Go behind the scenes at the USC Kaufman Virtual Dance Festival
Now more than ever, USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance students embody their program’s vision: “The New Movement”.
As the coronavirus pandemic expands, the dance world continues to face unprecedented challenges, but USC Kaufman faculty and BFA students have not avoided them. While many schools have had to cancel events or downsize them to live streams from my living room, USC Kaufman has embraced the situation and started some impressive efforts, like expanding their recruiting efforts online.
From November 1 to 13, USC Kaufman will present A / Part To / Gather, a virtual festival featuring world premieres by prominent guest teachers and choreographers, student dance films and more. Throughout the semester, they rehearsed via Zoom from their student apartments or their respective hometowns. And they didn’t just dance. âYou have a rehearsal process and then a filming process and a production process to put it in place,â says assistant practice professor Jennifer McQuiston Lott of the professionally recorded and edited festival.
For a program that is only in its sixth year, USC Kaufman continues to raise the bar on what it means to be a dance major – and being resilient and adaptable are key components. Dance magazine went into the making of the festival.
Switching to the remote control
Sidney Ramsey (BFA ’21) in the class of Saleemah E. Knight last year
(Rose Eichenbaum, courtesy of USC Kaufman)
Prior to the start of the semester, USC Kaufman planned to use a hybrid teaching model, with students taking some online courses and some in-person courses. While a virtual festival had always been part of the plan, the faculty had hoped the students could rehearse most of the choreography together, albeit six feet apart.
When USC switched to a completely remote model, [one week] Before school started, teachers and staff had to reconsider not only the festival, but also their regular classes. How would they recreate the atmosphere of a hip-hop cipher on Zoom, or those aha moments with a guest artist that seem exclusive to the studio’s chemistry?
Senior Sidney Ramsey, who has a dual major in dance, health and the humanities, says the transition online has had some benefits. On the one hand, she relishes the small class size (only seven students) for technique. In addition to the one-on-one attention, she appreciates how her teachers have adapted their lessons or made changes for those with limited space. “We might not be doing as much travel work, but they incorporated a lot of other reinforcement and flexibility work.” For ballet, she may have a longer barre or an in-place rotation exercise in place of a waltz sequence.
For his hip-hop class with d. Sabela grime, the switch to Zoom required more creative solutions. âThere is such a great community energy at USC Kaufman,â says Ramsey. Grimes’ tapped into this online by “spotlighting” dancers one at a time in virtual ciphers or by encouraging them to send in music suggestions for the class. âIt’s the little things that make it so fun,â Ramsey says.
World premieres and new ways of working
USC Kaufman Artist-in-Residence Hope Boykin leads rehearsal last semester
(Mary Mallaney, courtesy of USC Kaufman)
In many college programs, dancing in a world premiere by a respected choreographer is often restricted to upper-class students or limited to students selected by audition. But at USC Kaufman, âeveryone has something done on them,â Lott says. A / Part To / Gather presents five new works (which will take place on November 5, 6, 12 and 13). Ailey’s artist-in-residence and former dancer Hope Boykin has created pieces for freshmen and juniors; Assistant Professor of Practice E. Moncell Durden completed work for sophomores; Assistant Assistant Professor Saleemah E. Knight choreographed the juniors; and guest artist Francesca Harper has collaborated with the elderly.
âEvery artist has had to reorient themselves to work in Zoom,â Lott explains, although the way they create is very different. For juniors that meant being exposed to two totally different processes. Boykin’s creation takes up a play she originally performed at USC Kaufman last spring, but was thwarted due to COVID-19. Along with the dancers, she sifts through the footage from last semester to build something old, something new. Meanwhile, Knight signed up for rehearsals with everything choreographed in advance and used videos of his own dancers mapping the material as a tool. âI think it worked really well in a Zoom world,â Lott says.
The seniors’ work with Harper relied on a more collaborative choreographic process to create a time capsule of movement. “It’s a microcosm of this macro thing that’s going on with the festival in general: we end up with these video works that are sort of time capsules. They really talk about the moment we’re in, but she took that. a little further, “says Lott. Harper has encouraged older people to study and respond to civil rights speeches and talks with activists.” She’s really trying to connect the practice of the dance movement with what ‘they stand for and what they mean right now. “
USC Kaufman Dancer Benjamin Peralta (BFA ’22)
(Rose Eichenbaum, courtesy of USC Kaufman)
Besides the choreography, launching an online festival presented a myriad of logistical challenges. âHow do you present a work that should at least be filmed in a studio with students six feet apart but in space together? How can we now rotate to present this work where each student now has to be their own production team and film themselves? âAsks Lott.
To make this work, USC Kaufman recruited a few familiar alumni, including 2019 graduate Paulo Hernandez-Farella, to spend three weeks rehearsing with students in small groups. With a trio of degrees – a bachelor’s degree in dance, a minor in associations and a master’s degree in public administration – Hernandez-Farella, who now dances with Ballet HispÃ¡nico, was more than qualified to intervene. âNow that I’m a professional, everything is falling into place,â they say. âI have all the amazing dance training I received at USC. I got to perform pieces by Forsythe, KyliÃ¡n and Aszure Barton in New York and Tokyo. ‘was touring, what it was like to be in a repertoire company. And then I also personally acquired this academic knowledge. “Coming back to campus, if only virtually, is a moment of pride for them, and they are delighted to help current students on their travels.
This semester, dance majors remain dispersed, and their “studios” range from apartments in LA with classmates to their parents’ salons across the country. Some dance in a marley square or, like Ramsey, in a space they found in dance studios in their hometown.
âWe sent them costumes and backdrops,â Lott explains. “We bought green screens and white screens and lights to send them. It was really a makeshift home studio situation, but they look amazing.”
After filming was completed, USC Kaufman’s in-house production team worked their magic, editing and weaving each student’s individual contributions into a cohesive set of dance films. Class of 2019 alumni Adam Agostino and Justin Epstein, who founded a production studio called RYBG, also practically returned to their alma mater to help with the editing process.
Senior projectors and film screenings
A / Part To / Gather isn’t just about showing premieres. The festival also includes Invitational Senior Spotlight webinars (November 4 and 11), allowing outgoing BFAs a chance to shine for an audience of their professors, families and field representatives. âEach of the seniors in recent years, their projects are so amazing,â Lott says, comparing the projects to a master’s level thesis work. Despite the uncertain state of the dance, “we’re really excited to send them out into the world,” she said. “I know it was incredibly difficult for them, but they kept the good faith and really did a great job.”
A / Part To / Gather will be available online from November 1 through the USC Kaufman website. Although the festival is free, most events require prior registration.
As students and faculty continue to pivot to embrace the present moment, their work is a true reflection of the world of dance. âDancers using whatever they have is a skill that I think will be essential in future days of dancing,â says Lott. “I think if you, as an individual artist, can take your glue and tape, your living room and your screen, and make something amazing happen, then that gives me a lot of hope for the field. . ” In a pandemic world, this is exactly how USC Kaufman dancers continue to create new movements.