Inspiration and Improvisation: Images, sounds and text lead to dance creations

August 4, 2015

by Katlyn Pierre
VCU Libraries PR Intern

Entering a library, you expect to see certain activities: Someone reading with a latte and a laptop or searching for a book on the shelves. What you wouldn’t expect to see as you pass by are 13 students spinning, twirling, stretching and dancing.  

School of the Arts dance professor Robbie Kinter looks for the unexpected in his improvisational dance students. That’s why he brought his summer-session class, DANC 105, to James Branch Cabell Library for an exercise in inspiration.

Dressed in workout gear, the students entered the classroom in the middle of the second floor of  Cabell Library. Desks were pushed back against the walls. Books were arranged on a table in the front of the room.

Kinter split the students into four groups and told them to find an image that each member liked. Some of the students began searching through the displays books and others went up to the fourth floor Art Browsery shelf and to the oversized books. When they returned, image in hand, their professor told them to switch their image with that of another group.

Next up: Find music that suited the new image. The students used Music Online, a database housing 7 million tracks of sounds and scores for academic use. Then, Kinter directed them to swap their image/soundtrack for another group’s.

The next step was to find text to integrate into the performance. They explored books, magazines and online sources, turned in the text to Kinter, who handed out the items with orders to create an improvisational dance using the elements.

The result of the three hour-long exercise, were four brief dances that lasted less than 60 seconds. One, for instance, was inspired by the photograph, “Paris Planking,” by Armin Morbach and music by Alan Lomax.

The group began their dance by lying on the floor and slowly shimmying into an upright position. The members of the group stretched their arms to one another, swaying their bodies side to side, before twirling in circles around one another. As the music started to fade, the group members slowly worked themselves into a “planking” position once more to represent the person lying down in the photograph.

Kinter uses this four-step exercise regularly in his courses. “It’s not purely about art. It helps the students to make group decisions and work with things that someone may have chosen. It’s a life lesson,” Kinter said.

Aiding students as they looked for images, text and music was was Film and Performing Arts Research Librarian, Nell Chenault. “One thing that’s required for this sort of browsing is that you have to be prepared to be open,” Chenault explains. “With this assignment, Kinter is making them welcome new ideas and means of expression which they could reflect upon, then incorporate into their own work.”

Chenault also encourages students of all disciplines to come and try this sort of browsing. “There’s a great deal of cross-disciplinary work happening in academics today. Stop by Special Collections. Book artists draw inspiration from the creations of other disciplines,” Chenault encouraged. “Part of the reason you go to a university is to explore things beyond your curriculum.”  

The inspiration from library materials and the conversations with fellow dancers led to creativity. One student, Julie Johns, said it was the soundtrack that most influenced her group’s final dance. “Once we incorporated the music, I could see the picture better,” Johns stated.

“We’ve been introduced to more artists and resources than I knew were available. There are contemporary, modern, and classical works that we were able to find,” said Sabrina Lintz, a dance major.

“It definitely forces you to get creative. If we didn’t think one aspect worked, we had to think of how we could make it work,” Keenen Collins explained.

Ultimately, this was the goal that Kinter wished to achieve with this assignment. He explained the importance of collaboration and being able to open their minds to new ideas. “It will help them to create a dialogue and be able to articulate why they like something. They can put into words what it is about the piece that they relate to, rather than just saying ‘I like it,’”  

With creative assignments like this one that develops group thinking and collaboration, it’s, no wonder that VCU Dance was recently listed among the nation’s “Top Ten” schools for choreography.

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