Performance-Based Courses, Capstones Transition Online

Transitioning to online learning in March was disruptive across departments, and for many graduating Dance majors the transition to online learning meant drastically changing their visions for final capstone performances. On top of the energy depletion that comes with being away from Oberlin, plans for these performances — which are a key part of students’  farewells to Oberlin — needed to be significantly altered as a result of social isolation and the shift to digital communication.

“It is difficult to readjust to a new normal without first taking a moment to acknowledge our original hopes and expectations for this time,” Puma Guerrero, a fourth-year Dance major who has returned home to Pennsylvania, wrote in an email to the Review

Guerrero was one of several students in the Dance department who weren’t able to complete their spring capstone performances by the time campus closed. They were focusing on flamenco, combining performance and practicum in rehearsals with Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance Alice Blumenfeld’s company Abrepaso Flamenco. Guerrero had planned to perform with the company at a show in Cleveland in April and was choreographing a solo to be performed in Oberlin’s Spring Back showcase as well. 

While being unable to bring these shows to stage or continue rehearsal with Abrepaso is “heartbreaking,” they are grateful to have been able to bring their vision into a socially distant format. 

“I do feel lucky in that I happened to be doing a solo for one part of my project because remote learning for many other people means losing cast members, and thus a radical change in how they imagined and planned their piece,” Guerrero wrote. “I can train alone and also perform alone, which is what I will be doing; I plan on recording my piece and sharing the final product.” 

Guerrero serves as a Dance major representative alongside College second-year Analise LaRiviere and College fourth-year Georgie Johnson. In this role, the three have been experimenting with ways to preserve the ethos of the department in an online format by creating an Instagram profile for choreographers to submit their work. They plan to utilize Instagram’s new IGTV video format that can support longer videos. 

“Instagram stories will also rotate between dance majors and minors to shed light on their whereabouts, routine, and how dance and art-making function in their daily routine,” Johnson wrote in an email to the Review

The dance department’s Instagram is @danceoberlin, and the new account’s handle is forthcoming. 

Faculty have also found creative ways to preserve the intention of classes without in-person instruction. Assistant Professor of Dance Alysia Ramos has found ways to modify her Samba course and Contemporary technique classes in the transition online this semester. The performance element of the course will involve learning choreography remotely, and her technique class has been changed to a dance conditioning course. Oberlin Dance Company, a performance class for students which Ramos had been choreographing this semester, normally culminates in a showcase which would have been her tenure performance.

“It’s meant to reflect my research over four years; I can’t just change gears, because it doesn’t make sense,” she explained. 

Consequently, the show will be postponed until the fall — in its place, Ramos added a second-module course titled “Choreographing Catastrophe” that examines dance as a response to cataclysmic events. College fourth-year Kierra Nguyen had been working as a research assistant with Ramos and helping her with the show; they hope to receive funding for Nguyen’s work to continue next year. 

Ramos explained that her advisees and other majors in the department have transitioned their capstones online in a variety of ways — while some have doubled down on the writing elements of their project, others have more heavily incorporated video and photography into the work they’d hoped to perform. 

College fourth-year and Biology and Dance major Kara Nepomuceno was originally working on a piece with three dancers, combining discussion and movement in their rehearsals. 

“I am fortunate to be at home with family in San Diego, CA, where I plan to record parts of our work in my backyard,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “I am also writing about our creative process in a paper that will be part of my thesis project.”

College fourth-year and Computer Science and Dance major Leah Yassky had planned an eight-person, site-specific performance in Fairchild Chapel for May. After envisioning many technical and lighting elements, leaving the physical space made for a complicated creative transition. She decided to take on a dance-film project staged mostly outside in Oberlin, using lent equipment and the bodies of friends and some of her previous dancers to envision original choreography.

“I reached out originally to two of my friends who were in different pods, and we set work on the bike path,” she explained. “So I was filming on the bike path and they were dancing each 10 feet apart from each other and from me. That was really strange because I couldn’t physically touch them or interact with them.” 

Working with people who live in Yassky’s home has made things easier, and she has appreciated support and flexibility from her advisor, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance Holly Handman-Lopez — but the change has been immense nonetheless.

“It really does feel like such a different process because I’ll have to be spending so much more time editing rather than curating a live performance,” she added.

Guerrero has found interest in the unexpected possibilities presented amid the difficulty of re-working a project. 

“An unexpected outcome of the current circumstances is that it’s really forced me to create my own personal practice, which I did not have to cultivate as much pre-pandemic with all of my structured and required rehearsal and class times,” they wrote. 

In addition to Dance, other performance- and art-based departments have been affected. The Theater department was fortunate that most individual capstones for the year had completed showings — excluding one Theater student and one Honors student in Africana Studies, both of whom are currently reworking their projects — although many other performances had to be canceled or postponed. 

In spite of the loss of many shows this semester, the department has been successful in offering new opportunities by reworking this spring’s course offerings — and introducing new ones — in six second-module classes.    

“I added a new second module class ‘Playwrighting and Theater-making in a Time of Crisis,’ which has been really rewarding,” Chair of Theater and Professor of Theater and Africana Studies Caroline Jackson-Smith wrote in an email to the Review. “Playwrighting is an area we have not been able to teach as much as we in both Theater and Creative Writing would like.”

While fourth-year Abigail Bowman, a Theater major concentrating in Cognitive Science and Education, had completed her capstone by the time she left campus, she had been creating an independent thesis around drama therapy and frequently sought out the wisdom of her Theater advisors. Bowman had worked an acting coach for a young student with autism, with whom she hoped to perform at the end of the semester. 

“Honestly, this is both the best and worst time for artists,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “So much of creation is dependent on others, both for collaboration and reception.”

Theater and Dance students and faculty have been forced to conceive of creative solutions to these conundrums of social distancing. Ramos, while mourning the lost energy of dancing bodies together in a space and the capacity for an audience to share in that energy in person, has been excited to see these new discoveries come to fruition. 

“Everyone acknowledges that it’s awkward — and that it’s way better than not having anything,” she said. “I’ve been really impressed with how much people have stuck with … doing the work, given the circumstances.”