Published March 31, 2022
Second year MFA Dance student Anna Caison Boyd is a choreographer, teacher, and performer from South Carolina. She graduated from Oklahoma City University’s Ann Lacy School of Dance and Entertainment Business in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Dance Pedagogy, plus minors in English and History, and is currently pursuing an MFA at UB with a Teaching Assistantship position.
Boyd’s choreographic work focuses on engaging with the rich vocabulary and aesthetics of jazz to cultivate fulfilling relationships with music for her fellow performers and audiences. Anna Caison recently choreographed works for Zodiaque Dance Company, MFA Dance Showcase, and the university's first dance film concert ShutterSpeed. Boyd is currently creating work for the 2022 spring production of ChoreoLab (opening this evening!) and the MFA Film Showing.
“I went to Oklahoma City University (OCU) for undergraduate studies because they have a very commercial musical theater-oriented program and I was interested in jazz from a typical studio perspective,” she explained. “When I came to UB (for graduate studies) I was introduced to people who were thinking more about their voice artistically than perhaps general audience appeal all of the time. That’s put me in a very interesting space to explore things a little more outside of the box, to push limits in ways I haven’t thought about doing before.”
“I feel like there’s definitely a balance to be had (between artistic and commercial work). My take is that art is meant to be communicative, and so if your art is not understandable to anyone except for you, and outside of a circle of critics, maybe that’s not the ‘highest’ form of art,” she said. “I think that jazz plays a big part. It appeals to general audiences as infectious and interesting to watch, but it’s also capable of communicating a lot of complex ideas about life! Not that other forms aren’t capable, but it can do it in a way that is also abstract.”
“So I’m kind of trying to bridge back in and open myself up to exploring things, because sometimes we don’t give audiences enough credit for things they want to watch. I’m trying to break down those ideas about what different kinds of things I can make as an artist.”
“The great thing about OCU and UB is that they’re preparing students for careers in jazz as something viable because, if there are more audiences for it, there are going to be more career opportunities.”
Boyd’s jazz chops are on full display in Magnetic Melodies, a playful, flirty, and fun piece which invites the audience to become a part of the dance, wherever they find inspiration, or where the music finds them. For this dance film those spaces include the UB Libraries, the underground tunnel connecting Center for the Arts (CFA) to Alumni Arena, and outdoor locations in the snow. The dancers eventually find themselves drawn to a central dancer (the muse) in the CFA Black Box, who has mysteriously disappeared when they finally arrive.
“Magnetic Melodies was the first piece I did at UB and also the first dance film I’ve ever made,” Boyd said. “It speaks to my background in being a more narrative-based piece. It was interesting to put together in all the different locations. I got to utilize film to take the narrative in a way that would have been more difficult to do on stage.
“Shania was the student in the library and when someone would walk by we’d pretend we were reading books! And she had no music to dance to because we had to be quiet!
“I wasn’t very familiar with campus at that time since we were online the entire first semester, so the places that I was thinking about filming were mostly limited and within CFA, because that’s everywhere I had been! (laughs) I had a lot of fun working with the dancers individually and then together to craft what I was hoping was a cohesive, fun narrative.”
Anna Caison very much enjoyed learning about dance on film via trial and error. “It was a lesson in filming because I gave the lead muse Maddie a lot of choreography I had pre-prepared, and then I asked her to improvise as well a little bit. I realized when I was filming my own choreography that I had the camera backed all the way up to get the whole picture, but when Maddie improv'd I came in closer to get more interesting shots. And then those shots ended up being better because I wasn’t afraid to lose the entire visual I’d initially created. I was inspired to be more bold in my camera choices.
“I filmed it on my iPhone. Not even the one with the extra fancy camera! And it was edited in iMovie on my MacBook.”
Assistant professor and Director of Graduate Dance Ariel Nereson said, “Anna has a really cool tap piece in ChoreoLab this weekend, and will be teaching Open Tap for the university community in 2022, which is the first time the course has been offered!”
Regarding her ChoreoLab work, Boyd explained, “We’re working with ‘Georgia on my Mind,’ by Ray Charles. It’s a great piece. I was really interested in tap improvisation throughout the dance and giving the dancers room to experience it on stage, which is a lot different from other types of improvisation because you’re thinking about what you’re making audibly as well as visually.
“So those elements are combined and I feel like some of my dancers who don’t have as much experience with tap are feeling a lot more confident. I’m happy that I could cultivate that experience for them, and all of the students who were and weren’t in the piece were really excited to see a tap piece on the stage. It was the first time I’ve ever choreographed a piece not for younger children, so I had a great time flexing that muscle a little bit.
“The way that I think about rhythm influences a lot of my choreographic work, so making a tap piece pushed that in a new way for me-and as I move more into making jazz work, it’s going to help me create those rhythms that I’m hearing visually a little bit better. It’s been a great experience working with the students on that.
Regarding her work as a teaching assistant and the debut of the Open Tap course this fall, she added, “I’ve done two different jobs each semester, and they change every semester. This past one I taught Open Jazz, which was interesting to work with students from lots of different areas of study, nationality, and backgrounds.
“It was super exciting that the international students wanted to spend their short time in the United States as engaging with jazz as part of their experience. At UB you have to be a dance student to enroll in most of the courses, but with Open Jazz anyone in the entire university, regardless of their major, can enroll.
“I had lots of students who didn’t know what jazz was when they came, or they had a lot of preconceived ideas about what the class was going to be like.”
Asked about a memorable experience from class, Anna Caison said, “I tried to incorporate some jazz improvisation since that’s such an important part of the form. But it can be very intimidating for students who have never taken a dance class before to come into that space and just start moving. They don’t really know what to do with their bodies.
“We had a great class where we made a circle, like a cipher, and I gave students specific prompts on how to move, to make it a little less open ended and less intimidating, and we had a great moment where students were supporting each other vocally and people were trying new things and really connecting with each other. I had a great time exploring that with them!
“I’m an assistant in Professor Michael Deeb Weaver’s class for dance majors, and I’ll teach Open Tap in fall 2022. It will be similar to my previous jazz class. Anyone at all can sign up without being a Dance or Music Theatre major.”
How did Boyd get into jazz and tap? “I had a typical studio background. I started taking classes when I was about two or three,” she said. “We did two or three competitions a year and it was all about jazz and tap at the studio because that’s what students enrolled in. I was very interested in the genre of jazz because, superficially, I liked the music and the costumes, and I liked watching other people performing jazz at competitions, which is not necessarily something that encompasses jazz at large.
“Someone recommended that I go to OCU, and my mom was very interested too because they had a track recording of having dancers who were quickly employed.
“There’s definitely not enough programs that give students the option of exploring tap in an interesting way,” which is why Anna is grateful for UB. “My studio experience specialized more in rhythm-based tap and movement, and my teachers were good at creating combinations and pieces which made you feel like you were very good at tap, even though you were using basic steps! That’s something I hope to bring into my classes in the fall, to show students what interesting things they can make in tap without having to learn too much at the start.”
The dance film as we come to it, with fellow graduate student Meg Kirchoff, is more contemplative than Magnetic Melodies. As an outdoor piece set in a park, nature is the setting and in some sense the theme. Moving softly in the grass, stepping lightly upon a wooden bridge across a stream, getting in literal and figurative touch with the ground itself. To feel the air and light breeze, the sensation of earth, remembering it as our sacred home.
How did the collaboration with Meg come about? “I was in the last semester of class led by Professor Melanie Aceto called Collaborative Art Making, and I made it for that class. I’m showing the piece with Meg at our free film showing at the Center for the Arts Screening Room on April 30th.
“I was trying to catch us in the rain. That was the main idea, but it didn’t rain! It just set a moody atmosphere. I wanted to create a piece that was less narratively driven and more atmosphere and vibe-driven, and because I can’t do anything without a narrative, I included the bridge.
"It’s a bit (of a) loose and abstract narrative. I made the movements and edited the piece. Meg helped film since, obviously when I danced, she filmed me, and I met with her a few times to discuss the editing choices. And some of the things we did were a bit more improvised, so she contributed strongly in that way.
“That one was shot on a GoPro, which I got over the summer because I was getting more serious about dance film as a medium. It might have a touch of a sharper quality than the piece shot on the iPhone. The GoPro has a stabilizing effect built into it, which is helpful when you’re moving around. It’s great when filming dance because it appears smooth even if you’re making choices in the moment (which are inadvertently jittery).
“I wasn’t planning on us dancing on the bridge at all when we got there because I was worried about the texture. Then Meg thought we could do it, and as I reviewed the footage it became the main character of the piece!"
Anna Caison has done staged work while at UB too, “Though I think the filmed pieces represent the two facets of what I feel I can do. For a long time I was exploring narrative, entertainment based musical theatre. But I can push myself to do something more abstract too. I used to think of those things as more separate, but now, after this year of making work, I feel inspired to try to move those things together more and break down the false binary in my mind that I have to do (exclusively) one or the other.”
As a second-year MFA student, Anna Caison will work on her thesis next academic year. Regarding her post-graduation career, “I’m not really sure yet,” she replied. “My undergraduate degree is in dance pedagogy because I was very interested in opening my own studio and I really enjoy working with children. And I thought that by getting my MFA I could expand those qualifications to a collegiate level so that I could be working with children and also college-aged students.
“I’m very grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve received this year to make lots of different work in different settings. If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have come to the conclusion that I mentioned, that I don’t have to keep those things quite as separate. I’m moving into how to take those two strengths together to make something that is more uniquely myself. Moving into my thesis next year could be the culmination of these more separate pieces that I’ve been working on coming together into something interesting.”
“Now I’m invested in opportunities to get involved in artistic communities wherever I live that are not solely in a teaching setting, perhaps working with artists to make work, and perhaps performing in a group. I’m opening myself up to those opportunities as well.”
For more information on Anna Caison Boyd's work as a performing artist, choreographer, and dance instructor visit: www.annacaisonboyd.com/.