The MFA Experience

Setting the Stage

What draws dancers to the University of Iowa?

The MFA Experience at Iowa and the Thesis Event

Three Graduate Students share their stories and dreams for the future

For those pursing postgraduate study in the art of Dance, the University of Iowa offers one of the most versatile, rigorous, and respected options in the nation. The program is highly selective and intimate, typically accepting no more than five applicants each year. While among the most celebrated master’s programs for Dance, it is also one of the most financially accessible. Its graduate candidates are fully-funded through fellowship awards, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships. In selecting students, the faculty prioritizes diversity in terms of artistic and cultural background. While the candidates are few in number, they typically vary tremendously in country of origin and academic and professional formations. The program is unique in that it offers two tracks for MFA students. Graduate candidates may seek a masters in Choreography or in Performance. While the two tracks share a core of scholarly and experiential course work, they allow for flexible foci and provide special nurturance targeted to students’ specific interests. Both tracks culminate in a Graduate Thesis performance, which showcases and celebrates candidates’ artistic development over the course of their studies. Graduates in Choreography present an original work, approximately 20-minutes in length, while Performance track students are featured in no less than 20-minutes of choreography that includes the work of at least two different choreographers. While graduate candidates have numerous opportunities to choreograph and perform in a yearly season of more 12 University dance concerts, the thesis show offers the opportunity to have their work fully-produced. They are provided with a budget, the technical resources they desire, and the attentive mentorship of the Dance faculty in developing and presenting their art. It is rare in an academic environment and nearly unheard of in the professional world for dancers and choreographers to have so much freedom and support. The thesis event marks the climax of graduate students’ Iowa career and is something that launches many into the next stage of their artistic adventures. Current first-year Choreography graduate student Johanna Kirk sat down with three of 2010’s graduating class to hear about their experiences with the thesis concert and their plans for life after Iowa.

Jennifer Webber came to the MFA program at Iowa after a professional ballet career which afforded her years of performance both nationally and internationally. While Jennifer had a great deal of experience on stage and as a teacher of dance technique, she developed an interest in making her own work and, towards this end, applied to the University of Iowa as a graduate student in Choreography. For her, Iowa was an easy choice. She respected the faculty and appreciated the opportunity to gain experience and mentorship as a choreographer without having to sacrifice daily technical training and performance opportunities. She looked forward to the chance to expand the range of her expertise in dance through pursing courses in technical design and Somatics, and acknowledged the importance or the program’s incomparable financial aid. Jung-Hyun (Ari) Lee, a graduate student in Performance, also came to the program from a professional dancing career. A native of Busan, Korea, Ari danced for the Korean Modern dance company ZOOM before moving to the United States to pursue her masters. Ari wanted to get “another experience of dance,” to understand the “systems” behind it. The program at Iowa was recommended to her because it would allow her to focus on her art as a performer while also providing opportunities to dabble in choreography. Like Jennifer, she took advantage of the offerings of both tracks, and testifying to the range of her abilities, elected to present her work both as a dancer and a dance maker in her thesis concert. Katharine (Kate) Vigmostad, was drawn to the program at Iowa for different reasons. Her undergraduate degree was in Visual Art, and, while she had a background in dance, she had not pursued it for many years. During one semester of undergraduate study at the University of Iowa, she discovered dance professor Jennifer Kayle and was immediately intrigued, so intrigued that she applied to the program almost exclusively for the opportunity to study intensively with her. Kate explained, as she anticipated, working with Kayle proved to be very formative: “Being part of her process had a big influence on how I go about making work.” While she performed extensively, and not only for Professor Kayle, over her years at Iowa, her degree will be in Choreography, and her thesis, an original work.

For their theses, these students appreciated having resources and support to delve deeply into a specific area of interest, and each put a great deal of time and consideration into the themes and processes they wanted to explore for this precious opportunity. Coincidentally, all three decided on projects that explored their personal identity and that would allow for self-discovery and expression along with artistic discovery and expression. Voicing a shared sentiment, Kate explained, “I believe that artists must know who they are and what they believe in order for their work to clearly say what they intend.” She hoped her project would “Enable me to develop a deeper understanding of myself, lending to a stronger voice as an artist.” For her work, Kate looked at “past events coming into the present and living in the body” both in terms of biology and national identity. Curious about her own origins and heritage, she wondered, “Is it possible to create a document of my ancestral history through performance that will lend to my quest for familial knowledge and historical reference?” Her thesis looks at the nature of remembering and how her family history lives on in her body. With her work, Spectrum, Jennifer also wanted to explore her own history and the people who, as a community, had formed her as an individual. She explains, “I want to honor my community of support – specifically my grandmother, mother, and sister – as they are the inspiration for my work.” Ari will perform in Jennifer’s thesis as well as in three individual pieces made specifically for her. While a Performance track student, Ari was very involved in the creative processes of the works in which she will dance. She determined both the subject matter that she wanted to explore as a performer and the choreographers with whom she wanted to work. She approached three artists whose oeuvres she respected, with distinctive, dissimilar aesthetics that she felt would challenge her abilities and display her range as a performer. Choreographer and UI alumnae Dawn Poirier collaborated with Dance Department faculty Alan Sener to create a solo for her investigating the topic of Identity. Joanna Rosenthal, also a graduate of the Masters program at Iowa, created a new work based on Unity, and Dance Faculty Jennifer Kayle created a quartet exploring Diversity. Ari explained, “I’m one person, but I’m also different people. I wanted to choose choreographers with very different styles,” styles that would highlight her unique and assorted facets.

For their thesis processes, graduate students have the luxury of time. Some enter the program with an idea already in mind of what they want to create, but by the beginning or their second year most have a clear sense of what they plan to delve into for the culminating projects. Their first year gives graduate students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the Department so that they can be discerning in which faculty they ask to advise them and which dancers they invite to audition. Graduate students typically draw from the 150 undergraduate dance majors in casting their works, and take advantage of the Department’s professional staff of musicians, a sound engineer/composer, video staff, and costume assistant to help them create the world in which their art will transpire. In casting her work, Jennifer looked for dancers who were willing to “wear their individuality on their sleeve.” She wanted those willing to “take the same type of risk that I was willing to take as a choreographer.” Kate chose dancers who she felt understood her unique style of sequencing and articulating the body, dancers who she knew were capable of her aesthetic. Ari was also involved in the casting of the pieces in which she would be featured, and chose dancers with whom she was comfortable. Having at least a year to work allowed the students to have a more elaborate and organic creative process. Jennifer started generating movement last fall as “ideas were going through their process.” Working without a time crunch, allowed Jennifer and Kate’s concepts to evolve and expand so that their final products were quite different from their initial proposals. It also gave them the courage to take risks and pose special challenges to themselves. Stepping outside of her comfort zone, Jennifer decided to not predetermine the outcome of her piece at the outset. She wanted to “let go of being in control of every step of the process, and…trust the process to shape the final product.” She also challenged herself to make choreography that was movement rather than meaning based. Kate challenged herself in the opposite way. Typically an abstract artist, she opened up to the possibility of making a narrative piece. Ari, wanted to stretch herself to find new emotionality in her dancing. She also wanted to test her stamina and train her body to be prepared for three nights in a row of performing over an hour of aerobic material. She explained, “It’s really hard! But I want to keep pushing myself. As a dancer I must always keep asking, ‘how can I keep pushing myself?’”

Having time also invited the students to be personal, thoughtful, and meticulous in their processes, often inspiring them to venture into new creative territory. It allowed them to let the content inspire their creative methodologies. In addition to generating pure movement, Jennifer and Kate worked a lot with text. To inspire their dance vocabulary, they read and journaled and asked their dancers to do likewise. They also both conducted extensive interviews with women in their families who had influenced their lives. Jennifer spoke with her mother, sister, and grandmother, in order to clarify for herself what “community” meant to her and how to physically express this. Kate spent three full days interviewing her grandmother, whose stories inspired the structure and content of her project. Both choreographers also worked collaboratively with their dancers in generating movement, conversations, and text that would inform their pieces. Kate did a great deal of experimentation in her rehearsals. Dancers worked blindfolded to find new ways of “supporting each other without vision.” This idea was inspired by a story her grandmother told about a long distance relationship in which she could not see the man she loved because he was at war. She also worked with meditation, using it as a tool to reconnect her grandmother with the sensory experiences that accompanied the stories she told, experiences that Kate hoped could be translated to her dancers. In addition, she played with video. Her cast studied footage of her interviews so as to get a real sense of her grandmother, “to get her mannerisms, to see how she moved and who she was.” She also designed an audiovisual component for her performance including video both from Hollywood stock footage and that she shot herself and a sound score including her grandmother’s recorded voice. She hoped the multimedia component would allow for a conflation of past and present, and help her to tell personal stories while revealing bigger concepts.

Their distinctive processes yielded unexpected and positive outcomes that stretched beyond their creative work. Jennifer didn’t anticipate the, “side benefit of forming beautiful and lasting relationships” with her dancers. She said they created their own marvelous community that she, “will definitely miss when it’s over.” Kate hadn’t anticipated how profound it would be for her personally to connect with her grandmother. She said, “I was deeply moved…I thought I knew her.” What she discovered was that, although her grandmother is approaching 90, they have a lot in common. Kate felt triumphant in two ways upon completing of her project: “I feel defiantly a richness both as an artist and knowing that I have this connection with my grandmother and that I could call her any day.” Jennifer likewise finished her thesis with a great sense of accomplishment and fulfillment: “As a whole, I’m very happy with it, and I feel like its run its course.”

Having completed their thesis, the looming question is, “what’s next?” The University has a marvelous track record of producing MFA graduates who go on to contribute to the field. More than 90% of its MFA graduates from the last five years are currently employed in higher education, dance companies, arts entrepreneurship and administration, and secondary education. While unsure of exactly what they will do come graduation, Kate, Jennifer, and Ari are optimistic and enthusiastic about their futures in dance. Ari knows that she wants to stay in America and dance for a company so as to have professional experience in a new context and continent. Kate plans to stay in Iowa immediately and spend a year making work, teaching, and applying for grants before she decides on the next big move. She is toying with the idea of film school but wants to start by being “a real artist out in the world.” Jennifer is also unsure, but confident. “I’ve always been in the dance world, and I don’t see that ending any time soon. I believe if you are open, the opportunities you are supposed to take will come along.” Surly they will!

Congratulations to all the MFA graduates of 2010, who in addition to Ari, Jennifer, and Kate, include Lance Hendrix (Choreography), Keely Glenn (Choreography), Ana Cortes (Choreography), and Chih-Hsie (Joan) Lin (Performance).