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A Fiendish Conversation with UW Dance's Jennifer Salk

The director of the UW Dance department discusses the program's 50th anniversary and its 'Opening Doors' celebratory events.

By Seth Sommerfeld October 13, 2015

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UW has seen more than a few talented dancers pass through their program in the past 50 years, including MFA alums Ryan Corriston and Stephanie Liapis.

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Jennifer Salk

While it might not be exactly what one envisions when they think "dance party," few bashes can compete with the University of Washington’s Opening Doors: 50 Years of Dance at the UW. The anniversary celebration spans five days (October 16–20) and includes performances, classes, panel discussions with alums, film screenings, and more. If you’ve never checked out the artistry of UW dance, now’s the perfect chance as the festivities are open to the public and many events are free.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to UW's dance program director Jennifer Salk about the highlights of Opening Doors, the strengths of UW's program, and Seattle as a dance hub.

How would you assess Seattle as a dance city, and how does UW fit into that?

I think Seattle has become a hub for dance. What I hear from my friends who teach at Velocity and other places is that every week there are new people coming to town to be dancers. They’re either leaving New York cause they can’t keep up there anymore—it’s just too hard to be there—or they’re moving from other places around the country to live in Seattle and be a dance artist. That’s one thing that I’m really feeling, which is very exciting.

And then in terms of UW, I would have to say that on an individual level that each faculty member does things in the [dance] community on their own. There’s a lot of people doing individual projects. One of our professors, Juliet McMains is very into social dance forms. So she’s out in the community almost every night dancing—tango mostly right now—but she’s in the community. People are often choreographing on people in town, or just doing work with people. For me, I was on the board at Velocity for a long time, and I do a lot of supporting them and On the Boards. So things like that and moderating discussions when people ask me to help do them just for fun.

But what I’m noticing, and I even put this in my letter in the program that we’re publishing for the 50th, when I go to events at Velocity or On the Boards, I see our dancers everywhere. They’re interning. They’re working at the door. They’re pouring wine. They’re performing They’re choreographing. And I’m always so… I’m not surprised, but it’s sort of amazing. Tonya Lockyer from Velocity and I were laughing because sometimes people just assume everybody comes from Cornish, and it’s not true. [Laughs] There are a lot of our alums out in the community making dance and performing and supporting the organizations in town, and it’s really cool to see.

I’m always worried about how we appear here. Are we visible enough and do we have open doors? Do we appear like the ivory tower? We invite a lot of guests and we have a lot of people we hire from the community to teach in our department, but I think no matter how much you do, there might always be somebody saying something negative. And I’m always trying to figure out, how do we navigate that? How do we do our work here for our students and serve our students, but also be apart of the community? I think it’s kind of a never-ending challenge.

What do you think are the strengths of the UW Dance program?

Well, one of the strengths is our students. We have a BA and a MFA. And, as you probably know, it’s hard to get into UW academically, so the BA students come here with a very high level of intellectual capacity. What I have found really exciting is the kinds of discussions that we have in this department are rich and very deep because these students are often double majoring in things like anthropology or biology or women’s studies. So they bring those things to the table with us. So that’s one thing that a lot of people overlook it, and I think it makes it very exciting to teach here. It keeps you on your toes.

We also have a really diverse curriculum. We have a huge social dance curriculum. We have a musical theater program with the school of music and the school of drama; it’s a pilot program in its third year. Next year we’ll be starting a street style curriculum. There’s diversity of both intellectual rigor and physical rigor. Even though we teach dance students as if they’re gonna go off and perform and choreograph and be dance artists, what we’re really doing—not to sound cliché—is hopefully training people to be good citizens of the world regardless of if they dance in the future or not.

And then the MFA is a leading MFA in the country. It’s for people who are mature artists—who have had at least eight years of professional experience as a dancer at a very high level. So they come from really renowned companies from all over the world. And they’re working on training to teach in a tenure track position and higher education. So we only take three people a year. They tend to be between the ages of about 32 and 50, and they’re fully paid for with a tuition labor and a stipend. So they’re TAs, and they teach the whole time they’re here. And they learn how to work at a university, and there’s a very, very, very high grade of employment. And so having them here is another strength, because they’re contemporary artists teaching our students and it’s incredible to have their energy here. It’s a gift.

What are you personally looking forward to most with regards to Opening Doors?

What I’m looking forward to the most is watching people interact with each other, because I think what I’m getting from a lot of the alums is they can’t wait to meet people they’ve been hearing about for years. And the people who went to school together also can’t wait to see each other. Watching people meet each other and figure out connections or see each other again. I know all the events themselves are going to be interesting and stimulating and fun, so I think it’s more the broader picture of having everyone here.

As far as the Opening Doors events go, which do you think might be of most interest to the public audience?

One thing in particular that I think would be of interest to people is a panel that’s happening on Saturday, October 17th at 11:15am in studio 267 at Meany Hall. The panel includes some really kind of amazing people who are in Seattle: Ronald Moore, Andrea Woody, and Renee Conroy. Professor Moore from the philosophy department here at UW is sort of a legend on campus, our students adore taking his class and also learn a lot from watching how he teaches. Andrea Woody is also a professor here in the philosophy department, and she teaches in our program. And Renee is an alum and PhD. The three of them are doing a panel that’s called “Thinking Through Dance Art.”

There’s a Dance for the Camera screening on Friday, October 16th at 7:30pm in Kane Hall 210. That is a really interesting Dance for the Camera screening with some award-winning filmmakers, and that’s free. People can just register for that online.

And of course Chamber Dance Company—which is having its 25th anniversary—is performing Thursday through Sunday at Meany Hall, and those are ticketed events. That’s a few things. I could go on and on. There’s just kind of nonstop fun.

Opening Doors: Celebrating 50 Years of Dance at UW
Oct 16–20, University of Washington, Free–$22

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