flexibility so as to accommodate the uniqueness of each artist. In the past six years, I have had the great fortune to work with many exciting artists in the program including Keith Hennessy, Hilary Bryan, Randee Paufve, Marija Krtolica, Kim Epifano, Eric Kupers, Jane Schnorrenberg, Kerry Mehling, Melissa Wynn and Sarah Luella Baker.

The key to being a graduate student is in using the University system to develop and extend your unique and idiosyncratic vision. Consequently, each of our artist/students has different needs. Randee Paufve has chosen to focus her study on learning new skills in directing. Keith Hennessy and Hilary Bryan have taken advantage of our PhD program to enhance their critical and philosophical thinking about dance, all the while continuing their careers as choreographers/ performance artists.

As Keith says of the program: “Going to Davis was a great move for me. The small seminars for both PhDs and MFAs became inspirational sparks that provoked new approaches to performance and inspired tons of new reading to fill in the many gaps in my mostly self-taught dance history and theory. I was supported to make what I wanted–with willing bodies and ample resources–and I was encouraged to take the next step in terms of articulating and defining my work. I paid more attention to how and what I teach, and I got clearer about my priorities in studio practice for emerging dancers and choreographers. I feel more confident in academic contexts. And I feel lucky that the program covered all my tuition and student expenses!”

We bring in two dance artists a year into the MFA program for Choreography. We limit our candidates in order to provide a high level of funding and production support to the individual. Recognizing that mid-career artists need financial support, we provide tuition and teaching assistantships to support the artist while attending UC Davis. In the second year the program culminates in a shared two-person thesis performance in the Studio Theater of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. This is a beautiful “black box” theater in a world-class performance facility.

As Hilary Bryan says of her decision to come into the program: “I had been looking for a container that would help me put my artwork first before all the other work I do to survive in the Bay Area. Of course I was thinking that having a degree might help me get a job, but my primary goal was to spend some concentrated time thinking about my work and about dance as art in general. “

I believe that we need to start re-contextualizing academia within the arts, and I have done my best to ensure that UC Davis fulfills this need. Academia has always been a haven for scientists providing them with labs, equipment and grad students for doing research. Why can’t this attitude extend into the arts? Returning to school for an MFA should be looked at as extended “lab” time in your development as artist, critical thinker and teacher. It can be a pleasurable retreat into a stimulating and supportive environment as well as an opportunity to expand into a new community of artists and scholars.

This article appeared in the May 2007 issue of In Dance.