Lauren Halversen, Nathan Balser, and Kate Monson talk about dancing with members of the NW Dance Project and about making mistakes
With a focus on pushing the frontiers of contemporary dance, Portland-based dance company NW Dance Project is one of the premier groups pioneering new choreography and methods in the American contemporary dance scene. BYU dance students and faculty were excited to learn from the company’s innovative approach to current dance trends in a masterclass with members of the ensemble during their recent campus visit.
“The professors in the contemporary area have a philosophy that we want to model for our students,” said contemporary dance professor Kate Monson. “Taking opportunities to learn from different sources is really important. That includes a physical embodiment and not just watching.”
The masterclass — which had BYU dance students and faculty learning some of the choreography that the dance company would perform in their campus concert — was a perfect opportunity for Monson and fellow contemporary dance professor Nathan Balser to practice what they preach. The professors danced alongside their students and other faculty, learning and making mistakes with them.
“We’ve been talking a lot about the philosophy of failing and helping our students understand that it’s okay to fail,” said Balser.
Even as a professor, Balser still feels the pressure to perform and look good in front of his students.
“I have this fight with myself,” he said. “It needs to look good. But at the same time, what’s most important? The most important thing is showing that I can take risks and demonstrating that I’m willing to fail. So what if I go out there and I fall? I’m telling my students I want them to do it, so I need to be willing to put myself out there too. It’s not easy.”
“There is this trap that you can fall into as a professor,” Monson added. “There’s so much pressure to appear as if you are perfect and that you’re the master of everything that you teach, and that can actually shut down what we value here at BYU, which is lifelong learning. As soon as you decide you can’t show your flaws and you have to hide the things that are less mastered in your body, the quicker you stop learning. I’m not interested in that. I want to keep growing and understanding.”
The members of the NW Dance Project encouraged masterclass participants to allow themselves to make mistakes, teaching that dancers need to push themselves in order to learn. This environment of mistake-making and testing made the masterclass a unique experience for Lauren Halversen, one of the participating dance students who focuses her studies on ballet.
Halversen loves that ballet encourages discipline and grace under pressure, but this pursuit of control can color a dancer’s view of mistakes. While mistakes are permitted in class, Halversen said, they are often seen as failures to be fixed so the dancer can perform as their “best self.” This mentality doesn’t flow with the NW Dance Project’s view that making mistakes is part of the essence of dancing. Halversen learned and grew from this tension between ideologies.
“We all want to do our best in these masterclasses,” she said. “You want to get the most out of the class and we all want to show NW Dance Project that we value them coming here by putting forth our best. With this all going on, we can get in our heads and and set ourselves up for failure thinking, ‘I can’t make any mistakes.’ I’ve been trying to integrate the philosophy that mistakes don’t mean failure. When you stay in the comfort zone of your technique or your artistry, you’re not progressing.”
The BRAVO! Series offers masterclasses as part of the professional performing arts series.