Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Plight of the MFA

“With the economy the way it is, I’ve decided to go back to school.” We all know someone who has expressed this thought - we may have even said it ourselves. Dance is no exception. Perhaps more than ever, artists are going back to school for their master’s degree. In many fields, a master’s degree implies that one is more knowledgeable, experienced, or marketable. But what does having a master’s degree imply for an artist? In the arts world, an advanced degree simply doesn’t carry the same implications as in many other fields.

So what is an MFA? It represents the culmination of years of achievement. It represents years spent focusing on studying what you love and pursuing a passion. It is a symbol of dedication to a craft, a desire to stretch yourself intellectually, creatively, physically, and emotionally. It can represent a stepping stone to a higher degree or a highly sought out position.

Perhaps the more important question to ask is what is it not? It does not come with a ticket to success. That is to say, an MFA is not immediately life changing. For every dancer who leaves graduate school with a salaried position in her field, many more will leave only to return to jobs they held prior to their degrees, as contracting studio teachers, fitness instructors, or in altogether non-arts-related positions.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with these positions. In fact, for many artists, these positions offer the flexibility to be ideal employment. However, these positions don’t normally demand an advanced degree. They are positions that many would have been qualified to hold prior to attending graduate school. For many, then, graduation can be a hard realization, when your heightened expectation of what position you will hold meets the reality of employment prospects, tuition debt, and real world expenses.

This is where the imaginary third year of graduate school comes in to play. In many fields, receiving your degree and beginning your first full-time, career-driven job go hand in hand. In the arts, however, this is simply not the case. For many of us, there is a third year of graduate school in which we have to figure out what your degree means for you. There may even be a fourth or fifth year. It was this third year for which, as I neared graduation, I had not prepared myself.

Graduating from my master’s program, I felt an incredible range of emotions. I was exhausted and satisfied, proud that I had not only survived those two years, but also created work that I was excited and proud to present. I was eager to make my mark on the world through my art. Perhaps most significantly though, I graduated feeling entitled. My expectations for me and my employability had grown exponentially and I felt ready to begin my career.

As I searched for jobs, I had to slowly start lowering my expectations. I had thought that immediately after graduating, I would be first in line for a competitive position. As reality set in and financial burdens began to pile up, I began teaching again, picking up studio jobs wherever I could find them. I felt incredibly unsuccessful and embarrassed for what I saw as failure – earning master’s degree only to return to the same jobs I had held as a high schooler. The truth is I had simply entered my third year.

My third year has been, perhaps, the most beneficial year of my graduate school experience. It was incredibly difficult for me to accept my return to teaching at various locations. I felt so prepared and excited for the possibility of full-time employment that not to be able to find it was a complete disappointment. With my third year, I had the opportunity to meet more dancers, get certified in new styles, and train in genres that I hadn’t had to time to explore yet. Most importantly, though, I accepted that not finding full-time employment as an artist is not failing, not even close to it. Rather, it is simply part of my career path.

Of the nine students in my graduating class, only one graduated with a salaried position at a high school dance program. The rest of us are working at coffee houses, restaurants, dance studios, anywhere we can find work in order to keep dancing. I say this not to frighten you away from going to graduate school or to make us feel hopeless. Rather, I say this because it is a reality that we, as artists, have to face, and one with which I had to come to terms after graduating.

Of course, much of this is circumstantial. I’m hoping that in five years, funding for the arts will have grown so much that this article has become irrelevant. Until we reach that place, this remains an important topic that isn’t really being talked about. Artists are graduating every year with advanced degrees and not enough work to offer them. Now is the time for us to accept those extra years of school - even try to rejoice in them. We have the opportunity to spend more time focusing on our own work and our own goals. In a field that is so based on the personal, perhaps this will even give us the opportunity to grow more as artists.

So, as a “third year” graduate student, here is what I do wish I had known as I entered graduate school: first, enjoy your time in school. For me, graduate school was worth every penny and every ounce of frustration that has followed it. I had the opportunity to focus wholly on my work and my dancing for two years. I was able to challenge myself the ways I had never before been challenged, pushing my body to its physical limit, and meeting renowned dancers and choreographers. How often in life does one get a chance like that?

Secondly, know your faculty and use them. There’s a reason recent graduates aren’t typically hired to teach at a university level, and that is because those who are teaching at that level have years of experience and insight. Throughout this whole process of trying to figure out my life post-graduation, my professors have mentored me. They have written letters of recommendation and sent my name out to friends all over the country. The arts world is one of collaboration and support, which is a huge advantage that we have over other fields, and my third year has let me really become a part of that support system.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned not only to accept where I’m at in my career, but also to use it to my advantage. Working different hours than everyone else can be incredibly frustrating – until you realize that you have time to get trained in new styles, practice writing, cook, read, take classes, do whatever it is that you want to do to become the artist that you want. It has taken me nearly a year to look at this experience on that bright side, but that is a lesson I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Things may very well change in time. One year from now, or ten, or twenty years, I may be able to get a position that another dancer can’t because of my graduate degree. But right now, it is hard to accept that my MFA has not been immediately life changing as I once thought it would be. This is the plight of the MFA – it is a degree that comes with heightened expectations of one’s qualifications and employability, and yet without immediate gratification. Perhaps the biggest lesson to take away from your degree is the ability to accept and meld those two things.
I went in to graduate school completely prepared for the workload, expecting the sore muscles and physical exhaustion. What I wasn’t prepared for was that imaginary third year that follows for my many graduates. The year after you finish school when you have to decide what your graduate degree means for you.

So, is it worth it to get your MFA? That’s a question every individual has to answer for him or herself. For me – yes, completely. My MFA is only the start of my career path, and I’m excited to see where it takes me.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Make It Shorter

I would never argue that choreography is anything but a highly skilled art form. Indeed, the first responsibility of a choreographer is to be innovative. Without innovation, dance simply restates the same thing over and over, never pushing our skills as artists. I think, though, that what has been forgotten is the responsibility of the choreographer to be a skilled editor. Watching modern dance performances lately has felt like watching a strutting peacock – who can hold the biggest and brightest feathers up the longest in order to win the audience. The loss of this essential skill reflects not only the continuously growing level of self involvement in dance, but also, dare I say it, the diminishing skills of those we consider to be “great choreographers.”
At a dance show recently in which several highly renowned choreographers presented work, I was struck repeatedly with the same thought: That would have been brilliant had it been shorter. What makes dance such a unique art form is that it is so personal; using our minds and bodies to be art makes it incredibly difficult to separate yourself enough from your work to recognize that something is not working. If we think about it, though, it is really quite self involved of us to think that just because we enjoy watching our own work for 20 minutes that other will as well. It’s like having the overly friendly person sit next to you on a Bart train and monologue about their life problems to you – you simply don’t care. That doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us normal. Modern dance pieces have become that overly friendly Bart rider. The audience, at some point, just doesn’t care any more.
It is this inability to look at our own work critically which, I think, is diminishing the talents of choreographers. Brilliant work becomes dull and lifeless as the minutes tick by and the audience begins to wander. So what can we as artists do in order to stay true to our vision, but also get an audience in the seats? Boil your work down to only the most significant parts and even then, question their significance. Cut it down. Make what you have count.
This may seem like an extreme level of criticism, but I’m only trying to follow my own advice. Be harsh in the analysis of your own work. Make it shorter.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Akram Khan's bahok

In Western society, the advancement of technology has been arguably the most significant factor in the development of our current cultural climate. Industrial advances have not only shaped society on a mass scale, but have shaped the role of the individual within it. The physical body is defined by the cultural body; that is, every person in a society shapes their perceptions and presentation of themselves based on social and cultural norms. Thus, in our current, technologically based culture, the body is viewed through the lens of industry. As argued by Nancy Sheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock in The Mindful Body, “…in modern society man has adopted the language of machine to describe his body. This reversal, wherein man sees himself in terms of the external world, as a reflection of himself, is the representative formula for expressing the present situation of modern man.“ The cultural body is defined by our reliance on technology.

Applying this definition of the culturally defined self, I will look at the most recent work by Akram Khan, entitled bahok, in which the idea of the social body is oriented completely around technology. Each individual within the piece is molded by elements of industry which are displayed within the stage space. The presentation of the personal self is completely dictated by social expectations. Those expectations are shaped completely by the impact of technology. In the work, each individual perceives him or herself within the context of our technologically driven world and thus is only able to understand the individual self through this lens. That is, the self can only be exposed after going through the funnel of technology.

The piece opens with the stage in complete darkness, no bodies are visible. The introduction for the viewer to the work is the sound of a mechanized heartbeat, an industrial interpretation of the very center of the human structure. Humanity is immediately redefined by machine. The first lights which the viewer sees are on a large, electronic screen which is hung center stage, clearly being the central focus. While bodies continue not to be seen, the board begins flashing different lights, building shapes and words; the screen is the first dancer that the viewer experiences. As the lights come up on the stage, dancers are frozen, while the electronic board continues to move. It is not until the board flashes a clear directive that the dancers begin to move. Immediately, technology is set up as the definitive element within the piece, that which dictates movement. It is set up as the authoritative structure for the individual dancers – their movement is permitted only after the board has finished its opening solo. The hierarchy of technology to the individual body is evident from the very opening of the work; as argued by Scheper-Hughes and Lock, manual (the body) and mental (technology) labors are divided and ranked, giving industry the upper hand and forcing the self to conform to it

As the dancers begin to move in the space, the juxtaposition of technology and humanity becomes more pronounced. Throughout the movement, all elements of individuality are muted by machines. Most significantly, we see this in the “crazy” character – a young woman clearly lost and unsure of the social expectations of the situation, and thus perceived by others as being crazy. In her opening solo, other dancers avert their gazes, brushing her off as she dances among them. The only interaction which anybody has with her is when another dancer picks up a camera and snaps a picture of her. She can only be looked at in her moment of self exposure through the lens of a camera; that is, others are only able to view this expression of self through an arm of technology. She can only be seen by what is considered socially acceptable and culturally superior.

Indeed, moments of personal expression throughout the piece are expressed only in relationship to technology. One dancer continually returns to his vignette of talking to his mother on his cell phone. Talking to one’s family is a highly individual action, one which relates deeply to personal identity and family roles. In the work, though, he is only able to have this moment of expression through a cell phone, one of the most significant technological advances of the century. He exposes himself only through a machine, a filter which allows the personal body to be exposed in a way considered appropriate by the cultural body. Furthermore, throughout the piece, he repeatedly lifts the cell phone toward the ceiling, an action that almost all viewers can recognize as the search for phone service. It is important to note, though, that the phone is lifted upwards, toward the heavens, a gesture most often symbolic of praise or worship. The cultural body is so deeply defined by that which a society worships; in this moment, technology is physically revered.

One can also see this relationship of self expression and inhibitions of social expectations in the one of the solo vignettes performed by a female dancer. In the technologically driven world which is presented on stage, the dancer is physically lifeless. She is collapsed on a black folding chair underneath the large, electronic board, restricted by her surroundings and the authoritative commands flashing above her. In a moment of isolation from this setting, though – that is, literally as the stage fades to complete darkness – she is transformed into a creature which is other worldly. A goddess like form appears before the viewer, with multiple arms and legs, moving stealthily downstage, an expression of the deep inner self. With the return of full lights, and thus the return of her surroundings, the goddess dissipates and the dancer returns to her folding chair, collapsed and lifeless, waiting as the electronic board has instructed her to do. The brief moment of self is ended by the return of the technological world.

As the piece draws to a close, our focus returns once again to the large electronic board which has dictated the structure of the piece, outlining each vignette with different words and phrases which are frequently seen in airports or other terminals. After watching these moments of individuality being contained by the dictations of cultural expectations, represented through different technological advances, the moments of most personal reflection are brought to the viewer’s attention through the electronic board. After posting expressions such as Delayed, Please Wait, and Canceled throughout the work, the final minutes of the piece are shaped by questions of individual identity: What are you carrying? and What is home?. It is the largest representation of technology which returns the focus of both the dancers and the viewers to their personal selves. Only through the embodiment of the cultural body are we able to perceive our own identity. More so, the irony of a machine presenting issues of individual humanity presents the underlying question – how do humanity and technology coexist? In many ways binaries, this work presents them as inherently dependent; one’s humanity can only be understood through the lens of the cultural body, which has become a lens of technology.

In this work by Akram Khan, the cultural body is defined solely by technology, and thus, the individual is defined by technology. Our bodies are defined by the language of machines. I must ask, then, if we define ourselves according to the language of machines, and define our personal self by this cultural body, where does our humanity lie. Does it too, like our self perception, become molded by the technological lens? Indeed, by defining ourselves through cultural norms, we become, in many ways, mechanical. It is this idea which is put forth in the piece and which shapes the movement and structure of the work. Throughout the work one sees the juxtaposition so evident in our everyday lives, that of the personal body defined by humanity and the cultural body defined by technology, and the physical impact it has on a society.

Sara Kraft's Hyperreal

Sara Kraft’s most recent production Hyperreal, premiered in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts, deeply explores the question of what is real versus what is imagined in our technologically driven, bigger is better culture through humorous anecdotes, movement, and various characterizations in a way that is intelligent and clever – for forty five minutes too long.

At a running time of nearly two hours, the work spends the first hour and fifteen minutes brilliantly questioning elements of reality, binaries of body and mind, and the impact of technology on physicality and human interactions. Her use of hilarious personal anecdotes not only entertained me, but raised many personal questions about the impact of our current cultural climate. But, as is the downfall for many choreographic works, copious editing was needed. The ideas and points which originally were clever and well stated quickly became after the first hour redundant and irritating.

The opening of the work revealed a young, highly physically trained dancer standing on top of a platform, lights shining up at her, her body replicating a store window mannequin. With her perfectly fit body, and simple nude cloth wrapped around it, she was clearly the representative for the ideal body. Sara Kraft enters the stage opposite the dancer, walking up onto her own platform with a large computer screen and camera, along with a fish bowl filled half way with water. In between the two women hangs a vast projection screen. As Kraft begins her opening monologue, I am immediately drawn into the physical application of the mind/body binary – the mannequin on the one side of the stage, slowly moving in and out of poses, and the mind on the other, using her computer and camera to tell personal stories and raise wide reaching questions. Kraft uses the stage space intelligently, further pushing her question of what is real by physically dividing the body, what is real, and the mind, where the imagination exists.

Perhaps the most engaging for me, though, was the introduction of a twenty nine year old man attempting to make an online dating profile. Sitting at a computer behind the projection screen, he energetically records dozens of messages, all shooting off in tangents from each other, attempting to describe himself as an eligible and desirable date. His acting and dedication to the character was stellar, using a highly comedic effect as he rambled on about his love of nature, being an animal person, and his role as the life of the party. His vignettes were by far the highlight of the work. What Kraft did well here was, again, use of stage space and technology; in placing the young man behind the screen, his face took over the projection screen, forcing the viewer to look first at his projected self before even noticing his actual self behind it, deepening the question of what we perceive as real.

The piece continues to bounce between these different stories, from Kraft’s personal memories, to the dating profile, to brightened lights on the mannequin figure. Kraft uses the stage space, as well as her choice of language and stories, to further her points. That is, she explores the manipulation of reality which she argues is currently happening in our technologically driven world. Telling stories of an old woman who needed a television, radio, and police scanner machine, forcing herself to stay home in order to make sure she never missed anything, or of her childhood experience of watching Jaws and trying to understand how a shark so real in her imagination could be fake, she leads the audience to her point that reality has become more disconnected to real life than imagination has.

Indeed, while she raises interesting and valid points throughout the beginning sections of the work, particularly affective because of her use of humor, these are the same points she continues to raise throughout the entirety of the work. In two hours of performance, I was presented with new ideas for perhaps the first half hour of work, than had the same points reiterated to me over and over again until I no longer cared.

Perhaps the most frustrating section of the work, though, was the ending. As the build up to a climax began to happen, about thirty minutes later than it should have, I was excited to see how Kraft would choice to bookmark her work. With Kraft yelling into a camera, and projections and lights flashing on the screen, the tension in the room began to build. Building and building, a climax of apprehension was reached – and then Kraft continued to yell and lights continued to flash. The ending, which could have been so successful, was pushed for five minutes too long. By the moment of conclusion, my eyes were on the ceiling of the performance space and I no longer had any interest in seeing how the work would end, I just wanted it to end.

Indeed, Kraft’s Hyperreal has true potential to be an exciting and evocative work, exploring fascinating and pertinent ideas that plague our culture everyday. These ideas are overshadowed, though, by her lack of desire to step back from her work and look at it with a critical eye. Had it been an hour shorter, I would be writing about nothing but the brilliance of Sara Kraft. My suggestion then? Go see this piece, but sit by an exit, so that you can leave while the work is still evocative, and not yet irritating.