From Dance Teacher, December 2004
Enthusiastic, warm, quick-witted and straightforward, Mary Cochran has the same passionate intensity and energy in person as she did hurtling across the stage in Paul Taylor's Esplanade. A conversation with her darts from subject to subject with the velocity of someone who has so many ideas that her words barely have time to catch up. Cochran has just started her first year as chair of the dance department at New York City's Barnard College, part of Columbia University, and although she's juggling teaching, her own performing career and the last few credits of an MFA degree, her exuberance about all she hopes to achieve bubbles over when we speak. She is determined to invigorate not only dance education but also the entire field of dance in NYC.
Each week, 1,700 students from Barnard and Columbia pass through Barnard's dance department, which has a faculty of 30. Leading such a large department requires the skills to manage day-to-day bureaucratic details as well as mentor students and further the program's overarching artistic and educational goals. "My priorities are to keep us grounded in the past and continually moving to the future," says Cochran, "to make sure that our faculty are stimulated and supported so that we're always teaching fresh and teaching from our research. I really want interactive, collaborative teaching going on."
She started working toward these goals even before the school year started. One hot afternoon in August, Cochran was in downtown Manhattan, reacquainting herself with the city and thinking about Barnard. "I asked myself, what can I do with the resources I have at Barnard not only to give my students a brilliant experience, support and help stimulate my faculty and enrich the college's offerings, but also to support the field?" She passed by the sleek new building of Dance Theater Workshop, a performing arts venue, support organization and hub of downtown dance. Wandering in, she found the new artistic director, Cathy Edwards, who gave her a tour of the facility. Out of their meeting came a new venture in which NYC-based choreographers whose work has been presented by DTW in the past three years have been invited to submit proposals for new works to be set on Barnard students. Three or four dancemakers will be selected and the works will be presented at DTW in the fall of 2005.
I didn't know that I was going to be what I call a 'lifer,'" says Cochran of her new role in academia. "Because [as a student], you don't envision that at all. And you also don't envision the satisfaction of doing so many other things than performing." But perhaps it should have come as no surprise. Cochran was born into a family of "lifers," artist-academics such as her grandfather, Jerry Bywaters, a painter who directed the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and taught art and art history at Southern Methodist University. Her grandmother, Mary Bywaters, founded Dallas Civic Ballet (later known as Dallas Ballet). Her mother, Jerry Bywaters Cochran, juggled a private dance studio and a performing career, while founding BFA and MFA programs at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and bringing leading modern dance companies to the community through the National Endowment for the Arts touring program. "They were definitely role models," says Cochran, "in the sense that being a responsible member of the field meant being generative, supporting other artists and advocating for the field, in addition to remaining an active artist yourself."
Cochran started studying modern dance and ballet at her mother's school at age 5. At 12, a master class in Fort Worth with Paul Taylor dancer Eileen Cropley led Cochran to dream of dancing with Taylor's company. Three years later, when she wanted to spend the summer studying at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, Director Charles Reinhart made an exception to the school's age requirement to let her in. "What was great about ADF was being immersed in the community of dancers," she recalls. "I decided at 15 that this was the only way to go. What a great group of people: Individuality was valued and people were respected for their hard work and their talent as opposed to what kind of car they had. Material things were not important; spiritual, artistic and political things were."
After spending sophomore through senior years of high school at North Carolina School of the Arts, she headed to NYC to attend her mother's alma mater, Juilliard. Two days into her freshman year, she was offered a contract with Alwin Nikolais' company. Her mind was made up immediately, although she did consult with two legends in the field: Juilliard Dance Division creator Martha Hill and choreographer-teacher Hanya Holm, both friends of her mother. "We had lunch and they tried to discourage me. But, of course, at 18, I was saying, 'What is the point of going to a conservatory but ultimately being a professional? Here I have an opportunity I better not pass up.'"
Cochran does not encourage her own students to make the same decision she did. "The world has changed," she says. "When I joined Taylor [three years later], I was 21. There was a crop of us that joined pretty young, but now he tends to hire older. Everybody does in the modern world. And everybody has a degree. I say it's the only way to go."
She left Nikolais after two years to pursue her childhood dream of dancing for Taylor. "Being brash and young, I said to myself: 'I either want to dance for Paul or become a lawyer.' I knew what the odds were—I wasn't that naive—but I did have the feeling that I was young enough that I could follow my dreams."
Within a year Cochran had become a member of the Taylor company. The two premieres she danced in her first year—the sweet, tender Roses and the fierce, violent Last Look—were a preview of the dichotomy inherent in Taylor's work that Cochran would embody in her celebrated performances. In the 12 years she danced with the company, Cochran was an audience favorite, for her sunny, buoyant lyricism as much as for her heartfelt, searing explorations of the works' darker elements. She created memorable roles in such pieces as Company B, Speaking in Tongues and Funny Papers.
While still performing, Cochran began to branch out, teaching both at The Paul Taylor School and on tour, becoming the company's first archivist and familiarizing herself with the mechanics of how a company is run. She also began to choreograph. "I started making really bad work," she says with a laugh. "Only now, at the age of 41, I feel like I have started to find myself as a choreographer." She produced concerts, commissioned work and started a company, NCNY Dance, affiliated with An Appalachian Summer Festival. In 1996, Cochran resigned from the Taylor company. "I was satisfied when I left," she says. "I had been on tour for 15 years."
She embarked on a series of visiting professor positions that often included restaging Taylor works, starting with three gigs that ran the gamut of teaching in higher education: a large state university (University of Michigan), a conservatory (NCSA) and a small liberal arts college (Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia). After a year teaching technique and composition at Mills College in Oakland, California, she returned to the fold for an intense year directing Taylor 2.
The troupe was on the road for 36 weeks of the year, and, in addition to mentoring the dancers as performers and teachers, Cochran worked with presenters on booking and scheduling, as well as developing outreach programs. "Outreach is one of my great loves," she says. "I got to deal with audiences everywhere, from little bitty elementary school kids to people in senior centers with Parkinson's disease."
To create a successful outreach program, according to Cochran, two ingredients are essential: imagination and empathy. "You really want to come in desiring to connect to people's hearts and minds," she says. "It's about communicating on every level, being jazzed by that type of communication and being willing to try almost anything to see sparks fly."
While directing Taylor 2, Cochran began to pursue an undergraduate degree through SUNY Empire State, designing her own coursework for a major in German studies focusing on the Weimar era. She returned to Mills to teach for four years, then began working on an MFA in choreography through University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. The unique MFA program requires four semesters of independent work and two summer residencies. (At press time, she was 12 credits away from completing her MFA.) When Barnard came calling, Cochran was ready for a new challenge. Harvard Dance Director Liz Bergmann, who had brought Cochran in as a visiting professor at Harvard, recommended Cochran to Barnard's retiring dance chair, Janet Soares. Both Soares and Bergman had gone to Juilliard with Cochran's mother. "When they offered me the job, I knew it was the right thing to do," says Cochran. "Maybe it had to do with the connection between Liz and Janet and my mother making sense in terms of this generational connection and generational shift." Cochran was hired with the understanding that she'd teach at Barnard for one year, then become department chair.
If you see a group of young people dancing outdoors on Manhattan's Upper West Side, picking up gestures and movements from passersby, you have likely come across students of Cochran's improvisation class engaging in what she calls guerrilla improvisation. "We see if we can take the group identity and all the individual spontaneity and all the different areas that we've worked out into the world and interact with people," she explains. How do been-there, seen-that Manhattanites react? "All over the map," says Cochran. "Some people are terrified, some join in, some do something intriguing that gives us more fodder."
Students have plenty of fodder for learning in Barnard's sophisticated technical and academic offerings, such as Paul Scolieri's "Performing the Political," specialty courses like classical Indian dance and the ever-popular "Dance in New York City," which relies on performances as text. "Our academic offerings are almost graduate level in terms of their specificity and depth," says Cochran. The department does not currently offer graduate degrees, but Cochran says that the development of an MFA and PhD is "in discussion" with Columbia School of the Arts.
Unlike a conservatory, Barnard admits dance students based on academic performance. Cochran has not found this to be a liability. "My students at Barnard are the best I have ever taught in an academic setting," says Cochran. "They are so incredibly bright and motivated, I don't have to spend one ounce of my own energy motivating anybody. I feel like this is the best teaching I've ever done because I can completely concentrate on new ideas, new approaches and new material. And I can be even more experimental, because I have the psychic energy to do so."
This fall, Cochran has taught modern technique classes and improvisation. In modern classes, she emphasizes Taylor's way of moving more than the steps or style itself. "There is a sense that everything initiates from the inside and yet the external manifestation is very rich," she says. "And it's very musical." She keeps a hand in the Taylor mix by directing the Taylor school's summer and winter intensives during her time off. At Barnard, she tries to get beyond simply imparting steps by articulating instruction in a number of different ways. At times, she relies on the Socratic method or tries the "methodology of mystery" in which she doesn't give much information, and students, intrigued, search for information on their own. Some days she refuses to answer questions, on others, she gives very detailed answers. "It's similar to something that I learned in working on outreach programs on Taylor 2," she says. "I try to be extremely prepared and then, in the moment, extremely spontaneous."
Cochran also encourages dancers to take risks and embrace imperfection—a psychological shift, she says, for students who have always been straight-A students and the best in their class. "I want them to go out and create something that I've never seen before. I still teach repertory; that's extremely important. You have to know the history intellectually, physically and emotionally before you can draw from it. But I teach that in order for them to go into the future to do something new."
Barnard as an institution does not yet value kinesthetic experience: Cochran is a "professor of professional practice," a position created to get around the fact that artistic work is not yet recognized as scholarship. Among other things, professors have to be published in order to get tenure, and Cochran's is not a tenure-track position. At many universities elsewhere in the country, the research of working artists is seen as scholarship. As always, however, Cochran is optimistic. "I'm a performer-creator, even though I am certainly writing a lot nowadays. But it's not my plan to all of a sudden start writing books. Hopefully [the system] will change."
Continuing to perform and to create work are essential parts of teaching for Cochran, who keeps her classes vital and relevant by continually honing her artistic voice and letting herself be influenced by her students. Excepting one year at Mills College, Cochran has continued to perform since she left Taylor, and her schedule has accelerated since she returned to NYC. She has focused on character-driven work, including choreographer Sara Hook's Valeska's Vitriol, which chronicles the life of the Weimar-era performer Valeska Gert, bringing Cochran back to her undergraduate studies. In graduate school, she started incorporating voice and text into her own choreography, creating the dark comedy Pitiful New Vignette.
Cochran's newest piece, Concrete Jungles' Hawaiian Shirt, incorporates collaborations with a composer and a mathematician as well as several monologues. Toward the end of our interview, she described an epiphany she had driving down a California highway. "I looked out of the car and I realized, it's a beautiful day, and I'm going to die," she says. That moment of clarity regarding the coexistence of two opposing ideas, light and dark, led to the creation of Concrete Jungles—and served as a reminder to dance with an increased sense of life.
Twenty-six years after she attended ADF, Cochran has no plans to rest on the substantial laurels of her career as performer, educator and choreographer. She is as inspired by the artists around her as was the 15-year-old girl discovering the exciting world that was to become her life. Above all, she is deeply aware of her responsibility for creating and advancing the field—and of how important it is to recognize what students bring to her as an artist: "Find your own voice, trust it and constantly let it grow and change. Teach what you love. Let your students inform you, stimulate you. And use your teaching to research what you want to research. Let it be really vital and alive in terms of where you are now, not where you were." DT