Choreographies of Self and Community

Published April 11, 2021

Rehearsal photo of dancer.

Rehearsal in the Drama Theatre. Photo by Ken Smith.

The MFA Dance Thesis Concert will feature new works by third-year MFA students Kate Mackey and Phil Wackerfuss. There will be four online performances: April 16-17, 2021 @ 7:30pm, and April 18, 2021 @ 2pm & 7:30pm. Attendance is free, and donations to support future productions are welcome. To pre-register visit: https://ubcas.formstack.com/forms/ubthd_mfadancethesisconcert

Like many Master of Fine Arts (MFA) graduate students, Mackey and Wackerfuss have had the opportunity to assume many roles and responsibilities during their three years in the Department of Theatre and Dance, including as assistants for department dance productions, as research assistants to faculty, and as instructors and teaching assistants for undergraduate dance classes.

Photo of Kate Mackey.

Kate Mackey

“Getting to teach for three years while in this program is why I chose it,” Mackey said. “It really makes it worth it,” Mackey said, as it adds to her immediate viability as an instructor post-graduation.

Wackerfuss agreed, noting that COVID-19, while extremely challenging, also allowed them to learn how to teach courses both online and in person, broadening their skills. “Ironically, the timing worked out for us, because we were able to start teaching in person for a while and then we had to transition along with the rest of the school. And we have had a support system that allowed us to do that.”

“I feel like I can confidently say, ‘Yes, I can teach this course, or any course, online because I have the skills now,’” Mackey agreed.

The MFA Dance Thesis Concert is perhaps the most visible representation of Mackey’s and Wackerfuss’s creative research studies. It is the culmination of the MFA Thesis project requirement, the cap-stone event in their three-year program.

Mackey has created several previous works for the MFA Dance Showcase (2018, 2019) and the 2020 productions of ChoreoLab and Home and Away. She has also performed in works by Dr. J. Dellecave, Dr. Ariel Nereson, and guest choreographer Aimee Rials.

Mackey’s thesis work 6FT: NO DIVING is a twenty-five minute collaborative dance film that explores the now all-too-familiar world of home-offices and socially-distanced dance spaces through portals made of plastic pools and a variety of filming methods. Mackey's piece was choreographed entirely remotely through Zoom and includes a dancer-filmed opening section.

Photo from Mackey's Thesis work.

Rehearsal of Kate Mackey's Thesis work. Photo by Ken Smith.

The film explores how movement can be used to bridge the mind/body dualism that has historically characterized Western cultures. Form follows content by embracing the “whole” of everyday movement through both classically-staged concert dance and also self-filmed, site-specific movement.

“My piece is in three sections,” Mackey explained. “The first was done last semester, and was self-filmed by the dancers with direction from me. And the second section is what we're currently working on in the Drama Theatre,” which was filmed by the UB Center for the Arts production team.

The student-generated videography of the first section re-imagines the “individual body” in the everyday messiness of personal, real-world experiences such as busy dorm-rooms, empty classrooms, and spacious dog parks. The second section explores the “social body” as seen through university-safe COVID-19 protocols that prohibit touch in a section focused on themes of social life and partnership through isolated movements within vinyl enclosed partitions that were developed and built by the department’s design and technology faculty and staff for the purposes of socially distanced performances.  

The intention is for each of the sections to have a distinct visual look, emphasizing the fact that the pandemic requires certain restrictions. “Yes, lots of decisions were made of necessity, but I’m incorporating them into the style and the meaning of the piece itself and using the different filming styles and qualities to distinguish those sections even more,” she said.

Photo from Mackey's Thesis work.

Rehearsal of Kate Mackey's Thesis work. Photo by Ken Smith.

Mackey enjoys the contrast of the sometimes raw handheld video footage presented alongside more polished video captured in a professional theatre environment, working with media professionals. Different aesthetics are fused, acknowledging the traditional stage as well as the freedom of ubiquitous ready-to-hand video.

“I like things that are a little messy and a little ugly,” Mackey enthused. “We just don't often see a vertically-shot film in professional settings, however that's all people are looking at on TikTok.”

During both filming and editing, Mackey works with longtime video collaborator Michael Spears, who is an MFA Candidate in the Department of Media Studies. “Filming a dance on the concert stage is very different than ‘Dance for Film,’ even if some of it happens on the stage, Mackey explained. “So, while the camera is a tool, it's also part of the core choreography in that its movements are also choreographed… I have the dancer experience in that I think that the capabilities for the movement of the camera can be pushed.”

Photo of Phil Wackerfuss.

Phil Wackerfuss

Phil Wackerfuss collaborates with undergraduate dancers Alexis Maria Corletta, Katy Maddalina, and Haley Sanders, to create a technologically-enhanced practice of communal dancing. “Acknowledging the role technology plays in our social connectivity, we commit to society’s exchange of physical presence for a digital one,” he explained.

Again, COVID-19 provided an opportunity to build a unique space where functional health precautions were also a site of creative research. As with Mackey, Wackerfuss’s rehearsal process began on Zoom, where the “digital self” was at the forefront.

One of the innovative ways Wackerfuss tried to bridge the digital gap was by setting up a video/projection room at his house for experimentation. Acting as both choreographer and technologist during rehearsals, “I projected the dancers on top of me. That way we could actually move together a little bit. We’re taking the kinesthetic feeling and centering it more in a visual feeling. Three dimensional space becomes a two dimensional space so we have to reorient how we think about working with each other.”

Photo from Wackerfuss's Thesis work.

Rehearsal of Phil Wackerfuss's Thesis work. Photo by Ken Smith.

“With improvisation, we attempted to include these images in our conception of self as we remember what it is that makes us dance,” said Wackerfuss. On stage, live projections function as extensions of the dancers’ bodies and question the separation between self/other, mind/body, as well as past/present/future.

“A lot of my approach is based on reacting to the environment,” Wackerfuss elaborated. “The piece centers itself on trying to understand what it means to be present and how that has changed in the digital world that we're living in. Movement-wise it's improvisation-based, and I want to get to a point where dancers can work with each other in a way that they feel like they are connecting as they would in real space.”

“It will all be mediated through different digital means and projections, multiple different surfaces, and light experiments. So it's trying to take this sort of kinesthetic feeling of partnership and translating that into the (digital) world that we're dealing with.”

As with Mackey’s work, portions of Wackerfuss’ piece were filmed at the UB Center for the Arts Drama Theatre, again thanks to the work and engagement of the CFA professional technical staff. “We’re transplanting that (online) style to a more conventional theatrical space, with full lights and sound and a customized set with barriers. I have a whole collection of things that I’ve built to transform it based on the recorded media of dancers dancing, which are then projected on the different parts of the fabric and the back of the site. So dancers are dancing both with their live counterparts, and with either themselves from the past, or a replicated version of themselves through the camera.”

Photo from Wackerfuss's Thesis work.

Rehearsal of Phil Wackerfuss's Thesis work. Photo by Ken Smith.

In his choreographer role Wackerfuss has captured multiple runs of the improvisational rehearsals which are being treated like performances and will construct the final dance film from multi-camera footage. “I'm imagining it a little bit like a performative lecture,” Wackerfuss said. “So I might be explaining some of the research verbally, right within the piece.”

The use of new technologies has changed Wackerfuss’s overall approach to choreography as he continues to experiment across media. “In preparing these solos I told the dancers, ‘You are setting this up for the future. You're partnering with somebody that you don't know in the future.’”

The MFA Dance Thesis Concert will take place on April 16 – 17, 2021 @ 7:30pm, and April 18, 2021 @ 2pm & 7:30pm. Online attendance via the UB Center for the Arts YouTube is free but requires pre-registration: https://ubcas.formstack.com/forms/ubthd_mfadancethesisconcert

Photo of Phil Wackerfuss and his dancers.

Phil Wackerfuss directing the dancers.

Wackerfuss's and Mackey’s works will be performed with undergraduate dancers Anna Caison Boyd, Lily Colligan, Alexis Corletta, Zuriel Enoe, Devon Hard, Katy Maddalina, Delia Mandik, Leah Mcnerney, Mia Pierce, Haley Sanders, and Natasha Skidmore, with collaboration/editing for Mackey’s work by Michael Spears. The faculty director is assistant professor and director of graduate dance, Dr. Ariel Nereson.

Under the mentorship of Professor Lynne Koscielniak and department staff members Rick Haug and Tom Burke, undergraduate design and technology student collaborators, including Eve Brunswick, Molly Crandall, Timothy Swenson, and Becca Stock, contributed new designs and facilitated in person technical production.