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Dance as conduit for community: How dance seniors awakened artistic opportunity in department despite limited resources

Rehearsal of senior pre-med and dance student Mikenzie Hendricks’ and senior dance major Bailey Sill’s duet, “doubling,” choreographed by guest artist Sidra Bell Feb 21. The piece conveys the technical, pedagogical, and performative prowess gained by Sill and Hendricks will studying dance at Westminster College, as well as their choice to build artistic community at Westminster. (Photo courtesy Cameron Welch)

During the American College Dance Association conference this past week, I witnessed countless acts of genius in the form of movement artistry that engaged my passion for dance, education and experiential pedagogy.

The art form of dance engages the physical body in a philosophical exploration, a true fusion of the mind, body and spirit. But why does it matter that dance exists, particularly on the Westminster College campus?

Dance as a vessel for community-building

The faculty and students in the dance community at Westminster are particularly aware of the task of community-building. They choose to pursue study in the dance program despite limited funding, off-campus classes, curriculum shifts and administrative changes. All of this, and the commitment and dedication to a challenging, sometimes testing program is in the name of community.

Westminster and artistry are aligned in this commitment to community. Two of Westminster’s learning goals are global responsibility and creativity. Both of these are intrinsic to establishing and maintaining community.

Professional dancer Sidra Bell with Mikenzie Hendricks and Bailey Sill in the Black Box Theatre on March 1 following an informal discussion and lecture demonstration of their piece “doubling” choreographed during Bell’s residency. Due to limited financial and administrative resources Sill and Hendricks personally fundraised for and coordinated Bell’s week-long residency at Westminster College. (Photo courtesy Cameron Welch)

Faculty and students are called to “combine or synthesize new ideas, practices, or expertise in original ways […] characterized by innovation, divergent thinking, and risk-taking” and to “employ practices informed by social responsibility across the spectrum of differences.”

These goals reflect the hope that each student will depart Westminster with an internal appreciation and external application of community-building by means of creativity, critical thought and collaboration to spurn individual growth in a broader context.

Similarly, the artistic experience is one of community.

Movement artists build community by engaging individual bodies of dancers in a dialogue with the collective body of society, inspiring action and unprecedented conversation. To me, this represents community: the balance and empathetic task of listening and responding.

For my friends and fellow dancers, Bailey Sill, a senior who will pursue a professional dance career, and Mikenzie Hendricks, a senior who is studying dance and pre-med in hopes of becoming a P.A., this commitment to community took the shape of self-funding a guest artist and producing their own senior capstone concert, “The Right Kind of Ugly.”

In tandem with community-building and the pursuit of a comprehensive dance education, Sill and Hendricks pioneered the dance program at Westminster four years ago.

Following dance department curriculum requirements and channeling an internal zeal for creation, Sill and Hendricks embarked with dance faculty Allison Shir on a cumulative journey: researching, producing, funding and ultimately crafting a senior thesis showcase.

Set to open Saturday, March 23 at 2:30 p.m. with a later performance at 7:30 p.m., “The Right Kind of Ugly” is a haunting, sophisticated reflection of community, and is a culmination of how Sill and Hendricks worked to develop and sustain the dance department over the past four years.

Original work & desire for collaboration  

After spending the past year researching, applying for grant funding with the assistance of Jeff Driggs and Nancy Brown of the Advancement Department and performing countless administrative and production tasks, Sill and Hendricks simultaneously created original works for a full-length production while seeking a guest artist for a week-long residency.

To help create “The Right Kind of Ugly,” Sill and Hendricks chose to commission a guest artist, Sidra Bell of Sidra Bell Dance New York, for a week-long residency at Westminster.

The term “original” refers to a created work of art that is unprecedented in its use of meaning, movement vocabulary, intention or purpose. To me, originality involves shifting the medium, meaning or form of how the work speaks to an audience.

Rehearsal of senior pre-med and dance student Mikenzie Hendricks’ and senior dance major Bailey Sill’s duet, “doubling,” choreographed by guest artist Sidra Bell Feb 21. The piece conveys the technical, pedagogical, and performative prowess gained by Sill and Hendricks will studying dance at Westminster College, as well as their choice to build artistic community at Westminster. (Photo courtesy Cameron Welch)

Additionally, “bring in” conveys a sense of ease, as if contacting a guest artist were a regular occurrence for Sill and Hendricks. Due to limited funding and administrative support as a new academic program on campus, if Sill and Hendricks desired a guest artist – which is an inherent practice of most established collegiate dance programs – they had to personally contact Bell.

To fund Bell’s residency, they applied for grant and scholarship funding and planned the course of her travels, residency and experience while in Salt Lake City. Upon receiving a grant from the Edward L. Burton Foundation, Sill, Hendricks and adjunct faculty Allison Shir facilitated an unprecedented experience at Westminster.

Sill’s and Hendricks’ decided to commission Bell, rather than a different artist, to choreograph their senior work because of Bell’s fascinating work, vast intelligence and evolving inquiry in the art form of dance.

Bell studied at Yale and received her MFA at Purchase-College Conservatory of Dance. Her transnational work enacts community-building in the forms of questioning traditional practices, challenging, and building pedagogical methods in teaching and creating dance and forming new dance works with her company. These works ask audiences to think critically as individuals and citizens.

Because Sill and Hendricks are equally committed to these tasks as movement artists, they found Bell to be a fantastic candidate for an artistic residency at Westminster. Bell is a master choreographer and teacher and is commissioned across vast settings and conservatories for her work. It is an incredible feat that Sill and Hendricks were able to commission her for a week at Westminster.

Guest artist in residency

During her residency, Bell taught master classes, which are an opportunity for students within a discipline to experience the pedagogical methods and philosophy of an artist in an immersive class context.

She also gave guest lectures open to the community and participated in a talk-back dialogue with students surrounding topics of creative process, professionalism and what it means to be an artist today.

Her most important task, however, was setting a full-length work on both Sill and Hendricks in the five days she was in residency.

To put this in perspective, Sill and Hendricks have been choreographing their original works, both 10-15 minutes in length, from August 2018 to March 2019, rehearsing each of these pieces for at least 2-4 hours each week with dancers. Their duet with Bell, a similar length, was created in one week.

“The Right Kind of Ugly”

As a performer in two pieces within the showcase, I can attest to the powerful, provoking nature of the works Sill and Hendricks created, as well as the innovative and refreshing work from Bell that reflects the narrative of both Sill’s and Hendricks’ experiences as dancers.

By a subtle and beautiful means, Sill and Hendricks send a direct message of gratitude and a call to action to Westminster about the critical necessity of dance on our campus as an act of community-building, as well as of promoting self-awareness, efficacy and artistry in students and faculty.

Westminster’s community-wide learning goals foster innovative thinking and social responsibility across differences through the learning process. It is my belief that Sill and Hendricks have successfully immersed themselves in this impressive feat of learning through the act of community-building.

Bell’s residency, as well as the duo’s year-long commitment to creating original works that make honest commentary on themes of society, self and relationship, are reflective of their four years of intensive dance study, research and passion.

As a member of the Westminster Dance community who believes wholeheartedly in the power of dance-making as a critical form of action, passion and expression, I invite audiences to join us Saturday, March 23 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m in the Jewett Center for the Performing Arts Black Box Theatre.

Audiences will witness the Westminster College Dance program in original work by Sidra Bell, Mikenzie Hendricks and Bailey Sill. This, too, will be an act of community, commentary and a comprehensive reflection of the perseverance and undeniable drive of the Westminster Dance students.

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