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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Mandatory attendance: New Directions student show

Many in the audience did not realize that the entire hour-long performance was improvised.
Many in the audience did not realize that the entire hour-long performance was improvised.

As students, we all know that getting mass emails from the college can be frustrating. Another survey to fill out, an initiative that needs attention, a new administrative position being announced. Nevertheless, the email entitled “Mandatory Attendance” that was sent to hundreds of first-year students on Wednesday, April 12 was no such instant-delete message. In fact, it was the very email that mobilized dozens of students to spend part of their Friday night after a day off from school supporting the arts community on campus. If you haven’t yet guessed, this is the email that Joshua Garson ’26 sent out to the first year class “cordially” inviting them to his Intro to Dance recital.

As the lights dimmed on Friday, April 14 in the Dance Theatre of the Mahaney Arts Center, well over one hundred students packed into the seating area and even sat on the floor when seating ran out. The email had worked. The event had aptly been dubbed a “happening,” as it was an interdisciplinary, student and staff performance incorporating dance, music and visual arts. The event began with students from six different classes standing still and facing the audience in various costumes — some with instruments, others with tutus. The four faculty members, Assistant Professor of Theatre Michole Biancosino, Assistant Professor of Dance Laurel Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Studio Art Michelle Leftheris and Assistant Professor of Music Matthew Taylor, put on this show to kick off the wider two-day event “New Directions,” another series of interdisciplinary performances about improvisation and expression across many forms of art. 

While Garson received some backlash from the school, specifically for the stress he could have caused in putting “mandatory” in the email subject, the support for the dance show confirmed the effectiveness of his marketing strategy. Oliver Loeser ’26 described how his motivation for coming to the show was driven by the desire to form bonds with others at the school.

“I know Josh [Garson] as a friend, but when I saw he sent an email to the whole [first year class], I knew it was imperative that I come support him not as a friend but as a member of the community,” Loeser said.

Garson, after seeing the large crowd, reflected on his motivation for sending the email. “I was just really excited to announce my engagement with the Dance department,” Garson said.

Many in the audience did not realize that the entire hour-long performance was improvised, with very little coordination between the six different dance classes before the show. The level of trust and coordination that developed throughout the performance was truly impressive. The show consisted of three acts, the first one being a combined improvisation with visual art in the background, musical instruments, loud breathing and humming, as well as sporadic movements from students around the stage, with others remaining in complete stillness.

Collaborative improvisation student Chad Kim ’23.5 discussed his involvement in the performance and what was powerful to them about using improvisation in the first act.

“Improvisation is kind of like jumping into a public pool,” Kim said. “Although it is mostly up to you to move and dance, there are forces beyond your control, like [professor] Matthew Taylor.”

The most interesting part of the second act, a dance routine with spontaneous moments for improved solo or duet dance, was the way that the four musicians improvised their music with each other. Guitarist Quinn Donaldson ’26.5 from a first-year seminar dance class explained how there was a tremendous amount of communication and trust needed for the group to perform together, yet, at the same time, it was comfortable.

“We had to occasionally look each other in the eyes to indicate what direction we wanted to take the song, but we also felt really natural improvising together,” Donaldson said.

Katie Loomis-Adams ’26.5, the fiddle player in the show, also reflected on how part of the fun of improvisation is having some structure and understanding of an end goal while remaining completely adaptive.

“There was a sense to build up the intensity from the start, but also to add in changes in pace, mood and tempo throughout,” Loomis-Adams said.

When Garson made a final reflection on the outcome of the night, he reminisced about the initial backlash, particularly from his RA, that he received for sending out the mass email, and hoped that the spectacular outcome of the show might have changed people’s initial reservations.

“I still do not think that his response was fair, but hopefully my RA was in the audience tonight and changed his mind,” Garson said.

There is no doubt that the experience of seeing people with little dance experience move so confidently and skillfully left serious impressions on many students who were drawn to the event by Garson’s email. One such attendee was Dylan Palmer ’26.

“I was genuinely inspired to get involved in the dance department after tonight,” Palmer said.

Correction 04/20/23: J.T. Titmus ’23.5 was misquoted in the print edition of this article and was incorrectly listed as a member of the class of 2023. These errors have been corrected.

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