“If you’re finding tempo challenging, that’s totally normal,” Jill Johnson announces to her Wednesday Movement Lab. “Especially in our frenetic, really fast lives.” Students sit around Johnson in a semi-circle, watching dance clips projected on the screen behind her. A box of chocolates is passed around, but the students stay focused on the projection.
Johnson’s Movement Lab is one of many classes offered this year as part of Harvard’s newest concentration: Theater, Dance, and Media. The class aims to teach, practice, and research various styles of dance in an innovative and interactive environment. The “lab” component of the course consists of the students studying their own movement, including practical and creative analysis.
“I think this is at the core of the pedagogical mission of TDM, to integrate theory and practice,” Chair of the Department Martin Puchner says. Puchner, one of the main figures involved in the founding of the concentration, began planning the introduction of TDM five years ago. At that point, his committee, the Standing Committee on Dramatic Arts, brought in chairs from various established theater departments to learn from their experiences.
“We knew we were late to the game, but we thought there are advantages to that; we learn from the mistakes of others,” Puchner says.
Deborah Foster, TDM’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, also felt that Harvard was late to the party. “There are theater majors all over the country, why didn’t Harvard have one until now?” she asks.
Both students and administrators acknowledge the lack of precedent and established structure as potential drawbacks of a brand new concentration. “What we have to offer instead,” Puchner says, “is a very active involvement in shaping the concentration.” Student representatives sit in on TDM meetings and have the ability to influence everything from class offerings to performance styles.
“They’re open to our ideas, asking us about our ideas, trying to see how our ideas can work,” Derek P. Speedy ’18, a TDM concentrator, says. Foster calls TDM’s collaborative ethos “a concentration of energies.”
“TDM, since it’s a new thing and we’re the first class, has this exciting energy of newness and focus and attention that drew me in,” Samuel A. Hagen ’18, a joint concentrator in TDM and History of Art and Architecture with a secondary in Russian Studies, explains. “That exciting energy of something new at an old institution where people have been doing the same things the same way.”
Hagen, who originally planned on studying math or economics, decided to reroute his focus toward TDM this year. Since then, he helped found a TDM magazine, published biannually to cover all aspects of the concentration. The title of the magazine is still “up in the air,” according to a proposal Hagen presented to the TDM Committee, but possibilities include the standard, if unimaginative, “TDM Magazine” (other ideas include “Live Art” or “Performance”).
Unlike Hagen, Speedy entered Harvard knowing he would make theater a large part of his life. “I think Harvard taught me that theater is not just this abstract thing that is fun to do... It is a real concrete medium that has power to make people think,” Speedy says.
When comparing Harvard’s method with those of other schools, Speedy found he appreciated the concentration’s academic and practical approaches to theater. “Theater, Dance, and Media, I think, is Harvard’s way of saying we want this to be something different,” he says. “[TDM] can change and adapt and look at art in a way: intellectually, academically, that nobody else is doing right now.”
Similarly, Marisa N. Salatino ’18, an inactive Crimson Editorial Board Editor and joint concentrator in TDM and East Asian Studies with a secondary in Economics, says that TDM adds legitimacy to the arts at Harvard. “People involved are already very serious about the theater that they do,” she says, adding that TDM “could be seen as more pre-professional… as opposed to just extracurricular.”
It’s not all so serious, though. Johnson gets up in the middle of the Movement Lab to demonstrate “Gaga” movement, arms gesturing sweeping, stepping from side to side. “This predates the Lady,” she says.
Puchner believes that the growing emphasis on performing arts at Harvard will impact not only current concentrators, but also prospective applicants to the College. “There are a lot of students with an interest in theater, dance, and media who wouldn’t even apply to Harvard, because they knew that there was no concentration,” he explains.
For a certain group of potential students, the addition of TDM changes both Harvard’s image and its appeal. Lindsay T. McAuliffe, a incoming member of the Class of 2020, is certain she will concentrate in TDM. “I chose Harvard because it would allow me to immerse myself in my craft,” she explains, also noting the combination of theoretical and practical learning as a draw.
According to Puchner, incoming Harvard classes will include more and more art-focused students. “We’ve also talked to the admissions office to educate them and work with them to make sure that students interested in theater, dance, and media actually get admitted,” he says.
McAuliffe cites “the excitement and the possibility of being in the first or second class of such a new concentration” as a major benefit. As classes of students like McAuliffe come through Harvard, they bring with them an enthusiasm not only for performance, but also for the learning styles it promotes.
“The students gain a great deal by working in these different areas,” Puchner says. He notes that the recent educational trend of practice-based learning lies at the heart of TDM. Learning by doing, as Puchner puts it, is applicable to everything from the humanities to engineering.
Foster also comments on the importance of performance to the college as a whole. “Performing arts are so vivid and vibrant and–” her voice drops to a theatrical stage whisper, “ephemeral. They come and you have to remember them, you have to be a part of them and be present to witness them.”
As Johnson’s class shifts its focus from the monitor to Johnson herself, she mimics the clawing motion of the hands on the screen. In translating the material from the source to reality, Johnson points out the somewhat out of sync movements of the dancers the class is watching. “The delicacy of the little details of how people are different” are what makes the dance successful, she says.