A certain simplicity
Adam Hougland is one of two Artists-in-Residence at Southern Methodist University this fall, bringing their considerable know-how to the prestigious college dance program.
Inside a large dance studio at the Owens Center on the tree-lined campus of SMU, a dozen male ballet students with their feet crossed tightly in fifth position hold the barre and wait for direction.
It’s a warm autumn morning outside, and their teacher, Adam Hougland, walks the room, quietly giving direction and demonstrating alongside his charges. It’s a rather nondescript studio with tall, mustard yellow cinderblock walls and fairly dim lighting. But what’s going on here far transcends the lackluster décor.
Hougland, 36, is the Artist-in-Residence at the Meadows School of the Arts at the acclaimed university. He’s become a regular face on campus over the past few years, serving as a previous Artist-in-Residence here and a guest teacher as well. In that time, he’s seen the progression of many of the dance majors, some of whom recently graduated and are launching professional careers.
Artist-in-Residence Adam Hougland teaching ballet at SMU. Photo by Kim Leeson.
Hougland rose to prominence about a decade ago when a piece he choreographed called Beyond – a senior project while he was still a Juilliard student – was taken into the repertoires of several major ballet companies. One of those troupes was the Louisville Ballet, where Hougland is now their principle choreographer. He’s also the resident choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet.
Still in his early career, he’s created dances for many other companies and has won many important choreography awards. He was named one of Pointe Magazine’s 10 VIPs of 2006 and one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2011.
Teaching at SMU is a homecoming of sorts for Hougland, who grew up in Dallas, where his mom taught at SMU’s theater department. He graduated from Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing and Visual Arts, then attended The Juilliard School.
This fall, Hougland is sharing duties with John Selya, the Tony-nominated dancer and choreographer; each working a seven-week portion of both the fall and spring semesters. Selya, after an 11-year career at American Ballet Theatre, performed in four Broadway musicals since his 2003 debut in Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, a performance that earned him international awards and nominations.
SMU students in ballet class. Photo by Kim Leeson.
Both choreographers are preparing the students for the 2013 Fall Dance Concert (Nov. 13-17) which features Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (1937), set to Gustav Mahler’s Cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). It’s one of Tudor’s best-known and most expressive pieces showing the raw emotion of a tight-knit community faced with the gut-wrenching loss of its beloved children. Also at the concert is Cathy Young’s whimsical Zero Cool (1998), a jazz work set to Duke Ellington’s evocative Latin American Suite and Far East Suite, and a new solo work called ...ain’t confidential by Selya for a female SMU dance student which explores the cryptic lyrics of Bill Callahan’s Ride My Arrow. Additionally, SMU alumnus Joshua L. Peugh, founder of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, will premiere his new work PICK-UP at the concert.
In the spring, Hougland will restage his Cold Virtues, a 26-minute contemporary piece set to Philip Glass’s violin concerto that he made for Louisville Ballet.
Hougland sat down with World Arts Today after teaching recently to talk about his career and why he enjoys working with college students.
Your teaching style seems deliberately laid back.
AH: I think being frightened is never a good way to start in any kind of collaborative [laughing] process and learning is very collaborative. If I’m quiet and I approach things in a positive way, I can still get them to work really hard, oftentimes, by using humor. They work really hard for me without me having to pull it out of them too much. Giving students opportunities how to demonstrate makes them have to really think about how they’re dancing and not just learning steps. I used to demonstrate a lot more, now I make them do it. If you have them figure things out for themselves and they actually perform the exercises like they’re dancing, not just doing like aerobics, it creates this healthy competitive environment where everybody is trying to dance well and they get to show something. It makes them all work really hard.
Who were some of your influential teachers?
AH: There are a lot of them. When I was younger, I studied with Thom Clower, director of Ballet Dallas [which no longer exists], Anna Donovan, [principal ballet master] at Texas Ballet Theater, Jenny Johnston. And I trained at the high school [Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing and Visual Arts] with Lily Weiss, who was fantastic and who I owe a lot to. Everybody at the high school was adamant I audition for Juilliard so I did and at Juilliard I trained a lot with Benjamin Harkarvy, I loved his classes. Hector Zaraspe was a favorite ballet teacher. It was a good time to be at Juilliard when I was there. The faculty was amazing, it was very special.
Why do a residency program like this?
AH: Teaching comes naturally to me. Being a choreographer, you learn how to figure out how to get things out of people physically. You want to see them look a certain way or move a certain way, so you find all these different ways to get to the same result. That’s what teaching is about. I’ve noticed when I’m choreographing now I have more of the teacher mentality, so if something doesn’t look exactly the way I want it to right away, I feel like I have the right language, the right approach, to get the dancers to do the movement the way I want them to.
The thing that’s nice about teaching, with ballet, it’s such a set vocabulary, there’s a set structure to a class, it’s not like you have to reinvent the wheel everyday. You come in and say, ‘Let’s really work on those tendus today.’ When you’re choreographing, you’re always trying to be innovative and find something brand new or find something you haven’t explored before in your work or find a different way to use music or try to make that partnering look more unusual. With this, I don’t have to worry about being creative I can just focus on helping them find their most effortless, free and uninhibited use of the technique. It’s more about facilitating their growth rather than worrying about my choreography.
Over the last three years teaching at SMU, you’ve gotten to see several dance students develop over that time.
AH: It’s exciting to see them and the big leaps they’ve made. [Student] Eric Coudron has really come a long way. He was a transfer student from Oklahoma . . .He’s completely transformed his dancing. It’s incredible to see that much growth and this is only his second year here. When you choreograph, you go to work with a company, and you do it really fast and if you’ve never worked there before, you’re just getting to know people and then you leave. It doesn’t feel very personal. It’s just do your job and get out. And sometimes you’re never back to that place again.
Whereas here, you feel a part of things and you have time to get to know people and build trust, which is very important when you’re working in a creative situation. A ballet like Cold Virtues is a very dramatic, very physical and theatrical work. Just knowing them a little bit better can make it easier. I can see who’s going to bite into it and who needs a challenge and in what way. It’s not a company, so the students really need those challenges. Sometimes when you’re a professional dancer, you do a lot of what you’re good at all the time. People use you for your special thing that’s yours. Here, they’re trying to grow, so you need to push them into places they don’t always feel comfortable. Knowing them so well, you have a better sense of what people will be challenged by and what’s going to facilitate their growth.
When, in your dance career, did you start to choreograph?
AH: I was interested in choreography as soon as I started dancing. I thought it would be fun to tell people what to do. I’ve always wanted to be a painter or a sculptor, I’ve always drawn. Making things has always been my first love. At the high school, we had dance composition classes, which were pretty good. We had good dance composition classes at Juilliard, but we also had amazing works by amazing choreographers which was even more educational than learning about the craft of choreography which is sort of hard to nail down.
Which of the choreographers at Juilliard had the most impact on you?
AH: We did a Jiri Kylian ballet when I was there. I danced one of the leads in that really changed my whole feeling about dance and about ballet. I always thought ballet was one thing and modern dance was another. His work blends the two so seamlessly and it was just an exciting process. I did several works with Paul Taylor while I was there. I like his use of music and space, his craft is really incredible. I learned a lot about how to make a dance work in space by dancing those pieces. I danced with Lar Lubovitch, his company, for a little while. He’s amazing. We did one of his works my senior year at Juilliard. And there are tons of people I’ve never worked with that I’m inspired by, it’s a long list.
Describe you choreography.
AH: The movement vocabulary I use is a blend of classical ballet. I’ve studied lots of Graham and Limon and it all comes together. Primarily, I’m commissioned to choreography on ballet companies, so I tend to work more in that realm because it fits them. Most of my pieces are usually on pointe. It’s very much about the music and having some sort of story, not necessarily a real narrative . . . but there’s got to be something going on. I don’t like abstract dance. There has to be something human about it. There has to be some struggle, some dramatic element. I come from a theater-y lineage, my mother is an actress, I like unconventional ways to tell stories. I like drama, I like rich, big music. I like simple.
How is your approach to dance making different?
AH: There’s a lot of pressure with choreography today that everybody has to be louder than the last person in order to be noticed. I really try to stay away from that. I’m searching for a little bit of simplicity and sort of restraint. It’s a loud time in the dance world right now. We just live in a culture where everybody is so distracted. After a while you stop hearing the loud noise because it’s so constant. You need to pull people in and recalibrate their eye and say, ‘We can be simple,’ and there’s a certain elegance about it, I hope.
(Top photo: Choreographer Adam Hougland (foreground) teaching students at SMU’s dance program. Photo by Kim Leeson.)