Try to pronounce the letters P-A-S-J as a word with one syllable–PASJ–and you speak the lingo of young artists at the University of San Francisco. Rather, the shorthand version for the name of their major: Performing Arts and Social Justice.
Some people hear this and think that the student is a double major, imagining that they may combine the two later in life. However, PASJ students learn to use their artistic skills within a context of social consciousness, with rigorous technical training alongside opportunities for leadership in community settings and critical dialogue about their craft.
Having celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 2011, the Department of Performing Arts now encompasses an extensive network of community programs and performance events in dance, music and theater. The city of San Francisco provides unparalleled exposure and inspiration. Students work with an array of local guest artists, they teach and perform off-campus, they are encouraged to take creative risks, and they embrace the spirit of innovation for which the city is known.
I have worked as adjunct faculty in the USF Dance Program for the past six years. It has been a pleasure to witness the growth of the program and the blossoming careers of our alumni. However, I have most enjoyed creating bridges that allow the students to work and learn off-campus. By connecting students to local organizations with whom I have worked for many years, I have felt the multi-dimensional impact of this exchange, which encompasses students, teachers and the organizations themselves.
At USF, these relationships are vital to the students’ education. However, outside of school, local organizations can benefit from being involved in the education of their future employees. Over the past few years, I have watched many students transition from volunteers, interns or apprentices to arts educators, administrators and company members. I find myself at a unique vantage point; many of my former students are now my colleagues.
Through these engaged and emerging artists, I am able to see how the USF Dance Program is woven into the fabric of arts and activism in the Bay Area. And now, I’d like to invite In Dance readers into the PASJ realm.
Professor Kathi Gallagher started the tradition of bringing local artists to work at USF in the 1970s, as a member of the first Board of Directors of the Bay Area Dance Coalition. She also worked tirelessly to secure space for the multitude of classes serving students across campus. Sharonjean Leeds was one of the first teachers hired, and continues to teach ballet at USF to this day. Her presence as well as her mentorship to the roster of adjunct faculty members is invaluable.
In the late 1990s, Gallagher collaborated to create the PASJ major, where students can pursue an emphasis in dance, music or theater.
Megan Nicely first came to USF as adjunct faculty in 2000. She recalls, “this was the first year of the new major… and it was also the beginning of the dot-com boom and subsequent bust in San Francisco, with many arts spaces such as Dancers’ Group/Footwork losing their leases to those who could pay more. It was a time of crisis for non-corporate performing arts in San Francisco.”
Four years later, our only studio was being turned into dorms, oddly mirroring the condo-development evictions in the city at that time. Kathi Gallagher ensured that the Dance Program would survive this crisis when she secured a new home for the program on campus. When Gallagher retired in 2009, this beautiful studio was named in her honor.
Assistant Professor Amie Dowling began teaching at USF in 2006, and is now the Dance Program coordinator. Under her guidance the program has re-committed itself to providing strong technical training and choreographic exploration, while simultaneously developing community connections. Dowling’s involvement in the community-based arts field has fostered a learning environment that asks students to question and wrestle with what “social justice” means in relation to the performing arts.
In 2010, after six years in New York earning her PhD, Megan Nicely returned to USF as a full-time assistant professor. She has noticed that “graduating students not only have amazing contacts and are working in their field, but they understand the field from many angles–a unique perspective, since many schools focus on performance and choreography but not other aspects of ‘survival.’ I think having guest choreographers on the fall concert is a major factor in connecting to the professional community.”
The Concert Stage
Two mainstage performances per year feature entirely different kinds of work. The spring concert is comprised of faculty choreographers, including Naby Bangoura, Amie Dowling, Katie Faulkner, Sharonjean Leeds, Dexandro Montalvo, Eli Nelson, and myself. The fall concert, however, is a combination of local guest artists who set work on students in the Dance Program.
“We see this as a reciprocal relationship,” says Dowling. “PASJ is committed to supporting Bay Area artists and many of our students stay in touch with these artists after graduation.”
On several occasions, guest artists have gone on to hire USF alumni to dance in their professional companies. Caitlin Beard now works with Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions, after performing in several pieces that Kreiter staged on campus.
Eric Garcia connected with both Kelly Kemp and Sean Dorsey through the USF fall concerts. He now works as the Production Coordinator for Fresh Meat, and performs with number9 dance and other local companies.
Kat Cole held a unique role in the development of Kelly Kemp’s piece 7 ways to hide your self from the rest of the world. After performing in an early version of the work that Kemp created with USF students, Cole became a member of the number9 company and appeared in the professional premiere of this work. Cole remembers, “that move was the first realization that I could continue in this field beyond my endeavors in school.” She now works at CounterPULSE as the Development Associate.
In 2010, Cole and Garcia founded their own company, detour dance. In an incredibly short amount of time, detour has presented work in venues and festivals from coast to coast, including CounterPULSE, Studio 210, the WestWave Dance Festival and The Big Screen Project in New York. They were recently awarded first place in the SF Weekly’s Mastermind Competition, and they are putting the award money towards the development of detour dance’s new film, Pedestrian Crossing.
detour concludes: “As students of the PASJ program, we discovered not just a rigorous engagement of the art form, but also how it can contribute within a broader network of communities and practices. This encompassing perspective was crucial to our transition after graduation; the connections and knowledge acquired through the PASJ program enabled us to continue our development beyond USF, furthering our growth as both artists and arts administrators.”
Katie Faulkner, who began teaching at USF in 2007, reflects: “there is something profound about the fact that the community of adjunct faculty reflect the diversity of the many Bay Area dance communities, and are well-equipped to educate students about what they really need to be able to survive.”
Adjuncts teach many of the major’s core courses, and we also work to prepare students for the real world. Faulkner developed a professionalism seminar that covers topics ranging from writing resumes to self-producing. And then it gets personal. The program is small enough to hear individual voices and custom design learning opportunities. There is an emphasis in the program to prepare students for whatever career path they are interested in pursuing.
You want to design costumes? Alumni Keriann Egeland designed for our concerts when she was a student, and now mentors student designers while working in the professional dance community.
You want to work with kids? Current student Kathryn Berkman worked as my assistant before taking over as choreographer for over 400 children who perform in Claire Lilienthal School’s annual May Day Dance.
You want to run your own non-profit? Current student Lauren LaSorda works as an Advocate for Community Engagement through the McCarthy Center, which organizes service learning both on and off-campus. She is the liaison between USF and GLIDE.
Faulkner said that USF students see their own potential both on and beyond the concert stage. She sees that students leave with “a broad sense of where dance exists in society.”
Change and Exchange: The Loop of Community-Engaged Artwork
All PASJ students spend a semester working in the San Francisco Jails. Amie Dowling’s course Performing Arts and Community Exchange (PACE) brings together “outside” (traditional undergraduate) and “inside” (incarcerated) students interested in merging communication and facilitation skills, social activism and performance.
According to Dowling, “PACE places outside and inside student participants on an equal footing in a learning space that is also a creative space. Students begin to understand how individual teaching artists and collaborating community organizations can come together to explore and co-create around social issues that are local, personal and political.”
Multiple stakeholders have an investment in the success of this program: San Francisco Jails, USF, outside and inside students, faculty and staff, and the program’s organizational partner, Community Works.
The course’s impact has expanded, from classroom to jail to community, from workshops and dialogues to an informal, behind-bars performance, and from the tentative sharing of stories to the eventual production of the original, evening-length show, Man. Alive. Stories from the edge of incarceration to the flight of imagination, which opened on the USF campus and subsequently, toured to public venues.
Co-directed by Amie Dowling, Paul Flores and myself, this piece featured a cast and crew comprised of formerly incarcerated men and USF students. One of our cast members with a particularly incredible journey is Reggie Daniels.
A former inmate, Daniels later trained and worked behind bars as a non-violence facilitator. He helped recruit cast members and played a vital role in the development and performance of Man. Alive. After several sold-out performances and a northwest tour, when the show ended, Daniels applied and was accepted to USF, as a non-traditional, undergraduate student, to study organizational behavior and leadership in the School of Management. He graduates in May and will continue at USF next fall, pursuing a Masters in Education.
We recently worked with Daniels, once again, in the creation of a dance film shot in the cell house on Alcatraz. Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord lead the creative team which included myself, Kitfox Valentin, Marielle Amrhein and Caitlin Elliott, alongside an incredible cast and crew of formerly incarcerated men, USF students and alumni, and professional performing artists from around the Bay Area. Well Contested Sites is currently in post-production and will premiere this fall.
Generations at Work
One of the PASJ programs that encourages students to combine their skills in performance, choreography and community-engagement is our intergenerational performance company, Dance Generators. The company, whose members range in age from 17 to 72, come together through a shared commitment to innovative dance and theater, and strive to shatter commonly-held stereotypes about aging.
Founded in 1997 by Amie Dowling, Dance Generators now exists on two coasts: one company in Northampton, Massachusetts, and one company at the University of San Francisco. Our branch, the Dance Generators (West), began in 2007 under the co-direction of Dowling and myself. Since then, the group has performed in schools, senior centers, art galleries, concert stages and special events throughout the Bay Area, including the Fromm Center, Mission Cultural Center, the DanceIS Festival at the Julia Morgan, and Dancers’ Group’s 2nd Sundays at CounterPULSE.
We offer classes and workshops that are open to the public through Ruth’s Table, a center where people of all generations come together to explore their creativity. Ruth’s Table is located inside of the Bethany Center Senior Housing in the Mission District. This center is named after a very special gift that they received: acclaimed visual artist and educator Ruth Asawa’s kitchen table. The vibrant gallery space provides constantly rotating inspiration for Dance Generators; our classes are always influenced by the new artwork on the wall, and we are able to dance in, on and around a special piece of San Francisco history.
I currently co-direct Dance Generators with Kristen Greco, and our theme for this year is GROW. The subject is being approached from many different angles, by many people of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. How do roots work and how can we create them? What do our cycles, as humans, have in common with the plants that we grow and the foods that we eat? What does a 12-person carbon footprint monster look like? What about carbon offset?
Our choreographic research for GROW has included performing in a benefit for Michael Koob and spending a day working at the Alemany Farms. The performance will also feature a new dance that I’m creating with company member Lucy Harris and her grandchildren, members of the SFArtsED Players.
We are delighted to premiere GROW at USF as part of Dance Week.
Tuesday, April 24, 7pm
The Studio Theater on Lone Mountain
2800 Turk Blvd, SF
The Dance Generators wish you a very happy National Dance Week, and we invite you to come and celebrate with us. To learn about other PASJ performances, classes and events, please visit: www.usfca.edu/artsci/pa
Last but not least, feel free to contact me about getting involved or bringing this work into your community. While USF’s mission is to “change the world from here,” I often think about “moving the world from here.” With continued collaboration, investigation and experimentation, I think we can.
This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of In Dance.