Collaboration Nation

SMTD students explore the vast interdisciplinary opportunities at U-M.

This summer, several dance majors from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance will be looking to the wind for inspiration…literally.

With Ann Arbor Dance Works, the resident professional dance company of the Department of Dance, students are exploring the potential for harnessing the wind as a renewable energy source. In the process, they will learn from U-M faculty and doctoral students in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences; Urban and Regional Planning; and Natural Resources and Environment. They will also work with composers, musicians, writers, and choreographers to create a “site-specific” dance performance (where the work is conceived in relation to a particular place) featuring music, poetry, and visual design. It will be presented at the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon, Michigan in August.

Titled “Into the Wind,” this unique project is being directed by dance professor Jessica Fogel, who was awarded a U-M Third Century Initiative grant to develop it. Fogel believes it will teach students about the environment, public policy, and all the issues surrounding sustainability and wind.

“It will be interesting to explore the landscape and learn what we perceive as beautiful or not,” said Fogel. “It’s such a natural topic in terms of the synergy with music and dance.”

This is one of several interdisciplinary opportunities to emerge from the dance department in the past year. Last summer, Fogel produced an event at the U-M Museum of Natural History featuring dance works, by faculty and guest artists, inspired by cutting-edge scientific research across campus. Her piece, From Afar, drew on the research of U-M associate professor of astronomy Sally Oey, who investigates massive stars and their effects on their host galaxies.

In November, dance again joined forces with science when Thurnau Professor of Dance Peter Sparling collaborated with Dan Klionsky, professor of life sciences at the Life Sciences Institute; David Goodsell, illustrator from the Scripps Research Institute; and composer Wendy Wan-Ki Lee (PhD, ’06, music theory). The result was a short film, or screendance, that explains the biologic process of autophagy (when cells break down parts of themselves and reuse the resulting macromolecules). Both works featured student dancers.

For SMTD students, these projects can have mind-opening and often far-reaching results. Though the performing arts are, by nature, collaborative-it is the heart and soul of any ensemble work-many of today’s students are looking outside their own disciplines to areas both within the performing arts and outside it, to create work and grow as artists.

“The grounds are very fertile here,” said Corey Smith, a music composition senior. “The fact that there’s this gigantic university system and it’s all top notch…if you want to work with someone in physics, you will find someone who will be the top in their field, and you will be the top in your field, and some magical things will happen.”

“I think that as we’re progressing and SMTD is really growing, there’s a big desire for the School’s departments to be more connected and create work together,” said Hillary Koistra, a junior dance major who is minoring in performing arts management. “I’m so glad that it seems to be happening at every level.”

As a sign of how important collaboration has become to students, the School’s student government body, the Collaborative Student Assembly (CSA), voted to make opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration a top priority. Recently they launched a website, CollabConnect, which provides a fast, reliable way to identify fellow students for interdisciplinary collaborations, helping SMTD students find the artistic partners they seek. The site was created by CSA members Gabrielle Lewis, (music theory) and Zac Lavender (composition), both seniors, who describe it as SMTD’s “Craigslist for gigs.” Currently open only to SMTD students, the plan is to gradually expand it, ultimately making it usable by the entire U-M creative community.

A Collaborative Environment

The University of Michigan abounds with interdisciplinary collaborations, which yield exceptional results in problem solving and creativity. Last year the University launched MCubed, a two-year seed-funding program “designed to empower interdisciplinary teams of U-M faculty to pursue new initiatives with major societal impact.”

In 2006, U-M’s Arts Engine was created, a unique collaboration between SMTD, the Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning, the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, and the College of Engineering, with the goal of stimulating and supporting “integrative, project-based creative work and sustained research among faculty and students.” One outcome has been Living Arts, an undergraduate residential community for students from the Arts Engine schools, to encourage and support interdisciplinary creative work and research.

In addition, Arts Engine launched “Creative Process,” a four-credit course for students from schools and colleges across campus, to learn how to recognize, understand, develop, and utilize creative capacity. Faculty from the four Arts Engine schools teach the course, including Stephen Rush, SMTD professor of music in the Department of Performing Arts Technology (PAT), who is also the course coordinator.

Rush is the ideal leader for this effort; he is the ultimate collaborative artist. A composer of hundreds of works that include opera, jazz, and music for chamber ensembles, orchestras, and dance, he is also a MCubed grant recipient whose project, a multimedia event (dance, video, digital imagery, music, and art), is based on the principle of dark energy. It was created with Gregory Tarlé, professor of physics, and Jim Cogswell, professor of art and design. Another recent project was “A World Without Ice,” a multimedia exploration of global warming, with SMTD jazz professor Michael Gould and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Henry Pollack, which was presented at the Duderstadt Center in April.

Rush is the director of SMTD’s Digital Music Ensemble (DME), comprising students from music, art, engineering, and dance. Perhaps best known for “Gypsy Pond Music,” an annual sonic installation at the Moore Building pond that involves sculpture and algorithmic computer music, the DME presents a spectrum of performances, installations, and events featuring both new works of art and historically innovative works. Included are unique opportunities, such as performing the world premiere of Rush’s US Grant Fluxkit Opera-with a score that is essentially a board game that determines actions, sounds, and staging-in performances at both the U-M Museum of Art and in Brooklyn, NY.

“There is an environment at this University that makes these kinds of collaborations possible,” said Rush. “Without having really good departments-including dance, composition, jazz, and performing arts technology-this doesn’t happen.” He also cites the “crossover” faculty who hold appointments at more than one school; the ability for students to take a vast spectrum of courses across campus; and facilities like the Duderstadt Center, home to the Digital Media Commons Design Labs. These include Electronic Lunch, an open lab for exploring and designing with electronic devices, open to all and very popular with PAT students. “You want to watch collaboration happen, go sit in a corner over there for about an hour,” said Rush. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Expanding Horizons

Corey Smith is a music student whose expectations about his school experience and future career were blown wide open when he began to take advantage of the opportunities he discovered at SMTD. “Through this collaborative environment, I’ve stopped thinking of myself purely as a composer,” he said. “To think of myself as an ‘artist’ is maybe too vague and too pretentious, but that’s how I approach my work now. I’m very much interested in not simply writing music, but trying to do it all.”

When he first arrived at Michigan, Corey did identify as a composer. He was excited about the resources that he knew would be available: musicians who would play his music, dancers for whom he could create work. “But it was all very focused on me as a composer,” he said. What turned him around was a course entitled “Dance and the Related Arts” (DRA). “It was one of those classes that completely blew my mind. I went in thinking, ‘How great would it be to write a piece of music for dance.’ And I didn’t write a single note. Instead, I danced. That was a phenomenal experience for little freshman me.”

Stephen Rush teaches DRA, and created it. When he first came to Michigan 28 years ago, it was as music director for the dance department, with which he remains very involved. The course is now a requirement for all dance juniors. Collaboration is the entire purpose, and the course concludes with a major performance event.

During the first days of the class, the 20 to 30 students-dancers, musicians, PAT majors, composers, and actors-are divided into groups and given an hour to create a work. “They come back and it’s magic, it’s electric, it’s crazy, it’s fun, it’s wide open, and the willingness to participate? It’s 100 percent,” said Rush.

“It was one of the most rewarding and informative processes,” said Hillary Koistra, who took the course last fall. “It became clear that there were no real distinctions between disciplines when we were making our work. We had a lot of time to reflect on it, as a group, and digest what we got out of it. It was very illuminating-it showed us what we are capable of as artists.”

Corey’s experience was similar, and got him thinking about producing art that doesn’t fit neatly into categories or genres. This led him to take an introductory interarts course in his junior year, studying with Holly Hughes, the renowned performance artist. Interarts-a cross between visual arts and theatre-is a degree program offered jointly between SMTD and Stamps.

Corey soon befriended interarts major Willy Filkowski and the two created a work with dance major Nola Smith entitled Who is Luther Burbank?, inspired by the little known botanist who developed the first blight-resistant potato. It was performed on campus last year and Hughes was so impressed that she asked the trio to perform it in Chicago this past spring at Links Hall, a professional venue focused on experimental dance, performance, and music, where she curated a show.

Blurring The Lines

Corey describes Who is Luther Burbank? as “dance theatre.” Like many works that are born of interdisciplinary collaboration, the result can defy labels. And that is exactly what Flores Komatsu appreciates about it.

Flores, a theatre & drama sophomore with a concentration in directing, is a member of the CSA, with whom he created and ultimately supervised a new SMTD student-driven event entitled Blur the Lines. It challenged students from all disciplines to come together and create an entirely new performance piece in a 24-hour period. “The idea is that we are all communicators, we are all storytellers,” said Flores. “Everybody is working together to tell a story and everybody is an integral part of it. You’ve got to do it together, by which you also learn the language of the different disciplines.”

Flores was inspired by the experience to create another interdisciplinary piece for the Wall-to-Wall Theatre Festival in March. Also a new, student-driven event, the two-day festival featured nine short theatrical works that cycled simultaneously throughout the Walgreen Drama Center, from Shakespeare to original student works.

Flores’s piece explored the different ways people express themselves through the media of music, language, and the body. It featured Kula Batangan, a dance major and native Hawaiian, who drew inspiration from Hawaiian-language chants; Alexandria Strother, a soprano voice major, who sang French and German arias; Liesl Collazo and Aline Mayagoitia, musical theatre majors who performed songs and dances from their home countries of Puerto Rico and Mexico, respectively; and Christine Hedden, a graduate composition student, who played the fiddle, sang in Gaelic, and did a variation of Irish dance. The only prop was a wooden mask carved in the Japanese theatre tradition, which Flores, of Japanese-Mexican heritage, inherited from his great-grandmother.

“Every line of poetry recited, or movement traced, or note sung was up to each individual,” said Flores. “I just helped guide the shape of the performance as a whole. Although I brought the elements together, it was the chemistry between the performers that created the body and soul of the piece. Only in a School with such artistic diversity could we achieve an interdisciplinary collaboration of this nature.”


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.