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Dance Fervor

Celebrated for artistic and educational innovation, the Department of Dance enters a new era

By Lisa Chiu (CWR '93)

Published in spring 2013


Chun-Jou Tasi, performing here on the stage of Mather Dance Center, earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Department of Dance this spring. Photo by Joel Hauserman.

Backstage at the Mather Dance Center, the students are excited and nervous as they wait to begin their spring concert. It’s the opening night of Converging Pathways, an evening of group and solo works performed by graduate and undergraduate dancers. The concert features original works choreographed by Master of Fine Arts (MFA) candidates Carissa Bellando (GRS ’13) and Chun-Jou Tsai (GRS ’13).

Under the lights, Bellando and Tsai’s sheer, metallic black-blue costumes seem to change color as they move. Dance department chair Karen Potter (GRS ’89) designed and constructed the costumes for Plain of Passage, a 10-minute duet she choreographed for the pair. Potter leads the company warm-up, and before the dancers take the stage, she wishes them luck. Then she steps away to greet the audience.

She sees familiar faces from the university community—including alumni, donors and emeriti faculty—as well as dancers from area institutions and studios. They have been joined by family and friends of the dancers, some traveling from California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. She compares the evening’s concert to her own MFA concert at Case Western Reserve. There were fewer dancers then and the audience was smaller, but the sense of anticipation and “butterflies in the stomach” feeling is the same.

“To bring the training forward, to be a part of a premiere of a dance after months of rehearsal, and then to refine and fully embody the movement is exhilarating, to say the least,” Potter says. “There is a fervor that stays with you until the house lights go down.”

After the show ends, the students are euphoric. “I really enjoy performing with the other dancers,” says Jacob Marx (CWR ’13). “You get a different style from everyone. You see what the program creates and what the dancers come out like. You get a sense of everyone’s individuality.”

Potter is equally pleased. After guiding the MFA students throughout the three-year program, she relishes witnessing the culmination of their work.

Karen Potter, chair of the Department of Dance, and Gary Galbraith, artistic director, earned Master of Fine Arts degrees at Case Western Reserve and performed with major modern dance companies. Photo by Daniel Milner.

Karen Potter, chair of the Department of Dance, and Gary Galbraith, artistic director, earned Master of Fine Arts degrees at Case Western Reserve and performed with major modern dance companies. Photo by Daniel Milner.

“I am always extremely proud for many reasons: the level of artistry of the choreography by the thesis candidates, the technical abilities of our dancers and the depth of expression they experience and exude,” Potter says. “The dancers joke and say they always know who is the last one clapping.”

The evening is a celebration of the graduating MFA students and of the department itself, led by Potter and artistic director Gary Galbraith (CWR ’86, GRS ’88). Long known as a center for modern dance, innovation and the creation of new works, the department is now winning recognition for its Dancer Wellness Program and its bold experiments combining dance and technology. It is recruiting growing numbers of undergraduate and graduate students. And the state-of-the-art performance and rehearsal spaces envisioned in the proposed Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple Tifereth – Israel would make the department even more attractive to dancers and audiences alike.

An Expanding Mission

Potter and Galbraith both studied with Kathryn Karipides (GRS ’59) and Kelly Holt, former directors of the dance program at Case Western Reserve. Prior to earning her MFA, Potter performed with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, while Galbraith was a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Since they took over the program in 1999, they have formulated a comprehensive curriculum that includes courses in technique, choreography, ballet, kinesiology, lighting, performance, eurhythmics, costume design, dance history and dance medicine.

The Dancer Wellness Program is based on a model that Potter created with colleagues at Long Island University, where she taught in the 1990s. Students take seminars in kinesiology and biomechanics and learn about nutrition and injury prevention. The program also addresses mental health issues, teaching students how to deal with performance anxiety.

In addition to taking seminars, the students undergo a biomechanical health screening to assess areas such as cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, body composition, flexibility and balance. Data from the screening guides instructors and medical professionals working with the students, helping them assist in preventing and rehabilitating injuries. Potter and Galbraith have partnered with physical therapists to produce videos demonstrating ways dancers can target specific issues, such as a tight hamstring.

In 2002, Galbraith extended this work beyond Case Western Reserve by creating the Dancer Wellness Project, a consortium of dance organizations, schools and medical institutions. “Gary and I have trained physical therapists and faculty at numerous universities throughout the United States to set up wellness programs and implement dance screenings,” Potter says. Other partners include dance companies, studios, and universities in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Galbraith is now working with collaborators in Sydney, Australia, to develop a similar program for musicians.

“The Dancer Wellness Program has really blossomed,” he says. “It’s an important part of our mission.”

Rachel Stoneking (GRS ’11) and Alex Cooke (CWR ’11) were featured in the premiere of Gary Galbraith’s “Distant Encounters” in 2011. Both dancers performed live, but Cooke was in a remote location. His image was displayed using holograph-like technology. Photo by Glenn Ricart.

Something Intriguing

During the past decade, the department has also gained renown for incorporating technology into original dance works. Galbraith says that he explores new applications without allowing them to dominate his creative process.

“It really needs to be about the art. Without that clarity, it’s really easy to get lost in the technology,” he explains. “If you create an artistic work that somehow showcases the technology, that will get dated really fast.”

Galbraith credits his years with the Martha Graham Dance Company with encouraging him to challenge boundaries and explore new ideas. Innovation, he says, is an essential component of contemporary dance. In 2002, he and Potter worked with Thomas Knab, chief information officer in the College of Arts and Sciences, to produce a performance art project for Internet2, a consortium of technology leaders in research, academia, industry and government. Eventually, the collaboration expanded to include the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra.

“Something about it seemed so intriguing,” Galbraith says. “I was immediately stimulated by the potential.”

In his first work for Internet2, Kinetic Shadows, two groups of dancers and musicians performed simultaneously but nearly 3,000 miles apart. The artists were linked by high-speed networking technology, three streaming videoconferencing connections and surround sound. A video art component enhanced the piece.

Developing Kinetic Shadows posed a number of challenges for the technical team, Galbraith says. They needed to test for camera range and light design in both sites. Musicians who could hear but not see their counterparts in different studios rehearsed and adjusted their timing to account for the delay experienced with the network connection.

For the premiere, three dancers and two musicians performed in Los Angeles, while three dancers and three musicians performed in Cleveland. The piece was immediately regarded as a touchstone in the dance world.

In one of Galbraith’s more recent pieces, Distant Encounters, two dancers perform live, with one in a remote location. A holograph-like video image of the remote dancer is transmitted to the stage where the other dancer is performing, creating the illusion that the two are next to each other. At times, they seem to meld into one figure.

In addition to designing groundbreaking works, Galbraith is using emerging technologies to transform dance education. He and Potter have developed techniques to run rehearsals with dancers at multiple sites via videoconferencing, and Galbraith invites his students to work on such projects. A Case Western Reserve alumnus with an MFA in dance and a bachelor of science degree in biomedical engineering, he wants the students to investigate creative ways of combining art and technology.

Kinetic Shadows was a really fantastic start and a great introduction,” Galbraith says. “But what is really exciting is that we keep pushing forward.”

A Dynamic Dance Culture

In 2011, Case Western Reserve’s dance program, which had been combined with theater, became an independent academic department. For years, dance majors had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts with a concentration in dance. This spring, Marx will receive the first bachelor’s degree in dance awarded by the university.

Potter notes that dance attracts more students each year. In fall 2011, seven prospective students auditioned for two full-tuition dance scholarships and two Creative Performing Arts Achievement Awards. Last fall, more than twice as many students auditioned. At the graduate level, the department is accepting students from around the country as well as from China and Taiwan.

New educational opportunities for student dancers are part of the vision for the proposed Maltz Performing Arts Center. The plans include a proscenium theater—the kind of space that large, professional dance companies use. Potter says it would give students a performance experience that the Mather Dance Center, with its black box theater, doesn’t provide.

Potter is grateful for the generosity of donors to the Maltz Performing Arts Center and hopes for additional contributions to make the project a reality. She also hopes to secure funding to bring more guest artists to campus and sponsor student travel to conferences. Along with the department’s growth, she sees a dynamic dance culture thriving on campus. Next year, MaDaCol, a collective of student, faculty, alumni, staff and area dancers, will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Other active student dance organizations include the Ballroom Dance Society, Spartan Tappers, the Swing Dance Club, several Indian dance teams, a hip-hop dance group and a Middle Eastern dance group.

“This is the most exciting time for dance at Case Western Reserve. It’s actually more than I could have imagined,” Potter says. Reflecting on the program’s history, its evolution and its future, she adds, “You can’t rest on your laurels at all. You have to keep going.”

Lisa Chiu is a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

See videos about two network-enabled dance projects, Kinetic Shadows and Distant Encounters, at

Pure Movement

The rich history of the Department of Dance began more than a century ago. In 1911, the institution that would later become Flora Stone Mather College for Women offered its first dance courses as part of its physical education curriculum. Classes were held in Mather Gymnasium, a two-story brick building created by the same local architects who had recently designed the Cleveland Museum of Art. By the late 1940s, dance was also available as an extracurricular activity through the Mather Dance Club.

In 1956, a 22-year-old instructor named Kathryn Karipides joined the physical education department after signing a one-year contract. She taught several varieties of dance, from folk to modern, as well as body mechanics and Danish gymnastics, which she thought of as “basic training” for dancers. From the beginning, she felt at home in the college.

“The women at Flora Stone Mather had a wonderful aesthetic about movement,” says Karipides, the Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor Emerita of Humanities. “I was in a place that embraced what I was trying to do and supported it.”

Karipides was offered the chance to join the faculty if she earned a master’s degree. While meeting that requirement, she began to spend her summers studying with modern dance artists such as Martha Graham and Hanya Holm. She also developed a partnership with the Cleveland Modern Dance Association (now DanceCleveland) to host workshops, lectures and master classes with renowned dancers and choreographers.

When the Erick Hawkins Dance Company came to campus in 1968, Karipides met Kelly Holt, one of the company’s principal dancers. The two developed an instant rapport. “I could never tell anybody how magical it was dancing with her,” Holt says. “It was like a kinetic marriage.” Their approaches to dance education were also closely allied.

Kathryn Karipides and Kelly Holt performed Reflections in 1976 during their time as directors of the dance program. Photo by James Fry / Copy from the original image in the Kathryn Karipides Papers, CWRU Kelvin Smith Library Special Collections.

Kathryn Karipides and Kelly Holt performed Reflections in 1976 during their time as directors of the dance program. Photo by James Fry / Copy from the original image in the Kathryn Karipides Papers, CWRU Kelvin Smith Library Special Collections.

“Our point of departure was pure movement, based on an understanding of anatomical principles, rather than training in a codified technique,” Karipides says. “We valued the uniqueness of each student and hoped to open up the creative process within each individual.”

She adds, “I loved the students, their individuality and their energy. They were caring, smart, creative risk-takers. They presented me with challenges that were inspirational. I valued them as collaborators and am forever grateful for their contribution.”

Five years after the 1967 federation of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve, the dance program moved into the Department of Dramatic Arts at the invitation of chair Ted Herstand. With this change came access to performance space in Eldred Theater, opportunities to collaborate with theater personnel and the chance to offer a graduate degree in dance. Holt, who had become a regular visitor, designed a Master of Fine Arts curriculum, and in 1975 he became the dance program’s co-director.

The federation brought about another significant change as well. Physical education classes were now held at Adelbert Gym, leaving Mather Gym available exclusively for dance.

“That was a windfall,” Karipides says. “I had fallen in love with Mather Gymnasium at first sight. With its high ceiling and the light streaming through the clerestory windows, it was such an open, welcoming space—a classic space for dance. It inspired beautiful movement. When dance became the sole occupant, it was like winning a sweepstakes, a dream come true.”

The dance program soon became a center for choreography and improvisation. One quirky tradition took hold after a fountain was built on Mather Quad. “Every spring, we did what we called our Fountain Frolic,” Karipides says. “We’d have a structured improvisation, often with props—one year, it was umbrellas. Some of the dancers would interact with passersby and lure them to the fountain. It was great visibility for the dance program.”

The co-directors also worked closely with theater professor Henry Kurth, a highly regarded lighting and set designer, to stage dance performances on campus. The Dance Theater of Kathryn Karipides and Henry Kurth, which was open to students and local professional dancers, became the birthplace of many new works—including Karipides’ Stein Song (an homage to Gertrude Stein), Salomé and Vertiginous Moment.

In 1979, the Mather Dance Series launched its first program of faculty and student concerts. Five years later, the gymnasium, now renamed Mather Dance Center, became home to the performance series Scandals, which evolved into MaDaCol (Mather Dance Collective) in 1992. MaDaCol is still an active dance troupe, made up of faculty members, students, alumni, staff and area dancers.

After building a thriving dance program, Karipides retired in 1998 and Holt in 2000. They were succeeded by Karen Potter and Gary Galbraith, who now lead the growing Department of Dance in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Page last modified: February 9, 2017