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Collaborative experiments in embodiment lead to open minds

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

LAWRENCE – Two University of Kansas professors contend in a new paper that you can bring together two seemingly unrelated classes to the benefit of each if they have “(e)nough connective tissue ... for grafts to take hold and grow, and enough difference to generate new possibilities.”

Michelle Heffner Hayes, professor of theatre & dance, and Sherrie Tucker, professor of American studies, published an article in the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation titled “Grafting and other Ramifications: Improvisation Across American Studies and Dance,” which details their collaborations in 2008 and 2012.

In those years, they team-taught a group of undergraduate dancers and graduate students of American Studies to test their ideas about how each class could benefit from studying the act of improvisation together.

It was a collaboration among other KU institutions — the Spencer Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum/Biodiversity Research Center — that got the two professors thinking about the concept of grafting for their own collaboration.

They wrote they were inspired by participating in the museums’ 2009 exhibition “Trees and Other Ramifications: Branches in Nature and Culture” and decided to “apply the metaphor of ‘grafting’ for approaches to improvisation that produce a hybridized pedagogy.”

Tucker, they wrote, had struggled to get “theory-focused graduate students in a reading seminar to consider research, thinking and writing as embodied practices,” while Hayes was challenged “to persuade undergrads to recognize their own intelligence and engage deeply in the intellectual exercises embedded in the studio practice.”

“We decided that the same readings and exercises would benefit both classes, despite the differences in disciplinary backgrounds and educational levels,” the professors wrote.

Despite some challenges, in the end, Tucker and Hayes wrote, the collaborations proved successful: “In addition to challenging and expanding the intellectual understanding of complex theoretical structures, accumulating a new vocabulary of embodied responses with their distinct measures of virtuosity, and integrating different compositional improvisation strategies within performance, the group generated knowledge and notions of community across intersectional identities.”

It takes some doing, the professors said, to get two such disparate groups of students to overlap productively. To build trust, the two groups had to share some truths with each other, one of which turned out to be their shared fear of judgment by outsiders. Dancers have had to get over their fears of insufficient skills and less-than-idealized bodies, while the American studies graduate students shared their struggle overcoming their fears of appearing physically awkward and mentally less than brilliant.

“It's a re-sensitizing, almost, where people have to be vulnerable and be present in the moment,” Hayes said. “There's this bond of trust that builds between people, because you're all surrendering to the vulnerability of that process. And the more you stretch that space, the more things become possible.”

Then, Tucker said, “When you set up the parameters, you have to imagine what might happen in those parameters, but you have to leave enough room for surprise. So we made very careful decisions about when we would bring our classes together and when we would be separate, what kinds of things we would try together. But we also left enough room for various surprising things to happen, and they did.”

The paper recounts a performance the classes did together outside the Spencer Museum, in the forested Marvin Grove on the KU Lawrence campus.

And while Hayes and Tucker have not team-taught since 2012, they have collaborated on a project called AUMI-KU InterArts, where they employ the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument to facilitate ongoing community jam sessions for people of different physical abilities. They have encouraged their students to participate to get a flavor of the improvisational methods they tried to inculcate in class.

“I think bringing them into the dance studio was absolutely transformative,” Tucker said of her students. “The things that they shared with me were about how it made them think about their work as collaborative, as embodied and as full of possibility. I would have them write about their bodies in the archive, or their bodies at the computer, and I think that could be abstract if they weren't going into the dance studio. But with that assignment, because they were dancing with dance students, they really were thinking more about their work as embodied. I think it makes a big difference.”

Photo: Students in the University Dance Company perform in choreography created from the collaborative process. Credit: Courtesy Department of Theatre & Dance

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