Reprinted from Dance Studio Life Magazine, February 2014 issue, written by Rachel Berman
On a Friday evening in early autumn, 40 minutes east of New York City, Adelphi University’s dance studios are teeming with activity. Orion Duckstein, a former member of Paul Taylor Dance Company (1999–2010) and a full-time Adelphi faculty member, is choreographing a new work—a comedy—for the fall concert, “Dance Adelphi.”
The Taylor/Adelphi history reaches back six decades, when the modern-dance icon was finding his artistic voice. By passing on Taylor’s distinct movement style and rich legacy, Duckstein challenges his students to “learn from the great minds of the past and to go beyond them”—an Adelphi philosophy.
There is an easy camaraderie between Duckstein and his cast of 12 female students as they balance laughter with complete focus on the task at hand. The women—collaborators in his creative process—mimic the lush movements Duckstein’s body cuts through space, or offer variations at his prompting. The Taylor influence is easy to see in the way they initiate movement from their backs, move across the floor in a grounded sweeping style, and in the sly wit and humor of Duckstein’s work.
Now 83, Taylor—perhaps the greatest living pioneer of American modern dance—discovered dance while attending college on a swimming scholarship. After training with Martha Graham and others, he was chosen by Graham to be her partner; seven years later, he forged his own choreographic path. He has made 139 works since 1954 and shows no signs of slowing down.
Taylor’s work can be lyrical, athletic, humorous, satirical, or terrifying—often mixing elements of “dark” and “light” within one dance. He is an expert at holding up a mirror to the many facets of humanity and often does so in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.
Adelphi, a private university on a lush 75-acre campus on Long Island, has had a long and illustrious history, yet its dance department remains a hidden gem. Founded in 1938 by modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, it is one of the first American dance departments established outside of a physical education department.
Adelphi’s president at the time, Paul Dawson Eddy, whose wife studied with “Miss Ruth,” was intrigued by her idea of dance as an expression of spirituality. Eddy offered her a unique opportunity to train dancers in a variety of techniques and in her exotic stylings. The brochure announcing the department’s formation noted that joy would be “the keynote of all teaching.”
For more than 75 years, an amazing array of dance artists and educators has passed through the dance department’s doors, training and influencing generations of dancers and pushing them to advance the field. Jack Cole, Hanya Holm, Norman Walker, Carmen de Lavallade, and Paul Taylor are among the most notable. Taylor taught intermittently at Adelphi in 1962 to keep his fledgling company afloat. “We used to do it all in the old days,” he says, “choreograph, teach, perform.” His iconic solo, the heart of his groundbreaking dance, Aureole, was choreographed—via pencil and paper—while riding the Long Island Rail Road to Adelphi. “That was the only time I had to plan it out. I then re-created the positions I had drawn when I got into the studio.”
According to Duckstein, Taylor’s work is particularly suited to the Adelphi students. “We’re not focused on producing one version of one perfect dancer,” he says. “We’re invested in finding the best dancer inside each student. Paul’s work offers a lot of room for a dancer to invest their whole personality.”
Sasha Smith, a current senior Adelphi dancer, concurs. “What speaks to me about Taylor’s work is that it provides endless opportunities to project who I am through dance. Taylor’s work/class/style has extended into all aspects of how I dance by giving me a sense of foundation, grounding, and a place I know I can go to in order to feel present and alive while dancing. It also gives me a sense of belonging to an extensive modern-dance history and tradition.”
In 2008 the department began a new chapter in its history,opening a 53,000-square-foot Performing Arts Center comprised of state-of-the-art concert and recital halls, studios,classrooms, and offices—a far cry from its humble beginnings in the school gymnasium.
The exhibition and ceremonies that surrounded the PAC’s opening were held in tribute to Miss Ruth, commemorating the department’s 70th anniversary. That same year Adelphi awarded Taylor an honorary Doctor of Arts, almost 50 years after his teaching stint. Adelphi president Dr. Robert A. Scott, already one of PTDC’s greatest champions, became even more intrigued with the man behind the artistry while writing Taylor’s honorary citation. He was invited to join Taylor’s board of directors by the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation’s executive director, John Tomlinson, another Adelphi graduate.
With a revitalized Taylor relationship, the chair of the dance department, Frank Augustyn, began negotiations with Tomlinson to secure a Taylor work for his students. The result, a month-long residency by the six-member second company Taylor 2 in the fall of 2010, transformed Adelphi into a hub of Taylor activity.
Partially funded by the New York State Council on the Arts, the residency consisted of a restaging of Taylor’s 1975 Esplanade on the Adelphi students, master classes, open rehearsals, and outreach throughout the surrounding Long Island communities; it culminated in a performance by PTDC.
“I thought Taylor’s work would be a good fit for our students; I hadn’t even thought about a residency,” says Augustyn. “It turned out to be a wonderful and invaluable experience. Not only did our dancers perform a choreographic masterwork, they were able to interact with the Taylor 2 dancers and better understand what it takes to be a professional.”
Duckstein had joined the Adelphi faculty that same fall, mere weeks after his retirement from PTDC. In fact, because there were not enough male dancers to fill out the cast, he performed Esplanade alongside his students—an experience that formed a nice segue into academia, and, for his students, directly connected the Taylor legacy from classroom to stage.
“Being a part of Esplanade my freshman year,” says Smith, “gave me the desire to make all my dancing generate the same euphoric and energetic feeling.” Consequently she attended two Taylor summer intensives to further immerse herself in the repertoire.
In its current incarnation, the department has a core of three full-time faculty members, all with illustrious professional backgrounds. Augustyn danced for National Ballet of Canada, Catherine Denisot-Lawrence for Pina Bausch and Nederlands Dans Theater, and Duckstein for Taylor 2 and Paul Taylor Dance Company. Adjunct faculty members,most of them former professional dancers, teach Graham technique and Pilates, among other classes.
The department, with about 60 dance majors (of whom 11 will graduate this spring), is the perfect size, according to Augustyn. “We can go up to about 65 majors in total,but keeping class sizes small means we get to know our students and their needs.” Intimate class size is a selling point for students, says Smith, who adds that it allows professors “to push us past technique.”
Acceptance into the department is based on both a dance audition and academic record. The curriculum is a conservatory-level performance-based Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with daily classes in modern and classical ballet technique, plus choreography, improvisation, music, functional anatomy, and dance history, balanced with university-required academics. Electives are offered in partnering, pointe, and pas de deux. Duckstein also teaches a “how to audition” class.
Each semester, in addition to several concerts highlighting student choreography, a new theme is chosen for “Dance Adelphi,” which showcases work by both faculty and outside choreographers. The cast acts as a minidance company, readying for the concert. Over the years “Dance Adelphi” has presented choreography by, among
many others, St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Hans van Manen, Michel Fokine, Martha Graham, Jirí Kylián, and Taylor. Augustyn hopes to present work by Pina Bausch in the future.
This academic year, both guest works happen to be by PTDC alumni. In the fall David Parsons (PTDC 1978–1987) set his 2005 Wolfgang on the students, and in the spring Takehiro Ueyama (PTDC 1995–2003) will set his 2005 Sakura Sakura.
It is the human connections beyond the classroom that make Adelphi unique. Norman Walker directed the Adelphi dance department from 1972 to 2004,touching many lives, including those of two students, both Long Island natives, who went on to dance with PTDC.
Cathy McCann, a powerhouse of a Taylor dancer from 1979 to 1991, owes her career to Walker. “I was a commuter student, so I didn’t get much of the college experience. But it turned out to be the best place for me,” McCann says. “The connections I with my teachers established my whole career.” A few years after graduation, Walker made a call that got McCann into the invitation-only PTDC audition, where she was hired. In 1993 and ’94, she returned to Adelphi to teach master classes and choreograph on the students.
Another PTDC alum indebted to Walker is Maureen Mansfield (PTDC dancer 1997–2002). “I was lucky to be accepted into Adelphi on pure potential. Because I had only begun dancing a few months prior, I was told I would have to work very hard,” Mansfield says. “I was always pushed to be my best. It was a nurturing yet challenging environment.”
Coincidentally it was McCann who pegged Mansfield as a future Taylor dancer when she saw her perform. She and Parsons were guests in that same concert, in which they performed a duet from Taylor’s Runes. Walker passed the compliment on to Mansfield that night, changing her life.
An Adelphi education goes beyond the classroom, giving students the freedom to participate in internships and independent study. For example, Duckstein arranged for Smith to work two days a week in the PTDC fundraising department during her fall semester, where she learned about the inner workings of a nonprofit organization. “I feel like I have been connected not only to New York City, but also to the world through study-abroad intersessions,” she says. She’s referring to the study she and a small group of fellow students, primarily dance majors, did in Bangalore. For two and a half weeks in January 2013, they taught dance classes and participated in cultural exchanges with Indian dancers. This year she travels to Taiwan for a similar program.
The majority of the Adelphi dance students are from the New York tri-state area, though in the past few years the department has recruited aggressively in other states. Augustyn says that while the department’s curriculum and faculty have grown over the past decade, he wants it to retain a familial feel. Smith and many of her peers plan to move to New York City and pursue professional careers, following in the footsteps of alumni who have danced on Broadway or with companies such as the Joffrey Ballet, Eliot Feld, Merce Cunningham, Pilobolus, or PTDC. Though the Taylor connections run deep, Augustyn wants his students to have a broad experience with a variety of guest artists and styles of work throughout their four years. The goal: to give the students a well-balanced curriculum and connect them to the professional world.