Inspiration and improvisation: Images, sounds and text at Cabell Library stir dance creations

VCU School of the Arts dance professor Robbie Kinter’s improvisational dance students headed to t...
VCU School of the Arts dance professor Robbie Kinter’s improvisational dance students headed to the James Branch Cabell Library this summer for an exercise in inspiration.

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 are 13 students spinning, twirling, stretching and dancing.

Virginia Commonwealth University 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. They found desks pushed back against the walls and books arranged on a table in the front of the room.

Kinter split the students into four groups and told them to look through books in the library and find an image that each member liked. Some students began searching through the displayed 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 the students were tasked with finding music that suited the new image. They used Music Online, a database housing 7 million tracks of sounds and scores for academic use. Once they had selected their music, Kinter directed them to swap their image/soundtrack with another group’s.

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

The result of the three-hour-long exercise was a series of four brief dances that lasted less than 60 seconds each.

VCU School of the Arts improvisational dance students headed to the James Branch Cabell Library for an exercise in inspiration this summer.
VCU School of the Arts improvisational dance students headed to the James Branch Cabell Library for an exercise in inspiration this summer.

One dance 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 dancers 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 [else] may have chosen. It’s a life lesson,” Kinter said.

Nell Chenault, film and performing arts research librarian, aided students in their search for images, text and music. “One thing that’s required for this sort of browsing is that you have to be prepared to be open,” Chenault said. “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.”

There’s a great deal of cross-disciplinary work happening in academics today. Part of the reason you go to a university is to explore things beyond your curriculum.

Chenault 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 said. “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 said.

“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.

Assignments like this one that focus on developing group thinking and collaboration helped VCU’s Department of Dance and Choreography earn a spot among the top 10 choreography schools in the country in a recent ranking byseattlepi.com.

“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,” student Keenen Collins said.

Ultimately, this was the goal of Kinter’s assignment. He explained the importance of collaboration and being able to open students’ 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.’”

 

Subscribe to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at http://newsletter.news.vcu.edu/ and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday.