Jan Erkert in conversation with Maura Donohue

Jan Erkert, Head of the Department of Dance at the University of Illinois, spoke with Maura Donohue, former editor of Critical Correspondence's University Project and Assistant Professor at Hunter College/CUNY, about recent pedagogical shifts in the curriculum at the University of Illinois, where they have begun applying the idea of "community as curriculum".

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Interview Date: February 5, 2014

Erkert: I wanted to share some of the changes and experiments we’ve been working on after having read the recent Critical Correspondence interviews with ASU faculty Karen Schupp and Simon Dove. I have really valued the ways they have shifted our thinking about dance curriculum and feel their conversations have been instrumental to fueling our conversations.  I came to Illinois eight years ago and at that time we also had an influx of new faculty - Jennifer Monson, Tere O’Connor and Kirstie Simson. They joined a very vibrant group of faculty – Sara Hook, (see my interview with her in 2009), Cynthia Oliver, Linda Lehovec, Renee Wadleigh, John Toenjes, Becky Nettl-Fiol, Philip Johnston . Together we have been wrestling with how to shape a dance curriculum for the 21st century.   Sara Hook as MFA Director  and Linda Lehovec as BFA Director led us through a process that allowed us to experiment with curricular changes and continually assess how these changes were working.  I’ve also been serving as a National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD) On-Site Visitor for accreditation and have been looking at a many dance programs across the country. Traveling and seeing what’s happening elsewhere has provided me a larger perspective.

Donohue: What are the changes you’re seeing?

Erkert: Dance in Higher Education has been moving beyond the somewhat generic programs of the 1950s.  Most dance curriculums were highly influenced by ideas coming from Margaret H’Doubler, Hanya Holm and other similar philosophical constructs at that time. There was a standard blueprint for dance curriculum that did not change much over the first fifty years. Today, each program is starting to shape unique curriculums custom made for their own communities. It’s not one size fits all anymore. There are different points of view and different approaches.

Donohue: Are there specific examples of this?

Erkert: I’ve been following Simon’s work at ASU and his emphasis on designing curriculums for the creative artist.  I think they boldly struck  down the traditional pillars of modern dance and ballet as the base for technique. We’re discussing this at Illinois as well but since we are in a small town with little access to faculty with expertise in various forms, we have to take a more strategic, long term approach. I imagine 20 years from now things will be more pluralistic and more multidimensional across the entire country, but it will take time.

Donohue: What are some of the curriculum shifts you’ve been working on?

Erkert: I think curriculums for the new millennium will have to respond to our ever-changing world where the Internet moves fast, multiple theoretical lenses challenge the canon of knowledge, and community shapes knowledge. We are clearly moving away from the metaphor of the vertical tree of learning and in desperate need of a horizontal image to guide us.  I became interested in the Rhizomatic Education theory proposed by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The image of a Rhizome shifts our thinking to a horizontal model where there’s no fixed center. Twenty-first century learning is about multiple entry and exit points and a map that is always changing. David Cormier, who writes from the perspective of technology, posits the “community as curriculum”.   This really struck me, because at Illinois we have an extraordinary faculty who were not able to teach what they loved, because they had to teach the curriculum.

So, we’ve been wondering, how can our community be the curriculum?   If our faculty were to become the curriculum we realized we would have to let go of several operating beliefs.  We had to let go of our perceived responsibility to teach a cannon of information (students must know Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, etc.) which begs the question: who decides on the cannon anyway? We had to let go of the idea of sequencing—the idea that there is a linear and logical path in the acquisition of knowledge or creativity—and we had to agree that we couldn’t teach everything, it’s way too big.

Donohue: We’re definitely negotiating with that relationship to cannon as a public, NYC college. How important is the cannon to our students’ lives and experiences in the world?  There’s only so much time in a semester, if we focus on something that’s been marginalized something else has to go.

Erkert: Right, so for us “something else has to go” was our attachment to sequencing, cannon and content. We went about a process we called “sliding”—we agreed that every change was experimental and incremental and that all would have a voice in assessment and development.  So we’ve been “sliding” into new curriculum instead of jumping.  This process of incremental experimentation allowed us to assess the real impact on students, and it allowed us to get their input.    It was messy, chaotic, and confusing, but I think ultimately good in retrospect.  What if we let go of the idea of sequencing in the creative courses?  We agreed that all students would take Choreographic Process I as an introduction, but rather than taking CP 2, 3, and 4, we changed the rules so the students had to have three additional Choreographic Process II courses.  This way, students could select an area of interest.   Rather than a faculty member having to “teach Level 2” and wrestle with what comes second in Choreography pedagogy, the faculty member teaches their area of choreographic interests. So Rene Wadleigh could teach dance for camera or Tere O’Connor could teach choreographic structures.  In this way, the community became the curriculum.  The faculty member does not have to teach “Theme & Variation” because that has been chosen as a CPII concept.  In this approach, the faculty member can bring their research into the classroom, and the students can choose which course fits their interests.  For those with a technology interest, they can take John Toenjes’ Choreographic Process class that explores interactive technology.  This has been very successful for both faculty and students, allowing faculty and student research to be at the forefront of the learning.

Donohue: Where did it not work?

Erkert: We have tried various experiments in technique, which have not been as successful.  We questioned the idea of leveling technique. At one point we discussed not having any levels, but most faculty argued that students do “progress” and having levels is advantageous to deepening their skills. So we tried to enhance student agency by letting students decide which level they would enroll in. All entering students would have Technique 1 and get some basic skills, but at the Intermediate/Advanced level, we allowed students to choose.  We wanted them to make the choice about studying with a particular teacher.   Most students didn’t do well with making this decision, they simply put themselves in the more advanced class, or stayed with their friends.   It was very frustrating because they didn’t make the hard choice for themselves.  Many students reported back that they didn’t like NOT having a “goal.”    Sometimes the students need to deal with the hard reality of not being ready and we also had safety concerns in classes too advanced for their skills.  So we recently reinstated level placement.  However, this led to another experiment in technique.  We are creating intensive blocks five days a week with one teacher for five weeks—there are three teachers in a term and they range in approaches to physical practice from improvisation to African to hip hop.   This seems to be working better for our community and increasing their physical capacities.  It’s a constant conversation!

Donohue: Right, we’ve had conversations each semester when we get to placements about who is teaching any given level, which defines more than the level number. So, how do you work around the breadth versus depth question in your curriculum?

Erkert: If you let go of some curricular pillars like sequencing, cannon, and content, you have to find something else to create the architecture for the curriculum.  So we’ve established five learning domains: context (contextualize student experiences whether in technique, anatomy, history, or theory—what surrounds the work in the world?), inquiry (the ability to ask the right questions is critical to the classroom), reflection (accessing the internal body, the internal thought, being able to know self), student agency (taking ownership of one’s learning) and synthesis (great thinkers/artists understand how to put things together in unusual ways.  The ability to synthesize is core to becoming an artist). These five domains have become the core to the curriculum and where we look to for depth.  Breadth is a bit more random, driven by student choice and the various opportunities that come about each year.

Donohue: Those make so much sense. Inquiry and reflection feel really important in the development of agency.

Erkert: We also are focusing on Project-based/Collaborative learning. It’s so big in elementary education.

Donohue: Exactly, it’s the basis of my children’s schooling, but it seems to die out later.

Jan Erkert First choice modified

Erkert: Yes, we have been trying to bring back the basic concepts of project-based work, which is based in Dewey philosophy, into our curriculum.  For instance, Jennifer Monson led a Choreographic Process II class with the idea of creating a work as a collaborative team.  This was performed in one of our concerts.  While this might just look like a repertory class, we ask the choreographers to be very transparent and collaborative about creative choices, so students are learning by working along with the teacher.   Last Semester, Tere O’Conner’s class created a piece together – not so much for the end goal of performing in a concert, but more for the experience of making together and experiencing the choreographic questions as they were revealing themselves in the process.

Donohue: That’s a model I’d love to see more of; it’s experiential learning, teaching by doing. I love our guest artists, but dropping in to set Rep in 6 weeks, often on students unknown to you, doesn’t set up the students for a deep connection to the artist or the idea of process.

Erkert: Right, several years ago Sahar Azimi, a guest artist from Israel, came in for a whole semester. Students created a piece with him in a Choreographic Process class during spring semester and then performed it in the fall. This gave them time to deepen their relationship to the work and own the work after Sahar left.

We are now wrestling with the idea of interdisciplinarity and what that means:  Students want double majors, the university wants us to collaborate, but we are all so immersed in our heavy curriculum that there is no space for students to seek out learning in other fields. We’re working on developing a new BA in response to this issue (right now we only have a BFA & MFA).  The traditional BA (again from the 50s) is thought of as a liberal arts training and the BFA as the development of professional skills for the field. In programs with BAs and BFAs this creates a two tiered program—the BFA is the advanced degree for dancers with higher level skills (generally technical skills) and the BA is the default for students who can’t make it into the BFA.  We are proposing a flip of this system by auditioning everyone into the program at the BFA level, as we do now.  The BA will be a “choice” degree for those students who want to pursue a dual major, or a focused area of interest.   So, rather than creating a two-tiered community, we will open the curriculum up to more interdisciplinary study for those who choose this path.  The proposal is at the University curriculum committee right now and there are already questions about how this is not typical.

Donohue: And, what about your MFA?

Erkert: MFA Director, Sara Hook, led the MFA committee members - Tere O’Connor, Cynthia Oliver, Jennifer Monson, and Renee Wadleigh through a curricular review of our MFA.  Most MFA programs tend to be bigger BFA programs—the same thing, but more advanced. We wanted to centralize the MFA around the learning domain of Synthesis. Our graduate students have been in the field and are coming back after or in the midst of professional careers, so we wanted to work from their questions versus us teaching them a subject.  The core of the curriculum revolves around what we call the POD, also known as Synthesis.  The POD is always taught collaboratively by at least two teachers, generally with expertise in different subjects such as theory and choreographic process, or pedagogy and physical practice.  We plan on trying different fields in the future, such as Landscape Architecture and Choreography, etc.

Most artists are working in a multiplicity of actions—teaching, performing, and creating— and they’re constantly synthesizing ideas as they work.  With companies folding and the choreographic master-model diminishing in the face of collaborative relationships, we wanted to create a classroom space that better modeled these changing realities. The Synthesis course asks students to come to the class with their questions and faculty and students will explore them together. If the particular semester has a faculty expert in choreographic process and theory, the faculty members might suggest books for joint reading.  The students and faculty read, make work, discuss and critique. So, inquiry and synthesis are embedded in their work.   This model also helped us promote the idea that every subject is worthy of more than one point of view.  Dance faculties are often small, and it is important that students understand that there are multiple viewpoints to any one subject.

Donohue: How do you negotiate workloads with collaborative courses?

Erkert: It was actually fairly simple. Two teachers are assigned the course which meets four days a week.  For instance, Cynthia Oliver, who taught theory two days a week, and Tere O’Conner, who taught Choreographic Process two days a week, joined forces. This appears to be twice the work, but it actually allowed them to be more fluid with the course.  The students could meet for three weeks on their own, followed by an intensive three weeks with the faculty.

One of our concerns is creating faculty leave time for research.  This model provides flexibility of scheduling and hopefully enhances their abilities to conduct research outside the university.   Of course, there have been many challenges as well.  The teachers have to work out ideas in front of the students - who talks, who leads?  This not knowing moved teachers out of their comfort zones. We also learned that some faculty are better at collaborative teaching situations than others, so we are learning where/when it works and where/when it doesn’t.   The students reported back  that while they valued this new model, they also missed the discrete courses.  So, now, one semester is Synthesis and one semester we offer discrete courses – Theory, Choreographic Process, etc.  It seems to be our process—to push the limits and then re-balance and pull back a bit.

Donohue: Are there other logistical concerns?

Erkert: The looseness of the structure was a bit overwhelming at first, so faculty looked toward the learning domains and the program objectives to provide structure.  We decided the objectives of courses would be the same as the objectives for the program: students must be able to write, talk, make, perform, and synthesize ideas. This was concrete and provided some obvious outcomes.  An unexpected outcome has been explosions of collaborative projects between students and faculty. Students are using faculty as dancers, and vice versa.  Several Faculty and graduate students presented a concert together at La Mama Moves in NYC. Last summer, the graduate students went to Colombia where they presented an evening length work.  Because they had been in the POD, they very quickly created a very dynamic piece together.

Last year, the faculty created an evening length work for our annual concert. Instead of the usual five dance repertory show, every faculty would participate in creating an evening-length work on a group of students.  Inspired by Tere O’Conner’s idea about “wrecking a dance”, we agreed that each choreographer would come in for one week and add to, expand, wreck, or rearrange the work of the previous artist. It was messy and chaotic but in the end we created an hour-length work that was very exciting.  The ownership of the students in the work was incredible—it was their work.  Had we not tried these other experiments, we would have never been able to do this. The designers were at a loss at first because they are used to responding to a text, dance, or one person’s aesthetic sensibilities, but his process gave them freedom and they produced some fabulous work.

Donohue: This has been so heartening to hear about your experiments. It’s a wonderful example of curriculum as creative process and a program that’s bursting with innovative approaches and modeled values through practice. It’s very much a thinking person’s dance program. Responsive to the shifting field, but not reactionary.

Erkert: It has been a slow and evolving process, so it has been hard to articulate the changes until now. I think many more shifts will come as we settle into some of our curricular changes and receive feedback from our students. Again, the credit goes to the whole faculty—it’s been a collective process of thought.


 Jan Erkert is the Head of the Department of Dance at University of Illinois.  As Artistic Director of Jan Erkert & Dancers from 1979 – 2000, she created over 70 works, which toured nationally and internationally.  Ms. Erkert and company have been honored with numerous awards including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Ruth Page Awards for choreography and performance.  She has received a Fulbright Scholar Award and is currently serving on the Fulbright Review Panel. She authored Harnessing the Wind: The Art of Teaching Modern Dance, which was published in 2003 and she has been a master teacher at universities and colleges throughout the United States, Mexico, Europe and Asia.  As a professor of dance at Columbia College Chicago from 1990-2006, she garnered many awards including the 1999 Excellence in Teaching Award, and a nominee for the U.S. Professor of the Year sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation.  She currently serves on the Commission for Accreditation for National Association for Schools of Dance, and serves as on on-site visitor for accreditation. 


Maura Nguyen Donohue is a NYC-based choreographer/performer, writer, and educator. Since 1994, she has shown her work in NY at Dance Theater Workshop (now NYLA), PS122, Danspace Project, La Mama, Chen Dance Center, BRIC, and other venues. With her troupe InMixedCompany, she toured works extensively across the US and to Canada, Europe and Asia. She was guest editor for Critical Correspondence's University Project in 08-09, writes for Culturebot, serves on the Artist Advisory Board for Movement Research and the NY Dance and Performance (Bessies) Awards Committee, has taught at Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, and Queens College and is an Assistant Professor at Hunter College/CUNY. She's the mother of 2.

Academia, cannon, community, curriculum, rhizome, University Project


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