“Last curtain” for dance students at Mills College, a bittersweet end

Caitlin Vanderveen Photo: Photo by Stephen Texeira

Outside Lisser Hall at Mills College on an exceptionally warm night, the frogs were singing in the stream, just as they probably did on those warm summer nights of 1939, when a critical mass of fearless talent in a new then radical field called “modern dance”. ” first jumped and spun across the expansive lawns of the Oakland campus.

The legendary Merce Cunningham was part of this summer session, an early iteration of what has become one of the oldest college dance departments in the country. Her independent spirit and that of Hanya Holm, Anna Halprin and legions of other dance greats still felt present 83 years later as, inside the room, images of a work by one of Mills’ most famous dance alumni, Trisha Brown, Class of 1958, twinkled on screen. But it was, as many in attendance on Friday April 8 remarked, a bittersweet evening: group of dance students in Mills as we know it.

“It’s so much to carry on our shoulders,” said Caitlin Vanderveen, who was screening her dance film “Alternate.” “We want to honor everyone who came before us.”

Dancers clockwise from left: Caitlin Vanderveen, Ye Feng, Tawni Pizzagoni and Wade Reynolds of Mills College. Photo: Photo by Stephen Texeira

This was the last graduation performance as on June 30 the dance program at Mills College will cease to exist. On July 1, the campus will become Mills College at Northeastern University, a satellite campus of the massive Boston institution that bought Mills after more than a decade of financial hardship for the 170-year-old women’s college.

“There’s a relief right now, actually,” said professor emeritus Ann Murphy, who was part of a successful campaign to save the undergraduate dance program when it was threatened by budget cuts in 2015, before Mills’ management began suggesting the school might close altogether. . “But there is also sadness because the past few years have also been a time of amazing people in the department making the most of decentralized power. There was faculty buy-in and enthusiasm.

The department’s current chairman, Sheldon Smith, agreed. He started teaching Mills in 2008 and recalls the school years of three simultaneous technique classes in the same room, “music pouring in and all the student voices interacting”.

“We were holding shows in the basement, completely exhausted,” he recalls, cherishing memories of “dance forms” lessons when he learned steps in styles as different as classic Indian Bharatanatyam and club voguing. New Yorker next door. His students.

“It’s always exciting to see students weaving research together from their written theses and their creative work,” added Smith. “They weave together their way of thinking and the way they inhabit their bodies.”

Ye Feng Photo: Photo by Stephen Texeira

Students making history as the last class of the old Mills College were eager to witness the wildly exploratory atmosphere.

“The first thing I learned in Mills was to relax and give myself space,” said Ye Feng, whose concert solo, which involved rolling around in crumpled paper, was titled “Work 19 – Journey”.

Feng was no newcomer to the stage – in her native China, she was named the “national first-class dancer” and contributed choreography and performance to three Olympic ceremonies. When it won her a green card, she jumped at the chance to come to the United States and moved to San Jose in 2016.

“When I was in China, my experience was that my body was not mine, that I was a Chinese national and that I had to dance for the public, the country, the politics, but not for me,” said she declared. “The Mills teachers gave me a second life in dance. This piece is my new life.

His classmate Wade Reynolds presented an intense quartet incorporating scrambled vocal messages titled “. . . and I climb. Tawni Pizzagoni also created an entire score for her own dance, “Overload”.

Tawni Pizzagon Photo: Photo by Stephen Texeira

It is unclear whether Northeastern University’s new Mills College will carry on the Mills dance legacy. The current faculty has the coming year to develop proposals for a new program, and it would take years beyond that to put such a program in place. As for the new Mills Institute Northeastern promised, “I’m pretty confused as to what that would look like,” Smith said.

But he knows Mills’ influence will continue in other ways, with alumni like Nora Chipaumire and Molissa Fenley embodying his values, and other graduates teaching in programs across the country.

As Smith said with a sigh, “The Mills Diaspora spans the globe.”

“Coda: final curtain”: Final concert of the candidates for the Mills Dance MFA thesis. 7 p.m. Saturday, April 9. Free ; $15 donation encouraged. Marilyn McArthur Holland Theater, Lisser Hall, Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland.