Teaching in pods created new art forms
A conversation with Heather Cooper (June 4, 2021)
By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman (Decade Ahead Project)
“So much of dance depends on experiential learning and group activities,” says Heather Cooper, chair of the San Jose State University Dance Department, “that we set up an outside studio in a parking garage.” Cooper describes her new pandemic dance studio: “No one was parking there because no one else was on campus. We installed a suspended floor, power, and wireless internet access. Every day we carried equipment up to the space and set it up.” When it came time for students to perform work we had constructed, “campus was quiet, so we used the campus as a theater. We made dances that were multi-location, multi-camera synchronous live-broadcast performances.” Initially, “students felt very disconnected from their peers because they only worked with a pod of eight students” throughout the semester in all of their dance classes. “Once we had performances and students saw how it came together, they were more energized. By the end they were 100% bought in.” After their hybrid performances, students had “pride they were part of something innovative and felt gratitude that they were getting the chance to perform live.”
Heather Cooper has worked and performed professionally in New York City and elsewhere. She is currently a member of sjDANCEco, the professional modern dance company in residence at San Jose State University in San Jose, California. Before teaching contemporary dance technique and choreography at San Jose State, she founded and managed the Adage School of Performing Arts, where she served as Artistic and Executive Director. A lively, intellectually curious and energetic presence, Heather has taught ballet, modern dance, jazz dance, and choreography to students of all ages and levels.
While most departments taught only online in 2020–21, the SJSU Dance Department was one of just three programs — dance, music and nursing — that were permitted to teach in person. Each student was assigned to a pod of eight students. “We used a hybrid model where every student had a certain number of days they were on campus and the opposite days they were remote on zoom.” A dance class of 16 would have eight in person on campus and eight on zoom for every meeting. This gave students the option to continue their dance training in person. Composition classes also met outside. Tragically, areas surrounding San Jose were affected by intense wildfires in late summer and early fall of 2020. The Bay Area air quality was often worse than Delhi or Beijing. In addition to mourning the loss of being in a theater and being together, students had to adjust to bad air quality and, over the year, exposure to changing weather and other new challenges. “We were really lucky because the dean was really supportive of the experiential learning piece …and advocated for us. That was not the case at many other institutions who were not able to meet in person.” Surprisingly, in spite of all the unprecedented hardship, “Everyone was still striving for excellence,” working to make sure “learning happens in a really robust way.”
How do you think this year of operation affected students, we ask. “Students developed a deep sense of persistence,” Heather offers; they realized that “things don’t need to be comfortable to be meaningful.” Students also developed “a big capacity to be flexible; a willingness and ability to shift and change at a moment’s notice.” Not only was it challenging to work within the structural constraints imposed by the pandemic, but “sometimes people would walk through what we were doing in downtown San Jose,” completely disrupting the rehearsal or performance. Somehow, “students all learned to roll with it.” When Heather presented one last minute change of plans to a group of students, rather than the disappointment she expected, one of them aptly responded, “Oh Prof Cooper, if there’s anything we’ve learned this year, it’s to be flexible.”
The Dance Department’s cumulative performances built on cutting-edge modern dance formats and took them even further. “It was an adventure,” Heather tells us. “A lot of dance artists do site-specific work,” which is dance designed to be performed in a specific location, such as a sculpture garden, city plaza, or a lawn on the bank of a river. Many artists have also produced “screen dance,” which can incorporate camera movement to produce live or recorded images displayed to an audience on a screen. Recruiting help from colleagues in the dance world that similarly “love challenges and trying things that have never been done before,” Cooper and her peers crafted a completely new experience. At San Jose State, “individual dance pieces were choreographed so the dance could start on the grass,” performed live by members of one pod, then cut to a different camera to “continue on the stairs, and so on, with all of the dancers staying in their pods.” In order to engage with the audience, “The entire performance was live-streamed out.” For the performers, this presented a new challenge: “To give the students the feeling of community, [we] set up watch parties running in parallel — watching on one screen and in the watch party on the other screen.” The feedback was excellent: “To have the screens and dancers live was great. The audience felt that they were present. We had a chat running, with people hosting the chat. Dancers could turn and see the audience applauding.”With pride, Heather tells us: “We created a new medium.” After being a part of all this excitement and creativity, Heather expects students to continue to push the envelope in performance art. “I have a hard time imagining that students are going to want the same thing going back.”
How might the lessons Heather and her department learned inform the future of higher education? “We can’t reverse the train and recreate the structures we had before the pandemic.” Heather senses a disconnect between students and professors: “a lot of faculty colleagues are excited to go back to the way it was but I don’t think students are going to want that.” What might they want? “Students don’t want to go back, that feels too old school.” Heather thinks students want options: “they want the traditional, this new livestream version and new mashups.” Heather and her students alike want to keep remixing, experimenting and imagining new possibilities that have never been done before.