This month, the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance launches an innovative and multidisciplinary Bachelor of Fine Arts program. The fall 2015 semester will also be the first featuring world-renowned choreographer William Forsythe as the artistic advisor of USC’s Choreographic Institute, a research center dedicated to exploring and expanding the boundaries of choreography. The World Dances spoke with Professor Jodie Gates, Director and Vice Dean of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, about the vision and content of this exciting BFA, advice for potential students, the value of a university experience for dancers, and more.
Can you please address the value of pursuing a BFA in dance, as opposed to pursuing a professional career immediately?
Everyone has his or her own path. That said, if you graduate with a BFA from USC, it speaks volumes. You’ll have a highly intense program that will be building on your technique, performance skills, and professionalism. If you choose to be a professional dancer when you leave here, you’ll be ready to be competitive. Most importantly, our model is to mentor young artists. If you look at our faculty who will be your mentors—and we did this deliberately and very well—think of the network you’ll have to support you. Our faculty can connect you to companies that will be interested in hiring you. That’s really key. Even if students don’t decide to stay in dance, the tools they’ll have learned will help them for life.
Can you please describe the curriculum you developed for this BFA program?
On top of the academic rigor, the conservatory-style training is going to be intense. Students will dance here at least 5 or 6 hours a day, doing the repertory of William Forsythe. Jiri Kylian, Paul Taylor, George Balanchine, and other key master choreographers that they need to know. The first two years of the core curriculum, our students will be incredibly busy. That’s purposeful in order to free them up in the second half of the program to explore.
These days, to be a successful dancer you have to be a hybrid artist. Students will have ballet every day, hip-hop every other day, contemporary every other day, and partnering once a week. That’s on top of the repertory requirements, improvisation, and composition. The idea that hip-hop is required in the major is a bit revolutionary at this level. It will be really interesting to see the results—to see the articulation, rhythm, and counterpoint that will be learned from hip-hop with the foundations of ballet, layered with the improvisational skills of William Forsythe and the technique and musicality of George Balanchine. It sounds like a lot of information—and it is—but the body is smart.
We’re creating a new language and new tools to master dance literacy. One of the very first courses students will take is called What is the Meaning of Dance Today? This is a lecture course that specifically targets where students stand in the historical context as young artists and how they can help transport the field forward. From the very beginning they’re going to be asked to be constantly driven by curiosity.
How did you design this program?
It's the opportunity of a lifetime to develop a new program and a new curriculum at USC at this point in dance history. We’re at such a pinnacle. The amount of crazy talent out there is amazing. I did my due diligence with a significant amount of research. I tried not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to consider what the needs are in dance education today and for the next generation of creative artists.
I looked at all the dance programs out there, nationally and internationally, to see how we can contribute. What’s needed in the dance field and how can we facilitate it? Part of it is looking at the resources we have. On top of that, we hired William Forsythe to advise the Choreographic Institute and to teach the students. That was a key development. If you look at the roster of faculty, the teachers are all extremely accomplished in their fields and have done scholarly research of their own.
What are some of the needs you identified in the field of dance education and how does this program address them?
We’re very interested in creating hybrid artists and developing new art forms through dance education. We’ve reimaged how one looks at choreography and how choreography manifests in everything we do in life. We also look at choreography from a variety of different lenses, whether it be the viewer looking onto a stage or at any kind of a screen—mobile device, laptop, or cinema.
Part of our model is that our students have exposure to art and artists beyond the field of dance. This isn’t a new idea, but we’re using the idea in the context of kinetic arts and multimedia platforms. This will give students the tools to choreograph for animation or gaming, for example. In that case the products create new art forms and jobs. I also think career entrepreneurship is incredibly important in this digital age, so we focus on business leadership and a well-rounded artistic identity.
What do you envision a graduate of your first class might be doing in four years?
When students leave us in four years, we want one outcome to be that they have a job they’re passionate about and where they can make a difference. We want them to be ready to go into the field. They’ll know how to prepare a CV or resume, understand what it’s like to write a grant, and to articulate to potential audience members or patrons their visions and ideas.
For the inaugural semester, we put together a cohort of students made up of incredibly gifted young artists with a variety of skills in classical ballet, contemporary, improvisation, hip-hop, and commercial dance. In the core curriculum, they’ll all be working on foundational work, but they’ll all have a different path over the course of a 4-year degree—anything from pursuing knowledge of kinetic arts and multimedia platforms and how they’ll propel that forward through choreography to entrepreneurship. I’d love to see some business and strategic leadership tools be developed through dance education.
What advice would you offer to students hoping to enter the program?
First of all, come visit the campus. It’s about ten minutes away from downtown Los Angeles. My advice would be to focus on your technique so you're coming in with a strong core, but also to find your signature self. We’re looking at individual artists. We’re looking for artists who can come in with an opinion, young dancers who are open-minded and very curious. Having a good sense of musicality is also important.