Assistant Professor Molly Heller at the Yard

06 June 2018 Published in News and Announcements
Photo by Joanna Kotze Photo by Joanna Kotze

An invitation to visit The Yard is a distinct honor for choreographers and dancers. Established by choreographer/philanthropist Patricia N. Nanon in 1973, The Yard is a unique incubator for work by contemporary artists, now directed by David R. White, Alison Manning, and Jesse Keller Jason.

This summer Assistant Professor Molly Heller was invited to work with choreographer Joanna Kotze, who was selected as one of The Yard’s 2018 Schonberg Fellows and given three weeks of time to create and explore. Schonberg Fellows are invited by Yard staff, meaning there's no formal application process. Getting asked to come to The Yard is both a testament to the caliber of an artist’s work and an opportunity to delve more deeply into a theme or practice, away from the hustle and bustle of familiar settings.

“On average, we work about 5 hours a day in the studio,” says Heller during a phone interview on May 31. “The setting is peaceful and relaxed, but people are here to do the work. It’s very communal, so I'm getting to know Joanna and the other artists on a level that’s different from being in New York City making a piece. There’s also a choreographic mentor, David Brick, who watches rehearsals and talks about the work. You couldn’t replicate this environment in Salt Lake City, and three weeks is allowing us to explore different ways of practicing in this concentrated residency.” 

For Kotze, being selected as a Schonberg Fellow adds one more accolade to a long list of invitations to teach, choreograph, tour, and participate in some of the world’s most prestigious residencies. Prior to coming to The Yard in May, Kotze had been in Italy for a residency with The Bogliasco Foundation. Prior to that residency, she presented an acclaimed season at New York Live Arts in March. In her own words, Kotze has said, “I started showing my own work in New York in 2009 after being a dancer [in other choreographers’ projects] since 1998. It has been non-stop since then creating new work, touring, commissions on other companies, residencies, teaching, and dancing in other choreographers’ work.”

Originally from South Africa, Kotze studied architecture as an undergraduate at Miami University. In her choreographic work, there’s a refined attention to structure and forces. I remember seeing her perform in the early 2000s when she was in the company of Wally Cardona (who will be teaching this summer at Salt Dance Fest). Like Cardona, Kotze has made a reputation as a phenomenally facile performer. She danced for Cardona for a decade before pursuing her own projects and won the 2013 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for emerging choreographer. In a recent review by Gus Solomons (who was also an architecture major before joining the company of Merce Cunningham), Kotze’s choreography was described as “kinetic art” with “complex but distinctly clear design.” Describing Kotze herself, Solomons wrote, “Her body is a miracle of articulation; every motion etches itself in space.” 

Two themes seem to percolate through Kotze’s projects: the first is an interest in interdisciplinarity and the second is curiosity about sociality and change. For the NYLA season, her performance was entitled “What we will be like when we get there.” She said the questions that motivated the project were, “How do we inhabit space together? And how do we continually create change?”

Heller says that she’s grateful for this dedicated, focused time to work with Kotze: “Her work challenges my physical capacity. It’s very, very physical work, but it feels healthy to be in my body in this way and to be alive my skin. I appreciate the space and time this residency carves out for me to focus on my physical and performance practices." 

Asked how she initially connected with Kotze, Heller says, “I know Joanna through Netta Yerushalmy, who I worked with, and Joanna and Netta have worked together as well. Joanna also danced for Daniel Charon and was commissioned by Daniel to do a piece for Ririe-Woodbury, and that’s where she and I officially met in 2016. I suggested that she teach for SaltDanceFest in 2017, and took one of her performance practice classes during that summer. She mentioned that it would be great to work together. A few months later, I got an email from her telling me about The Yard.”

According to Heller, some of the benefits of this residency are “obvious” like “concentrated time” and this “unique atmosphere.” Although there’s a public performance of Kotze’s work performed by Kotze, Heller, and Maya Lee-Parritz, on June 7th and 9th, Heller says that her highlights have been in more personal discoveries: “I believe that your environment and geography affect your aesthetic choices and the decisions your body makes, so being here has influenced my movement choices and they seem to be different from what I would do in Salt Lake City. It’s also good for any artist to get out of a familiar setting and to expose one's self to new ways of moving. Even a diverse program like the U has a distinct feeling to it, so when you travel you notice things differently.”

Located in Martha’s Vineyard in a town called Chilmark (population: less than 900-year round residents), The Yard gives artists gorgeous beach settings and an eerily familiar view: Chilmark is home to the Menemsha fishing village, which was transformed into the fictional town of “Amity Island” for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. When I asked Molly if she recognized the village she exclaimed, “Oh my god! I was literally on that beach and thought, ‘This looks so familiar.’ ”

Asked how her experiences at The Yard will inform her own research and teaching at the U, Heller says, “My approach to making dances is rooted in emergence - where structure and meaning emerge over time, rather than beginning with a specific concept. Joanna works similarly, so I feel like we’re in alignment within our processes and I can enter into her ways of working with no set expectations. This gives me conviction about how I've been working (as Salt Lake can be isolating) and what I’m interested in. I also appreciate her attention to space and timing structures. Being able to watch her body move (which is amazing) impacts my own decision-making in the moment. This then influences and challenges my movement choices. It’s an opportunity to get outside of myself and my habits, and to not have to be the leader or the teacher. Getting to be a dancer in someone else’s work gives me further information about how I want to conduct rehearsal or take care of bodies in space. Ultimately this experience is pushing the rigor of my body and lets me believe again that my body is capable of doing the things I might want it to do. That’s enlivening and will inform my classes with a new energy and dimension.”  

By School of Dance Assistant Professor Kate Mattingly