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Dance and academics mix in unique BFA program

By Lisa Okuhn

On an April morning, in an airy San Francisco studio, 14 dancers—students in the Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet BFA program at Dominican University of California—surged forward in rows of streamlined sauté arabesques and quickening emboîtés. Their feet flew as teacher and former LINES Ballet member Gregory Dawson urged the pianist to accelerate the tempo of the already spirited petit allegro.

Students in the LINES BFA program work directly with Alonzo King, shown here teaching a ballet class. (Photo by Liza Voll Photography)

Designed by program director Marina Hotchkiss, the BFA program enrolled its first students in fall 2006 and will soon graduate its third class of seniors. Formerly an instructor in the LINES Ballet Summer Program, Hotchkiss says she and her colleagues began to hear from students, many of them on the verge of making important decisions about their lives and careers. She discovered that many of these dancers were looking for the seemingly impossible trifecta of rigorous professional-level ballet training, a college education, and the unique experience of working with acclaimed choreographer and teacher Alonzo King.

While both The Juilliard School and the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program in New York City offer a similarly broad curriculum of dance and liberal arts, the LINES BFA at Dominican program is the only one of its kind on the West Coast. A comprehensive course of study, it enables dancers to get a top-notch academic education as well as high-caliber professional training.

After a short break following Dawson’s ballet class, the same group of dancers, all juniors, gathered in another studio for the first day of Sidra Bell’s performance workshop. Over the course of two weeks, the New York–based modern-dance choreographer was setting a new work on the group. On their backs, rolling from side to side, legs swinging loosely along the floor, the dancers moved with total commitment to Bell’s weighted movement style. Except for a few ballet buns and slippers left over from ballet class, this room full of dancers might have been mistaken for a release-based modern class in a mirror-less Tribeca studio.

The King connection
A wide array of experience is a large part of what the LINES BFA dance curriculum is designed to give its students. Impeccably trained in ballet technique, the students are also offered the far-reaching range of skills and knowledge now needed to make a professional life in dance. The program offers an exceptionally well-rounded dance education, one that includes exposure to teachers and artists, like Bell, who hail from all realms of the dance world. The curriculum also emphasizes extensive exposure to practices like composition and improvisation that are more often associated with modern dance. The program’s guiding principles align closely with King’s choreographic focus. Its design and aims, says Hotchkiss, are “to reinvigorate classical ballet; to make ballet speak in a modern world.”

But what makes this BFA program truly distinctive is the students’ connection to King. The opportunity for young dancers to work directly—and for four consecutive years—with a renowned artist at the prime of his creative career is one that few if any training programs can offer. King teaches four to eight classes a semester, and all seniors participate in weeklong intensives with him, workshops similar to the one he developed for professional dancers. A good deal of the workshops’ focus, according to Hotchkiss, is on “eliminating fear and opening creative channels; helping the dancers to see what’s getting in the way. It’s both very playful and extremely intense.”

King’s overarching principles form the basis of the LINES BFA dance curriculum. The program provides an opportunity for students to develop a sense of responsibility and contribution to the creative process and “undertake a deep exploration of the self, in order for them to create a strong sense of themselves as artists, thinkers, people,” Hotchkiss says. “It’s really training a mind, and an attitude.”

The competition
With 16 to 18 applicants accepted in each BFA class, this is a select group of students. For the 2011–12 freshman class, the program auditioned close to 130 dancers from all over the country and even fielded applications from Singapore and Australia. This year’s junior class includes two Dizzy Feet Scholarship awardees, Rachel Furst and Jeffrey Van Sciver. Van Sciver is also the recipient of a Princess Grace Award and the Princess Grace Foundation’s Chris Hellman Scholarship.

In addition to submitting an academic application to Dominican, LINES requires a dance resume, an audition, and a letter of intent “describing how dance has led to a deeper understanding of yourself and the world.”

Although it seeks dancers with a solid ballet foundation, the program also values curiosity, risk-taking, and creativity. The students, according to Hotchkiss, are diverse in multiple ways—body type, ethnicity, and background—but all share an open-mindedness and devotion to intellectual and creative growth.

The demands
The 49 current BFA students spend about 22 hours a week studying ballet, pointe, partnering, modern, dance history, anatomy and kinesiology, music for dancers, composition, improvisation, performance workshop, and Gyrotonic®/Gyrokinesis®. Although a few classes, workshops, and rehearsals are held at Marin Ballet in San Rafael (where Dominican is located), most are held at LINES Ballet’s downtown San Francisco studios in an environment surrounded by working professionals, a benefit few college dance students enjoy. Former company members teach many of the classes and—their touring schedule permitting—current company dancers teach ballet and repertory classes, choreograph pieces on the students, and work with seniors on creating their Senior Project solos.

The LINES BFA program is unique in its mandatory and complete Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis curriculum, which was designed by Debra Rose in conjunction with Gyrotonic creator and founder Juliu Horvath. Rose, founder and owner of SF Gyrotonic, directs the program. Each student takes one to two Gyrotonic or Gyrokinesis classes per week, and everyone works with Rose at least a few times every semester. Explaining the role of Gyrotonic in the BFA program, Rose points out the physical and philosophical dualities that both King and Horvath ask students to address: gravity and elongation; striving for a sense of control alongside freedom; being in the moment while having a goal; will and surrender; strength and vulnerability.

“Dance training can’t be separate from life training. Everything that comes into our lives is training. The qualities we admire in great dancing are the same qualities we admire in human beings: honesty, courage, fearlessness, generosity, wisdom, depth, compassion, and humanity.” —Alonzo King, “Art Thought,” Mission at Tenth

Rose, who is often on hand to observe the students in training and is responsible for observing finals, reading homework assignments, and grading, says the curriculum is demanding. But at the end of four years, with only minimal additional study and successful completion of the three-day exam, graduates can become certified Gyrotonic trainers. Of the first graduating class, fully half are teaching Gyrotonic, some full-time and others to supplement their dance incomes.

When they’re done for the day, students take buses to the Dominican campus, where their academic courses are held (typically from 3 to 7pm) and where most underclassmen reside in on-campus housing. The general education curriculum includes courses in math, expository writing, ethics, and a cultural heritage colloquium—a liberal arts menu that complements the breadth and depth of the dancers’ professional training.

The results
By all accounts, the LINES BFA students excel. The dancers perform beautifully in their academic work, says Craig Singleton, chair of the Department of Music, Dance and Performing Arts. “Dance students, by their dedication and study habits, have enhanced the academic environment at Dominican. These students have been committed to dance for years. Their work habits have already been formed when they arrive on campus,” he says. “Their mentor, Marina Hotchkiss, and their inspiration, Alonzo King, represent the best of arts education.”

Religious Studies professor Dr. Gay Lynch is equally enthusiastic about her LINES BFA students: “Within three weeks [of beginning to teach them],” she says, “I was well aware that their program—their dancing—was enhancing their scholarship. Their responses in the classroom did more than impress; their responses reached into our hearts and motivated us and energized us.”

Her students, in turn, were so inspired by Lynch’s Rhetoric of Belief class that they approached her one day with an “energetic message”: that she teach a course in Dance and Spiritual Expression in the fall. Surprised and delighted, she quickly got to work devising the course in collaboration with former Harvard colleague Kimerer LaMothe. Although the class has become enormously popular with students from myriad departments, Lynch has allotted the first spots to senior LINES BFA students.

Preparing for professional life
By senior year, the program’s participants are well prepared to embark on a professional dance performance career, says Hotchkiss, and many graduates do go on to join contemporary ballet companies here and in Europe. To prepare for this, juniors and seniors take a class called Creating a Life in Dance, taught by former LINES dancer Nora Heiber. The course covers such necessary skills as resume writing and how to contact companies. “The heart of it, though, is self-reflection,” Hotchkiss says, and the course offers students “ways to reflect on what kinds of obstacles they might encounter, including psychological obstacles, to putting themselves forward, or to being able to answer the important question, ‘What do I want?’ ”

The program is designed to train professional dancers, but students have pursued a variety of careers. One is attending law school, simultaneously studying for an MFA and a law degree. Ilaria Guerra, a leggy, six-foot-tall junior from Los Angeles, is pursuing a minor in arts management. She has worked for two years in the LINES Ballet administrative office and for three seasons as the company’s assistant stage manager. While fully intending to embark on a performing career, she says these experiences have “opened up a lot of new doors,” not only to dance professionally but to work in arts administration and management “when the time comes.”

The academic and the dance curriculums work holistically to cultivate a whole artist and person. Aside from technical skills, the dance training is intended to give dancers the openness, confidence, and self-knowledge needed to shape a deep commitment to the dancing life. The academic program enhances the students as dancers and prepares them for a life after dance.

The two sides of the program work perfectly together, says Dizzy Feet Scholarship recipient Rachel Furst. “The academic program goes along with Alonzo’s philosophy. It’s deep, and meaningful. Even in math class we hear, ‘You are math.’ It sounds far-fetched, but it’s really cohesive.

“This program has shown me a lot more about myself than I ever knew,” she adds. “I would not recognize myself. I’m a completely different person, a different dancer. I’m feeling so confident about where I’m going to go.”

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