Reimagining Dance Online: A Conversation with Emily Coates on “Transpositions”

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The Yale Dance Lab, founded in 2011, brings students and professors together in cross-disciplinary explorations of dance, writing, and movement. Director Emily Coates, a seasoned dancer, choreographer, and associate professor at both Yale College and the School of Drama, discussed the Dance Lab’s most recent project, “Transpositions,” with the Herald. Launched on February 15, 2021 through the Yale Schwarzman Center’s website, Transpositions features sixteen “dance poems for an online world” and a behind-the-scenes look into the collaborative development of each performance. Each “dance poem” was guided by a different choreographer and features a different group of students belonging to the Yale dance community. So far, three of the sixteen pieces have been released, with new ones coming out each week.

How would you describe the goal of the “Transpositions” project?

The performing arts economy has collapsed, and we have been forced to reinvent the art of dance in a global pandemic. My initial impulse with Transpositions was to design a project that would give as many dance artists as possible the opportunity to work and to create.  I also wanted to create space for people from different communities to gather together and collaborate, from inside and outside of Yale, through dance. The binding theme is the question of transmission: in this remote world we’ve been living in, what happens to the embodied transmission of ideas that so profoundly characterizes the art of dance? I brought this project proposal to Garth Ross and Jennifer Newman at the Yale Schwarzman Center, and they embraced the idea and came on board as key partners.

How did the idea for the project arise? What was the inspiration?

I read a New Yorker article last spring that covered 24 hours in New York City during COVID-19. Different writers covered different parts of the day. But they didn’t post their bylines until the very end—you read it like a quilt without knowing who wrote what, though the line up included some of the magazine’s most prominent writers. I started to think about a project that would do something similar but different in dance: a document of our year, created by and for our community, in the form of 16 digital dance poems by 16 different choreographers. At the end of this semester, we’re planning to stream the entire series in a seamless anthology, creating something of the effect of that New Yorker piece.

What did the process of making “Transpositions” happen look like? How did you select and recruit choreographers and dancers, coordinate the virtual dance workshops, etc.?

Each choreographer led two, two-hour sessions with a group of dancers, which we recorded in full. The choreographers include Yale dance faculty and affiliates, New Haven-based dance artists, and artists from North Hampton, Philadelphia, and New York, and as far flung as Ouadagoudou, Burkina Faso, and Johannesburg, South Africa. I reached out to every dance group on campus to invite their participation; twelve groups joined in. Two savvy producers handled the fourteen week development process: Natalie King and Jacob Santos, both first-year MFA students in Theater Management at the Yale School of Drama. Sound designers from the Yale School of Drama signed on to support and brilliantly compose the soundscapes. And the last piece in the puzzle is our video artist, Kyla Arsadjaja, MFA ’20, whose perceptive, playful editing has elevated the video footage into poetry.

What were some of the unique challenges and successes of doing a dance project entirely online?

Every choreographer adapted their movement experiments to the dancers’ home spaces. The flexibility and openness built into our artistic investigation really met this historical moment head on. We may not have the full breadth of space we need, but we are strengthening human connection in other ways.

What do you think dancers got out of the experience? What about choreographers? And, finally, what has been the project’s personal resonance for you?

See the wonderful interview series, “Dancers Debrief,” which follows each episode – interviews captured by Gabrielle Niederhoffer and edited by the YSC team. The dancers speak beautifully about their discoveries and surprises in this process. Each choreographer I’ve spoken to experienced a lovely connection with their dancers – a creative process is intimate, soul-baring in many ways, and leaves its mark. For me, I’m overjoyed to see the great art produced out of this big experiment – could we make this massive anthology of digital dance poems together? Yes, we can!

How has “Transpositions” been received in the Yale community and the dance community inside and outside of Yale? What has its impact been, and what do you hope it will be going forward?

I have been thrilled by the interest in the project both within Yale, within the New Haven arts scene, and within the larger dance world. The remote world collapses time and space – while we in dance will never give up our love of liveness, this period of time has helped us forge new modes in which to imagine and to create.

Cover graphic by Furqan Jawed

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