Austria: Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance

When choreographer Susan Quinn moved from New York to Salzburg in the early 90s, a professional dance course in the city was non-existent, and training opportunities were few and far between. Out of her passion for teaching and a desire to foster new thinking around the art form, Quinn founded the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance (SEAD). 

How and why did you establish SEAD?

My original desire to establish a formalised training programme came out of my experience as a choreographer. I moved to Austria directly after dancing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York. I started teaching during the first week of my arrival, and began choreographing a small group of dancers.

I wanted to develop classes that would train them to be physically expressive and precise, whilst retaining their authenticity. This sort of training was influenced by my Cunningham background and my own personal style, and was something unique here at that time. What I wanted to happen in the studio, and what I wanted my dancers to experience, had to be taught.

This was the springboard for developing a dance curriculum for contemporary dancers, and my personal initiative grew into a school. As the years progressed, this curriculum diverged from my original plan significantly in terms of methodology, but it continues to be influenced by the visions of choreographers working in the field, and became more relevant to today’s scene and the landscape of European contemporary dance.

Tell me more about the experimental nature of the academy’s methods and how they work in practice.

The word ‘experimental’ was included in the academy’s name because I wanted to emphasise a willingness to try alternative methods and think outside the box. We also place emphasis on the process itself rather than the results. This was vital to me as I felt (and still feel) that focusing on polished perfection is not as interesting as exploring new ways to approach creation and artistic research. In this sense, every artistic collaboration the students undertake is an example of experimentation.

This year SEAD will collaborate with Salzburg’s Museum der Moderne on Thinking with the Body: A Retrospective in Motion. The artist, choreographer and dancer Simone Forti, will present five groups of works organised in six zones – about 100 works in total. Among them are Forti’s Dance Constructions, minimalist pieces that will be performed on a daily schedule in the gallery and the public space. Fourth year SEAD students will be dancing in the museum every afternoon from July until November.

SEAD also initiated Walking on our Walls, a visual arts project for which we invited artist Adriane Wachholz to create a painting on the façade of our school. This project references Trisha Brown’s original choreographic project Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, presented in downtown Manhattan in 1970. But it also brings attention to and represents the interrelations of all art forms within the field of dance.

Susan Quinn
Susan Quinn

Have your methodologies changed over the years?

Yes. It’s a matter of examining the kind of education that will foster, encourage and support young dancers and choreographers. It has become more important to bring out the students’ curiosity, courage, creativity, and honesty so they can find a deep physical understanding.

We have included more theory in many different forms over the years, and it has become increasingly essential for the students to be able to articulate what they are witnessing as audience members as well as what they experience as dancers. For this reason, SEAD dancers learn from artists and teachers who encourage and demand precision in many complementary areas. It is a holistic type of artistic education: the dancers practise yoga, acrobatics, ballet, improvisation, theatre, dance analysis, composition, contact music, anatomy, and writing. It’s fertile ground for creative work.

How does your postgraduate residency programme, the Bodhi Project, address the gap between training and professional life?

The one-year Bodhi Project is a chance for graduate dancers to prepare for what’s coming. Participants in the project, or ‘Bodhis’, work with four choreographers each year on productions that tour internationally. They have the freedom to choose the classes they attend and are mentored by their choreographers and myself. They get several chances to perform and experience what it’s like to stage repeat performances of a piece they have worked on. They choreograph a solo piece during their year here in Salzburg, which they can then add to their body of work.

The contacts they make while being part of the Bodhi Project are invaluable. Participants have the luxury to take one year to prepare themselves for the first step of their careers, without the stress of being out there alone trying to get into projects. Many ‘Bodhis’ find their future companies during the programme. Choreographers from around world have worked as mentors on the project, including Nigel Charnock, Martin Nachbar and Zoë Knights.

How else does SEAD prepare students for professional life after graduation?

First and foremost, the fact that we have a rotating faculty, made up of choreographers and dancers currently active in the field, is beneficial to students. These contacts often become their employers. In their final year at SEAD, undergraduate students work on a solo project. For their project they must research and contact working professionals they admire, and ask to learn a solo from their repertoire.

This is the first demand that the school places on the students to go out and really look at who they think inspires them or find a company they may be suited to. It’s a compulsory part of the programme, so they are obliged to research what’s out there.

SEAD students © Chris Rogl
SEAD students © Chris Rogl

What do you look for when you recruit teachers for your courses?

I look for intelligent, artistic people who can lead and motivate the students. I look for high artistic standards, precise ways of teaching, and highly disciplined individuals. The content of their classes can sometimes be considered controversial; they could include a combination of martial arts and repertoire, mixed with folk dancing rhythms, for instance.

But the class has to have integrity, soul and precision. Some teachers are artists I have either seen performing or have inspired me in some way, whilst others are former colleagues or have been recommended to me. Faculty members include Alix Eynaudi, Christine Gouzelis and Paul Blackman.

And what do you look for in auditions?

We look for students who are open and work without pretension. Naturally, we are looking for talented and inspiring performers or movers who can commit to the intense programme we offer at SEAD [undergraduates take part in classes and workshops five days a week, and sometimes have extra classes on Saturdays]. We look for independent and positive students, who are open to a multitude of teaching approaches.

The first auditions take place all over the world, led by visiting faculty at SEAD. The final audition is a five-day intensive, where we see not only their technical abilities, but also how they work with others and their teachers, how they respond to tasks (written, verbal, compositional, dancing), how open, committed and driven they are. I also rely on my own intuition about candidates. The academy has students from 30 countries from all over the world.

Tell me more about your collaborations with other dance schools.

We’ve had an exchange programme with the Tisch School of Arts at New York University since 1988. It’s been such an interesting project, as we’ve seen the changes and curriculum advancements on both sides of the Atlantic, which of course influen- ces my own programme. So far, 100 students from both schools have participated.

This year we started an exchange programme with London Contemporary Dance School and are reflecting on it as a pilot project. We also initiated Xchange festival, which brings together postgraduate and junior companies to present current work with upcoming international choreographers.