Students Bring Inspiration to Cohen New Works Festival

Friday, April 12, 2019
Cameron Han, a second-year Finance student (left) and Ginnifer Joe, a fourth-year Dance student (right) during rehearsal for Spillage, a dance performance for the 2019 New Cohen Works Festival. Photo by Myrah Porter
By Claire Hardwick, Communications Intern

“If I would have had this piece growing up in my school, if I had this in front of me, so many things would have clicked before,” said Carolina Sirias, a third-year B.F.A. Dance major speaking passionately about her project ¿De donde somos? La mezcla. Translated to Where are we from? The mix, her project, along with 29 others, will take over the Winship Drama Building as well as a variety of other performance spaces on campus April 15–19th, from dawn till dusk, during the week-long, student-run Cohen New Works Festival.

The festival is an institution in the Department of Theatre and Dance and has been a large part of the curriculum and community since it began in 2007. Focused on collaboration, representation and creating and enriching communities within the College of Fine Arts as well as across the greater campus community, the biennial festival is known for highlighting student work that might not otherwise get an opportunity to be performed. While the festival week is the culmination of everyone’s hard work, typically project “leads,” who range from undergrads to grads to students not in the department, put in more than a year’s worth of work to prepare for show week.

In the case of Jeffrey Gan, a doctoral student in the Performance as Public Practice program whose project entails a 12-hour ongoing installation in the Javanese Gamelan practice room at the Butler School of Music, his idea started years before when he was doing research for his master’s thesis about online communities and the way that performance travels online, specifically related to issues of globalization. This idea grew when Gan received a Go! Grant, which provides students with summer funding to support collaborative projects. Gan used his grant  to take language classes at the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. This helped inform and shape his project into what it is today: Midnight in Malaya,a 12-hour installation of music, text recitation and performance of traditional Gamelan instruments as the questions of diaspora, time zones and community-building amid differences are addressed.

Becky Nam’s inspiration for her dance piece Spillage, choreographed by dance student Emily Tolson, came from specific feedback she was getting from choreographers. “I’ve been told to stop dancing like I’m in a library and find something more guttural and less cultural,” says Nam. Intrigued by this feedback, she dove deeper, questioning how her identity as an Asian-American woman was influencing her dance. Through extensive research she found the beginnings of what would then become her New Works piece, explaining that “Dancing Asian bodies are often associated with traditional notions of femininity, spirituality and exoticism, so I wanted to grapple with and explore how we digest those messages that society gives us through dance.”

One of the Cohen New Works Festival’s biggest focuses is on collaboration—with other students in the department, across campus and even with selected guest artists. For students, collaboration is crucial in daily classroom and extracurricular involvement, but when faced with designing a performance piece from top to bottom, it can be quite daunting. Nam found that in rehearsals, collaboration was key between her, the choreographer and dancers to get the messages and themes she had carefully researched across in the final product. While many students find the rehearsal process challenging, the rewards of working together often outweigh the obstacles. “There’s always magic moments or surprises when she [Tolson] and I devise phrases separately, and then seeing them on bodies and seeing them in relation to each other, it’s exciting,” says Nam.

For an installation like Midnight in Malaya, the rehearsal process is also approached from a new lens. Rehearsing to perform for 12 hours straight is a very different process than rehearsing for a typical 90-minute play. One of Gan’s greatest challenges was simply getting performers comfortable in the space so that they could freely explore.“There's this feeling often of like, ‘I don't want to break anything. I don't know how to interact with these things. I don't want to trespass,’” says Gan. Once Gan led a variety of exercises to get his performers comfortable in the room, they were able to tackle the project head on.

For  ¿De donde somos? La mezcla, Sirias found that finding performers who shared her vision of showcasing ancestral lineages and diasporas through dance was simple when she just reached out and asked them.

Cohen poster

“It’s just movement in general. Dance, socially speaking, for black and brown communities has been how we transcend through time. That is our language, that is truly how we manifest our realities and practice them.” Sirias explained that there are a lot of contextual limitations placed on young artists on this campus. Not having enough money, or the right connections, or the right space to perform your piece could be seen as an immovable obstacle for many of these projects. But the Cohen New Works Festival asks its project leads to think beyond the typical limitations and instead use their imagination to find creative solutions to their site-specific problems.

For Gan, the idea of finding a house manager or performers willing to participate for the entire performance was an intriguing challenge. He and another collaborator will perform the entire 12 hours while others will be coming in two-hour shifts. Although the conversation of asking someone else to give you their time and attention as a collaborator can be scary as a student, Gan says, “Every time I have that conversation, I feel like I learn something new about the process.”

The festival is a wonderful week of art being made, from the time the buildings on the UT campus open to sometimes even after they close. Lines are being recited, choreography is executed, and discussion is happening about art and why we make it. It’s a magical week, where theatre and dance classes are cancelled so students can participate in mass creation occurring all around them.There’s a buzz in the air as the semi-alternative Spring Break takes place: How can seeing all of this amazing art be considered homework? It can’t be possible. But it is.

For Sirias, being a part of the festival was a jumping off point for a bigger creative journey. Wanting to show her piece that explores the ideas of brown and black identity to young people who share those backgrounds, she reached out to local Austin schools and organizations and was able to secure performance spaces at Murchison Middle School, East Austin College Prep and the Mexican-American Cultural Center concurrently with the week of the festival. For many, the festival is the joyous end point of a long journey of preparation, rehearsal, problem-solving and hard work. However, these projects have the longevity to have a new life after the festival ends. In Sirias’ case she hopes to expand her project and see how far this project can take her. “It’s kind of hard and impossible, but if I got this far and we’re taking the work to these places, why can’t I get the logistical funding to take it somewhere else?”


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