Taking Dance Outside the Studio

The Department of Dance’s Freshman Touring Company (FTC) plays a critical role in the development of young dancers who are beginning their journey toward a career in dance.  It takes them outside the studio to engage the community and gives them the real-life experience of being a member of a small dance company.

Launched as a course 30 years ago by Professor Bill DeYoung, the FTC is now directed by Professor Robin Wilson and has become an integral part of every dance student’s first year.

“The FTC not only provides first-year dance majors dance company experience, but also gives them the opportunity to learn repertory created by fellow students, guest artists, and faculty,” said Wilson. “They learn to rely upon each other, go into communities that they have not been exposed to, and perform in ‘raw’ theatre spaces such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools instead of traditional stages.”

Working with guest artists is a key element of the FTC experience, said Wilson. “Guest artists, be they alums or other artists working in the field, bring new perspectives and ways of moving. All are at different points in their careers and provide a wide range of experiences and approaches, while also creating relationships between themselves-artists currently working in the field-and dancers who will be entering the field in a few years.”

In the winter 2016 term, the FTC welcomed alumnus William Crowley (MFA ’96), artistic director and founder of Next Step Dance, a contemporary dance company based in Miami. He follows in the footsteps of many other dance alumni who have worked with the FTC, including LA-based choreographer and performer Rosanna Tavarez (BDA ’98), Detroit-based choreographer Jennifer Harge (BFA ’08), former Paul Taylor soloist Julie Tice (BDA ’97), and 2014 SMTD Emerging Artist award-winner Rodney A. Brown (MFA ’09). Other FTC guest artists have included Bosmat Nossan, Ericka Pujic, Wanjiru Kamuyu, Navtej Johar, and Paul Taylor.

Crowley’s return this winter marked 20 years since he first set foot in the Dance Building. “I started in dance very late; I was 20 years old and a junior at Hope College [Holland, MI] when I took my first dance classes,” said Crowley. “After graduation I had to make a decision whether to go into the dance world and take my chances or hone my technique more.”

Crowley had studied the works of Martha Graham and fell in love with them, so he began researching universities and conservatories where he could be trained in the Graham technique. At the time, the chair of the SMTD Dance Department was Peter Sparling, now the Rudolf Arnheim Distinguished Professor of Dance and formerly a dancer with the Graham Company. Crowley shifted his focus to SMTD, auditioned, and was accepted to the graduate program.

“I had the opportunity to study contemporary dance with Peter and Bill DeYoung, ballet with Judy Rice, and production with Mary Cole,” said Crowley. “I received a well-rounded education while I was here, exploring different techniques and approaches to teaching the art form, which was such a valuable experience.”

Two Michigan moments, in particular, still resonate for Crowley. The first was being asked by Sparling to dance in Graham’s 1940s masterwork El Penitente. Crowley, thrilled to dance any part in the piece, asked who was playing the penitent. “Well, you are,” said Sparling.

“Peter had danced the role himself,” said Crowley. “It was such a huge honor to be able to take it on and do it justice, knowing its history and importance. To this day that is probably one of the top highlights of my entire career.”

Crowley cites the experience of dancing in DeYoung’s and Sandra Torijano-DeYoung’s setting of the great oratorio Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, performed at the Power Center, as his other favorite U-M memory.

“The piece had this wonderful solo role for me as a depraved abbot, and I had to challenge myself physically, but also hone my acting chops,” said Crowley. “Bill invited me to perform the piece again two years later, with Eisenhower Dance in Detroit, and I was honored that he thought enough of my performance to ask me back.”

Since that time, Crowley’s career has flourished, as a dancer, choreographer, and artistic director, and as a professor and guest instructor, teaching widely in the United States and Europe. He is delighted that his alma mater is among the dance programs he’s able to visit and share his expertise.

“The program at SMTD really gives you a total picture of what the dance world is and what will be expected of you,” said Crowley. “There may have been a time in the past where it was enough to be a dancer, but these days the market has changed and the field has changed,” he said, suggesting that dancers, like all performing artists, need to embrace “portfolio” careers where they can leverage their artistic expertise to earn income in a variety of ways, just as he does.

The piece that Crowley set on the FTC was Where Future Memories Dwell. “It really reflects the idea of discovering a new space, rising to the challenges that come with that, and then claiming that space for your own in celebration, reflecting a sacred respect for the land,” he said.

“William’s unique style of combining elements of the Graham technique along with classical movements in an abstract style was really neat, especially since he was able to instill that information in such a condensed time frame,” said freshman dancer Allison Maebius (BFA ’19). “It was also very exciting for the whole department since it was a homecoming for him.”

Crowley hopes that his time with the dancers can inspire each of them to reach their fullest potential, and that his role as an alumni mentor will foster that result.

“I’ve danced in the same theatre that they’re dancing in, so we have this commonality between us,” says Crowley. “It means so much to me that Jessica Fogel [department chair], Robin, and the entire Dance Department gave me the responsibility of being in the studio with their students and trusting that I’ll do right by them by sharing valuable career information and something special to perform.”

Maebius believes the FTC provides two important experiences: exposing new and nontraditional audiences to dance, and uniting the freshman class of dance majors. “Watching an FTC performance is especially fun because of how diverse and exciting the choreography is,” she said. “It’s also great seeing how impactful dance actually is in the real world. After a performance at an elementary school, one of the faculty members e-mailed us some drawings that the kids had made that were inspired by our performance. That was a satisfying moment for us.”

Wilson is inspired by watching these young dancers grow into the works and seeing them bond with each other. “Watching them change, grow in confidence, and learn humility for others is the most enjoyable aspect about being involved in the FTC,” she said. “My hope is that it gives them good footing for the next three years and that they are given a lens into another world they may not be familiar with.”


By Brandon Monzon, communications generalist and assistant editor of Michigan Muse.