Arts & Culture / Dance / Mosaic / April 22, 2010

A life of dance

It’s a busy week for dance at Knox College.

A day before the arrival of Ready At Will, the company conducting Knox’s yearly guest dance residency, students were able to receive a taste of next year’s. Margi Cole, who will be a guest artist next spring in collaboration with her company, The Dance COLEctive, came to Knox this past Saturday to teach a master class.

A fast-paced experience based in modern dance technique, Cole emphasized fundamentals of movement even while exposing dancers to completely unique material, leaving participants eagerly anticipating next year’s entire week of workshops.

Afterwards, she sat down with assistant professor of dance Jennifer Smith and two dancers, junior Katie Nellett and senior Karin Rudd, to talk about her experiences running a company, the transition out of the college bubble and a general love of dance.

Early beginnings

“I was very shy and quiet [as a child],” said Cole. “My family doctor’s niece was a dancer and he encouraged my mother to enroll me in dance classes to encourage me to socialize. Little did he know he would create a monster!”

Cole started dancing when she was five and has not looked back. Studying almost exclusively ballet until the age of 18, her experiences with modern dance did nottruly begin until college.

“When I realized I was never going to be a ballet dancer — which is what I wanted to be — my parents said, you either come home and work… or you go to school. So I went to school,” said Cole.

Cole enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago and began to study modern dance. Coming from such a heavy ballet background, she was initially dismissive of the more experimental style.

“I thought it’d be a real cop out. Then I realized it was actually very intellectual,” she said.

After graduation, Cole lived in Georgia for a year, teaching 18 dance classes a week, dancing and choreographing for a small company and working at a sandwich shop to make ends meet. After the company folded, however, she moved back to Chicago and ended up working in arts administration.

However, the experience involved very little dancing, something Cole missed and what ultimately ended up leading her to graduate school.

Less than a year after graduating, she found herself back in Chicago and forming her dance company, The Dance COLEctive, currently in its fourteenth year and where she’s been ever since.

Surviving the real world

Even though Cole founded and is currently the artistic director of a dance company, continuing in the dance world still has its challenges.

“What do you think my dancers do?” she said, describing the additional jobs held by her company members, who also serve as copy editors, swim instructors and masseuses; one holds a 9 to 5 job in the

financial district.

Cole also noted the difficulties of artists trying to move from the college environment into a world requiring rent, utility bills and groceries. Smith shared similar stories.

“The first year out of college for me sucked. I really had to figure out what I wanted to do,” said Smith. “I had six different jobs; I lived in a basement. It was hard, but it was an important step for me to do.”

Nellett and Rudd both expressed concerns about their ability to keep dance a part of their life after they graduate.

“My fear is going to med[ical] school and not being able to dance,” said Nellett.

“What’s difficult is making the commitment to dance,” said Rudd. “It can be seen as very superficial.”

Neither Cole nor Smith viewed these as reasons to give up on dance or any other form of art.

“[There’s] something about our American culture — if someone says they want to go into the arts, they’re kind of doomed to failure,” said Smith. She noted, however, that there is really no guarantee of succeeding in any field a person chooses to go into.

“Any profession is going to be frustrating,” she said.

Cole heavily emphasized a “where there’s a will, there’s a way” philosophy.

“Success is relative,” she said. “I wanted to be a ballet dancer and I’m not, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t ‘made it,’ that I’m not succeeding. Do not be afraid. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Do what you want to do.” Cole pointed out that artists are often used to surviving from check to check, a skill that can make them better equipped than most to survive in a struggling economy.

Both Cole and Smith felt that dance can greatly enrich diverse fields of study.

“You’re coming out of a liberal arts education, there’s always this dance and ‘other’ opposed to someone who comes out of a conservatory and can get their leg in the air but aren’t really mentally engaged in it,” said Smith. She described one dancer who now works with dolphins in the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago: she got her job because a life spent studying dance greatly enriched her abilities to communicate non-verbally.

Intellectual collaboration

That type of intellectual application will be visible during next year’s residency, in which The Dance COLEctive will be presenting a new work exploring the lives of the Bronte sisters. Creating the piece was no simple process — it involved an entire year of research before even stepping onto the dance floor. That research was something in which the entire company participated.

“The work my company does is a group effort, not just a dance effort,” said Cole, describing how her dancers read the novels written by their respective characters as well as biographies about their lives. “I bring an idea for a work to the table, and it becomes our idea.”

Cole herself took a trip to England for the specific purpose of research, exploring moors and visiting the house where the Bronte sisters lived in an effort to capture “a sense of place.”

“I don’t ever just go into the studio and make up moves,” Cole said. “There’s more to it than that.”

Such intense research and investment into place and character was received well by Knox students.

“When I was in ballet, it’s you’re in Don Quixote, you’re in Spain — and that’s all you get,” said Rudd, explaining how little focus was placed on creating specific personalities for the role being dance.

Cole’s response, however, was to describe that trend as changing, even in classical ballet companies, which are beginning to expand their traditional repertoires. Some companies, such as the American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey, now collaborate with local universities that enable their dancers to take academic classes.


In the end, Cole said, do what you love.

“Life is about learning from your mistakes and making mistakes, too,” she said. “You have to mess up a couple of times and then go, ‘Crap, I won’t do that.’”

Smith also encouraged following passion.

“It’s harder to start being an artist at 40,” she said. “If there’s an ounce of curiosity, try it before you have a mortgage. If you’re passionate about it, take the plunge.”

Katy Sutcliffe

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