Ms, Fs, and As, Oh My! Life After Graduate School, The Transition Awaiting

By James Graham

December 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

ON JUNE 13, 2010 I graduated from The Ohio State University with an M.F.A. in Dance. I moved to San Francisco on June 18. This transition has been an education in itself, opening my eyes to aspects of two worlds—academic and professional dance.

During 2006 I was thinking about and applying for graduate school. I remember Joe Goode giving me advice: “You have to think about what you want to do in life. In five or ten years do you want to work at a university? If so, you might want to get an M.F.A.” With some motivation I could receive the training on my own in any major city, yet graduate school would also give me that three-lettered credential. I chose to hone my skills and go to graduate school.

In school, I didn’t just learn to use beautifully pretentious theoretical words such as “hermeneutic,” “phenomenology,” or “embodied eco-sexuality;” I also found and expanded my specific interests in videodance, collaborative and interdisciplinary work, and site-specific/installation-oriented dance. Some M.F.A.ers discovered Labanotation, dancetheatre, and pedagogy, while others drifted into the world of collaboration with artists from different majors, or latched onto improvisation and William Forsythe techniques like they were ambrosia. I grew as a dancer, choreographer, researcher, educator, and videographer. I became aware that these skills were specific to school. I needed to apply my education in the outside world.

The moment I walked out of my commencement ceremony pressures were waiting. BAM! There was the world, waiting for me to make up my mind. School is a long tunnel: we buy our tickets and get on the train; the track is prescribed and understood. Towards the end of the journey we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We knew it would not last forever. The horizon line opens up to a virtual 360-degree view and we choose our own path. It is at once exhilarating and terrifying.

Out of an M.F.A. class of eleven graduate students, we were quite different. One left after our first year, one had two babies during our three years, many got married or engaged, and after graduation we scattered to the wind. Four stayed in Columbus taking various jobs in dance, one went to upstate New York, one to Seattle, one to Chicago, one enrolled in a Ph.D. program at another university, and one, obviously, moved back to San Francisco. A few of my peers entered our three-year program already knowing what their M.F.A. thesis project was going to be, and similarly had their post-graduation careers mapped out to a tee. Getting an M.F.A. was merely a necessary bump in the road towards a life of teaching at the college level and/or researching their chosen niche in the world of dance.

As graduate students we found out what was expected of us—I may never know the exact dates of the Romantic or Classical ballets and their composers! We were asked to look at what drew us as individuals towards a life as an artist in the field of dance. We learned how to teach diverse students at the biggest university in the United States. And, hopefully, we clarified what precisely drew us towards receiving a graduate degree and to be dubbed (albeit somewhat jokingly) a “master of dance.”

In pondering the visceral experiences of this transition I realize that much of my time in this shift is spent sussing out my relationship to myself. I think about who I am as an artist and how I do or do not feel successful in that assessment. A theme of success versus failure keeps resurfacing. How do I define my own success after receiving an M.F.A. in dance? Is success in this field dependent on whom I dance with, what caliber of dance I choreograph, where I am published, or where and for how long I teach? And furthermore, if these above-mentioned questions/criterion are not answered satisfactorily, then does this define my failure? My goodness, let’s let ourselves off the hook, shall we?! A life filled with insatiable curiosity, a desire and need to move one’s body, and a knowledge of and advocate for the importance of dance (in its many forms) to the human cultural experience is a successful life as a dance artist.

San Francisco has an amazing dance community. It is a hidden gem to many dancers who discover her golden gates. Returning here after graduation was like re-introducing myself to a familiar friend. I felt sophomoric and a bit out of the loop, but that did not last for long. I could write about how my life has shifted from a busy school schedule, my sleeping arrangements on a friend’s futon, or how I now have time for a love life, but the issues of this transition that interest me are the ideas of success and the blurring of these two worlds while seeing how each is complimentarily nurtured.

The spheres of academia and professional dance have been blurring in dance departments across the country. They meld into and inform each other, feeding the creative research of both. Bebe Miller (Ohio State Univ.), Joe Goode (UC Berkeley), Tere O’Connor (Univ. of Illinois), and David Dorfman (Connecticut College) are examples of professional choreographers who operate within this liminal space between the academic and professional. And even if these two spheres of our field were distilled entities, they would still impact each other through their wide reaching tentacles of influence.

In academia many universities and departments derive their own success by the number of graduates who are hired or currently working in the field. If a surgeon becomes a surgeon or a teacher a teacher, then they are working successfully in their respective professions. Many fields are instinctual, but others, such as dance, can pose a problem. Most recent graduates do not immediately go into tenure-track positions, nor do we join Alvin Ailey. We tap into the vast interrelated segments of our field; fortunately they are not mutually exclusive.

Our departmental chair at O.S.U., Susan Van Pelt Petry, explained to me the difficulty of quantifying the success of the department’s alumni. The department of dance sees its graduates going into the field through arts administrative work, choreographing, writing for publications and conferences, adjunct teaching at colleges or in studios, dancing for various companies, and writing dance blogs. Petry says, “What I wish for is some institutional system for gathering these kinds of metrics,” to further clarify the definition of success in our field beyond full-time teaching positions. Any combination of these activities solves the equation of a viable and successful graduate in the field, but explaining and justifying this measurement to a university board from varying disciplines can prove difficult. Our jobs seem to lack focus to others. Is the placement of graduates as professors and/or researchers all that truly matters in a research one university? And even if the answer is “no,” then how do we measure our success as graduates?

In an attempt to stay connected with my professors I email to let them know what I am doing. I am somewhat disheartened when receiving a professor’s reply: “Dear James, …I often wonder how—if—OSU really changes a dancer’s path when so many return to nearly exactly what they were doing before grad school. But I do think you grew so much while you were here.” If you return to the city/community you were a part of before you went to graduate school, are you somehow stunted, or worse—have you failed in some way? It is a bit double sided. On the one side it is seen as a step back, on the other side, I have changed, learned, and grown while at school and therefore will be contributing and stimulated in quite different ways. The track I chose to walk down is leading me to working with different choreographers/companies, producing my own work, and continually educating myself. I am acutely aware of my choices in dealing with this transition. Pull the cord, this is my stop!

This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of In Dance.

James Graham is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and writer. He was chosen by Ohad Naharin to be a certified Gaga teacher and to take part in his pilot training program of international dancers/ teachers. He currently teaches Gaga at SF Conservatory of Dance, Shawl-Anderson and LINES Ballet and around the country. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (M.F.A.) and UC Berkeley (B.A.).