Elliot Frank

Elliot Frank

It is an afternoon in early October and the grass on the south lawn of Frist is thick and soft as moss. There are five of us. We move through the space with our eyes closed. Roll, face pressed into the grass. The pull of cloth, coarse beneath the reach of our palms. Our objective is to discover the world with our movements instead of vision. The sun is warm and we roll our pants up to our knees.

“Good,” one dancer says. “Now open your eyes. Move through the space as if you are seeing it for the first time.” We paw the ground with our wrists and elbows, curling ourselves through fetal positions.

This is FUSE, Princeton University’s dance collective.

The now-defunct Facebook page for FUSE does not offer more information than pictures of past performances, of members of the class of 2014 dressed in an assortment of gem-colored leotards and baggy dancewear.

Their Facebook name defines them as a “collective,” a choice that sets the group apart from other campus dance “companies.” Where company is representative of a group of performers, the word “collective” is suggestive of something more communal, a gesture toward a shared experience. Yet, FUSE’s own definition seems more nebulous.

Some would define it as a group devoted to dance improvisation, or a student dance company, or neither. Created in 2013 by Tess Bernhard ‘14, Samantha Gebb ‘14, and Casey Brown ‘14, the primary goal of FUSE was to introduce a different approach to dance, rooted less in the traditional styles of the campus dance companies or the dance department. FUSE was created to be a place of artistic freedom, choreographic experimentation, inclusivity and variety of movement.

In the creation of the group, the founders pushed back against the structure of the traditional student dance companies. FUSE has no artistic director. Nor does it have a president or an officer board.

Anyone can lead a session. FUSE is an outlier in the Princeton dance community. It does not subscribe to the model of the student-run dance companies, which are mostly audition-only, perform biannually, and are controlled by PAC (the Princeton Performing Arts Council). Last year, there was no performance. Instead, FUSE hosts weekly improvisation “jams,” open to dancers and non-dancers. There are no auditions.

FUSE also does not identify itself as an offshoot of the academic dance department. The dance department occupies the other half of the dance community on campus, with a reach that spans from the experiment-focused composition classes to the Spring Dance Festival to the thesis students’ showing in the spring, although many members of FUSE are pursuing dance certificates within the program.

FUSE occupies the space between the extra-curricular and the academic areas of dance on Princeton’s campus, yet its members define that space quite differently.

According to co-founder Casey Brown, FUSE is a revolution, a company that “can provide, not an alternative path, but the path for student expression.” To sophomore and Disiac dance company member Alex Quetell, the FUSE legacy and “dream is to invite every single dancer [to a] weekly improv session in which people can come to grow” both as dancers and artists, honing their craft among fellow dancers.

Yet to sophomore and Expressions dance company member Rachel Schwartz, FUSE should be less about honing pre-existing skill and more about the democratization of the art form; she believes that the collective should be more about “trying to bring everyone to the same place. For trained dancers, it’s about breaking down ideas of movement; for non-dancers, it’s to think about movement vocabulary.”

Each goal is noble, but each goal is impossible to achieve without negating the others. In the divisive and bureaucratic artistic environment of Princeton University’s campus, what is lacking within the current system cannot be filled by one group.

In a ballet class, before any dancing can begin, the ballerinas must first take their place at the barre and find their balance. At one FUSE jam I attended (practices are open to the Princeton student populace, for people like me who are not affiliated with the company but have heard about it through word of mouth), we began with a “squeeze,” an invented warm-up in which the dancers surrounded one attendee, squeezed his legs and arms and ankles and face, and then with each member of the collective grabbing a different appendage, squeezed and lifted him across the room. Another jam began with a slow, discordant song playing in a studio, all the lights turned off.

Sometimes the experience contains, poetry and body-shaking and an experimental oddness reminiscent of the dance department’s very first foray into student campus culture, which, according to a photoessay on the Lewis Center dance website, “took place on Poe Field one glorious Sunday in April, 1970 [when] a group of long-haired, bare-chested, body-painted men and a few women performed to the accompaniment of conga drums and a rock ‘n roll band before a large crowd.”

Sometimes the meetings have comprised of only trained dancers. Sometimes new members have joined the collective for the hour-and-a-half, smiling and slightly amused, opening their hands and readying their limbs.

The dance department was founded in 1969 when the first women students were accepted to campus, and Princeton’s first student-run dance company, Expressions, was founded soon after in 1979.

Soon, the amount of student-run dance companies grew while the amount of spaces on campus that allowed for dance remained stagnant. Companies today compete for student attention between the myriad of student groups that exist on campus, as well as for the resources that the university is prepared to allot to dance.

While competition works in the market and in business, the same is not true for art. Sports teams are bequeathed with gymnasiums and boathouses and stadiums. Students are allowed free admission. Studio space on campus is free, and certain performance venues don’t charge, yet most dance groups charge for tickets on their shows, limiting who will attend and forcing dance performances to become spectacles. This is not organic. Art on campus is told it can only succeed if it follows the models of an enterprise.

“In a meeting with [deputy Dean Thomas] Dunn, he told me,” Casey Brown relayed in her interview, “I paraphrase, that ODUS is there to support the Disiacs of campus.” She had met with him to request funding for FUSE members to see a dance performance in New York, only to hear that ODUS existed primarily, as Casey relayed, “to support the student groups, which, like Disiac, ran like businesses and From top: Elliot Franks, Laurent Liotardo sold out their shows.”

The result: Dance companies that time rehearsals like itineraries, can only afford little room for deviation from the performance structure, and are perpetually influenced by recruitment. True experimentation is allowed to fall by the wayside in favor of what will entertain an audience.

There have been exceptions. Some dance companies are extending choreographic opportunities to beyond the student body, commissioning work from professional choreographers. Some deviate in other ways.

“THIS IS NOT A JOKE,” a piece for BodyHype’s winter show choreographed by Bri White ’16 and Sophia Andreassi ’16, was characterized less by elements commonly found in traditional student dance company pieces (technical stunts, dazzling extensions, sensuality) and featured instead tableaus of dancers collapsed over each other like dominos, stylized arms, a highly conceptual premise and a song by Wilco.

Yet this piece, although innovative, was still controlled by the conventions that prevent dance companies from ever truly breaking the form. It still had to fit the time limit. It could venture, but not too far.

Dance company pieces are still limited by length, and the assumption that an audience will somehow determine its worth. In a typical dance company show, there is no room for pieces beyond 5 minutes, for improvisation and chance-dance, or for audience-alienating risk.

With more experimentation, the companies risk being left out of important campus events like TigerNight and This Side of Princeton, campus-wide arts group samplers that display the performance groups to new students and enable recruitment. Without this sort of recruitment, student dance companies in turn risk dwindling membership, risk the prominence and popularity of other companies over their own, and risk prime theater space.

In 2014, FUSE did not perform in This Side of Princeton. Instead of conveying an alternative to dance companies like BodyHype and Disiac and BAC, the collective chose deliberately to showcase their work to the prospective freshmen through performing in an “alternative” 16ft x 16ft x 16ft cube performance space created by two students as an architecture project.

Although dance companies change artistic direction and choreography depending on who is in the company and choreographing the pieces, people choreograph with what Alex Quetell defines as a “passed literacy of dance style,” enforcing certain tropes and inspirations because they have been successful before. They can experiment, yes, but only so much.

All told, I am a member of a student dance group, BodyHype, and my perspective is thus biased. Through BodyHype I have been able to dance without having to sacrifice other academic classes in my course load, and have been able to perform and learn from my fellow students. I also have a perspective within the dance community that is skewed towards the student dance companies. However, I will still admit in this space that there is much to the structure of the dance community at Princeton that is flawed and artistically restrictive.

Like all art that is restricted by the market of what the public wants and why, student dance groups can only ever get so weird.

FUSE has attempted to be an agent of change, but ultimately FUSE is attempting to solve a far more systemic problem. If there were a space for more experimentation and freedom, there would be more diversity in the dance community, for art that can be allowed to exist without the pressure to be professional. The change is beginning, but it’s not yet enough. There is a stark division between the philosophies of the dance department and the dance companies, but FUSE cannot be the only one to close that gap.

“I hope that FUSE will continue to be a space for students who have something to say,” Casey Brown said in her closing comments. “Ultimately, you never know who is going to be touched, emboldened, or encouraged by your story. I hope that FUSE will be a space for students to tell their stories through dance the way they know those stories should be told.”

There is a picture of dancers in 1970 in front of Nassau Hall, a tangle of limbs in a large circle. One man is caught in a jump, suspended, his chest splayed out to the sky in a physical aubade. His hair is wild. The people in the circle are not trained dancers.

While this lack of structure and convention is less a product of a culture shift and more of Princeton’s previous lack of rehearsal space, it still resonates. Yet, Princeton is most problematic in enforcing the idea that art is only allowed to flourish if it runs like a business.

This is what is missing most at Princeton: art without competition, without restraint. For seeing the world as if we have just opened our eyes.