Collective Zero: Composition Classes with the BFA Juniors

By Amelia Taylor, BFA Class of 2021

“Charlie called this new process ‘collective zero,’ because it’s totally new,” recounts Maya Mohsin, a junior in the LINES BFA Program at Dominican. “Charlie — he’s so composed all the time, but I could tell that he didn’t fully know what was going to happen or what we were doing, which was sort of relieving to see. We’re all on the same page, even if he’s been doing this for years.” 

Like most everything since March of 2020, the BFA Program’s Junior Composition course is starting from close-to-scratch, with all new rules. These workshops, led by Charles (Charlie) Moulton, look completely different than they have in past years: with the students choreographing in outside spaces around their campus, or on Zoom in their apartments. Some are even choreographing from their family homes in other states. 

During these two-hour workshops, the juniors create work on the freshmen and sophomores. This fall, their work is created in all kinds of new spaces, and then filmed and edited into short videos. For the students, this means working with editing, music, angles, lighting, setting — often for the first time. 

“Being able to see and hear Charlie tell us that we are starting from ground zero, collective zero — it immediately became this collaborative opportunity with him to create this new version of Junior Comp,” says Brooke Terry. 

I spoke with Brooke and Maya, both members of the junior class, about what their Composition processes have been like throughout the last month and a half. Below are some highlights from our conversation: 

On working with their peers in a new way: 

Brooke: The first week, I put myself in the process so I could feel what my dancers might have been feeling — versus trying to direct them. I didn’t know how to direct over Zoom as much as in person, so it’s been a balance between feeling what they’re feeling and being a sense of authority. It’s been really weird trying to be at the front of the room when the room kind of doesn’t exist right now — especially because of the air quality, we’re going back and forth between in-person work and Zoom. It’s definitely a fun challenge, though. 

Maya: Similarly, I didn’t want to say, “Let’s do this, this, and this,” right away because it was all so new. I kind of went into it figuring that everyone was feeling strange—so I started with less dancing and more just getting used to the camera and all that. The first thing we did in the first session was make weird noises and record them. I didn’t want to be too harsh on my dancers but I still needed to get something across — to get the energy across. I struggled, especially over Zoom, with directing, with saying, “Hey, I need more energy now — I know it’s hard and it’s a Friday, but let’s find the balance here.” 

Brooke: We talked a lot about empathy with Charlie before we started this project. For me it’s really hard for me to feel any sense of anyone’s energy through a screen, and I definitely rely on the way that other people’s energy feels, both in the studio and in everyday life. It was interesting to start off on Zoom and open up and be vulnerable with my dancers so they felt comfortable with us, and then adding in the aspect of trying to get a feel for their energy and letting them feel our energy. But then to go from that to being in person was kind of weird. I have one dancer who’s in L.A., so I was trying to manage the three dancers who were in person and feel their energy, while not allowing my fourth dancer to feel left out. I needed to get a sense of what she was feeling — and, on top of that, try to get them all to do something collectively, together. 

Composition by Drake Simon: “No More Songs”
Music: “Nobody Wants to Hear Songs Anymore” by Ben Abraham
Dancers: Brooke Sinton, Bailey Storm, Alyssa Viray

On what has changed in the new format: 

Brooke: So we’re not allowed to do any sort of partnering, obviously. That was such a big part of my past Junior Comp experience as a dancer — that was the time we got to partner. Now is the time I would want to play around choreographically with partner work, because I’ve never put that on anyone else, but that aspect of things has been completely taken out. Obviously that’s necessary for safety, but it is one thing that I do miss — the lack of physical touch. But we make up for it in other ways. 

Maya: Even though some of the old aspects are gone, there are also a lot of new aspects. It’s not like the new aspects totally replaced the experience, but there are a lot of new opportunities to play with film and setting. I tried not to dwell on the fact that we couldn’t really partner, and what I tried to do instead was work with camera angles — or if we were in person, use the campus as a setting. There are so many interesting places around campus. Often, if we were on campus, we would just walk around and pick a spot, choose something random. 

Brooke: I feel like the amount of independence we have in Junior Composition right now is really exciting. Charlie gives us prompts and some direction, but since the entire time until we meet with him at the end is just us working with our dancers, it gives us the opportunity to sometimes even step away from choreographing anything. There are times I’ve used only improvisation and then edited it. So it’s more like being a film director or a photographer. In general, I would say we’ve been taking on more of a visual artistic lens, which a lot of our teachers have been focusing on, as well: which camera angles benefit the amount of space that’s being used, and things like that. Our independence in this situation has given us the freedom to try out so many things, which I think will be interesting for the freshmen who are coming into it and experiencing it now, and also the sophomores who will be juniors next year — to have had this experience now. Whenever “normal” Junior Comp happens again, it’ll be so different because they’ll be accustomed to this way of doing things. It’ll be new and fresh, and I think that’s really exciting. We have so much freedom to show them our own versions of how each of us has perceived this process, and I think that’s so cool. 

Composition by Brooke Terry
Dancers: Ella Can, Adison Sampson, Eva Silverton, Arpege Wallace
Music: Clair de Lune, L. 32

“For this week’s task, Charlie specifically wanted me to work with editing first before picking audio, rather than editing the movement to the music.”

On what this process has taught them about themselves:

Maya: I tried to go into this with no expectations, just, “Let’s do this,” and I think what I’ve learned is that I have a good way to go on how I personally want to direct and teach. I had some ideas and thoughts about what I wanted it to look like, how I hoped the dancers would respond or feel. While I think that through the process I’ve been getting there, it’s not fully where I want it to be. I want to come in and be able to direct, but also give space to the dancers’ needs. That was something Charlie talked about, the fact that, you know, we’re all learning how to teach, and it can be very specific to each person. Some people need you to not say anything, others need you to give them a lot of encouragement, and so on. I’ve been learning how to recognize that in each person—what they need. 

Brooke: I definitely agree, there are so many things I’ve learned about myself and the process of directing and choreographing. One thing I’ll take with me is that there doesn’t always have to be a point A, B, C; we don’t have to have an exact idea of where things will go. Junior Comp is oftentimes point A to point B, and that becomes the end result. But now, there’s no ideal way for these videos to go, and Charlie makes it clear that he doesn’t have any expectations in terms of quality… he just wants us to do something. For me, I tend to overthink everything, and this process has allowed me to take myself out of my own body and just be looking at myself and the dancers objectively. In the process with other dancers, I have three different hats and it doesn’t have to be from point A to point B — it’s just whatever happens — so this has allowed me to be less objectively hard on myself and just take everything as it is. 

Composition by Maya Mohsin: “Final Waltz”
Music: Musetta’s Waltz by Dick Hyman
Dancers: Rilei Beene, Sharif Claxton, Maddie Sager

On navigating this process with their classmates: 

Maya: I look forward to seeing everyone’s videos each week because they’re really different and it’s so cool. All of a sudden, one week, Rowan [another student in the junior class] was painting in hers. I get really excited seeing everyone’s work and what they’re doing. 

Brooke: It’s crazy how different each of us are. I’ve always felt that way and it’s always exciting to see us transform as a class, because we all are very different people but we mesh well together as a class. It’s really cool to see each person’s interpretation of the prompt and the task Charlie gives us, and to see all our different styles of editing, music choices, framing, and things like that. We all have such specific ways of doing things, so each week I’m excited to see what so-and-so is gonna do differently this time, and what I can learn from them, too.

Composition by Rowan Williams
Music: “Koto Song” by Dave Brubeck
Dancers: Nyah Malone, Christina Van Dueck, Hannah Woolfenden
Painter: Rowan Williams

Quote from Rowan: “The inspiration for this video came from my hobby of painting and drawing. In this video the painting came first and movement was created by the dancers to go along and follow the video of the painting I had made. I assigned each dancer their own color to follow: Christina – Orange, Nyah – Red, Hannah – Yellow. I was interested to see how we could make paint and dance interact and play with each other.

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