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Theater and Dance

Interview with Natalie Johnson '13 about dance at Bowdoin

Story posted February 11, 2013

Malachi Graham '12 sat down with Natalie to talk about dance at Bowdoin.

M: Hi, Natalie! So, you are a junior from Colorado? What is your major?

N: English.

M: English! But then, how many dance classes have you taken?

N: [laughs] More than English. At first, I only took one dance class a semester, then that changed when I got really, really excited about it. But, I've been really going after my English major since freshman year so that I could be done by the time I was a senior, because I knew that I would want to be taking all fun, exciting classes senior year and not freaking out about requirements.

M: Did you know that you wanted to pursue dance so actively when you chose Bowdoin?

N: No, not this actively. Dance was my "thing" in high school... well, actually, my thing since I was six. [laughs] When I was a senior in high school I considered going to a conservatory, instead. In fact, I considered transferring during high school to an art school, but I convinced myself that I was too old, that I wasn't ever going to be good enough. I lived in a really rural place in Colorado, so I didn't have many opportunities to train as intensely as I thought everyone else would be training. So I closed that door. I knew I wanted to dance for fun, at least, forever. And it was really realizing, in the middle of my sophomore year at Bowdoin, that there's something important about absolutely loving something so much that you have to keep doing it. I told myself that I should just go for it anyway, even though I felt a little disadvantaged.

M: So, realizing halfway through college that this is something you really wanted to pursue, have there been rewards and challenges to attending a liberal arts school as opposed to a more traditional conservatory?

N: Absolutely, absolutely. I had a little mid-college crisis, and I thought about transferring to a conservatory, just because I felt that that was the "only way" I could do it. But liberal arts is really important to me, getting a full spectrum of education in the long run. Just thinking about dance, yes, maybe going into only dance would have been good, but thinking about my mental and emotional well-being for the rest of my life, I think liberal arts is still the best way to go, because I still have a period of time in which I can train in dance, but I won't ever have Bowdoin again. Bowdoin is fabulous at exploring and celebrating all paths of knowledge in life. I thought that it would make me a happier person to be allowed to explore everything that I wanted to.

M: What has been a favorite dance class that you've taken here?

N: Ooh, tough. There are so many. Well... I absolutely love Choreography 270 with Charlotte Griffin. I love Dance 311/312 and ballet! Bowdoin gave me my first experience in Modern dance, which I have grown to love, but for me, ballet is kind of where it's at.

M: I have to say, it was wild seeing the Spring Dance Show—you were in at least three dances, plus your independent study in choreography. It was like, the Natalie Show—I loved it.

N: [laughs] I'm actually kind of embarrassed about that. Like, that's how we used to do it in my old studio—in a recital I would be in two tap dances, two ballet dances, two jazz dances, and then maybe have a duet with someone... and that was normal, because I was in all those classes. But here, because it's less of a common background I was a little embarrassed...

M: No, it was wonderful! Those dances were all the cumulative projects for all the dance classes you're in here, so it totally made sense. It was really fun to see you dance in so many different ways, having the Choreography piece, and ACDFA... Let's talk about ACDFA, the piece that you co-choreographed and brought to the American College Dance Festival, New England in February.

N: That was such an interesting process. We didn't elect particular leaders or followers but rather it was six of us trying to figure out the landscape for how to make a dance together without one single choreographer.

M: So, it was a really collaborative choreography process?

N: Yes, we tried as much as we could to have balance, congeniality. It was a bit of a clash of the Titans because many of us are leaders of different dance groups, so we were used to being the ones in charge. There was a lot of "letting go" in that process. We gave a lot, but we also had to let go. That was really great to experience for me, because I've been leading so much this year that it was cool to be a partial leader but a partial follower. We presented it at American College Dance Festival, New England at Connecticut College, which was like a three-day celebration of college dance. There was a semi-competition where we could present these works, and they were adjudicated, so we had three judges, each professional and acclaimed choreographers, from three different walks of life, and we got to hear to feedback, so that was really great to have our work judged as serious work. And the rest of the time we were taking tons of classes, and having a blast together. It was a beautiful bonding experience.

M: That sounds a little bit like what you'll be doing with your Watterson Fellowship, right? Congratulations on getting the Watterson, that is so exciting. Will you be doing a similar thing this summer?

N: Similar, but 100 times longer. [laughs] I'm going to participate in the American Dance Festival (ADF for short) at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and I'll be there for six weeks. It's festival-style, so you're encouraged to really get a taste of everything that there is. So, if you don't want a weekend break there are classes offered on Saturdays and Sundays, so you could literally dance every day for six weeks... which I will! You take three set classes the entire six weeks that stay the same for four days of the week, and then the other days of the week you can take whatever is available like, a ballet class, or a class on the audition process, or hip hop. So there's definitely an amount of consistency, but you also have the freedom to just go for it. For my three classes I'll be enrolled in choreography, modern technique, and hopefully I'll get into a repertory piece that I audition for. And these are all recognized as legitimate academic endeavors that I can receive college credit for from Duke University.

M: That sounds like it's going to be a wonderful experience.

N: Oh, I'm so excited!

M: So when does that start?

N: June 14th to July 29th.

M: So, let's talk about your independent study, Beloved. What was your creative process in coming up with that?

N: Well, I tried to have as much of a clear idea of what I was going to do at the start of the semester as possible, so I was thinking about it a lot in the fall. I played with a lot of ideas: I thought about doing a show on colors, or on a number of other things that would let me explore and be creative. So, I ended up on poetry— a little shout-out to my English major, I love to read poetry, write poetry, think about poetry...

M: So it was at least a little bit of an interdisciplinary project?

N: Yeah, a bit. So I decided to start with the poetry and pick three poems that I was familiar with and delve into them. I wanted to try to capture the essence of each poem and then express that essence by finding a song that fit it, and then choreographing a dance over that song. So: poetry, music, dance, in that order. At least, that was the idea. It got shaken up a bit along the way, which was good for me. I ended up changing all three pieces of music, which was ultimately a good decision. What was interesting was that all three dances were created and practically finished before we switched music. So the section "Conflict" was completely done to "I Want You" by the Beatles, and then we changed it to "Baby, It's Cold Outside." So the dance was really trying to explore how I could express the tone of a poem without trying to do it too literally or too theatrically, to play with how dance can create an emotion and maintain abstraction, but move the audience to understand how the dance and the poem could connect. I named it Beloved because along the way I discovered that all these poems really were about intimate connection with another person: brotherly love, romantic love... a relationship. All three poems were written in the familiar form, directly addressing a "you," so I named it Beloved because all three were addressing the author's beloved. And then I named the three sections based on the three tones.

M: So, was Charlotte Griffin your faculty adviser for this?

N: She was. Still is, in fact.

M: Related to that, I was wondering if you could talk about the faculty in the department and how your relationship with them has affected the work you produce here at Bowdoin.

N: The Dance faculty members are why I decided that I could continue with dance seriously here, so in that way they are the reason I produce anything at all at Bowdoin. I had Professor Gwyneth Jones my freshman year for 311/312, which was a lovely experience. I had Paul Sarvis the spring of freshman year for Choreography and that was really my first lengthy exposure to composition. Currently I have Nyama McCarthy-Brown for 101 this semester, and then of course Charlotte for every dance course I've taken since sophomore year: Ballet, Choreography, 311/312. I think... the encouragement of all of those people has been astounding. "No" or "You can't" has never been a part of their vocabulary in the dance setting, which is a change for a lot of dancers— it was a change for me. Not that my old studio was in any way discouraging, but just that I had been telling myself "No, you can't" constantly before getting here, and now I'm hearing, "Yes! You can! In fact, we'll show you what it's like and that it is possible to dance after a liberal arts education." So, they've just been amazingly supportive mentors and friends. It's such a blessing how we have this great faculty at not only a liberal arts school, but a non-major liberal arts school. You can't get your B.F.A. and unfortunately you can't even major in Dance, and yet we have these people who are so supportive, knowledgeable and talented.

M: So, you're a junior. What does your senior year look like?

N: Next year is going to be interesting. First of all, there will be a ton of auditions to go to for graduate schools. Class-wise, it's somewhat tentative, but I'm going to continue taking a little bit of English. I wish I could do an Honors project in Dance, but I can't because it's not a major. That should be fixed. Instead I'm going to do a faux Honors project by doing an independent study in the fall and an independent study in the spring, and somehow they're just going to connect, like magic. [laughs] But I think that for the fall I'm just going to try to generate a lot of material. I'd like to delve into choreography and not think too much about putting it onstage. I think it'll be really good for me to just have a studio space, have some dancers, and work on developing material without worrying about a final performance. And then after that, in the spring, I will start thinking about how I want to present it. There's going to be a Screen Dance class offered in the spring by Charlotte Griffin, so I'm going to be taking that and using that to consider implementing my material from the fall to make a screen dance, or perhaps presenting it on Pickard again for the Spring Recital. Either way, I'm excited to have a year instead of a semester to create and then refine material. A year is so powerful— that's such a long time to spend on a dance!

M: And then what are you thinking post-grad?

N: Post-grad I'm thinking... more grad. [laughs] So I want to get my M.F.A. in Dance, maybe more specifically in Choreography, maybe in Dance Education. I'm considering all of that. So, I'm looking at NYU Tisch, Smith College, Hollins/ADF (which is associated with the program I'm going to for Watterson)... I'm looking at about ten different schools. And mostly those are two-year programs where it is conservatory-style, so I would get to finally click into that education that I've been wanting here but without giving up that liberal arts awesomeness that is Bowdoin. So it would be going and taking dance classes five days a week, every week, for two years. So that would be a dream come true. And, depending on what program I take, the second year could be more intensely choreography-based, so I'd be putting on my own full-length shows maybe, or, some of them require you to be part of a dance company so you can understand what it's like to have that professional company experience. So, yeah, M.F.A., eventually.

M: Yeah, and it sounds like what you're doing with the Watterson Fellowship should be a great way to get a glimpse into that way of working.

N: Definitely, that's what my application was sort of centered around: the idea that while Bowdoin dance classes are excellent, especially for what Bowdoin is (a non-dance school), there's no way that, by staying here only, I could have the opportunity to experience the things that I need to experience to get into graduate school. Attending programs such as ADF really is mandatory for my education in that sense. By granting me the Watterson, which gives me the means to go train seriously, they're really giving me the opportunity to go to graduate school and pursue a fine art. Which is huge, and I am so grateful.

M: Well, this has been great, Natalie. Do you have any final thought about dance and Bowdoin?

N: I think it's important to note how great it is that Bowdoin has so many dance clubs. I think it's fabulous that even though many people aren't at Bowdoin to dance, so many people find dance at Bowdoin. It helped me find my interest in teaching and leading dance, from my role in Arabesque. Even people who didn't dance in high school dance now. I think that says something about celebrating art when it's new and exciting and fresh. I think it is also quite influential for our Dance faculty as well— so many people have talked so highly of the beginner dance classes, which now are not something that you just take to fulfill a requirement, but that people take over and over again and that they excel in, and it ends up leading people into unexpected and exciting directions.

M: Well, thank you so much for talking with me, Natalie!

N: Thank you!

Not that my old studio was in any way discouraging, but just that I had been telling myself "No, you can't" constantly before getting here, and now I’m hearing, “Yes! You can! In fact, we’ll show you what it’s like and that it is possible to dance after a liberal arts education." 
— Natalie Johnson '13