Since 1983, The New York Dance and Performance Awards, also known as the Bessie Awards (in honor of Bessie Schonberg, who worked in the Sarah Lawrence Dance department from 1938 until 1975) have annually honored dance performances. This year, SLC alum John Jasperse was awarded for “a feast of unpredictable kinetic imagination performed by a prodigiously skilled dancer occupying an open plaza shaped by a sequence of dazzling light and sound scapes.” Jasperse won the 2014 New York Dance and Performance Award for Outstanding Production for his piece “Within between” at New York Live Arts.
This past summer while attending The American Dance Festival, I was lucky enough to see the premiere of Jasperese’s awarded work “Within between.” Nervously, I approached him after the show to introduce myself. Within moments of mentioning that I attended SLC he was already asking about my don (his was Robert Wagner), named the philosophy and psychology classes that still inform his dancing, and the “crazy amount of classroom hours dance thirds have that no other students understand.” Even though Jasperse is one of the more influential names in the contemporary dance world at this moment, he still took the time out his crazy day to express how profoundly important his education was at SLC.
This supported a feeling I have had for a long time that there is something special that happens in the SLC dance department each day. Every teacher cares so deeply about each student’s growth and creativity that it comes as no surprise that SLC alums continue to be relevant in dance history year after year. Jasperse is only one of many SLC alums to win a Bessie Award, and will absolutely not be the last.
At SLC, the program encourages individual style while still providing students with rigorous daily practices. Official “dance thirds” are required to take a morning technique class five days a week, a creative component, and an academic approach to the study of dance. Additionally, dancers learn about lighting and costume design through tech credits and explore performing, choreography and the creative process through the graduate students thoughtful projects and choreographers in residency. No dance third will ever tell you that early morning technique classes are easy, and no one would ever voluntarily sign up to be stuck in a leotard. However, there is something incommunicable that the program does to keep dancers moving their exhausted bodies day after day. Perhaps it is a combination of the inevitably close bond all dance thirds share, personal mentorship that exists between each teacher and their students or just the constant flow of creativity that all make the long hours and early mornings in the PAC completely worth it.
In a recent email I sent to Jasperse to congratulate him on his award, he wrote back to me about his time at SLC. Jasperse explained that he was a dance third for all semesters except for when he studied abroad in Paris. While abroad, he was “set up to study fashion design,” but he knew as soon as he got there that “it was a last ditch effort to avoid some of the economic challenges that lay ahead as a result of choosing dance as a way to make a living.” Upon returning from Europe, he returned to his dance third, even though it “required more hours, time, and discipline than the average Sarah Lawrence College student.” Jasperse admitted that he struggled in his morning technique classes because he wasn’t a “typical dancer and by no means the best in the class.” However, at SLC he thrived among these obstacles because “Sarah Lawrence is a place where it was entirely possible to make the dances that [his] body could make.”
He ended his note to me beautifully: “Dance is a vocation of sorts—it chooses you. I couldn’t have taken that kind of professional risk if I hadn’t been taught the skills of self-motivated, independent work that is a key aspect of the Sarah Lawrence curriculum.” He continued, “that being said, it is a huge gift to be able to do something that you are passionate about. It doesn’t mean that I never fail—I do, and sometimes on a grand scale. But I believe in taking risks and it is the role of the artist to help us wake up as a culture. Our society needs artists desperately who embrace this responsibility. Follow your passion, work hard on your work and keep asking yourself what really matters.”
This semester, the program is lucky to have the Alvin Ailey Legacy in residency (performances are Dec. 16 and 17), many exciting choreographers from the city teaching master classes during dance meetings and the Winter Concert, in which graduate students create innovative pieces on many of the dance-thirds (performances are Dec. 12, 13, and 14). Tickets can be reserved in the PAC.
by Willa Bennett '17