Dancers Push Through Barriers

June 8, 2021 | by Carolyn Dzul

The COVID-19 pandemic left us with many new obstacles and challenged our skills as artists in society. This spring at the Peabody Institute, faculty, staff and students worked side by side to create a semester where students could interact beyond the virtual screen. The BFA Dance program overcame this transition by switching from a completely virtual fall semester to a hybrid spring semester. With the return to campus, junior dance students had more resources available to help present a broader range of work for the student showcase. The Viewpoint: Student Choreography Showcase presented collaborated choreographic dance films that were streamed through the Peabody website for family and friends to watch.  

As a saxophone student at Peabody, I had to adjust to the pandemic by playing in a PPE bag and wearing a mask with a hole for the mouthpiece –something I found annoying as I constantly had to readjust it around my face. With little knowledge of dance, I was curious to find out how the junior dance students adjusted to this new reality of COVID-19 and the new challenges posed by it. How did Peabody/JHU help with this adjustment? What inspired their choreography? What did they reflect from their experience and what advice would they give to other choreographers? I interviewed Rebecca Lee (BFA 2022) from Failure to Comply (Julia AsherChase FittinRebecca Lee, and Clare Naughton) and Aren Vaughn (BFA 2022) from Lucid: An Excerpt (Aren Vaughn, Natalie Colony, Chase Benjamin, and Jasmine Vaughn) to find out more about their thoughts on the process.   

Rebecca Lee spoke about the group’s development of the piece Failure to Comply. She explained,  

“The choreographic process was inspired by our experience this past semester. It was a way for us to express the inflicted trauma we’ve undergone as students. The process came very naturally once we had a clear vision of what it was, we wanted to say. We wanted to share the pain, frustration, and the feeling of being ostracized from a place we love. The roles we shared in this work were based on collaboration and vision. We all did a great job at supporting one another’s ideas throughout the process to really bring out a finished product that we were proud of.”

With their vision to convey the challenges faced as dancers from the pandemic Lee elaborated on the skills her group used to help bring forth their work and how music played a role.

“In terms of editing, all praise must go to Julia Asher as she edited the entire film in very little time. Her talent is exceptional. What I really did gain from this experience was the true collaborative effort from all four of us in the development of our vision. It was amazing to bounce ideas off of one another to create something meaningful. In [the] use of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds,” we really found inspiration from the words itself. Music has always played a significant role in the process of creation, and to find a perfect piece of music doesn’t happen often. The minute we heard this song, we knew it was perfect for our vision.”  

The hybrid spring semester gave dance students access to campus. Practice rooms and rehearsal spaces were available, and this helped them plan their works to present in the showcase. With the university encouraging students to get vaccinated, the dancers believed that their work would be presented to a live audience. However, with health guidelines proving to be a moving target, their choreographies ultimately needed to be turned into film. Lee explained how with limited experience and resources, the dancers worked with their teachers around the clock to complete their films.  

“Besides the support from our choreography teacher Christian Denice and danah bella, [it was] our creative drive and personal investments [that] made it possible to produce this film. The need to transfer our choreography onto film was something that the department found out extremely last minute which presented a huge obstacle for many of us choreographers. To envision something for the stage versus film are two entirely different things. With film, a whole new array of opportunities and decisions come into play. There really is something fun with being able to give the audience an entirely different perspective through the lens of a camera.”

As a viewer of the livestream event, I found their film to be a unique experience. The angles from the camera and the transition to different scenes felt as if I was in the environment with them. The ability to see their face expressions and body movements up close is something I would not be able to experience in a stage performance.

Lastly, I asked Lee about what she had learned and if she had advice for future choreographers.

“This experience has given me the opportunity to prove to myself that despite the challenges and obstacles bestowed upon us, creation is still possible. I have learned throughout this process the value in supporting one another not only collaboratively, but emotionally as well. This past year has been anything but easy, however, I have learned how to lean into the challenges to better myself and those around me. My advice to other choreographers would be to continue to stay true to yourself. Keep creating no matter what. Always remember that what you have to say is important, and worthwhile. There will always be great moments of doubt, but you have to stay committed to the authenticity of your work. Never stop fighting for dance.”

Aren Vaughn choreographed, created the lighting design, and danced in the first-part series of an original work called, Lucid: An Excerpt. I asked about his process and inspiration as a creator.  “The development of my choreography was based on research surrounding different levels of consciousness specifically between everyday life, unconsciousness and, what this excerpt specifically touches on, the in-between recognized as lucid dreaming and/or sleep paralysis.”  

When asked about the skills he learned, Vaughn commented, “In order to create this excerpt of a much larger future film production I had to develop my skills in audio editing as well as research different ways to [disorient] visual reception.” He goes on to explain in detail how these new skills helped bring his vision to life.

“I developed the audio track by myself through Adobe Premiere Pro. The track consisted of several different sub-audio tracks I took in preparation for the final product including a pre-recorded interview. I also used floodlights with polarized colors aimed at the subject (myself) that would blur the image an audience would see similar to when you wear 3-D glasses. The audio/visual stimulation was aimed at disorienting the audience’s audio reception to bring the audience closer to an experience similar to what one would experience while lucid dreaming or during sleep paralysis.” 

Once the recording process of his dance film started, Vaughn shared resources he used as a student. “The best resource available was being able to use the Friedberg stage which gave me so much opportunity to create. Aside from that, I had professional resources such as Cory Cullington, Christian Denice, danah bella, and Tracy Kofford to help aid in some of the pre-production details.” Additionally, he mentions how although he did not participate in other works from his colleagues, he still gives general feedback to support their works.  

With the impact of COVID-19, Vaughn elaborated how his original work was adjusted to produce a film. “Originally the piece was supposed to feature two freshman dancers that would play an even larger role in the bigger picture of this project. COVID-19 related issues terminated my opportunity to work with these dancers which greatly impacted the original vision I had for this piece.” With his work being reimagined, Vaughn commented on the transition from stage production to dance film. “Due to the enormous space, the lack of bodies, the very internally driven emotional journey of the movement, and the placement of the camera being far away it disrupted my vision for the audience completely. All of this in an online environment [calls] for a lot more projection for the audience to pick up.” The transition to a dance film aroused another problem with technical difficulties in audio clarity. Vaughn explained, “My audio track didn’t come through as an inserted audio file, but rather as a recording done in the actual space. This took away a lot of audio editing I’d worked on and in the end didn’t line up with my vision.” During the livestream I would agree with Vaughn in that the audio clarity did not come out as clear to the audience watching online. However, the choreography performed was executed amazingly!;

Through this experience, Vaughn reflects on the ways he has grown as a choreographer and dancer.

“[I have learned] plenty, I’ve come to realize that working online is very hard. We as artists are already given so many obstacles which make our field very difficult to be overly successful in. The effects of the pandemic only increased those obstacles and distances we must reach in order to continue to do what we love. However, through this process, along with others I’ve faced during this semester, I’ve also come to realize that myself and so many of my colleagues and other artists will bounce back in order to continue doing what we love.”  

With a closing statement, he comments on what advice he would give to other choreographers.  

“[I say] strive for success but don’t get distracted by perfection. I want to succeed at everything I do when it comes to creating art, duh. I never like to see something go wrong or disappoint my vision [as] this project did in some aspects. However, while I know every time, I create a project it can be the next best thing I do, it is also okay to know that everything I create won’t be the best thing I do. Sometimes there are unforeseen obstacles and sometimes it’s best to look at a project as a learning opportunity.”

Although the pandemic brought many new challenges to Rebecca Lee and Aren Vaughn’s experience as choreographers–from learning new skills to problem-solving on the spot–their determination to create meaningful choreographies and break barriers as young artists conveys how dance continues to be innovated. 


Carolyn Dzul


BMRA 2024

Carolyn is a Latinx saxophonist, audio engineer, and blogger driven to create and bring art to a wide audience. As a student, she studies under the instruction of Gary Louie and works as a content editor at LAUNCHPad.

IG: @r.lynn_