Choreography outside the classroom
When most professors head to the library or a laboratory to conduct research, instructors in the University’s dance program catch the train to New York and take to the stage to direct, choreograph or perform.
Acting dance department head Rebecca Lazier founded a contemporary dance company, Terrain, in New York in 2001. To run her company while still teaching at Princeton, Lazier said she works around the University’s schedule.
“During breaks and Intersession, I am … working with my company [almost] every day,” she said. During a typical day, Lazier often rehearses with her company in the morning before teaching at Princeton in the afternoon.
“The professional dance world does not go by the academic calendar, so it can be very challenging to fit projects in,” dance instructor Tina Fehlandt explained.
Fehlandt teaches one course at Princeton but is on the permanent faculty of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She also teaches ballet classes at the Metropolitan Ballet and at the Mark Morris Dance Center, and sets pieces for the Mark Morris dance company. During the summer, she also teaches at American Ballet Theatre.
“In January, I am going to Salt Lake City to set one of Mark Morris’ pieces on Ballet West,” Fehlandt said. She added that she worked hard to schedule the trip during reading period so that she would miss as little time with her Princeton students as possible.
Maintaining a balance between professional and academic commitments is necessary as instructors try to gather the resources to support both.
“Unlike someone who can go sit in a office or library, we are more akin to science in that we need to raise a great deal of money in order to have access to the tools we need,” Lazier said, explaining that she must pay the professional dancers in her company, rent for a studio and studio presenters to show her work.
Fehlandt noted that being a guest lecturer at the University is not sufficient to support her family.
“Princeton is a very generous employer, but because I am an adjunct professor, I am not eligible for health insurance,” she explained, noting that she pays $12,000 per year for health insurance for her family.
“There is great freedom in being freelance, but freedom is not free,” she said.
Teaching at a university can be a way for choreographers to do their work on the side, Lazier explained. “You can see a direct correlation with the end of government funding and the rise in dance programs in university and colleges,” she explained, referring to opposition to arts funding in the late ’80s and early ’90s from conservative groups.
Dance instructor Edisa Weeks relies on grants to support her company, Delirious Dances, with which she rehearses the three days each week that she is not teaching in Princeton.
“Having a grant gives me the luxury of time to create without having to worry about the clock or how much money I am spending rehearsing,” she explained.
For her current work, she has residency at and has received funding from the TRIBECA Performing Arts Center and Brooklyn Friends School.
The balance between academic and professional has existed since the beginning of Princeton’s Program in Theater and Dance. Professor Ze’eva Cohen, the program’s founder, was performing her one-woman show and making headlines in The New York Times for her choreography in the late ’60s. She founded the academic program at the University in 1969 partly because she thinks teaching is useful for the development of her work.
“I can articulate my ideas to my students and therefore better to myself,” she said.
Teaching at Princeton, Cohen said, allows her to learn and, as a result, helps her develop her choreography.
“Sharing my passion and knowledge with very bright people re-energizes me, and I am more aware of what is out there in the world in terms of [dance] information,” she explained. Cohen is also helping develop the high school International Baccalaureate program for dance, a project that she has worked on for 10 years.
Weeks said continues to teach because for her it is “both a way of giving back, and it is inspiring in that the students keep me engaged and invested in the research and discovery process.”
Weeks also continues to dance professionally. She is a member of Reggie Wilson’s company, Fist & Heel Performance Group, which focuses on bringing together information about the African Diaspora.
Weeks is currently choreographing and directing a piece, “Elephant Dreams,” that merges the story of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, with Dumbo, the flying elephant. Their first full performance will be at Joyce SoHo in New York.
Lazier said she considers herself part of a new generation of dancers who will teach while remaining involved in research.
“I think dance is situated quite uniquely in terms of how a dance professional can continue their research while holding a fulltime position in academic setting,” Lazier said.
Lazier noted that living in New York — something almost all the dance instructors do — is crucial for keeping up to date and remaining involved the contemporary dance community.
“At least once a week, I go see a performance, but I could easily go five times a week,” she added.
When asked where she choreographs her pieces, Weeks jokingly said she finds the time “on the subway platform waiting for the train to come.”