Cultivating the Next Generation of Arts Leaders

Dancers on stage at the James and Martha Duffy Performance Space. (Christopher Setter)

The lights come up and six dancers in silhouette march across the stage to the beat of the music. Their movements are confident and sharply choreographed, sweeping through the James and Martha Duffy Performance Space at the Mark Morris Dance Center to the applause of a full house, but this isn’t the world-renowned Mark Morris Dance Group performing – the performers are teens of the Arts Immersion program.

What is Arts Immersion? It’s a tuition-free, nine-month program in which students ages 13-18 delve deeply into all aspects of arts administration and production in addition to dance performance.

“This is a program which gives you that opportunity to grow a lot as a dancer, choreographer, and overall as an artist, and it really cultivates your creativity,” says Mengwe Wapimewah, a 2018-19 Arts Immersion student.

Twenty participants are selected by written application and letters of recommendation at the beginning of the school year. Throughout the fall semester, they meet in a weekly class led by Teaching Artists Calvin A. Rollins II and Nicole Restani. In the spring semester, participants meet for an additional Saturday rehearsal as they prepare for their final show that is student-driven, created, and produced.

Calvin and Nicole have both worked as Teaching Artists in the program since its inception in 2015. Calvin wants students “to gain the confidence to become leaders within their peer group.” Activities such as “choreographing, joining committees for their show, and teaching opportunities help to shape their own experiences” in Arts Immersion. As Teaching Artists, Calvin and Nicole “present [students] with as many resources as they need to add to these experiences.” Calvin encourages “both new and returning students to try something new within the program and to bring themselves to the process.”

Calvin A. Rollins II leads students in class. (Prince Lang)

Nicole notes that the Arts Immersion students "get to know [Calvin and me] well and they get to know each other even better, building a foundation for trust, as creating art can be a vulnerable task." Over time, the students learn to take the lead and the Teaching Artists are there to keep them on track. "I hope that the students gain a better understanding of their world, and more importantly of themselves and their own artistic voices," Nicole says.

The Teaching Artists lead students in classes about dance education and composition in addition to modern dance technique. These classes are supplemented by workshops related to professional life in the dance field, using the Mark Morris Dance Group as a model. Current and former MMDG dancers and staff from administrative departments (company management and general management, development, finance, marketing, operations) introduce students to their respective areas of focus. Students then take what they’ve learned about the show production process, including choreography, costuming, event production, lighting design, and marketing, as they collaborate to create their final concert.

Students discuss their ideas with Mark Morris Dance Group staff. (Prince Lang)

“This free program teaches students how to create their own show, yes, but it simultaneously develops their critical thinking skills, understanding of operations at a major cultural organization that they can apply to any job, and provides a space where, socially and emotionally, they can grow from teens to young adults,” says Alex Cook, Community Programs Director of the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Providing meaningful artistic and educational experience for students with a range of interests, this program importantly does not require an advanced technical background in dance. Some participants have been particularly drawn to the opportunity to choreograph, whereas others find their strength in the administrative work introduced in the program. Students grow from the process of working together in both leading and supporting roles.

“There are definitely so many components in [Arts Immersion],” says Angelique Pompee, a 2018-19 participant. “You can’t just call it a modern dance program. We’re actually learning from people who are working for a nonprofit dance company, and you’re putting yourself out there, not just as a dancer, but as a learner and a teacher.”

Applications are open now through October 4 for the 2019-20 Arts Immersion program. Visit our website or contact Alex Cook, Community Programs Director for more information.

This free program is made possible with support from The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation.


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