Johnson Melds Dance and Harvard Academia

In her sparkling white-walled office at the Harvard Dance Center, Jill Johnson described the study of épaulement: the placement of the torso and arms in classical ballet technique. “It alarms me that classical ballet technique is so often portrayed as a dogmatic practice,” she said as she gracefully rotated her shoulders in demonstration. “Épaulement is a demonstration of tremendously beautiful balanced and torqued configurations within the body. [They] can be translated, transposed and taken apart ... quite like those alignments found in the structures of architecture—or philosophy, or math, or science,” she said.

This compelling description of épaulement is fitting evidence of the artistic perspective that Jill Johnson has to offer Harvard’s community. Appointed by the Office for the Arts at Harvard, Johnson succeeds Elizabeth Weil Bergmann as the new Harvard University Dance Director. Her career is prolific: a school graduate and former soloist with the National Ballet of Canada, Johnson went on to become a principal dancer with Frankfurt Ballet—the company of William Forsythe, one of today’s most renowned contemporary ballet choreographers. Johnson’s decade-long career in Forsythe’s company transformed into a 20-year collaboration, and she continues to stage Forsythe’s work for companies around the world.

Johnson is also a choreographer and teacher in her own right, balancing a dance career between the worlds of professional dance and academia. She worked with dancers at Princeton University, Yale University, The Julliard School, The Alvin Ailey School, and The Joffrey Ballet School, among many others, before accepting her new position at Harvard. “I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility for my art form,” she said, “and Harvard presented, amongst many things, an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to dance education.”

One of Johnson’s first priorities as Dance Director is to open up the Harvard Dance Program to a more global approach to dance education. “I hope to have guest artists from all over the world, including Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Desmond Richardson, Dwight Rhoden, Andrea Miller, and Mikko Nissinen,” she said. Johnson’s first guest artist is Danielle Agami, an Israeli dancer and choreographer who will give a master class on September 9 on Gaga technique, a dance form developed by Israeli contemporary choreographer Ohad Naharin. “I’ve quickly learned we must delineate this Gaga from the Lady, whom we love—albeit in terms of a different kind of artistic expression,” Johnson said with a laugh.

Johnson hopes to extend these projects to the greater Boston community as well. She plans to bring Ronald K. Brown—the choreographer of the American Repertory Theater’s (A.R.T.) current production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess”—for a master class open to both Harvard students and high school students involved with the A.R.T.

In addition to leading these collaborations as Dance Director, Johnson will also facilitate interaction between Harvard’s Dance and Music departments as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music. “Dance and music are natural allies,” said Alexander Rehding, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department. “Musicians study ballets through scores, and dancers study ballets through the choreography. It will be nice for our departments to study both aspects of the dance together ... Jill could not have come at a better time,” Rehding said. As Senior Lecturer, Johnson will be teaching two courses. This fall, she will be leading Music 105r: “Fundamentals of Improvisation and Composition: Dance,” a class about dance improvisation that will include input from jazz colleagues who will present fundamentals of their own musical improvisation. In the spring, she will teach Music 103r: “Dance Workshop Process: Forsythe.” This spring course will be an in-depth study of Forsythe’s work, ‘One Flat Thing, reproduced,’ and will culminate in her choreography of an original work. “I’d like to bring a spirit of curiosity to my classes—dancing is about ideas,” Johnson said.

Through both the Harvard Dance and Music departments, Johnson aims to integrate her expertise from the professional dance world with the wealth of resources at a research university. “Often, I get the sense that arts education is still seen as separate from education,” she said, “and I would love for there to be a time when the distinction is no longer apparent. We will uphold and develop the performance aspect of dance, but in terms of dance history and other artistic research, we can tap into the abundance of Harvard’s resources to explore an entirely different facet of dance learning,” she continued.

Whether it be choreographic work, musical collaboration, or archiving dancers’ stories, Jill Johnson looks to what she calls “the points of connection” where academic and professional artistic life collide. “It is citizenship that is really needed in dance, not perfection,” she said. “I think the time is past for dancers to be partitioned behind the techniques in which they have been trained. It is just a great time to have conversations.”

—Staff writer Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at abotelho@college.harvard.edu.

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