As a faculty member at Saint Mary’s College of California and the director of the Creative Practice MFA in Dance program, I am excited to announce our first graduating class who is culminating their graduate studies this month. I came from Colombia to the United States 10 years ago and after working at two major universities there in my home country, I found Saint Mary’s College in 2008 as a place where I could be fully supported. I brought with me ideas from my studies at the Laban Centre in London and my beliefs in what dance at higher education should be. With the incredibly diverse dance community that we have in the Bay Area and the exciting richness that this part of the world offers, Saint Mary’s College started two innovative MFA in Dance programs in June 2014. Now, two years later, a group of 12 students are ending their graduate experience with the presentation of their thesis concerts on campus and as site-specific works in the East Bay all through June.
The two graduate programs in dance are Design and Production, and Creative Practice. Design and Production is the only program of its kind in the nation and is unique in its approach and specialization. While graduate production and design programs for theatre offer candidates a specialization in areas such as lighting or management, ours provides opportunities to study techniques specific to dance. The two-year course of study allows students to approach the work from a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective, resulting in a body of creative works where the performer’s body, choreographer’s movements, set design, costumes and the lighting create a cohesive world for dance. Linda Baumgardner, director of the MFA in Dance: Design and Production says: “Designers and technicians for dance have mainly been self-taught or come from theatre programs until now. However, the MFA in Design and Production for Dance will generate a community of dance educators and professionals with skills that are unparalleled in the existing marketplace.”
The Creative Practice program and how its approach to the field of dance studies is shaped in connection to contemporary choreography, also offers a unique graduate curriculum. It is highly influenced by current theories that support the study of dance and it promotes practice-based research supported by theoretical-based research. The curriculum covers a diverse range of disciplines from which to view contemporary dance practice. From phenomenology to somatic movement studies to social justice and critical pedagogy applied to dance, the students are encouraged to build the skills to integrate these fields of thought and practice through choreographic research and the application of elements from dance design and production such as management, lighting, sound and costume design. The fact that the Creative Practice program offers such a strong emphasis on somatic movement studies with faculty who are experts and pioneers in the field, makes the program stand out not only in the United States, but also worldwide.
Our multidisciplinary approach to the study of dance within Saint Mary’s liberal arts context and the unique model of the program, which capitalizes on the richness and diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area dance community are factors that attract our students. The nature of the program is student-centered, hinging on peer collaboration, faculty mentoring, and student-driven projects. The faculty approach dance from a holistic model, integrating mind, body, and spirit in a nurturing and positive atmosphere. Our faculty body is incredibly diverse, coming from different dance education and cultural backgrounds: Catherine Marie Davalos, Linda Baumgardner, Dana Lawton, Rogelio Lopez, Elizebeth Randall Raines, Jia Wu, and numerous distinguished guest faculty, including Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Martha Eddy, William Evans, Janice Garrett, Debra Knapp, Doug Nielson, Randee Paufve, David Szlasa and James Sutton.
The values of the program are shaped around the quest for truth, authenticity of living, and the building of a community where sensitivity, social justice, and global awareness are at the core. These values are present in what Saint Mary’s College is and for us, when we created the MFA in Dance curriculum, we very carefully looked at areas of study that could naturally foster that. We are not only interested in the different practices that surround the study of dance and where these values can be highlighted, but also in the integration of all the areas so that the student can leave with an educated socially conscious body who is able to live an authentic, unique dance practice that is current with what the world offers, and that affects and awakens change not only in the student her/himself but in all.
One of our graduating students, Todd Courage, refers to the opportunity for self-discovery and transformation that the curriculum offers: “The program has radically changed me in enduring ways. The diversity and breadth of the course materials, coupled with the immediate opportunity to embody and creatively apply these new ideas, engender a symbiotic relationship between theory and practice. This integration is greater than the sum of its parts: fundamental shifts in consciousness occur. The infrastructure of the department supports exploration and artistic risk, all underpinned by academic inquiry and research. A gift to those seeking self-realization.”
Andrew Merrell, who will also be graduating this month, shares about his learning process during his MFA studies, “I underwent a process of defining myself as an artist. By putting language and concepts towards ideas that had been floating around in my unconsciousness, I was able to bring them into the forefront. The worlds of Somatics, Phenomenology and Performance Studies really revealed to me a higher consciousness of art making and helped me see and deepen my own understanding of what I do and hope to achieve with my art.”
Our students come from diverse cultural backgrounds as well as life and career experiences. While the Design and Production program is for high residency students, the Creative Practice program offers a low residency model that benefits students from all over the country whose jobs or family situation don’t allow them to be on campus with us during the full two years of study. Our student body is mixed age, currently ranging from 24 to 58 years old, and coming from around the country and as far as India and Congo. They are all engaged in various areas of dance practice, from teaching at community colleges, schools, dance studios to performing professionally and working with their own companies. Faculty find all of these aspects of diversity in our community of students extremely exciting for when it comes to creative processes, peer interaction and seminar-based courses.
Kelsey Bergstrom from our second cohort says: “I have experienced a rarity in the academic world. Like all graduate studies, it pushes us out of our comfort zones and past our known limits both creatively and academically, while simultaneously providing a richly supportive and encouraging environment.”
Raul Galvan, also from our second class, lives in Texas and refers to his experience as a low-residency student, “I searched for an MFA in Dance program that would allow me to continue employment. I finally found one at St. Mary’s. The college is over 2000 miles from where I live but what the program offers far outweighs the distance.”
Most of the students start the program with the goal of teaching at a higher institution. And while this job market is competitive, our graduating students are being hired to teach at colleges, high schools and special dance centers like Shawl-Anderson in Berkeley where Jill Randall will become the Artistic Director beginning in July. Jill is culminating her MFA experience at Saint Mary’s this month and shares: “After 18 years working in the eld as a performer, teaching artist, and arts administrator, this program offered me classes and projects to look back and reflect, as well as building new skills to excite me about the years ahead and new career paths. Working with people like Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Doug Nielsen has been life changing. I also love the balance of studio time and real time.”
The MFA in Dance currently has 40 students distributed in three cohorts. As the program continues to grow and welcomes its third class this month, we extend the invitation to the Bay Area dance community to come and witness what the program is and offers.