Leader of the pack

Donna Faye Burchfield has turned Hollins University into an unlikely hotbed of creativity.

SHADOW DANCING Emily Wexler, a Hollins graduate, is captured in silhouette.

SHADOW DANCING Emily Wexler, a Hollins graduate, is captured in silhouette. Photographer: Donna Faye Burchfield

[Editor’s note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

When Donna Faye Burchfield became the director of dance at Hollins in 1993, the discipline wasn’t even recognized as a major. But in the ensuing years, the department at the all-women’s university in Roanoke, Virginia, has produced a wealth of rigorous and provocative artists—most notably Ann Liv Young, but also Shani Collins, Erika Hand, Isabel Lewis, Jillian Peña, Katy Pyle, Regina Rocke and Emily Wexler. Along with an extensive artist-in-residence program—since Burchfield took over, Hollins has hosted more than 100 visiting dance professionals who perform, teach and create new works—the university offers an M.F.A. degree in association with the American Dance Festival, of which Burchfield is the dean. On Friday 2, as part of Danspace Project’s Academy Dances, past and present Hollins students will appear in a special presentation that probably won’t feel like a school recital. The details are still sketchy, but no matter: This could be the best ten dollars you’ve ever spent. In true Hollins tradition, Burchfield has left it up to her students to mastermind the show—she’s figured out that sometimes it’s best not to get in their way. She discussed her approach during a recent visit to New York.

What are you trying to accomplish at Hollins?
That’s always changing for me. Initially, I know why I went there. I had two young children and I was working at the American Dance Festival, and I really needed to find a place where I could rediscover myself, to find out about my own relationship to dance. When I walked on that campus at Hollins, it was just a feeling that I got—that my children could literally grow up at my feet. It’s like a little bowl. It’s at the foothills of a mountain—Tinker Mountain—so it’s in a little valley and it’s a pretty amazing place. I knew about the history of dance at Hollins. It was there already in a way; you could feel it. I remember my first visit: I watched a concert, and it was a little awkward. People were doing pointework and jazz—it was everything. They took class twice a week for about an hour. There had been this history of modern dance, but it had readjusted itself in these various ways. So I took my time, but the first thing I wanted was autonomy. I wanted dance to have its own name and to be its own department. They had a lot of adjunct teachers teaching various classes, so I asked them if we could add up all the adjunct fees and get a place on campus and meals in the dining hall—in other words, we started creating this visiting-artist series out of friends, really, and it had its own momentum in a way. It became a place where people could come and relax their minds and be with the students.

To really focus on dance?
Oh yeah. Well, they sleep there, they eat there, they live there. It’s like a little village.

And you have several each year, right?
About 12 to 14. Hollins was remarkable in that way. As the department began to flourish, [the university] became more supportive of the department—in all ways. And now, with the new M.F.A. program, we have incredible support for visiting artists.

You are referring to the M.F.A. program with the American Dance Festival, of which you’re the dean?
Yeah. It was a kind of natural progression—by the time they were seniors, these students were growing choreographically and they wanted to really dig deeper. I felt like there was something I could also help them to do. There was a lack of opportunity, and I just kept imagining these models. They all started looking at art schools because they couldn’t find an M.F.A. program that really complemented what they had been doing; I remember Isabel Lewis went all the way to San Francisco to look. So this M.F.A. grew out of that empty space. There was a kind of urgency. Also, it’s kind of colliding interests in a way; ADF had asked me to research possibilities of collaboration, and it was through that research that I kept thinking, Why can’t I just do this at Hollins? Thank goodness it worked and with that program came more support for visiting artists. Because that really is a program built on mentoring and finding ways to find working artists to mentor young artists.

What is so special about Hollins?
People have actually come to see it, and they get there and it’s literally two small studios. It’s not big and fancy. Hollins is completely the students.

It’s rooted in their imagination?
Yes. I thought I would pad the walls with books and ideas and access to other ways of looking at dance—and then just give them this space. Each of them would find a different way to open their mind. And that inevitably worked.

Like a playground?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And just so that they wouldn’t kill each other, you pad the walls with books. Each of them would find a different way to open their mind. Some of them would move toward literary theory, some toward women’s studies or physics.

What do you mean when you say that you padded the walls?
That’s kind of serious: My office walls are covered with books and the students have complete access to them. They probably have half my books! [Laughs] But I’m glad. The books are a big part of it.

Is there a particular aspect of an aspiring student that you’re interested in? People in New York are most familiar with Ann Liv Young, but it’s more diverse than that.
Oh yeah. There is Shani Collins. Isabel Lewis, Erika Hand, Sahar Javendani went to Hollins. She did her M.F.A. at CalArts. There was no M.F.A. program [at Hollins yet], but Sahar certainly stirred things up. There was Sara Procopio, Melissa Chris, Dana Rainey who was in Harlem Song when it premiered. Christy Pessagno—she’s a visual artist and filmmaker. Katy Pyle, Nancy Forshaw-Clapp. There’s a new group that’s moved up here. They all come. Malaika Sarco who went to P.A.R.T.S. These are smart women—they’re sassy. But also there are those kids who come to Hollins who have studied in small studios in small towns in America and they all take class together. There’s not the good ones and the not-so-good ones.

It’s a group and they do everything together?
Oh, yeah, they do. Everything.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of overseeing a group of students that do everything together?
Well, democracy takes a long time. Every once in a while, I would have visiting artists come in and say, “Donna Faye, this was a perfect experiment that really has gone awry.” We would say, “This is how much budget we have, this is what we want to do. Who do we want to come?” They really have a say in it, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. Dance can tug at you in different ways. You have these issues of who’s going to be the best and what piece is going to go to the ACDFA [American College Dance Festival Association]. That would always divide the group, and this Danspace Project show…

Has it been difficult?
[Laughs] Danspace Project said, “Just choose five artists.” I’ll confess that I couldn’t make a decision. I decided, with Jillian Peña’s help, that we would do the same thing that we always did at Hollins, which was to get all of the students together and let them decide. Ann Liv is performing, and there’s going to be one student piece.

Do you know who else is performing?
You may have to ask them. They’re kind of funny. Ann Liv won’t know—she knows that she is. She’s agreed. Jillian might know. Ask Jillian, and she’ll say someone else knows. See—that’s how they do it. I would say that they’re deciding. I think they have an idea but I don’t know if they have it completely. It’s really frightening to make a decision like that, so the only thing that it made me feel was that maybe I should be helping them to support their work here, that there should be enough opportunities for more people to show. That’s what I felt right away, and I tried to tell everyone that. So then, I think they were trying to go for a greatest-hits kind of thing. We’ll see. They’ve tried to do a group-curated situation: I think it’s been hard for them, as you can imagine, in this city, trying to find time where 15 to 17 people can sit around and make a decision—and how do you perform something that’s… [Pauses] It’s very difficult.

How do you perform something that’s what?
They’re so bright and something felt so wrong about it being reminiscent in all the ways that reminiscing makes anyone feel nervous—and certainly not these young women. So when they start saying things like, “Oh, I think we should all hold hands and…” No way. And works that they made ten years ago don’t resonate in the same ways. It also doesn’t fix itself in those ways; now, the undergraduates down there are preparing for their spring show. I think that they told me they have 22 works. And there are only 12 dance majors. Dance grows there. It’s cultivated. But it’s not the kind of thing where you go, “This was the dance of that year.” It doesn’t have those same kind of edges that are fixed. It’s felt very strange.

Because it goes against the model that you’ve created at Hollins?
It is. And I think if they had enough time, they could figure it out. Between them and their shared brilliance, I feel that very strongly. Some of them hadn’t seen each other since they graduated. You don’t want it to be like a reunion!

No—it has to be relevant now.
I know! So it’s difficult; we’re trying, I would say.

Did you consider not accepting this invitation?
It’s a good question. I said, “Can it be one big piece?” If you just told me the time—80 minutes—and there was just one cue. The tech people were very worried. So that was my first response. When they said, “You need to have five artists,” I said, “Do you mean five choreographers?” Because I have to be completely honest; I think of them all as artists, and they really are. There was never this sort of “I’m the choreographer and you’re the artist” thing that went on.

What did you think when you first saw Ann Liv Young?
It was at an ADF scholarship audition at Duke University. She did a solo that was like something you hadn’t seen that had been hiding for a long time, with this fearlessness. So she came to the American Dance Festival that summer, but in larger groups like that, Ann Liv… The composition classes were great. She was everywhere and showed her work, but I saw something else happen to Ann Liv when she got to Hollins. She worked from morning to night. She’s the hardest working student I’ve ever taught, ever. It just grew out of her, and Hollins was just a place that seemed to complement what she needed. It slowed her down. There’s nothing there but those studios, and it galvanized her. It was very amazing to have her around. It was a struggle, because as you can imagine, she’s very spirited as well. They all have to be. That’s the thing. They’re coming to New York: It’s not Roanoke. They have to have the strength to withstand it. It’s nice, for me, that they now can meet and talk to each other. If I had a hope for them it would be that they could be this collective strength rather than these individual strengths. For the most part, I think there’s a mutual respect. I work hard, and I’m there from 9am to 9pm. I watch their work all the time. All the time. For dance to grow you have to watch it, and every Friday, the students—from the first-year kids all the way to the M.F.A. students—sit and watch work for hours. It changes them. They don’t just read about dance, they watch it.

What is the dance training?
There is Movement Studio III. It’s Monday through Friday, and they all take it together, the undergraduates and the graduate students. Some days it’s technique and on other days it’s improvisation class; some days they do repertory, some days they walk the loop. I titled it Movement Studio because I felt that we needed to rethink what was happening when we talked about how we trained as dancers. We don’t separate ballet from modern, we just take class. [Hollins associate professor] Jeffery N. Bullock’s background is in ballet, but we don’t say, “Jeffrey teaches ballet.” Jeffery and I are woven into Movement Studio with the visiting artists so when Jeffery teaches, they have ballet. When I teach they usually have improvisation. But whoever the visiting artist is, we don’t say, “Teach this.” We say, “These are your times. You can teach them what you want.”

I hope so. The students get to know them as people.

I’m sure it depends on the person—how well that system works?
That’s true. Some people say, “Will you just tell me what you want me to do?” I’m not good at that. The other class that’s pretty cool at Hollins is Imaginative Thinking, Moving, and Crafting. They read Bell Hooks, Peggy Phelan, Coco Fusco, they read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Every single student in dance has to read it. But they also have their dance-history books. They know what postmodernism is. They know what phenomenology is—and those are the undergraduates.

They know history as well as theory?
Yeah they do. Everybody sort of beats their chest when they talk about theory. History, I love. And they love history. They don’t run away from Martha Graham. That’s the beauty of it; they’re not anti-dance by any means, and that’s the impression that everybody gets from them. Not at all. They’re not even anti-ballet.

Or think it’s passé?
No! Not at all. I don’t think about ballet or movement in a limited way. I get it, I read it, I know the rap—the bad rap and the good rap—but I see it in its practice. And I know it has a lot to do with context and history. I think these new students will tell us something different about dance.

What do you want your students to learn about dance?
Dance is a way of life for me. It’s not something else that I do. They certainly know that from being around me. Maybe that’s a very personal thing, but it actually sustains me—it’s taught me about humanity. I certainly hope it can do that for them, that it’s not just a means to an end. That will never work, and in the Hollins environment, it doesn’t work. We have a student now from France; she was in the conservatory there, and it’s really hard for her to understand that Hollins people aren’t going to say, “That’s really, really good” or “That’s really, really bad.” And she says she needs that to know how to keep going, and I’m like, “I can’t do that. I don’t think about dance in those ways. You’re going to have to figure this out for yourself.” Dance is always about becoming. It never is.

Academy Dances featuring Hollins University is at Danspace Project May 2, 2008.