The dance doyenne Donna Faye Burchfield, who in August became director of the School of Dance at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, is apparently so efficient that her former employers have named not one, not two, but three people to replace her.
Since 1984, Burchfield has been a faculty member at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. She went on to become the festival’s dean, and for 10 years oversaw all of its educational programs, organizing classes for more than 400 students. Since 1993, she has concurrently chaired the dance department at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va. In 2005, she merged those two worlds by creating a joint ADF/Hollins MFA, a program that has allowed professional dancers to earn their master’s degrees while continuing to work in dance.
The program has since graduated 76 students, including the former Paul Taylor dancer Rachel Berman, the longtime Alvin Ailey veteran Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, and the theater choreographer Doug Elkins. At ADF, Burchfield will be replaced by co-deans James Frazier, chair of the department of dance and choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Gerri Houlihan, a Hollins MFA grad who is now professor of dance at Florida State University.
At Hollins, the new dance department chair, Jeffrey Bullock, is stepping up to run the MFA program.
Burchfield, 52, and her husband still own a farm in Wake County, N.C. and say they will not cut ties to the area. Here are excerpts of her conversation with with Rebecca J. Ritzel, a freelance journalist, about the move to Philadelphia, what changes she has in store for the University of the Arts, and how her past jobs will influence a dance curriculum designed for the 21st century.
When was your official first day on the job, and where are you living?
My first day on the job was August 31. I’m living in Center City Philadelphia. It’s like a little village. I’m loving it. I can walk to work. It’s a fantasy that I’ve had for years.
You’d been at ADF for 26 years and Hollins for 17. Why did you decide it was time for a change?
It was a combination of intuition and instinct and a moment. I was sitting in a faculty meeting at Hollins, and a faculty member was retiring after over 30 years. I began to fast-forward 10 years, and I thought, “This is not my destiny. I need to find something else, and now is the time.” I felt there were still things that I hadn’t done in my life in dance, and I felt that if I was going to change, I needed to do it.
Did the University of the Arts seek you out?
They called me to seek names and advice about the job description. I had a conversation with the dean [Richard J. Lawn, who was looking to replace 29-year-veteran Susan Glazer] on more than one occasion, and it was one of those things where we just hit it off on the phone. I was very frank with him. I in no way thought that I was going to apply for the position—we were just jamming on the phone. He asked me what I thought of dance majors, like ballet, modern and jazz. I said, “I don’t like them, I don’t believe in that.”
We had these philosophical talks, and it excited me. And then at the end of one of those lengthy conversations, he said to me, “Are you sure you don’t want to apply for this job?” And when he said that, I just shut down. I was like, “Uh-oh.”
And did you go visit campus?
I put my hat in the ring. In March, I got an e-mail saying they’d like to bring me to campus. I tried to trust whatever it was that was tugging at me. I will say that Hollins was always a place of great comfort and support for me. It’s a magical place. It wasn’t like I was running for the hills, but I was asking something of my students that I needed to ask of myself: that learning is not always easy and comfortable.
When I came here to visit, I looked at those 18- and 19 year-old students in the studios. There’s 300 of them. I felt like there was something that I could share with them and something they could share for me.
Because at Hollins, and with the MFA program at ADF, you were dealing with crème-de-la crème professionals.
You better believe it. Returning professionals. The finest in the world. And the undergraduates at Hollins who were smart and sassy and focused.
Can you talk a little more about your University of the Arts students? They are more racially and economically diverse, right?
That’s very, very true. I was at Hollins, a small, liberal arts college for women. And at ADF. It’s a very different environment from Philadelphia. That’s one of the challenges, and why I wanted to do this. The opportunity to have an effect on these students’ lives was stronger than I expected. It’s everything I’ve imagined and more, and I’ve only been here two months.
But you’re not teaching this fall. How is your relationship with students as an administrator going to be different than your role as a mentor and teacher?
That’s the learning curve. I’m trying to develop a new curriculum for the undergraduate program. As that new curriculum evolves, we’ll see what my position as a teacher will be inside that model. What has driven me into this position was not that I wanted to be a dance administrator. I would like to believe that that mentoring can continue. It has to. For me, that’s the challenge; to keep things running and balance the day-to-day logistics of administrative life alongside the caring and mentoring that has to go on.
During the recruiting process, you said that you didn’t like asking students to choose a focus on ballet rather than modern or jazz. You are looking at doing away with those categories?
Yes. We are deep in this reenvisioning and reimaging time with the faculty. We’ve had these “dream dinners.” How do we create generative structures that are both flexible and include a combination of old and new disciplines? The idea is that these current structures in a lot of academic dance-education programs are training dancers for an era that no longer exists.
You mean that there should no longer be delineation between fields like dance education and modern and ballet?
That’s right. When I look back on my own dance education, we all thought if you trained as a modern dancer, you would join one of a handful of companies: Martha Graham, Cunningham, Nikolai, or, if you were really lucky, Twyla Tharp. Kids are still training in those ways, but the company structures are very different.
So are you training the students to prepare for freelance careers?
That’s a really good question. There are differing pedagogical models. It’s a complex relationship between students who think they have to do everything to survive—jazz, hip-hop, ballet, modern and voice lessons—they are like shapeshifters. But I also still have students who want to apprentice with Pennsylvania Ballet. How do we create a system where the student who wants to really focus can learn alongside the student who wants to do music videos, dance with Bill T. Jones, and be in Fela!?
And you’ve also got to face the economic realities of training students for a career in dance.
We are trying to create a curriculum where the first two years are what we might call foundation years, where they have a range of training. They’d be dancing everyday. And there’d be another dance-studies track, where they’d study history and theory. Those are our imagined foundation years. Then they’d move into junior and senior years, and they’d be in faculty groups that we are calling “pods.” Students would choose more than one, and there’d be visiting artists coming in and out. They’d very possibly change every five weeks.
I know. It’s very idealistic. But for example, we’ve just had three students accepted to the Venice Dance Biennale. They’ve become a kind of pod. The world becomes their place of study.
It sounds like it will take a lot of organization to keep all of these pods running. You have 300 dance majors.
By the time they are juniors, it will only be 80 students. It will have been a generative kind of process, so that by the time they are seniors, they aren’t sitting there saying, “I have no idea what I am going to do.” We would be moving them closer to what the real world is going to be.
This is sounding a little like ADF, where students come to the festival and pick various six-week classes to focus on.
You better believe that I am using my experience to try to put this into motion. I’m trying. That’s all I have is my experience.
Will there be much of a continuum between your work at Hollins and at the University of the Arts?
Yes. It was such a close-knit community. We’ve had a lot of people from the MFA program who are in New York come down, hang out, visit and walk around the studios. There’s this sort of moving of these worlds together that feels kind of inevitable. For me, I feel them interweaving.
Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance writer in Washington who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and other publications. She also teaches in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland.Return to Top